On Earth As It Is
There's a yard near where we live, a huge one by New York standards, but the grass we're told is “ornamental”. Still it's often by far the best place to play. It's fenced in so cars whiz past without posing a hazard. There are people around but none of that dreadful playground mingling. No negotiating over toy trucks and sand shovels. No adults budding in saying "Not too rough" or "Not too close" or "Say you're sorry". Just playing. Sometimes with a ball. Sometimes rolling down the hill. Sometimes just picking up acorns and throwing them against a tree to hear the pleasing little crack. Away from playgrounds, play dates, playrooms, play groups and play therapy, there is a thing called playing that still exists. Kids seem to know how to do it so if you're not sure, just let them loose and watch them.
That's what my friend Kristin did--albeit with beautiful costumes and hidden treasures--in her movie Spirit Ship to be released in the Spring of 2011. The 15 min HD/Super 8 film was shot on location in Red Hook. You can find the Kickstarter project here. I asked Kristin some questions about the project. I couldn't come up with any good ones. They were either too generic or too quirky. Finally I just sent some to get on with it. She graciously told me the whole story: how she balances life as a mom and artist, how she set out to teach and found herself making films, what she thought about what I thought about the film (which is brilliant, lovely and a little spookier than one might expect). Here's what she said.
How did you come up with the idea for the movie?
First here’s a little back story: My husband Sean and I have been making videos with children, about their imaginative play and stories, for 11 years. When I first moved to New York I taught art in public schools, spearheading grant projects within which I used video to enhance the early childhood curriculum. By 2007 or so I began to become exhausted (by grantwriting, teaching, editing, hustling new projects) and troubled by the amount of inevitably unfunded hours it took to attain a viewable product. I had somehow evolved to think more like a filmmaker and less like an educator, in that I was getting distracted by the product itself. But if I looked at it another way, the product was begging to be made as well as it could be. Why spend so much effort making sub-par videos (the only kinds these school/grant budgets would afford) of kids' stories and play, if good ones were possible? I also began to look at the work in the context of children’s media: there were so many animated shows out there for kids, of both high and low quality, but where was the live-action? There were just too many reasons to stop “teaching” this in schools and start producing professional quality films. One thing I knew, and still believe: Kids are so influenced by the media they’re seeing on TV, and in many instances, much more so than they are influenced by their schools. This varies, of course, but for the kids I was working with, in public schools in less affluent neighborhoods (ie: Red Hook, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, East New York), they often had A. a lot of exposure to TV and B. not enough wonderful learning experiences in the classroom. What would any kid be left to extrapolate from that? Well, how about “school’s not that great but TV sure is exciting,” for one?
So then we arrive at Spirit Ship itself: the film as a concept was born out of my feeling of desperation about working in schools, and my need to start again from the ground up. So during the summer of 2008 I decided that I needed to make a film that was short enough to shoot in a weekend or so, that could be edited quickly, and that could function as Little Creatures’ first “real” film, or proof-of-concept. I picked six children I knew and called them together for a story-planning meeting in Prospect Park. I just told them the premise, that we were going to make a movie together in the Fall, and I presented some of the props we’d be using—I remember taking the old violin. I asked them for story ideas and started recording and taking notes. The kids’ ideas (several of which I really want to include on the Little Creatures’ blog, stay tuned for those) informed my thinking as I worked on the beginning of a story. It continued evolving, and soon it seemed inevitable that two mysterious groups of children would be walking through parallel worlds, unable to see each other. I met with Damaris Cozza in September, and she helped me take the story to another level. Sean, my husband and sometime-collaborator (I call him my reluctant partner, as in so many ways he really is the co-founder of Little Creatures, though we called it Digital Story Workshop back in ’01. He’s been the brains behind so much of the work, and without him I wouldn’t have been able to get to this point!), also contributed to what became the story of Spirit Ship.
How much of a structure did you start with? Did you have any kind of a script?
With Damaris’s and Sean’s help, I wrote a two-page treatment. There was no script, but we did develop a very extensive shot list from the treatment. By the time of the shoot (October ’08), the children had a vague idea that we would be having and filming a mysterious adventure, but they had no conception of the story. I did not want them to know anything about the story, I just wanted them to respond to the props we hid for them to find, just as kids had done in "Ark" (2002) and "Mysteries in the Woods" (2006-ongoing). I wanted them to have the freedom to play in a way that was authentic to them. But given the massive requirements of "making a movie" (crew, equipment, lots of time passing for every task and shot), this became a shaky line, a delicate balance. If a crew was watching and listening closely to them at every turn, could the children's play ever be truly authentic? This is a question I’m grappling with now as I think about possible future projects. By no means do I intend to relinquish the educational goals that drive the work, or forget all the education theory I’ve learned or the extensive classroom experience that informs the work. The main driving educational concept at issue is that children learn through their play. This work aims to empower them and inspire them to play harder and think longer about a range of fantastical possibilities, so that ultimately, their play will grow in complexity, and there will be a cultural shift of enhanced social/emotional/intellectual development (well, gosh that sure sounds grandiose, but you get the idea). Oh, and we’ll all get some pretty children’s films out of the deal.
How did you achieve the dream-like feel?
I am captivated by children when they are still not "grown up" enough to have a perspective of self-judgment: their art and stories are absolutely winsome and engaging, and the progression of events in the stories they tell are often quite disparate, even bizarre. Children who are in the throes of their imagination are already living inside a dream. So anytime I create a film, what informs my thinking is years of sitting with little children and listening, taking dictation, recording and transcribing the words of four, five and six-year-olds telling elaborate, original stories. These stories are all self-contained dreams, and they inspire me to create worlds that children might want to fall into as they fall into their own stories--with abandon, and no care for structure, syntax or storyline that has a defined beginning, middle and end.
Aside from the dreamlife of children’s minds, there is a personal aesthetic that’s going on here too. If you look at my other videos, all the way back to '01 and '02, you'll see some common denominators: flowy dresses, natural objects, outdoor spaces. Spirit Ship is in many ways simply an inevitable progression from all I had done before. For all my films I design shots as if they were paintings, imagining children wearing particular costumes so they will stand out dramatically against the backdrop of the natural landscape, or, in the case of Spirit Ship, a post-industrial wasteland. If you go to Red Hook, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where we shot Spirit Ship, you will experience a seemingly forgotten mystery-land by the sea, a place with cobblestone streets, empty lots, eccentric houses with strange hand-painted signs out front, a place that seems all-too-quiet, to caught in the past, or washed up on shore, to actually exist within New York City. Aside from its nostalgic character, the main attraction of Red Hook is still the waterfront itself, which features waves crashing on a shore, adjacent to the crumbling factories from eras past. So needless to say, living in Red Hook is a bit like living in a dream. I could only hope to do the place justice by giving the film some dreamlike qualities.
Who are the actors?
The six children were from Brooklyn and Staten Island, and two were from the neighborhood of Red Hook where I live and where we shot the film. Two were children of friends and the other four were former art or video students of mine. Heaven Griem (6 years old when we shot the film, now 8), Maya (10) and Lindsy (9) Lee played the "Earth Children," and Sophia Georgiou (4), Anastasia Shaw (5) and Milo Hughes (10) played the "Spirit Children."
Have they seen the film? How did they react? They have seen the film evolve over the two years that we have been in post-production. We are at work planning a first screening of the final film for them, which will take place as soon as the final sound is complete.
How do you balance filmmaking, fundraising, painting, taking care of MME, making jewelry, exploring New York, making homemade muffins?
Oh no, no no, I am not to speak of such things. Let's just say I keep the specter of the Mediocre Multitasker at the ready at all times, and I continually ignore it. The life of multitasking is running me into the ground, and I am completely worn out. Let’s not speak of these things, people will stop wanting to see the film if they realize how crazy I am.
Has you daughter seen the film? How did she react?
Every time the trailer or rough cut is on, she’s drawn to it. She watches, riveted from any point in the room. She looks at the girls, and she wants to be there with them. But there are two caveats: she does seem riveted to other TV/film as well, so Spirit Ship is not unique in that regard. We happen to be giving her a very limited (slim to none) diet of media, so perhaps she’s engaged by the sheer novelty of it all. The other thing is that she now knows these children as friends: Milo, Sophia, Heaven, Maya, Lindsy are all children she has spent time with in her life. Some more than others, but surely she sees Spirit Ship and thinks, “Oh, there are my friends, taking a walk,” etc. So on that note, she saw the rough cut as it was in November, right before we made the final changes, and she said this:
Where's the girls?
All the peoples happen in the water.
Where's the gehls (girls)?
I want watch Milo again.
Where djee going?
Uhn come Milo.
Eggs! Are you eatin a egg, Daddy?
I want a egg. I coming!
I want children right now.
Un painting somepin inside.
Oh no! He fall down again? Oh no!
I found somepin.
New dress, it's red. Found day, it's too red, Daddy, cause it's morning.
Rainbow. Rainbow, yes!
I find there to be a haunting, almost foreboding, quality at times. To begin there is the tune of the little song (where is that from?) with the bells in the background, then the dark water, the presence of spirits, the intimation of shipwreck. Was that your feeling too?
Sean wrote all of the music you hear in the trailer, and he scored the film. He’s a brilliant musician, perhaps it’s the Eno connection (there’s actually no relation to Brian). The foreboding quality of it all . . . that was something that he just did, and I loved. He never consulted me about it as he was working on it, he just finished it and I realized it was the perfect music—I think he just knew it would be the right thing. I guess that comes from having worked together ten years on something. Once you see the actual film itself, you will notice that music is a bit less dark altogether, and that there are new tunes and lighter spots within the haunting whole. I think the darkness of the music in the trailer functions well to hook the viewer. From the focus groups we have done with the trailer, we have found that parents much more often than children reference the spookiness of the music. The children just haven’t seemed concerned with that at all. The message of the film is to live with hope and faith in the face of the many mysteries and questions we can’t answer. So it would really be a shame if the trailer’s music scared off or discouraged any parents from showing the film to their children.
You talk about giving children a voice, and you've literally done that, not by handing them words but by listening to what they have to say. Giving them the space, allowing lots of in between. You allowed that in the process, I think, and you kept it there in the final film. A lot of space, even in just 15 minutes time. It gives a kind of expansiveness, it gives the audience permission, almost demands in fact, that we turn inward, that we listen to our own voice in those in-between moments. I think that mirrors the idea of letting children explore on their own. The film doesn't tell us what to see; it doesn't over-stimulate us with activity and sensory input. In that way it demands more in terms of a stillness from the viewer. Not that it's hard to follow symbolically as in our favorite Swedish surrealist, but that it's almost like telling the viewer "Go out and play" and because we're used to lots of flashing lights and noise, there's almost a delay at first. A sense of "What do I do now?"
I’m honored that you think I’ve given children a voice, thrilled that the piece gave you permission to listen to your own voice in the in-between moments, and so happy that you agree that the film is a mirror on children’s free-form exploration. I love that you say it demands more of the viewer—and don’t children need that too? What about the Red Balloon, Spirit of the Beehive, Ponette, George Washington, those slower, more questioning films about children? I love that you “get it.” That you’re willing to let the in-between moments do what they will to you. Sadly I think parents are going to have to take sides on this one, and they’re either going to really get it, and need to show it to their kids, or they’re going to look at it and say, “What is that? Does my child really need something so quiet and slow and just as different from Sesame Street as it is from Sponge Bob?” But that second group is the people who see life in quantitative terms, or, God forbid, see their kids that way. Hopefully even they can see beyond those questions to at least appreciate the premise that the kids in the story were making up their adventure as they went along. I think the same will go for teachers: either they’ll “get it,” or they won’t. As is true for all art, I suppose we’ll need to say the same for kids: Some will get it, and some won’t. But I’m interested to see the range of reactions from kids, especially seen in relation to the time those same kids spend looking at television and movies. Will kids who spend more time with media be less interested? Will they truly become inspired to play more on their own, to “choose their own adventure”? Until we get the funding that we need to get this project off the ground and start doing real research, we can only wonder.
The idea of "discovering another world" is so redolent of adventure and yet here you've managed to conflate that "other world", almost like a kingdom in a child's game or secret garden or something along those lines, with an after world, quite possibly a terrifying thought for young people (not that they're not used to being scared in just about every fairy tale and nursery rhyme out there). I would say you mostly transform that fear, merging lost with found, past with future, what came before with what comes after. Yet to me, something still lingers, maybe more of a feeling than anything. A spookiness, and unanswered question, a mystery--the beginning of a new story.
I’m so happy to hear what you’re saying. That transformation, that merging, was absolutely my intention. It came about a bit more intuitively than your words just now, but upon hearing this I think, “that is exactly it.” I hope children will come back with more questions, then even more. The film is designed to get kids asking, and to remind adults that the questions are more important than the answers. It sounds like the lingering feelings will keep you coming back for our next installment of Little Creatures, and for that I’m thankful, and can’t wait.