“What really was important to me during those years was having the opportunity to work on other people’s films. I always felt like it was important if I was going to direct my own work to understand (kind of like mastering my own practice) how to shoot for people, how to edit for people and by way of that be able to inform my own directing one day with these not just technical skills, but with different kinds of language when deeply engaged in the filmmaking process.”
Film Courage: Looking at your IMDB, your first directing credit was in 2003 and then you didn’t have another directing credit until 2012. What challenges were you facing that kept you from creating anything during that time?
Steve: That’s a really good question. I think one of the biggest challenges in filmmaking is just simply having the confidence to continue pushing forward when you have an idea or a project. I had a lot of false starts during that span of time. But what really was important to me during those years was actually having the opportunity to work on other people’s films. I always felt like it was important if I was going to direct my own work to understand (kind of like mastering my own practice) how to shoot for people, how to edit for people and by way of that be able to inform my own directing one day with these not just technical skills but with very different kinds of language when deeply engaged in the filmmaking process. I always think back to what Al Maysles used to say which is half of directing is the cinematography and half of directing is editing. For that reason he would give Charlotte Zwerin co-directing credit when she would edit their films just because of the multitude of infinite decisions that go into crafting a film on the editorial side.
I’m glad that I had this opportunity to work on other people’s films and at the same time it motivated me to feel like after a certain amount of years I was ready to dig in on my own work.
Film Courage: You did an interview about your 2012 documentary HIGH TECH, LOW LIFE and you said that [for that film] you did not want to overdramatize the stories of these citizen journalists. I’m wondering what is this over dramatization and how did you do the same with the NYPD 12 officers for CRIME + PUNISHMENT?
Steve: When you think linguistically about storytelling there’s this idea that we have these tools of empathy building and rhetoric that are at our disposal. It’s easy to get carried away or find that the narrative you construct is rooted in this kind of rhetorical argument built around character development or this idea of the creation of empathy in people’s stories and their experiences. And I think that we have to be very careful about how we use those tools because they are simply just tools. We have to have a more thoughtful endgame in mind.
In the case of HIGH TECH, LOW LIFE I didn’t want to overdramatize this inherently dramatic story because of the political conditions within which they were doing their work. These are citizens journalists that are traveling across mainland China reporting on uncensored news and also trying to disseminate this idea that individuals all carry or possess a kind of social capital that if activated collectively there could be a very powerful sea-change in the culture around what can and can’t be said in the media and in social media and that there was more room for freedom of speech than people realized.
In that idea was for me if we dramatized the notion of a Western view of China and the kind of draconian political landscape that everybody likes to portray China with, it would be in service of a more riveting film. But I think it would not be faithful to the reality on the ground which is these guys were representing a real expansive gray area of political and free speech. That was an important lesson to me. I wanted to make sure that the tone and use of dramatic cinematic language was always thoughtful and commensurate to the real, truly honest political kind of condition at hand.
In the case of CRIME + PUNISHMENT, I think this idea of building character right from a story perspective, these are obviously real people so to call them characters and subjects is always a little discomforting but for the sake of the conversation, but building character was very important. If you can’t have a connection to these whistleblower officers in the film, then you would never release yourself to kind of imagine the high-stakes nature of what they’re doing and the real social and political impact of everything that they’re putting on the line to try and expose.
That being said, this couldn’t be rooted in simply any character’s dramatic story arc because the larger goal for me in this film was to create something that had a systemic view that incorporated many officers that we were meeting and not just that but had a story structure that would lead from one person to the next to the next so that there was a kind of corroborating effect in the storytelling.
In a sense for me that was perhaps a less dramatic kind of strategy to take as far as what would have been so potent to just tell Edwin Raymond’s story or just Sandy Gonzalez’s story. But ultimately I think it was in service of this more important goal that I recognized. We need to insulate the project with this different kind of story structure that was moving back…(Watch the video on Youtube here).
WATCH CRIME + PUNISHMENT