The name Jan Andrews may not immediately come to mind when you think of local filmmakers, but for those of you looking to become a master of the art, you should be taking notes of her work. ---Andrews is an accomplished documentarian now with over a dozen films under her belt, after starting with nothing more than a handful of ideas and a 16 mm camera long before going to college. Her works include short pieces about the pillaging of Native American artifacts and refugee displacement, as well as full-length works about lightning and Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. Beyond the director's chair, Andrews serves as a trustee for both the Utah Film Center and the UMOCA, as well as a director/producer for her own production company, Shibui.
Today, we chat with Andrews herself about her lengthy career from amateur filmer to frequent festival entrant, her body of work and methods to filming, thoughts on the local film scene and a few other topics along the way.
Gavin: Hey, Jan. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Jan: I was born in California but my parents moved back to their home in Utah when I was young. We lived in Alpine so I had a great deal of nature around me and spent my youth reading books in natural landscapes and would return home with my pockets full of rocks and other found objects -- a habit that continues. Growing up in a small town taught me the amazing power of nature to spark the imagination and a raging desire for anonymity. I think I have been good at achieving the latter.
Gavin: How did you first take an interest in film and what were some of your favorite movies growing up?
Jan: I had an early interest in movies, but realized the art of the “cinema” when I saw my first foreign film called And God Created Woman, an X-rated art film; I had to dress up to look older to get in. It was directed by Roger Vadim and starred the famous French actress Brigitte Bardot, but it was the style of the directing that had the most impact on me. I came to see the foreign filmmakers such as Truffeaut, Godard, Melville, Rossellini, Fellini and especially Pasolini as artists who played with form and made the cinema a place for instruction as well as entertainment. But I was most inspired by Ingmar Bergman, particularly The Silence and Persona. The style of his films influenced my own filmmaking with its tight editing of both visual and sound elements, minimalist cinematography and his emphasis on ambiguity. In his films, the lighting and framing of the scenes were almost like actual characters. I also watched consistently the films of Stanley Kubrick, a brilliant and poetic craftsman. I was also influenced by “outsider” filmmakers -- Maya Deren, Chick Strand, Bruce Conner and Jack Smith, and a local filmmaker, Larry Roberts, who died too young of AIDS. These are films you could only see in New York City or San Francisco. The most interesting experimental filmmaker has to be the Frenchman Chris Marker, particularly his Sans Soliel and his short narrative La Jette. His work influenced my documentary films.
Gavin: When you first attended college, you studied anthropology and epidemiology at the U. What influenced your decision to study those specific courses and earn your master's degree?
Jan: I had spinal surgery when I was just out of high school and spent over two years healing. Because I could not do much that was active, I just read books, both fiction and non-fiction. I found that I enjoyed history, and then moved to pre-history and became curious about how humans had evolved to create these great civilizations, and when I went to college I pursued the study of anthropology. I became fascinated with diseases that had plagued early man and how they related to social and economic conditions. This led naturally to the epidemiology of living populations, which took me to Egypt to conduct research in the Sinai Desert. Disease is still a great marker of human behavior, from dietary problems to STDs, and I had lost a lot of friends to AIDS and this made the discipline personal.
Gavin: Going from anthropology to filmmaking, some would call that a very big leap in terms of career and lifestyle. How did it come about that you starting making short films?
Jan: My friend Larry Robers kept saying that anthropology was a natural for a filmmaker. I was hesitant, although I loved film and photography but didn’t have much self-confidence that I could be an artist. I brought a lot of photographs back from Egypt, and when I showed them to friends I told them I wish they could have seen the living Sinai desert -- the sand blowing and camel trains moving over the dunes. So, I decided to give filmmaking a try and was admitted to the film-production program. The first quarter, we were required to make two short 16 mm films. My first films were shown at festivals, and I turned my back on anthropology as a career but kept it as a guide for my films. Actually, documentary filmmaking is a very similar process to anthropology, so one’s lifestyle, as you call it, is very similar. In both disciplines, the basic tool is observing people and situations and attempting to find the motivating factors for their behavior that are most often oblivious to the people themselves.
Gavin: What were some of your earlier films like, and what was it like for you learning to use a 16mm camera and film?
Jan: I love film. I miss film. It is a very complicated process and one must work with care, like an artisan. Everything takes time. Loading the film into the camera, using a light meter to ensure the correct exposure, capturing sound on a separate system, editing on a flatbed which can only hold two soundtracks and after editing each shot had to be conformed to the original and cut and pasted together -- it was like a dance: agonizing, arduous, but so enigmatically beautiful. It was a visceral experience because you could touch and smell the film, as well as see the images. The difference between film and video is this: Film is like a dream, it is a dimension that differs from reality – it is painting with light; video is just like real life, painting with pixels, and I find it more difficult to escape into the story. However, if the story is well-told, the HD-reality look falls away. Recently, I saw a documentary by the Chilean director Patricio Guzman that swept me away in imagery and emotion. I also felt the same about a recent film by Wim Wenders about the late choreographer Pina Baush. It was HD and 3-D, but it looked nothing like the silly Hollywood 3-D films and took you into the realm of this gifted artist.
In 1996, I made a film that was accepted into Sundance -- Geography of the Imagination, a 15-minute experimental film about how my life was shaped by art: music, film, literature. It had great success and was shown in festivals around the world and played twice in New York City. I posted it on YouTube a year ago, and someone recently sent me a message that they remembered it from a festival in New York at the New School and how much they liked the film. I was amazed and thrilled to receive that response after so many years. I also made a short film about schizophrenia and amnesia using two dancers, Gary Vlasic and Linda Smith, as the characters who acted out these diseases in choreography. I also returned to my interest in anthropology by making a couple of films about Native American issues. I got funding from the American Film Institute for a film based on Aristophane’s Lysistrata. I used local actresses and we filmed most of the film in the desert of Southern Utah. It is an experience I will never forget. I got the money based on an early film, Anasazi, a 7-minute film about vandalism of Native American sites in Southern Utah. One always climbs up the ladder of funding slowly, using one film to get money for another. Well, this worked until the video camera arrived. Now, with computer editing and inexpensive digital cameras, everyone is a filmmaker. This has upped the competition for slots in festivals and money for production. However, the advantage of digital video recording is that not only is it much less expensive, but one can work totally alone, as the equipment is self-contained and easy to carry.
Gavin: Your first film to receive recognition was an 8-minute piece called Seduction. What was it like for you putting that together and what did you think of the attention it received?
Jan: I made Seduction quickly, as we had to make two films in one quarter. It has an anthropological theme, looking at women and adornment, and attempted to show that women have always cared about decoration of their bodies and it is not a recent phenomenon connected with the fashion industry and advertising. I sent it off to the Anthology Film Archive in New York City and it was screened at The Artist in Residence Gallery – now sadly closed – which was established to show women’s art when most galleries only exhibited men’s art. I did not realize until later what a big deal that was. It also won a prize at the Utah Short Film and Video Festival. I tried to marry my interest in anthropology and filmmaking; there have been some amazing films made by anthropologists. But, I still had the experimental intention and that moved it into the realm of an art film and took it to wholly different venues than a regular documentary would have gone.
Gavin: From there, you continued to do many more short films on topics like nature, health, relationships, etc. What was the driving force that kept you making these films and what fueled the subject matter?
Jan: The themes of my films are quite eclectic, but that is because I have a restless nature and many interests. I just thought of topics in which I had a passion. That is why I have remained an independent, because I rarely can realize someone else’s vision unless that vision matches my own. I have done films that were commissioned and did them because of the subject matter and the challenge involved. I made two films for the Utah Symphony, one that played with a composition based on three paintings by Georgia O’Keefe of Palo Duro Canyon, Texas. The other was a staged piece based on Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. I put together images which were projected on a round screen over the head of the soprano who was singing the verses. I was also commissioned to make a film about Trever Southey’s Reconciliation exhibition at the UMFA. I have also made films for the Salt Lake Art Center -- now Utah Museum of Contemporary Art -- galas, and have shot footage for artists documenting a particular work or a process of doing their work.
Gavin: You've been a part of hundreds of festivals during the period of your career, including Sundance. How was it for you submitting these films and receiving the accolades along the way?
Jan: I think that, initially, the work one does is personal and almost private, and the journey through to its completion is the important act of one’s artistic life. But, it is lovely to share the work and find that other people actually respond to it and like it! My favorite award was the director’s award at the Black Maria Film Festival. This is a festival named after Thomas Alva Edison’s movie studio built in New Jersey at the very beginning of the film industry in America.
Gavin: What made you decide to go back to college to earn a degree in filmmaking, and what made you choose to go back to the U for that degree?
Jan: I was thinking that I might want to work in academia teaching film, as I was still working part-time in epidemiology and the two worlds were clashing a bit too much. Having a job was important, as one rarely makes money with films and health insurance is a big deal. And, I went to the University of Utah as I was living here, they knew me and wanted me in the program and I was taking care of my mother following my father’s death.
Gavin: What was it like during that time, both making films professionally while earning your master's in the very field you were already a professional in?
Jan: Before my years in film studies working on my MFA, I was taking classes and sometimes being a teaching assistant, but still continued making films. Another advantage of being connected with a university was the availability of film equipment so one did not have to own a camera and editing flatbed. I continued to make films during the graduate work that have done rather well, including the film that went to Sundance. I think when your time is constrained you fill it well. So, I did not leave filmmaking while getting my degree. Those years are a blur but I do have some products that remind me what I was doing.
Gavin: What sparked the interest to move from short film to longer cuts and full-length features?
Jan: I loved making short films and found the process of condensation interesting, as it is like writing a haiku and requires little or no exposition. Also, film was very expensive. It cost a lot for the raw film to be developed, and you never knew if what you shot was in focus or properly lighted until it returned from the lab, and the cost for a final-answer print was costly. Even with the funding I received for many of my projects, it was never enough to cover the costs. So, with the coming of the first camcorders that shot at a broadcast resolution and were relatively inexpensive, I began making longer films with the idea of perhaps getting some broadcast time or make them eligible for more festivals. It was a challenge to tell a longer story, as I find my minimalist technique was hard to break, but I think I have kept my basic methods in the longer form documentaries.
Gavin: After you earned your degree and went back to filmmaking full-time, was there any difference for you in your approach after the education?
Jan: No. I had been making films for a few years before entering the film-production program. I had a film style and I have kept to it over the years.
Gavin: Aside from making your own works, you've also worked for production companies and other businesses that work with film. How has it been for you to be able to parlay those skills into a career?
Jan: These jobs were few and far between and really didn’t pay very much. My most interesting job was with Val Kilmer. I moved into his house in Tesuque, New Mexico, to work on a project he was trying to realize about living in a post-nuclear world. But, he ran out of money and returned to making other people’s films. I am sad it wasn’t realized, as it was an important topic. There are not many documentary filmmakers who can support themselves wholly on their films. I still rely on the kindness of strangers to do my work.
Gavin: Your most recent film was Joseph Brodsky: In The Prison Of Latitudes. How did the idea for that film come about, and what was it like for you putting it together and releasing it?
Jan: I wanted to make a film in Russia. I was talking to my friend Phillip Kaufman a noted film director, and he suggested Brodsky, whom he had once met. I looked at Brodsky’s story and found it to be very interesting, especially the fact that he had been arrested, put on trial and exiled to Northern Russia during the Khrushchev era -- which was strange, as it was considered a time of the Soviet thaw. I began the film just after 9/11, when the Bush administration was pushing the Patriot Act on America, and I was shocked how passive everyone was. So, the two ideas came together. I decided to make the film about a great poet who was punished for being a writer under a totalitarian regime rather than turn my camera on Bush and Cheney; much more romantic to go to the beautiful city of St. Petersburg and find a world that was waking up from years of repression -- not that repression has completely gone away -- than interview Ashcroft. This film has been a hard sell for most festivals, although it has had some good screenings and has been in film markets. It is doing much better in Europe than the U.S., which does not surprise me. It is partially in Russian with subtitles so it is difficult.
Gavin: What are your current plans as far as your next feature, and how far along are you with it?
Jan: I am actually doing something quite different. I connected with a foundation that works on conservation issues in Africa, South America, British Columbia and, recently, in Utah. They work with the native populations as the basis of their conservation activities because involving the aboriginal people with jobs and responsibility as well as reviving their culture and language seems to have a greater success for the preservation of plants and animals. A couple of the projects will be individual films and produced locally. For example, the Goshute reservation is in danger of losing its water to Las Vegas. The working title is Pipe Dreams: The Great Las Vegas Water Heist. However, even if this is a traditional documentary, I will still apply my own style of filmmaking. I call my production company Shibui, as that is a Japanese word connoting beautiful accidents of nature. I find that accidents during filming can add a level of unanticipated interest to both me and, hopefully, the viewer.
Gavin: Moving on to Utah matters, what’s your opinion of the local film scene, both good and bad?
Jan: I think there are many interesting filmmakers around Utah today. But that has always been the case. But, since the Utah Film and Video Center closed, there is not much chance to see local work, and the films to be shown were always reviewed in the Tribune and Deseret News. However, the Broadway Cinema offers a night monthly for local filmmakers to show their work. Now we rely on the small screen, our iPads, iPhones and computers, to watch independent films online. But, at least there is an outlet.
Gavin: Is there anything you think could be done to make it more prominent?
Jan: I think we are trapped in the current distribution modalities. The computer and the Internet have leveled the playing field and everyone has a chance to be seen -- the good, the bad and the ugly.
Gavin: Who are some local directors you feel people should be checking out?
Jan: I'm having trouble answering this one. I know Alex Johnstone, who does interesting work, but every day new filmmakers arise and I cannot keep track of them. I work alone and no longer have that communal experience I had when I was in film school. Trent Harris continues to make provocative films. He is the last of the Wasatch Film Front, begun at the U in the 1960s.
Gavin: Aside from the bigger names, what's your take on the local film-festival circuit and what they're doing to cultivate a festival feel year-round?
Jan: Film festivals are great opportunities to see films that may never be seen again, as so few gain distribution. Sundance, Slamdance and now the Salt Lake Film Festival are wonderful opportunities to see these films.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on the SLFS and Utah Film Center and the work they're doing these days?
Jan: Documentaries are the most difficult films to see, as most do not make it to theatrical distribution. The Utah Film Center is a gem. They are like a mini film festival playing all year round and an excellent opportunity to see interesting films from all over the world. The films are free and now they go all over Utah to communities that would never have a chance to see them. SLFS brings the films we read about in the New York Times. They both are critical for people who still love going out to a movie theatre and watching films on the big screen.
Gavin: What can we expect to see from you the rest of the year?
Jan: I hope to do an installation of my recent work in conjunction with the Visual Arts Fellowship I received from the Utah Arts Council two years ago. People have spoken to me about doing some other installations, and I am working on more short experimental videos including Divine Wind, based on a “poetic” pamphlet given to Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War II, and Palimpsest, a piece about loss and memory as a homage to the the people in my life who have died. I am still taking photography – particularly using out-of-date Polaroid film and the Holga camera. I like the “surprise” factor that I often get by light leaks, etc. And although photoshop can create a “disturbed” image, it is not the same as an original.
Gavin: Is there anything you’d like to promote or plug?
Jan: Watch this space.
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