Pull Focus: Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest

Pull Focus: Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest

by Matthew Gordon and Shilpi Singh

Good Fortune is a documentary that talks about good intentions gone wrong. The film shows how the foreign aid intended to help underserved communities can end up hurting them while dealing with larger issues of Immigration and urban development. Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest have worked on two feature length documentaries together as well as co-founded Transient Pictures.

jeremy_levine_landon_soest_2How did you both start working on Good Fortune together?

Jeremy: We had worked on a film previously at Ithaca College, Walking the Line, about vigilantes on the US/Mexico border. It started out as a class project, but we decided to finish it outside of school and were really surprised how much play it got. We were actually able to sell it to Europe and it played at a bunch of film festivals. Still being a student, that was just totally amazing to me that that could happen. It made me feel like we could really do this. So Landon went off on a Fulbright. I graduated that year. Right after graduation, literally, I flew out to Kenya to meet him and we started working together. We shot for two months then came back and started editing thinking that this would all be done in a year. Four years later, we finally had a film. (laughs)

How did you deal with the complex issues presented in the film of race and class?

Landon: I think in a strange way our lack of resources really helped us in that regard. (laughs) We are obviously very young, had very few resources. I went over on this Fulbright; I got an academic fellowship. I had under $30,000 to live off of for the year and used the lion’s share of that to buy production equipment and try to hire some people to help me. It sort of worked out that we had a lot more time than we did money. Our time was cheap, so we could spend a lot of time there, and we spent a lot of time in both of the communities. We really learned a lot of what made these communities tick. We spent a lot of face time, built a lot of rapport with the characters. But, all of the crew with the exception of the two of us and someone else who was just there for a few weeks, were local. And not video professionals. Most of the time, the translators and all of the fixers and everybody that was really working on the film were the neighbors and the friends of the characters themselves. So they were very familiar not only with the issues, but also with the individuals who were in the film.

Jeremy: Our field producer Benard was really incredible and traveled around with Landon to originally find the people in our stories. One of the people we followed was a neighbor of his, so there was that kind of instant rapport. But I think your question is great. I thought a lot about it while I was there. It’s an incredibly complicated issue and just as our film looks at these outside forces coming in and changing people’s lives, we were coming in also as outsiders. I think we were very aware of it and we thought a lot about it. I don’t know if we have great answers from it. (laughs)
Was it a necessity editing the film yourselves, and was that a challenge being so close to the material?

Both: Yes! (laugh)

Jeremy: I think it would’ve been great if we could have brought in another editor earlier just because we had been living and breathing this story for so long.

Landon: We were editing it ourselves and I think we were fortunate to have a lot of support from the Sundance Institute specifically, and a number of other advisors, people we met along the way that were able to watch the cut and give us feedback. We were lucky enough to go out to Utah actually and do an intensive week at the Sundance labs. That was just tremendously beneficial. Whereas we had spent months and months prior to that trying to funnel hundreds of hours of footage into what was at the time a two and a half or three hour rough cut, we came back after that and almost immediately cut it down to 90 minutes. At that point, I think we had a much clearer idea of what the story was, which I think had blessings and curses really. There are a few things I can say about that. One, I think, we were getting so much different feedback and it was contradictory. We were so close to it and it was so hard for us to separate ourselves from it and see it, that it was confusing at times. We were trying to please everyone and really kind of watering down the story in a sense.

Jeremy: Yeah, I was going to say something about that. It was really interesting because you get to a point where you’ve just been with this material so long that you can’t see heads from tails….. Eventually we learned we really need to make the film that we want to be making and we need to see a wider scope. What does everybody’s feedback mean? What are they actually responding to? Instead of, ‘they said change this, so we have to change this.’ Why did they say change this? What are the issues involved in that?

Landon: I think there were two things in that regard that were ultimately very useful. We did some test screenings in DocuClub in New York where we actually have a group of peers that meet weekly to look at rough cuts and works in progress. I think being able to do those kind of surveys, and saying, ‘how many people were confused about this, how many people weren’t clear about that,’ was really useful. The other thing that I was going to say about the necessity of editing it ourselves. We were actually able to put together a little bit of money at a few times. I mean I’m talking about a few hundred dollars to bring in consultants and editors who were much more accomplished, people who we would have loved to have been able to hire to edit the film. They would come in for a day, watch the cut and shift the material around. And I think once you’ve become so familiar with it and you’re used to seeing it in a certain way, it’s very hard to see it a different way. (laughs) And I think to have them come in and really sort of tear it apart and say, ‘what if you put this over here’ and ‘you need this as part of that trajectory.’ That was really ultimately extremely useful for us and didn’t end up costing us a lot of money.

Jeremy: I would just add that, we started with 300 hours of footage. We had four characters; ultimately it went down to two. I think for a lot of it, we can thank the people that advised the project with us. We brought somebody in a month or a month and a half before we were scheduled to premiere it at SilverDocs. At that point, we decided to cut our third story and just bring it down to two. We had lived four years with three stories and then suddenly it was down to two and we had to totally remake the film.

Landon: We had actually been sending the cut as it was to festivals, I mean, dozens of festivals, and were accepted to some fairly prestigious film festivals. SilverDocs, and Human Rights Watch, and a handful of others, before we decided to cut this third story. So it was a little bit nerve-wracking at the time. (laughs) But ultimately, I think it really served the film well because we had stopped editing at a point and were able to get a little bit of distance from it. It really kind of enabled us to come back at it fresh.

Jeremy: It paid off, but yeah, it was a week before we had to lock picture and suddenly we don’t have a film anymore, it’s a mess. Ultimately we got it together, but it was one of the most stressful times.

Have you learned anything from Good Fortune that you would apply in the future if faced with similar challenges of being in a different place than your characters?

Landon: If I had the budget at the time, I probably would have brought a lot more professional production staff from the states to be there and people that I could work with on a production bin. But I think by really minimizing that impact and really involving, and in a sense employing, people from the community and people that the characters were already comfortable with, we were able to get very genuine performances, so to speak, from the subjects. They were talking to their relatives, and talking to their friends, and talking to their neighbors as opposed to talking to someone from New York. Typically, our interview process would be me having breakfast or lunch with one of our translators or sound recorders saying ‘this is what we’d really like to uncover. These are the issues that I’m interested in.’ They would give me their impression of it and I’d work with them to sort of formulate a strategy. Then when we went in, I was typically shooting and not doing a lot of directing per se. We would really kind of turn it over to the translators and to the local people to really get a lot of the information out and really let these scenes play out.

How do you see yourselves? As documentary filmmakers, iournalists, advocates, artists?

Jeremy: It’s a strange field in that I think it is all of those things you mentioned. It is being an artist. It is being a journalist. It is being an advocate. It is trying to raise awareness about certain issues. I think we both got into it because we were interested in really important social issues and also in film. Documentary is just a great way to combine those. It’s a great field because each film is a new exploration of an amazing subject.

Landon: I think that’s really what’s beautiful about the field and what’s beautiful about the medium is that it enables you to not only explore cinema and visual arts and all of those storytelling things that I love, but also explore an issue and really get involved at a ground level with individual’s lives and get very close to things that are often just concepts that get spoken about in the media.

Are there any examples where these different aspects of your jobs as filmmakers were in conflict, such as having to make artistic choices that pose ethical challenges?

Landon: The whole process is in some ways sort of dumbing-down a lot of things that you know, and trying to stay true to what your story is, trying not to bog it down with information that’s not relevant to the story. And really trying to see your film as one part of a much larger campaign and think about what the social mission is that your film is one small part of. Think about how you tell your story and how it opens up that debate and opens up that dialogue, and what your intended end goals of that are. We definitely learned that the tolerance for information in a film is much lower than you would hope. (laughs)

Jeremy: I think a lot of people assume, ‘well I read this amazing book and I’m going to translate all of these complex issues into a film.’ But in a film, it’s way more about the characters and the feelings than it is about all of the statistics and information that you can get across. There’s only so much that you can really do in that 90 minutes.

It seems that you had some pretty clear advocacy and awareness goals when shooting the film.

Landon: As I’m thinking about taking on a new project, it seems, or I would hope that I’m drawn to a story or drawn to an individual or drawn to a character. In the case of Good Fortune, it really started with the issue. We really tried to boil down to that and find characters within that. This is a very different process than probably our first film or a lot of successful documentaries where you have these really great characters, but then expand that out into the issue. It’s a much different process and far more difficult to tell engaging stories, I think, when you’re working from the issue down.

There was a scene in which Silva was watching a Bruce Lee movie on TV. Did you have to clear that or were you claiming it as fair use?

Jeremy: We’re claiming it as fair use. I mean we captured it while she was living the scene. I’m a big fan of fair use and I think we all need to take advantage of the rights.

What about back to your first film or film school? What are some things you wish you had studied, learned more about, or taken a class in?

Jeremy: I’ve always thought about, I wish I had taken a class in thinking about ethics in media and documentary. We learned a lot of lessons. Even the very basic idea that the first film festival you show it at is incredibly important. We just didn’t know that because this wasn’t anything that we had been exposed to before.

Landon: I can’t speak to everyone’s college experience and I absolutely loved my film school. I spent a lot of time thinking about art and representation and a lot of the fun stuff of filmmaking I think as soon as I graduated, I realized how unprepared I was to deal with all of the logistics of actually raising money for a film, and producing a film in a professional sense. We just had absolutely no experience with festival strategy. We had no experience with grant writing. We had no experience with pitching in general. Which are extremely valuable skills and a lot of lessons that we really learned the hard way.I think we really got burnt on our first film, frankly.  I think that I can’t stress enough, as terrible as it is, interning and networking and really going to conferences are things that I really didn’t enjoy, but looking back, were incredibly valuable. I would probably say more valuable than anything that I learned in school.

Jeremy: And even producing and distribution too, I would say. When we were putting out our first film, we just had absolutely no idea what we were doing. A lesson to my college self also would be that it’s an incredibly small world, the world of social issue documentary. Networking and getting involved in the community is huge. We both got a lot of our initial work from internships that we had done. These things really do pay off. You go, you show up, and you do the best you can no matter what the job is. That’s what it takes. It wasn’t that many years ago that we were driving production vans and crashing into garbage trucks. (laughs)

Landon: I feel like I was on a certain trajectory, that I had sort of done these internships and actually found a very rare production job. I had a great entry-level job at the Sundance Channel and was working my way into doing some producing and editing for them on promos and things. But as soon as I got the chance, as soon as I had this Fulbright, I kind of dropped that dead in its tracks and went and made a film. I just can’t encourage that enough. I think it’s easy to get caught up working on other people’s projects and working on other things that you hope will lead to the position that you want, but really going out and doing it is by far the most valuable thing.

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