General Education

Lisa Hiton on “Rachel Getting Married” and Shooting Movies on Real Film

Lisa Hiton on “Rachel Getting Married” and Shooting Movies on Real Film
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Lisa Hiton June 25, 2015

Noodle Expert Lisa Hiton discusses the movie "Rachel Getting Married" and the beauty of shooting on real film.

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Noodle Expert Lisa Hiton discusses the movie “Rachel Getting Married” and the beauty of shooting on real film.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

Lately, I’ve been rewatching Jonathan Demme’s film, “Rachel Getting Married.” I would love to be a student or production assistant of his just to see how he develops the tone of his films. “Rachel Getting Married” is rare in that it is shot like a narrative documentary. This form makes for stellar acting; longer, more exhausting takes and scenes; and strong relationships between the persons and tone (as manifested most directly by the musicians and the film’s extras).

There is a great desire for poets, writers, and writer/directors to be an Author/Auteur — that one should make her thumbprint loudly novel. There is a whole other way to exist as a great thinker though, especially in film, where you can have the blueprint made by someone else (a screenwriter). None of Demme’s films look alike. This flexibility in authorship requires different habits of mind — different genius — to listen to what the script is doing and to be a vehicle for it instead of its master. “Rachel Getting Married” looks nothing like, for example, “Silence of the Lambs.” I’d love to just observe him on a set or in development to think about how such flexibility can serve larger audiences of viewers and students who want to make art.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

“As if your life depended on it.” Adrienne Rich wrote this small essay, “As if your life depended on it,” which can be found in her larger work, “What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics.” That voice, that phrase, has come into my life explicitly and implicitly so many times. I read the piece, first, when I was in high school and knew nothing about poetry or the poetic life. But I did feel it was true, what she was asking for, to read and write as if life depended on it. I have always held a sense of rigor and gravitas at the forefront of my being, so my ear was always tuned to this advice in a way.

As life has continued, this piece has come up often, especially in education, but much to my dismay, with immense push-back from my colleagues. One of my first assignments as a master’s student at Harvard was to read this piece. I was thrilled it had been assigned as a foundational text for my Arts in Education cohort. When we reconvened to discuss it though, it kept being dismissed — they all fell for her irony at the end, and there seemed to be an overwhelming sense that if one was not a poet or did not read poetry (which no one in America does), then this manifesto was not for you. To read and write as if one’s life depends on it is as literal as it is a model for what it is to be conscious, especially in a society riddled with obedience, anesthesia, and apathy.

Where would you send a student who hasn’t traveled before?

It would depend on the student. Different countries at different moments in time occupy different cultural predicaments of consciousness. I think in all cases, I would recommend traveling somewhere foreign — meaning somewhere the student wouldn’t be able to speak the language and would have to feel a kind of isolation and survival.

It seems in my own travels and in those of artists and writers especially, the experiences that cause some sort of vertigo elicit the most profound transformations (of thought, politics, ideas, inner life, and so on). This also seems the best way to enter a new nation as a traveler instead of a tourist (and I’m not sure there’s a more romantic or ethical way to travel, which is often the privilege in itself).

I use the word language loosely. It may mean the country’s mother tongue is different than one’s own. It may also mean the consciousness or nationality is so other to oneself that it imposes a new architecture of thinking/believing upon the traveler.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

When I was in film school, I had to shoot on real film. Never being allowed to film digitally means to make something; students encounter different kinds of failure, and thus, different kinds of learning. For the second film I made, I received a role of film back from the projectionist that was technically a mess. The roll proved that there was a problem in they way the Bolex camera was spooling the 16mm, and my whole film was shaky and slowed down. With four days left to get a final cut, I had to find another roll of film, friends to be in a scene, and all of my money to have the film developed and sent back to me to scrap together a new piece. I didn’t do that well, but I did have to become a better editor because of it. I also never made those mistakes again and learned to pay more attention to how to check the camera, lighting, timing, and so on. There’s something about receiving an object of actual, destroyed time in your hands that is so excruciating. That urgency fuels me every time I am on set, whether that’s a real set or the theatre of the mind.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I went into filmmaking because my consciousness is built on the same architecture as that of practical physics (lighting, sound, composition). I didn’t know that at the time, but because I have the language of film now, I understand why I was always inherently drawn to it as a means of storytelling, manipulation, and creativity.

I expected when I left film school that I would be surrounded by artists and big thinkers all the time. I was so green. Of course, Hollywood is an industry. The independent studio as it was in the ’90s doesn’t exist anymore. I met many people my age who care about fame. I don’t know why I expected anything different. I have stayed on the East Coast (detrimentally to my pocket, I’m sure) because I’m able to stay surrounded by artists who teach, writers, academics, and the like. I did try the West Coast for a bit, and perhaps I’ll spend more time there once I establish myself a bit more, but the industry is the least appealing part of art making to me (as a poet and a filmmaker), and I’m try to to stay away from it until I have solidified my own voice.


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