Monday, December 4, 2023

A Documentarian's life, added works, new works and REdiscovered works! with NATE BARLOW

About Documentaries and Booze!

(2021 interview 1 , A mass interview in which Nate took part 1)

As a documentarian what skills are necessary for someone to possess? You've been involved in many documentaries, what drives you? Is it curiosity? Is it the art of creating something that people can become enlightened by?

Documentarians have to be a great researchers. There is so much to be researched at all phases of a documentary production, the legwork before production, during shooting (which is an ever-evolving act, far more so than narrative), and even during post when the story is being constructed. It has often been said that a film is made in the editing room. That is doubly, even triply the case for documentaries. Documentarians also have to be patient and have the ability to peel back the onion skins to find the real story underneath.

Curiosity definitely drives me. All sorts of stories fascinate me, so the desire to explore those further is another impetus. A good number of the documentaries I’ve worked upon or are currently working upon stemmed from subject matter about which I am already passionate. Documentaries are a great way to explore those interests even further, especially for a filmmaker. What a great way to combine your loves! That having been said, sometimes something just strikes your fancy which you never expected.

I love learning, and I love uncovering unknown stories. Documentaries are a great way to bring to those to the world, and for many stories the filmed medium delivers an element of immediacy or visual truth that no other media can provide.

Water of Life is about Whisky and Whiskey. What did you personally learn from the making of that work in particular? Why do you think the Water of Life, i.e. Whiskey, resonates in people, is it the experience, the power of alcohol to change the mood or spirit, or is it the flavor?

How much I didn’t know about whisky! I thought I knew about whisky going into the making of the film. I certainly was a fan. But my knowledge, appreciation, and collection have vastly expanded. Whisky is such a personal beverage, such a personal product, from the craftspeople who makes to the consumers who drink it. It inspires passion.

The Water of Life captures that personal essence and that passion from the distillers to the bottlers to the drinkers. That enthusiasm is palpable throughout the movie. When such feeling comes across so fully realized on screen, it’s actually hard not to experience it oneself. I think that’s why the film has resonated with people, even the people who don’t drink whisky.

The depths of the telling of Water of Life is one that draws me into the making of it, more than the drinking of it. Can you imagine another product where the act of making is as interesting as the result?

Wine, beer, and other spirts, but otherwise, no, and obviously, those are related. The various styles of alcohol are some of the oldest products known to man, and many of the them are created in the same places and with the same techniques that they were not just several generations ago, but literally of hundreds of years. How many other products can you say that about? Couple that with the fact that a large number of wines and spirits are produced for bottling and consumption many, many years in the future, and you have a product that connects past, present and future. Scotch, for example, must age a minimum of three years and a day to be legally considered whisky, and of course there are casks aged for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, and even more. That’s a remarkable commitment. So, no, I honestly can’t think of other products where the action of creation equals that of its consumption.

Speaking of (Irish) Whiskey or (Scotch) Whisky, what is your preferred drink, and why? And can you explain how the layers of Scotch make it more enjoyable than other liquors? Is it the discovery of a flavor of the cask, or the aging or the grain used?

Although I started with Irish whiskey and I enjoy it to this day, Scotch is my preferred whisky. But I appreciate all the different styles from around the world. In addition to those two, my collection spans bourbon, rye, American single malt, Australian, Japanese, and probably others I am forgetting right now. I even have a Mexican whiskey (wherein you can definitely taste the influence of Mexico’s tequila roots in it).

Something that we explore in the film is how prominent the influence of the wood is in the final flavor of the whisky. Malted barley is an amazing base grain, not surprisingly my favorite grain, but the cask imparts so much above and beyond that. The concept of terroir is controversial in whisky. Some people discount it altogether, others believe in it wholeheartedly. One of our primary subjects, Mark Reynier, is a huge proponent of terroir in whisky, and has done experiments with his Waterford Irish Whiskey to prove it. I, for one, believe him and that the terroir of the barley is important to creating an individual whisky’s flavor.

You've blessed me over the years with always interesting projects and kindness. Do you think a creative mind finds comfort in knowing more, or feeding an imagination, or is it telling familiar stories in new ways? What must a creative person do to enter a field such as Film?

I think a creative mind is all of those things. A creative mind is naturally curious, it wants to learn, and then it wants to express what it has learned in new and imaginative ways to the world. And I think that goes for all media. For someone who wants to enter the world of film, I have always said dive right in! Technology makes it so easy and affordable to shoot movies these days. Just do it, no matter the quality of one's results, and continually refine one's skills. Eventually one may decide to move to a part of the world where they are surrounded by other creatives to further their career-- that’s not as much a necessity as it used to be—but in the meanwhile, do something. I moved to Los Angeles as soon as I decided to commit to this life and being here has benefited me greatly, being immersed in a world of filmmakers, but that’s not true of everyone. It does help that I love this city.

I meant to ask... I've been made aware that Water of Life is not actually a finished documentary, that there have been additions, more interviews. Is it typical for a documentary, once shared and displayed to the public already, that the makers go back with additional material? If so, is it for further depths, or more exposure to new information?Is the new additional coverage meant to show the making of the original as an interesting afterthought to add insight to the work?

The Water of Life is indeed a finished documentary, but I can see where the confusion arrived. Two places, actually. We recently released an Extended Cut. The original version was 88 minutes, a typical length that is worth hitting for distribution platforms. The Extended Cut, only available directly from us, includes some of those last scenes we really wanted in the film but needed to cut for time. The second reason is that we are working on a second film focused on the independent bottling side of the scotch whisky world. We realized that we had a lot of unused footage after completing the first film, especially in this one arena. We've since rounded out this footage with more interviews on independent bottling and are editing that film now.

You've also been working on a new documentary, titled Prost! - A Beer Film. ... Before moving on, I must say, you should have met my father. He was a lover of beer, had it every day of his life from his 20s to his late 60s (only stopping upon death at 69). In his case, he found no beer he did not enjoy, and spent time in Germany during post WWII occupation in the US Army. He didn't have old army tales to tell, but he apparently drank a lot of beer in a country most people associate as a beer friendly country.

Is beer mostly a Western product in the beginning, regardless of the many beer like beverages through history and different cultures or, is it truly a multi cultural beverage, and one to be celebrated in ever more varieties for all the various tastes of the modern era? Is the documentary aimed mostly at the product in modernity, or, is it part history, part varieties offered, and part the making of that product?

And, yes, we are working on Prost! - A Beer Film, too. We just finished shooting principal photography. Much like The Water of Life focuses specifically on scotch whisky. Prost! focuses on the beer from the Upper Franconia region of Bavaria. Also much like The Water of Life, Prost! examines Upper Franconian beers' modern place against a historical backdrop of brewing in that region.

Although many of the countries we associate historically with beer are Western (e.g. Germany, Belgium, Ireland), I believe that is a bias of our Western-focused perspective. The first beer was likely brewed by the ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia, and many other early cultures brewed variants of beer or precursors to our modern beverage as well.

Several years ago Dogfish Head Brewery released recreations of ancient beers. There were several, but the one I remember most clearly was a Chinese recipe culled from a tomb 9000 years old! As far as I have seen, every modern nation in which alcohol is culturally and/or religiously acceptable brews its own beer.

Do you partake in beer? If so, what is your favorite beer? Additionally does appreciation of it come out as a connoisseur or a happy enjoyment of a product? I have a number of favorites but I rarely drink now. (For the curious, my favorites are Grain Belt Premium, Asahi, Sapporo, and Grain Belt Nordeast). Do you prefer darker beers, IPAs, pale ales, or something unmentioned?

Yes, I drink beer, too. My trifecta of beverages is beer, wine, and whisky. I only occasionally consume cocktails or other beverages, although I do like to try unusual spirits, especially those unique to one area of the world. My wife just brought me back a bottle of gin distilled out of shiraz from Australia, and on a previous trip to France she bought me a bottle of génépi. In terms of beer I most commonly drink IPAs (both Hazy and West Coast), but other favorites include stouts, porters, saisons, barleywines, marzens, dunkles, and bocks. And I think appreciation arises from both the connoisseur and happy enjoyment perspectives.

As a documentarian, does it help to already enjoy the subject matter or have a deep interest in it, or, does the spark of raison d'etre for doing such a project come from curiosity first, and preference second or far down the list?  It occurs to me that the better outlook, not regarding your approach, but from my not knowing, having a neutral view or purely a curiosity that drives a deep dive of information might allow a perfectly non biased work?

I’m not sure there's one answer to this question. A great documentary can stem from both passion and curiosity, although passion may inspire one more greatly than mere curiosity alone if for no other reason than one has more feelings about and investment in the story. A lot of it has to do with subject matter. Certain topics will be better served by passion, some more by curiosity.

There are many documentaries about truly horrific subject matter that one could not possibly be passionate about save for uncovering hidden truth. I also don’t believe a neutral view will necessarily make a deeper or perfectly unbiased work. A good documentarian, just like a good writer, should be able to divorce his personal interest to deliver just that by showing warts and all. It really comes down to the individual and his, her, or their execution. Indeed some subject matter that may be better served by filmmakers passionate about said subjects; dispassion can come through as cold and impersonal, failing to connect the viewers with the story or finding ways for interviewees truly to open up.

I'm curious if there is a special kind of fan of documentaries, as an item, not due to subject matter or is the greatest supporter of a documentary one who has a preexisting appreciation for the subject matter, and not documentaries?(I've been a fan of most documentaries I've watched, and have watched documentaries focused on bizarre, previous unfamiliar subject matter. Yes I liked them all, but mostly those that give me ideas I've not been aware of previously.)

Without a doubt, there are both. Naturally fans of the subject matter are going to be drawn to the film, but there are people who simply love documentaries either for what they are or because of their natural curiosity about the world and the unique way that documentaries can inform them.

The truly great documentaries are those that attract people purely on their filmmaker alone, people who would not necessarily describe themselves as documentary films (although they may occasionally watch them), but to whom the subject matter is not of particular interest or even subject matter that may not be of anyone’s particular interest but whose story still deserved to be told.

Do you have a list of subjects to be further considered, or does a documentarian pursue mostly subject matters as they are perceived to have an audience? I'm not suggesting that popularity leads the agenda, but more, what lends a subject matter to becoming a subject for such a film?

Almost anything can be an interesting subject matter if you find the right angle. Yes, I have a list of subjects I’d like to cover, but the when and the how can be market driven. Subject matter with an audience is easier to find funding and distribution (though with streaming and social media any target audience can be reached, no matter how niche). But that won’t stop me from doing a film with less appeal, I just may have to take more time, make it smaller, or locate more creative financing. Or, most likely, all of the above. But again, creatively finding the best perspective can make almost any subject appealing, even those that on the surface would seem the complete opposite.

You've also been working upon a documentary on L. Frank Baum's silent Oz Film Manufacturing Company, and to my astonishment and many others, you are going to be involved in not only examining Baum's work, and life and such, but also, you've discovered one of his films about OZ and you'll be restoring it. When did you find it, did it reach the Entertainment world news cycles?

A bit of backstory for those unfamiliar...The Oz Film Manufacturing Company produced four features and four shorts. The four shorts are considered lost. Off the four features, one is complete; one mostly complete; one exists only in a re-edited, butchered form due to its troubled release pattern; and the fourth has only one known copy, and only three of the five reels at that. Rather dismal video transfers of the three features have existed since the 1980s, sourced from 16mm prints struck in the early seventies. I have always felt these films deserved to be restored; despite being largely overlooked now, Baum’s company was the first to commit solely to producing feature films (the shorts came later when the company was desperate for money) and the first to have completely original scores. The Georges Méliès-inspired special effects were also highly advanced for the time.

I have a friend at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Dina Massachi, who will be putting on a huge Oz convention next year called CharlOz. I told her about my project and she thought it would be a perfect fit for the convention to premiere a restored 4K transfer of one of the films. So that led to my search for prints and the goldmine I unearthed in January. However, for various reasons we kept our find under wraps until now. Hopefully now that we are talking about the project it will receive such coverage as you described.
How did you find this hidden Gem? Did you immediately feel like Indiana Jones and you are about to reconstruct the Lost Ark? Or since it is a movie clip, and hence a chapter, the lost "arc"?Where was it?How much work is it to restore it?

The film was hiding in plain sight. Many rare film archives list their contents online. However, they frequently only know that they have a copy, that the copy is a negative or positive print, and how many reels and/or feet it is. They simply don’t have the manpower or money to examine each print more closely unless someone specifically asks that they do so. The Library of Congress listed 35mm positives and negatives in their collection, so in January I visited the Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center to investigate exactly what they had.

First I looked at the safety prints on a flatbed, and just seeing the film on 35mm was amazing. But then I got to go back into the nitrate vaults—each woefully underdressed for the low temperatures at which they store nitrate—and, yes, I absolutely felt like Indiana Jones as I was examining these prints that likely hadn’t been looked at in over a century and realizing what they actually were. 

The archivists taught me that they differentiate what is commonly called restoration into two distinct processes: reconstruction, in which the film is reassembled as close as possible from disparate sources to its original release; and restoration, in which the elements are actually cleaned up. And, yes, the restoration is a massive undertaking.

Won't reconstruction of such a thing cost two tons of money? An item in short supply for most people and even projects? Will that have to be crowd funded?

Yes, a restoration phase requires a significant budget, absolutely.

Reconstruction, while not cheap, however, is less. The primary cost for reconstruction is in having the prints transferred to 4K, for which an angel investor, Tim Tucker, put up the necessary funds. The actual work involved for that stage is essentially just editing. Editing may not be my filmmaking forte, but the level necessary for that purpose is well within my wheelhouse. For CharlOz our goal is to exhibit a 4K reconstruction of the one film. Restoration of that movie (and the others) would involve additional fundraising, whether crowdsourced or otherwise.

Tell my readers more about the silent Oz films of L.Frank Baum, was he a master of the film art as well as books, or actually, why did he do the films, as an experiment or did they expand his Oz story and concept of a world?

Baum had a lifelong love the theater and had been a thespian himself as a young man, so it was natural for him to be drawn to the nascent industry literally springing up around him in Hollywood. In 1902 The Wizard of Oz had been adapted into a hugely successful musical extravaganza, and just prior to his Oz Film Manufacturing Company he wrote another (admittedly less successful) musical, The Tin-Tok Man of Oz, with music composed by Louis F. Gottschalk who would also write the music for Baum’s Oz films and was vice-president of the company. The Oz Film Manufacturing Company wasn’t even Baum’s first attempt to bring Oz to the screen. In 1908 he produced The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays, a multimedia experience involved slides, filmed sequences, and live actors that failed miserably, leaving Baum bankrupt. Shortly after the Selig company produced four short films based on Baum’s books stemming from contractual obligations left unfulfilled by the Fairylogue disaster. Baum learned his lesson well; with the Oz Film Manufacturing Company he did not put up any of his own money (the company was financed at $100,000), instead contributing the rights to his books.

What is your ultimate hope to end up with, by your restoring this film? Is it mostly a monetary reward, or is it an artistic accomplishment, or maybe a way to push the theme of the documentary? Or is it something I am missing?

It is preservation, first and foremost. Preservation is something in which I believe strongly, and silent films need to be saved before it’s too late. As for myself, artistic accomplishment and pushing the documentary. Restoration is an art in it own right, and an important one. Funnily enough, I initially planned on creating the documentary first as a project in its own right but to also be am impetus for the restorations. As luck would have it, the restorations, at least the one restoration, is now coming first and will hopefully drive the doc.

Last question, don't you think it is about time someone did a documentary about tall, bald, writer poets from Minnesota and help him sell all of the books he has created in massive numbers?

Of course!

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