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Les Choristes

The French confection Les Choristes is now available on a skimpy, movie-only DVD —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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Monday, Oct. 14, 2002

Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe have collaborated on documentaries since film school in 1990. They became friends with Terry Gilliam shooting The Hamster Factor, a “making of” documentary about Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (which is available on the 12 Monkeys DVD).

Recently, Gilliam set out to make a film called “The Man who Killed Don Quixote” and Fulton and Pepe were there to capture the creative process. What they captured instead was the hand of Fate conspiring against Gilliam. His actor had health problems, fighter jets flew over his set, and a freak torrential rain flooded his location.

Gilliam’s film was put on hold, but now you can see Fulton and Pepe’s film, Lost in La Mancha.

Marty Mapes: How do you have access to Terry Gilliam’s Set?

Fulton and Pepe get Lost in La ManchaKeith Fulton: Well, this isn’t the first time we’ve made a film with him. We made a film called The Hamster Factor when Terry was producing 12 Monkeys in Philadelphia. So we had already spent a long period of time with him on that project. Even on that project he gave us tremendous access. He just happens to be a very candid fellow, which is really unusual in the film industry. By the time we started working on La Mancha Terry was a friend, and there’s no one to exploit like your friends.

Louis Pepe: And the other secret to the access with Terry is he doesn’t have a vanity problem in the way that a lot of other people do. His attitude is “shoot everything because I want a record of it. I’ll tell you which things I don’t want you to show to anybody else.” And the great thing about Terry is that usually he really doesn’t have any question about it. He’s like, “okay, I look like a fool there but I was acting like a fool.” He’s really a rarity in terms of documentary subjects.

KF: And he didn’t censor anything in this film. Part of the pact you make with someone like that is he knows he’s got a right of approval, but he doesn’t exercise it, which is pretty amazing.

LP: We’re not out to make a documentary that our subjects would regret. If your subject regrets giving access to their lives, you’ve abused your power as a documentary filmmaker. Going into it with the thing that says “anything that you do in front of the camera is ours,” basically means that your are encouraging your subjects to censor themselves. If you say to your subject “you can see this before anybody else does,” then you’ve removed that layer which allows you to get people who are gonna behave in a more natural fashion because they know they’re protected.

MM: This feels to me like a companion piece to The Man who Killed Don Quixote. Is it, or is it a totally separate project?

From the get-go we had intended to make a real film, something that would stand on its own. We didn’t think it would have to stand on its own quite as solitarily as it does...
— Keith Fulton
KF: No, this was a totally independent project. In fact, it was never intended much as a companion piece. It was something we wanted to do very independently from the project and we had initially actually intended to do an hour-long piece for television which may have been put up on Channel 4 of BBC’s, which was going to focus a lot on preproduction. That’s what our whole proposal had been about. That’s why we arrived in Madrid eight weeks before shooting started. It’s a good thing that we did.

LP: The typical thing that a studio pays for is usually something where maybe they’ll have someone there for the last few weeks of production, but it’s usually anywhere from maybe like 7 days on the set during filming. Now with DVDs they’re more involved, but in that case, you are beholden to the way the studio wants to represent what the film is, because the studio is paying the bill.

KF: We’ve done those kinds of things for money jobs. We’ve spent some times on sets working for studios. You’re basically just there to get the average sound bite, it’s like “Did you love working with this actor? Did you love the script?” you know, and you’re getting b-roll of the slate and the actors doing a take. But it’s very shallow ultimately. It’s just about selling a movie. It works for what it’s supposed to work for. But that’s what people are accustomed to seeing.

From the get-go on this movie, we had intended to make a film, a real film, something that would stand on its own. We didn’t think it would have to stand on its own quite as solitarily as it does. We did think there would be a film, and we’d get to use some of the publicity from that film to help ours.

LP: But our financing was completely independent, which was the other double-edged sword. Because the financing was completely independent was going to give us complete freedom, but when Terry’s film fell through, if our financing had been connected to his film we would have had an out. We didn’t. So no matter what was going on to Terry’s film we knew we had the obligation to our investors to deliver a finished piece of some sort.

There was a bit of a panic there as all of this was happening. We were saying “what are we going to have a film about” and it took us a bit of time to realize we’ve just gotta follow this story through because it could be the case that we are catching something that is unique, that no one has captured before. And if that is the case we’re going to run with that.

MM: You often see movies by the Hughes brothers or the Wachowski brothers. How do you two relate?

KF: We call ourselves the Pepe-Fulton brothers (laughs). Lou and I met in film school in 1990 and we’ve been collaborating off and on since then. We’ve basically made... how many projects?

LP: There are what, ten, things we’ve worked on together?

KF: We had a great collaboration in film school and we continued that collaboration

I’m the fast thinker; he’s the patience man
— Keith Fulton
MM: How do you split the work?

LP: On this particular project I did most of the shooting. Often Keith was doing sound with me if we could have two people in the room, and often it was just me. When he wasn’t doing sound, he was out scouting the next thing for me to shoot — making arrangements for me to get into the next meeting or arranging for the interview — doing all the field producing that goes into finding out what the story is, the investigative part of the journalism as opposed to the documenting part. Then in the editing room, it was really side-by-side, working with the editor, so it was always three of us sitting there.

KF: I’m the fast thinker; he’s the patience man. It’s a very good collaboration. I think that’s probably why we collaborate. I’ve always been a business-minded person; Lou is more other-minded (laughs).

LP: An example would be Keith would be the person who would knock on the office door and go “alright, Lou’s coming in to shoot” and I would get pushed into the room but I would sit there for three hours and wait for that one 45-second interchange that was the scene that you were waiting for.

KF: You need patience to make a good documentary. I do not have that kind of patience, but I do have the skill of dealing with people where I’m trying to coerce something out of them...

LP: ... and you need to not have patience for that, to always be on top of people going, “actually the fact that today is a tense day is all the more reason for the camera guy to be in there shooting.”

KF: ‘No’ is not in the vocabulary.

LP: The thing about collaboration is you end up finding out which skills you’re good at and which skills the other person’s good at and you just want to repeat that. I don’t think it’s a mistake that certain directors are always working with the same actors. Okay, so maybe they’re not both directing , but they’re certainly saying “you’re good at that, I’m good at this, let’s do this together.” I mean, now you’ve got somebody like George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh who are working together on everything.

KF: The Maysles brothers are a big influence. I think Salesman, to me is one of the best films ever made and it’s not a fiction film, but it plays out like the most incredible... it’s a great film. Leacock is an influence. Pennebaker is an influence. All the guys who were doing direct cinema in the sixties.

LP: The other influences are actually the directors who cross the boundary between documentary and fiction because it’s a goal of ours. We’re trying to make a fiction feature now.

KF: But they’re not an influence on the type of documentary...

LP: They’re not an influence on the documentary style , but they’re an influence. Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Michael Apted... all filmmakers who go back and forth. What you learn from that is that there are certain skills that are the same. Yeah, this footage is based in reality, and this one I wrote the script for, but ultimately you’re making a movie that is a story. You’re either getting the actor comfortable or you’re getting your subjects comfortable.

KF: It’s really the direct cinema folks like the Maysles and Leacock who make the style of documentary film that’s most like narrative. They’re non-interventional, they’re strictly observational.