Film Courage: Tom briefly off-camera you were just telling us the slogan about NASA and I thought it relates to something that was interesting at the beginning of A SPACE PROGRAM documentary, about how you don’t just do things well, it seems like you’re a perfectionist and you insist on making sure that it’s perfect?
Tom Sachs: When we say perfectionism, it’s often described as an illness and that might be true but what we say in the studio is ‘It won’t fail because of me. It won’t fail because of my part.’ That’s a great slogan for a collective work and when we put a man on the moon it was 35,000 people working on it. Each one of them said if we don’t get there, it’s not because of something I didn’t do and if everyone really agrees and believes in that, then we can achieve these incredible things.
Film Courage: You’ve said before you don’t take vacations, you don’t believe in them. Therefore, do you ever feel your creative work feels stale because if you’re totally nose to the grindstone and you believe in making sure that every I is dotted and T is crossed, how do you recharge?
Tom Sachs: That’s a great question. Stanley Kubrick never took vacations and little is known about how he f*cked off but he had to…we all have to do things to regenerate ourselves. I’m into really normal stuff like…eating…going to the bathroom…sexual intercourse…sometimes I like to go surfing, weightlifting and skateboarding. But ultimately, the thing that I say I don’t take vacations is that I am really fulfilled by my work and I am very lucky that the thing that I…or I should say that I am extremely privileged to be able to work for passion and do the things that are important to me. Which means that there is a disconnect between things that are done for money. To me, the biggest curse would be to be really well-paid to do something that you didn’t love to do because then you’d be trapped by the abstract. Whereas doing things for love or for passion means that it doesn’t matter if you’re getting paid or not. It’s a detail…very, very important detail, but it means that you can just do what you believe in and it’s important to always organize life toward that.
The Shakers had this expression Do The Job As If You Had a Thousand Years to Live Yet To Die Tomorrow.
Film Courage: Well I know people always say “Don’t turn your hobby into a job.” Find the second thing you love to do, because once it becomes a job then it’s laborious and you feel somehow hindered by it.
Tom Sachs: I disagree completely. Dean Kamen in SLINGSHOT which is a great documentary about…Dean Kamen the inventor of the Segway, but also the inventor of the computerized Insulin pump and a lot of amazing bio tech stuff said “The Key to Success is Do What You Love and Get So Good at it That You Can Make a Living Doing It.” Now of course, half the job is doing it, your job. The other half is bringing it to the world which is communications, paying your taxes, it’s doing interviews, writing and talking about it, helping out, educate, teach and share. It’s important…it’s not just working by yourself in a garrett, it’s communication. And the movies that we make, Van [Neistat] and I are in way communication aspects of the sculpture. They are built like…the movies are built, just like sculptures. They’re films so they show the flaws, they are shot with a Canon T2i with a missing pixel in the middle about two-thirds of the way down from the top of the screen you will see one red dot. It’s almost always there and I think we’re about to get a new version, like the T8i or something? I’m not sure. But it’s the idea that we started making movies when iMovie came out and then iMovie started to become so difficult and not functional. That is when we stopped for about three years and now we’re using Final Cut Pro because it’s easy again.
Film Courage: What lenses did you use because you had such great, intricate close-up [shots] of drills and things like that?
Tom Sachs: That’s the off-the-shelf Canon zoom lens. I don’t even remember the model number of it but it’s probably something like a 20 or 30 millimeter to zoom out to be somewhere between 80 to 125. It’s a good, basic, off-the-shelf one. It’s not even the one with the red ring on it. It’s not the good one. I think we bought one of those later when we had to get another T2i to take a picture of our T2i for the credit sequence in the SPACE PROGRAM. We needed a photo of the camera so we had to buy a second one just to take up one photo of the first one…which we then returned.
Film Courage: So the entire film is shot on a Canon T2i? Wow!…
Tom Sachs: It’s name is Baby Jesus and in the credit sequence you’ll see that…in the credit sequence shot…you’ll see the camera is in it. There’s some iPhone footage also, but nothing…there is nothing exotic. When we shoot still footage of the sculptures those are all shot with like a…40 ninja pixel Hasselblad digital back. Those are always shot by Genevieve Hanson or Joshua White, those are stills and those are for images you’ll see in books and on websites.
Film Courage: What was your decision to use the T2i? I mean I was thinking you used a Red camera or something. It’s beautiful…
Tom Sachs: It’s really what Van had…that’s Van’s camera and what’s important about the T2i to our team is that Van knows what all the buttons do. And the Red has…it’s probably a superior camera in nearly every way except you have a huge liability because it’s so expensive and the virtue of a cheap camera is that it’s not an heirloom product. It’s a consumable even though a camera is not typically understood as a consumable. The films, the data cards, are considered consumables. But when something is that cheap you can take risks. You don’t have to obsess about it and I think a lot of filmmakers and camera aficionados are more obsessed with the hardware than what it’s capturing and if something is only $500 and you’ve got a huge production ahead of you, it’s really a relatively small part and that reversal of economics and power is what gives us the freedom to make a movie like we did. It’s a a bar-lowering affect. And, I can’t underscore this enough, the knowing how to use the tool is the most important thing. Not what the tool can do. As a sculptor I made much better work with lower quality tools that were in my hands that I know I have a muscle memory with a more precise, better tool because it’s part of my body. I’m not thinking.
So when Van is getting these shots, he doesn’t have to worry about learning about some great new feature. He just goes and speed is one of the cornerstones of it. We have sort of ten rules of filmmaking and rule number one is Finish the Movie.
Film Courage: That’s a good rule.
Tom Sachs: And most movie makers don’t follow rule number one and most movies don’t get finished. And so if you follow rule number one, that’s so much more important than rules number nine through…ten. And we don’t always follow the other rules but we follow rule number one.
Film Courage: Why do you think rule number one is not always followed? What’s the reason for that? Is it boredom…is it…?
Tom Sachs: I don’t think it has anything to do with filmmaking? I think it’s just a question of character and will and doing what it takes to get the job done. I think it’s the bringing the ball to the net metaphor, sport metaphor. And doing what it takes to get it in the hole, like whatever it takes. And I think before, when you asked me about perfectionism. Perfect…is the enemy of the good or something like that? This is not a perfectionist speaking saying get the movie done because the movie is flawed and I think if you look at A SPACE PROGRAM you’ll see tons of flaws. There are all these things that aren’t perfect about it. All the individual sequences aren’t perfect but it’s flawed, it’s got some character flaws in that it’s maybe trying to do too many things or maybe it’s not long enough. It would have been a perfect movie if it had been about three hours long and we are shown every little sequence in order and made industrial films like we originally wanted to, but I didn’t feel that was watchable. It would be too alienating to the audience and there are some great filmmakers who are perfectionists who make more perfect movies but it was important to us to make something that people could see. But I love the films of avant-garde sculptors who make these epic movies but they’re really disrespectful to the viewer and they don’t make it reasonable to finish the movie and I think we’re living in a time where you have to always make a choice whether what your expectation is of the viewer. Are you trying to subject them to something or are you trying to teach them something? Are you trying to share or are you trying to help them understand without thinking?
I think there are different kinds of movies for different kinds of roles. We are really interested in making movies that illustrate the aspects of the sculptures that exist in time. In other words this sculpture you know, which is maybe in a museum that maybe one time was an African mask and it was used in a ritual or this sword was used by a famous Samurai or this sarcophagus was something that someone was buried in…and all these, the mask, the sword, the sarcophagus all had stories and events and things that occurred to them to make them wonder. One was for a ritual, one was for a fight, one was to house a dead body. All those things are things that existed in time and action so a lot of the things, the sculptures or the movies about the sculptures show how these sculptors had a history and part of a ritual activity that was done in the studio. We go to other planets. We explore them in our live demonstrations and these movies show how we did that.
Film Courage: Of those remaining nine rules which is the second most important besides number one?
Tom Sachs: Well, they are all really mundane things but they’re important. And I’m not going to get them all and I’m not going to get them in order but they are things like write the end of the movie before you start shooting. Don’t try and start shooting without having the end of the story figured out because the third act is the hard one. You have to understand that before you even start because if you don’t you wind up like that amazing guy Francis Ford Coppola in Hearts of Darkness (A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse 1991 documentary film) where he’s sitting in the Philippines in a trailer in the middle of the night, typing all night and shooting all the next day and not sleeping and that’s where everything falls apart. I think he got lucky that he got to finish that movie. And though arguably it is his greatest film and he’s one of the world’s greatest film directors, I think it was lucky that it was a great film. I don’t see all those late nights being the answer. I think a lot of things came together in kind of a miraculous way. That’s an anomaly. So that’s a situation you want to avoid. And I think if you look at the history of his life, that was not necessarily a successful feeling in time. It was years later that it became [successful]…I think it was viewed potentially as a failure in its time and then after some time became one of the greats. Anyway, certainly an unhappy thing and that’s something that we’re not looking to repeat.
[Another tip] Avoid camera movement.
Film Courage: Especially with a DSLR like a T2i?
Tom Sachs: Any camera, whether it’s a DSLR or a red or any camera. Camera movement is a privilege. It’s not a right. It’s an indulgence…you should do as little work as you can…an idea shouldn’t be anymore…Einstein said this….and [pauses to think] I’m going to screw this up…everything should be as simple as possible but no more so. In other words, use a tracking shot. Zoom in, but only to an effect or a better example may be omit unnecessary words [referring to Authors Strunk and White]. A sculpture should be as small as it can be to communicate the idea. That might mean it needs to be the size of a building in some cases but it could fit in the palm of your hand. Everything else is just hubris and ego.
Film Courage: 2016 – we’re filled with franchises and sequels. Why should people care about A SPACE PROGRAM?
Tom Sachs: [stunned]…o.k….(laughing)
Film Courage: One word (laughing).
Tom Sachs: [Pausing] homemade…and you the individual. We were here. In other words, I always wanted my sculptures to be perfect like an iPhone and I tried and once I even made a giant sculpture that was nearly perfect but there are some flaws and those flaws really drove me crazy and once I kind of started to embrace those flaws I began to understand that I could never make something as perfect as an iPhone but Apple could never make anything as sh*tty as one of my sculptures. And when I say sh*tty I mean showing the evidence a human being was there.
We’re at a time now where you can have anything you want made perfectly by robots. We’re getting there, you can start to feel it. And the virtue of the handmade, the fingerprint, is being eliminated. I think that is also why you see artisanal movements or you see a rise in ceramics. In fact my ceramic bowls, when I push my finger into the clay, there is a fingerprint that will be there for 20,000 years after this whole building is turned to rubble and all of our computers have returned to their inert elements, we’re going to have a fingerprint still there and ceramic still underneath all the rubble and shard.
So I think with this rise of robot-made stuff, you’re seeing a rise of artisanal made things. Slow food, homemade bicycles, knives, clothes, you’re even seeing people making their own cars from scratch. It’s in a way a reaction against it. Zine culture is back as a reaction against websites. Which I know websites work better than a zine anytime, but you don’t get to hand it to someone. There is some sensuality to the paper that you get to touch, burn it, wipe your a$s with it, write a love letter on it. It’s real.
In A Space Program, internationally acclaimed artist Tom Sachs takes us on an intricately handmade journey to the red planet, providing audiences with an intimate, first person look into his studio and methods. The film is both a piece of art in its own right and a recording of Sachs’ historic piece, Space Program 2.0: MARS, which opened at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2012.
For Space Program 2.0: MARS, Tom and his team built an entire space program from scratch. They were guided by the philosophy of bricolage: creating and constructing from available yet limited resources. They ultimately sent two female astronauts to Mars in search of the answer to humankind’s ultimate question… are we alone?
Directed by Van Neistat, A Space Program is a captivating introduction to Sachs’ work for the uninitiated, and required viewing for his longtime fans.
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A SPACE PROGRAM in theaters 4/7/16