Randall Wood is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and cinematographer based in Brisbane, Australia. I caught up with him near the start of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival sitting outside in front of the Grand Tetons in full fall glory. We talked about protecting journalists in the documentary process, his latest film Worm Hunters, Laurie Anderson and the power of words, and the power of music in shaping a film. He was first trained as a classical pianist and composer. He started by talking about his current film in process called The Grammar of Happiness. You can see the trailer for this film here.
RW This is a great project for the Smithsonian Channel and ABC in Australia and Arte in France. It’s a film about language and a debate that’s occurring at the moment internationally about grammar theory.
ML What is the debate?
RW Well, the debate has been raging for about five years and it’s between Chomsky and his followers, of which there are many, who believe in a universal grammar, and Dan Everett and a number of other people who say his theories are flawed because of Dan’s findings with the Pirahã people in the Amazon. He says their language is so completely different that it flies in the face of Chomsky’s theory. That’s the baseline but the story itself is of a missionary who went up the Amazon to convert a tribe to Jesus and instead got converted by them after many years of working with them, to atheism, after trying over many years to convert the Bible into their language. So he became an atheist and left his missionary work and became an academic and quite well-respected. He wrote a book called Don’t Sleep. There are Snakes.
ML How would you summarize Chomsky’s theory?
RW Ah. Put me on the spot! Basically talking about a universal grammar saying that we are, as humans, born with the ability to speak with recursion.
ML What’s recursion?
RW Recursion is the ability to string concepts within concepts within concepts, phrases within phrases. So we almost always speak with recursion in english. We always put a sentence within a sentence, an idea within an idea within an idea. Daniel says that the Pitiha people don’t actually do this and only speak one point at a time with no reference to the past or the future.
ML So I don’t know remember what linguist said this, but the way one speaks impacts the way you perceive the world. Are you going to explore that in your film?
RW. Absolutely. Dan says language and grammar is culturally learnt whereas others say that’s not the case and that we as human beings are genetically imprinted with the capacity to speak with recursion as part of our grammatical toolkit. Chomsky would say whether we use that tool or not isn’t the point. It’s actually part of the human makeup. Daniel everett says that’s not the case. It’s kind of controversial in peoples’ minds
ML The implications are huge. I just saw a Laurie Anderson performance the other night and…
RW Brilliant. She’s great.
RW So true. I just think story is so powerful. Myth. I mean we ARE what we think. I mean look at everything about us. Every solid item is only constructed becasue someone thought of it, like this table. Somebody was inspired through story to put this here. Myth is just so intensely powerful for defining our responses to life. I love stories. You know Joseph Campbell
ML Yeah. The Power of Myth. And also I’m captivated with her ideas that our words can unravel or destroy things, because passing on belief systems, especially with the corporate control of certain parts of education in the States. Curricula is being sold in exchange for money for struggling schools. Kids are so vulnerable and are such sponges, you know.
RW I think as media makers we need to be really conscious of this power. We’re always working towards trying to find a point of truth in what we do. You know there’s a guy who made this film called Crude. You know Crude?
RW this is a case in point because basically the company, Chevron, wanted to subpoena all his video and sound, hundreds of hours he shot with the tribe because they wanted to use it in a court case. This is totally unethical to me and completely undermines the power of the filmmaker in terms of their relationship with the subject. If that material can’t be entrusted for anonymity by the filmmaker and can be subpoenaed by the court for whatever that court decides, it is immensely complex
ML and it undermines journalists all over the world
ML who swear to their subjects who open their hearts and risk sometimes being killed for being honest
ML and all of a sudden that relationship becomes one of betrayal
RW It’s important for the future of documentary making and for upholding the principles of true information that we don’t allow this kind of activity, these large multi-national corporations to be able to get away with this. I just detest this kind of unethical use of filmmakers’ materials
ML So I relate to your passion for telling peoples’ stories and sense of joy. So here’s a question…do you think people will be able to create robotic earthworms to aerate the soil?
RW Our current food system is based on the use of chemicals, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides for controlling land and landscapes and trying to grow stuff that will feed people, but actually some people would argue that the system’s beginning to crack and it can’t work the way it has work into the future. We can’t continue to pour vast amounts of nitrogen into the soil and not expect some sort of long-term impact. Earthworms for example, they hate chemicals. Their environments, in fact their skin gets burnt firstly by chemicals so they die. When they die we lose the ability for worms to generate microbes in soils and microbes make soil fertile and allow plants to uptake nutrients. So what you lose is the whole system. Soil is incredibly rich. In a pinch of soil there’s more microbes than there are people on the planet, so it’s a whole world that we know virtually nothing about. We know far more about outer space according to earthworm and soil scientists generally than we know about what’s under our feet. Which is extraordinary since we need soil. We need it for everything we eat. We need it for these chairs, this table, for this building we’re next to. Fertile soil is essential for not just the survival of the human race, but the planet. So, chemical agriculture and chemical processes haven’t done justice to the deep and rich ecological processes that are going on around us of which soil is a huge part.
ML What is the state of soil in parts of Australia?
RW Generally speaking, soils in Australia have largely been stripped of a lot of their organic composition and nutrients. There’s a lot of nutrient runoff. There’s been very poor farming practices over the past hundred years both with plants and animals. I mean we have a lot of cattle in parts of Australia where cattle shouldn’t be run
ML Same here
RW It just busts up soil structures and breaks up small plants with their hard hooves. So what happens is the rain comes and washes or blows the top soil away. So we have large areas that have been desertified or turned to sod. It’s not good, basically. So that’s why earthworms are important. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to make this film because I learnt about this early in my research and I’d like to try to bring this up. The film doesn’t end up knocking you over the head with it. It does it in a very subtle way.
ML Which is often more powerful
RW I think so, yeah.
ML Can you talk about the animation choices you made in that film (Worm Hunters)
RW Well, it was always going to be difficult filming worms having sex so the obvious place to turn was to the animator. I mean we had this lovely sequence with Victor talking about the sex life of a worm, but, something had to be done to bring that to life so that was one reason to bring in animation. Because worms are out of sight out of mind we had to find a way to illustrate some of their process, some of their biology, morphology and so on without trying to get really internal with the shoot. I mean, we could have shot the inside of a worm with some sort of a probe camera but it was much more interesting to get animators to get in there and illustrate it in a way that’s kind of different. I like that you feel as if you’re watching some kind of detective story.
ML I loved that shutter sound effect on the sequences with black with white text and then all of a sudden the images in the boxes start moving
RW Yeah, thanks. We decided we’d turn this into a bit of a detective story with a bit of a James Bond touch
ML The music is so perfect. You talked in the Q and A about the music. Do you want to talk more about the process of working with the musician and how you chose him
RW I remember years ago hearing Phillip Glass talk about a film, Koyanisqatsi, the process for making music for that film. One of those films he worked on and I remember hearing him talk about their process. He would write a draft, send it to the filmmaker and they’d send it back to him and he’d rewrite his draft. I’ve always wanted to bring in that kind of process to my filmmaking because I know that making good music is an organic process and things need to find their own way of breathing and moving through time. You can’t just impose…I think the end result is more satisfying if you can get give and take between the image and the sound. I mean sound is the king and queen of my film. I love great music in a film. It’s the heart and soul of the film.
ML It trumps so much.
RW Hopefully with that you realize it takes your heart on a ride through the story. Basically it’s hopefully something, really good film music is something you don’t notice. It’s just there and it’s just carrying you. Yeah.
ML I know it’s a fine balance between being a musician where music is primary and isn’t supposed to be background but then in the film you do want it to be at the service of the story and not taking over, unless there are certain key moments when you do want the music to pop out, a slow sequence or something
RW Yeah, but I suppose what really drives the film is the emotional through-line. There’s the relationships between people so the music works with that. It works with that and underscores that.
ML Do you ever really get as far as doing leit-motifs. I’m wondering if for a documentary how artsy one can get, what the right balance is between, how can I put this, when the subject doesn’t merit the most gorgeous cinematography or how you balance the topic with the style
RW Yeah, it’s a very intuitive process. I usually just follow my gut feeling with somebody. And it’s something that changes too. I find as I build the relationship between the subject and myself, sometimes the style of shooting changes to match that. I mean, I could start only sometimes to begin a film it can be kind of, it could be like a messy process where you’re just following them around with the camera, really just trying to get a since of how they move and feel and relate with you on the screen, and then as things become more, as you get to know the person, you can settle down more and you can just find some stillness in the process. I certainly notice that in The Grammar of Happiness. I was flying in on that project literally off the deep end from Australia to the Amazon with the main character and shot him straight from, I mean I just shot him as I felt. It was a very intuitive kind of gutsy first association between him and the camera. He’s very direct on the camera in that footage. But now the stuff that I’ve shot more recently in Boston, it’s much more traditional actually. I mean it’s much more composed and he’s sort of almost more reflective in this point of the process
ML Noam Chomsky?
RW No, this is Daniel Everett. You can look this up on the internet. You’ll find a lot of information on himt. He’s pretty well publicized around the world. Interesting guy.
ML In order to do the kinds of projects that you do, do you ever sometimes wonder in the middle of a project, maybe the story that we should tell is actually something slightly different, or
ML When you’re IN it, the more you learn, inevitably it’s going to shift your perspective and that’s one of the things I found really hard when I went to Thailand
ML and I came back I felt that I was just scratching the surface of the real issues
RW That underscores firstly the value of great research. Research where you actually visit people and really get to know them and understand them. And that’s why good films take time and a really great film I think, I mean I think a good process should preferably involve a research trip first. Meet the people you’re going to make the film with
RW That said, even in a film I’ll often change, the film is always ever evolving and morphing into new dimensions. It’s part of the process and remaining open to that and recognizing strengths in accidents and strengths in mistakes I think is a really valuable part of growing a film, ’cause a film grows. The earthworm film started out being a film about vermicomposting as a way of saving the world’s cities from overflowing waste, and what did it end up being? It turned into a film about taxonomy, one of the rarified sciences, looking at finding earthworm species in far-flung corners of the globe. I mean, that’s a really different
ML This is a sort of tacky question for the filmmakers who might be reading this…So, your funding- when your film started changing from your original proposal…did you have to tell the funders that the film had shifted a little bit but hopefully you’ll let us keep the money?
RW Yeah we’d send redrafts and updates, but I think fundamentally the core of hte film is still about earthworms. It still has a strong ecological you know, angle
ML That sensitivity that not everyone has, you know that I think you definitely have for people and trying to be sensitive to the lightness and bringing humor to the topic, so you’re empathizing with the subjects to get them to show their full colorful lovableness
ML and then you’re also able to take a step back and think that not everyone will have the same point of view so how am I going to make this funny but still be simpatico and respectful to the subjects
ML and I think that’s a very hard line
RW Difficult balance to find. You know what’s interesting about filmmaking is that there are two kinds of core relationships you have with your subject. The first relationship is the one you have on the field where you’re actually shooting with them and that’s much more a kind of, I suppose, a mutually balanced relationship because there’s a lot of give and take. When we get in the edit suite the balance swings back to our favor. As a filmmaker we actually have a lot of power in edit suite and that power needs to be used well and compassionately. So I like to work with the material to I suppose in a compassionate way, like, I love people and I want to make sure people are treated respectfully
RW So I always try to bring out the best in a person. Yes, sometimes people are eccentric and I can find what they say funny but I prefer to laugh with them rather than at them. I hate to make a film that laughs at people
ML Me too and it’s that fine balance where you want to find people who are colorful, passionate about what they do, quirky, especially if you’re interviewing a lot of people
ML And they can’t all be the same type
ML You can’t have only serious intellectuals lined up
RW I think it’s important to negotiate that process with the subjects of your film. I mean I like to show people cuts, I like to show them what I’m doing. Even on the shoot I’ll often show them, this is what I’m doing. What do you think about this? This is how you’re going to look in this shot. I’m very happy to show people rough cuts. I think it’s important to get peoples’ feedback
ML Maybe some people are like, O didn’t actually mean it like that
RW There’s a basic tenet in you know, or requirement that you should offer your subjects the right of reply as well and I try to offer that in a film process. Give them an opportunity for them to respond if someone’s going to criticize them if there’s a debate. You should take that material back to the person and say look, he said this. Lately I’ve been playing people interview excerpts. I’ll take my laptop and show them and say, look this is what they said. Look at this. Or I’ll have one person pose questions to another person via the laptop so I can actually put it up there. That worked well
ML You’ve given me an idea that maybe Park Dreams interviews, since I’m asking everyone the same question. I could get a few people to ask other people questions
RW Yeah, this works well
ML On the ipad maybe. A homeless person saying, I’d like to know what it feels like to make over 100,000 dollars and the choices that you have, what charities you give to
RW or something
ML Thank you so much. You’re fascinating and I look forward to seeing all these films you’ve made and the ones in process!
Read more about Randall’s films at globalstorytv and join the blog for email updates about other interviews at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival 2011 and the Chicago Ideas Conference…and much more!