… on one level, [it] is less real than they thought; but on another level, it’s more real than they realize …
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McBride: Well, before I knew Kit … , I was working at a company that produced films used to sell land in Florida. It was an interesting learning experience about how to make movies for a particular purpose. There were only three people in the whole company, so I got to do a lot of different things. I got to shoot, to cut. This was my real training, more than school was. I had a good relationship with the guy who ran the place, and he would let me borrow equipment on weekends, and I started making this film with the actor Alan Rachins, who later went on to do the TV series L.A. Law.
MacDonald: When was this?
McBride: Nineteen sixty-five, I would guess. So I’m producing this film and had all my friends involved. Every weekend we’d go out and shoot something. Then I got fired from the job — it had nothing to do with the film I was doing — but I packed up all the film I’d shot, stuffed it into a cardboard box, and put it in the trunk of my beat-up old VW and left it there for a couple of weeks while I was looking for a cutting room I could use to edit the film. When I finally found a place, I went to the car, opened the trunk, and the film was gone.
I think in those days when people saw raw film on reels, they thought immediately of porno. At least that’s my guess: someone took it thinking it was porn. But I never did find it. It was a totally demoralizing experience, and I went for more than a year not even thinking about making a film.
Meanwhile, I had started working with Michael Wadleigh, a very accomplished vérité cameraman. I began to work with him as a sound man and sometimes as an editor. At some point, I told him about my film, and he got all excited and said, “Let’s make it!” He had a whole setup: access to equipment and a little editing space with a Moviola. So we shot the film, using leftover film stock. We were constantly working on other projects where we’d end up with a lot of short ends, and you could send pieces of your film to be developed along with whatever job you were doing. So it really didn’t cost much.
But it was Michael’s involvement that allowed us to remake the film, and it was at that point that I got Kit involved in the project.
MacDonald: How fully was the story fleshed out when you began? The film is about the character David Holzman, but interspersed with what happens to him are many other kinds of material that create a general context for his story. I’d imagine that you went into the film with a fairly sketchy sense of what was going to happen.
McBride: Well, you’re exactly right. It was part planned and part totally unplanned. We were impassioned by this vérité idea at the same time that we were picking it apart and making fun of it, but we also wanted to be open to whatever might happen in the course of things. There was a rough plan, but never a written script.
We did things in blocks, and most of the stuff of David in his apartment talking to the camera was done over one long weekend. I had spent the previous week sitting in the room with Kit and a tape recorder saying, “Now in this scene, you’re going to say this,” and he’d sort of put it into his own words; and then I’d say, “Well, this part is good and that part wasn’t so good.” We were writing it out, without putting it down on paper. By the time we had done it a few times with the tape recorder, we knew exactly what it was going to be.
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MacDonald: There was this vogue at the end of the sixties, in the wake of the Warhol films, of extremely long, continuous takes. Noren’s Say Nothing is a continuous, thirty-minute shot.
McBride: Which is what was so compelling about it. The idea of real time was a big issue in those days, at least to me and to other filmmakers I knew.
I had the idea for the shot, but it was actually Mike who executed it, and he did it in a way that I wouldn’t have thought of: he had the camera cradled in his arms and shot in slightly slow motion.
But a lot of the other stuff was just, “Well, let’s go out and see what we find.” We’d go out in the street with the idea of just picking up flavor.
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MacDonald: My students are so disappointed at the end that the film has been a ruse, but what’s interesting is that only about half of the film is a narrative fabrication. Everything else is actually more real than what we’re used to seeing. There’s a paradox: on one level, David Holzman is less real than they thought; but on another level, it’s more real than they realize, at least during their initial disappointment. And that other level of reality is what gives the story its power.
McBride: Yes. I think that’s what’s exciting. It is real in spite of the fact that it’s a made-up story. It’s a real place and a real time and, in fact, most of the events — even though they might have been fabricated — did come out of my own experience.
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McBride: … When I made David Holzman in those early days, there was a tremendous amount of excitement about independent films and this terrific economic boom. Independent filmmaking existed on the fringe, where people with a little extra money who wanted to get into the world of the arts could, for a small investment, be part of something. But that all fell apart in the early to middle seventies. Suddenly people couldn’t throw money away anymore, which was what investing in independent movies generally was. The whole scene just dried up.