Zack Winestine: The Eyes Have It
interview by Phil Hall
One of the most talented artists in today's independent cinema is Zack Winestine, who has carried the mantle of director, producer, writer and cinematographer through a variety of intriguing productions. Combining a laser-focused eye for painterly details and a sharp sense of purpose and emotion, Winestine has built an impressive body of work which demands the attention of everyone addicted to serious cinema.
A graduate from Princeton University (cum laude) with a major in religion, Winestine did not follow a career in the clergy but chose to step behind the camera. He began his career with an assignment that almost anyone would rob, steal or kill to achieve: a key job in England as assistant to the Director of Photography on Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." He followed this auspicious debut with assignments as a Camera Assistant on over 20 feature films, including "Ironweed", "Five Corners", and "Crocodile Dundee" before graduating to full-fledged work as a Director of Photography. His DP credits include independent features ("Strawberry Fields", "The Next Step", "The Rook"), over 30 music videos (for groups such as the B-52's, ZZ Top, Harry Connick Jr., and Public Enemy), documentaries, and commercials.
In between work lensing other people's films, Winestine began directing a series of remarkable 16mm short films. Among his most notable efforts were "On Some Consequences of a Passage by Guy Debord," a serene meditation framed in a POV camera which takes a completely unexpected turn as Winestine climbs the Brooklyn Bridge to obtain the right viewpoint and gets arrested by the New York Police Department, and "The Shadow Project" a 16mm documentary which records a chilling street theater experiment on the effects of nuclear war on a busy Manhattan street.
As a director, Winestine has also achieved considerable praise for his first feature film, "States of Control." A gritty and disturbing dissection of a troubled woman (Jennifer Van Dyck, in a brilliant performance) whose professional failures and emotional inertia causes her to implode into a physically and spiritually rebellious force of nature, "States of Control" has stunned festival audiences and enjoyed a well-reviewed Los Angeles theatrical release, but to date it has yet to receive a full theatrical run. If any indie film is deserving of a full-blown release, it is "States of Control."
Film Threat caught up with Winestine in his New York offices, where he is beginning work on a provocative new documentary which follows him back into police custody...this time for a timely cause.
Phil Hall: An obvious start: You had the enviable job of working with Stanley Kubrick on "The Shining." Tell us about your experiences in the creation of that film and your impressions of Kubrick as both a director and a person.
Zack Winestine: The thing that most struck me about Kubrick when I first met him was that, despite the years he had lived in England, he still spoke with a distinct Bronx accent! In many ways, he was a very unpretentious, unassuming person. Some of the myths about him were true -- he did actively control practically every detail of the production, he did work hard to isolate the routines of his life from the vicissitudes of the surrounding world. One thing I learned from the experience was that the need to control one's environment can be a two-edged sword. There are a tremendous number of things which can go disastrously wrong on a film set, and anyone who's worked on films in any capacity knows how easily good ideas can be sabotaged by insufficient planning. And one reason several of Kubrick's films stand out as brilliant works of genius was his ability to meticulously conceptualize exactly what he wanted on screen, and then work out in extraordinary detail how to execute those conceptions. On the other hand, too much control can become stifling. Accidents seem to be an essential part of the creative process, and when you eliminate the possibility of anything unexpected happening there's a danger that the results can become a bit sterile.
PH: You have a degree in religion from Princeton. How and why did you move away from the theological to the cinematic?
ZW: I never saw the two as mutually exclusive. The things I want to make films about are closely related to the things I was interested in exploring as a Religion major -- the relationship between creative and mystical experience, the ways in which such experience can provide meaning to life, the ways in which such experience can influence social and political movements.
PH: Your short "On Some Consequences of a Passage by Guy Debord" has the most incredible happening with your being arrested while the film was being shot. What was it like to be arrested and would you go through that experience again?
ZW: Hmmm. Funny you should ask. When I made "Consequences", I had no intention of getting arrested. I was inspired by the Situationists' determination to find ways of using the urban landscape to "discover new passions," and I decided to document an attempt of my own to find new ways of relating to the structures of New York City. I had carefully organized things so that I would be as inconspicuous as possible, and I naively thought that I would escape attention. But then, in the middle of filming, I suddenly realized that my actions had led to the total shut down of the Brooklyn Bridge.
My first reaction was, "Oh shit." I was really embarrassed that what I had intended as a very private experiment instead turned into some sort of public spectacle. Then I kind of accepted that whatever happened was going to be part of the experiment. I had never been handcuffed before, and it's amazing how completely powerless you feel when your hands are immobilized behind your back, and how quickly you are transformed from a free individual into a totally controlled object. I was also very aware that my appearance (white, middle-class, intellectual-looking) was giving me a degree of protection which other people might not be so fortunate to enjoy. Anyway, although the police who arrested me were pretty pissed off, the cops back at the precinct house seemed sort of amused by the whole thing and spent half an hour debating what would be the minimal counts they could charge me with. I ended up with "Criminal Trespass" and "Disorderly Conduct". Both charges were eventually dismissed.
That was it for my extra-legal activities, until last April, when I took part in the Washington, DC protests against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This time, I fully planned to be arrested; it seemed to me that doing non-violent civil disobedience was the strongest statement I could make against the profoundly undemocratic way these institutions make decisions which effect the everyday lives of so many people around the world. I was quite torn about whether or not to bring a camera. I wanted to participate, not to record. And I was very unhappy about the way in which media (and particularly video) coverage tends take over an event, so that the entire purpose of an event becomes the creation of a media image. Anyway, I eventually decided to borrow a video camera from a friend and bring it along in my bag. My thought was that if something happened directly in front of me which might be interesting to film then I would pull out the camera, but I wouldn't worry about running around trying to get good shots, and I wouldn't concern myself with anything which wasn't happening directly around me. As it turned out, a lot of interesting stuff did happen right around me. I ended up spending five days in the DC Central Penitentiary, an experience that was both more educational, terrifying, and inspiring than I had ever expected.
I've now finished a rough-cut of a documentary which I hope will give a sense of one person's experience of the protests, what it was like to be in a particular moment and place when some unusual possibilities were present. Call it another installment in the 'Zack Gets Arrested' series! Of course, I wasn't able to film anything which happened after our arrest -- I had passed the camera off to a friend for safekeeping. I think that the end of the film will be my narrating what a US Marshall told us as he entered the bus on which, after our arrest, we were being held in handcuffs: "I will kick your ass and there are no video cameras here to record it."
PH: "The Shadow Project" is an invigorating piece of guerrilla cinema. Tell us about the shooting of this film and how the performers and the sidewalk bystanders reacted to this unlikely film production cropping up in the middle of a typical day.
ZW: "The Shadow Project" was a documentary which I made with Joanne Pawlowski about an anti-nuclear environmental art project -- teams of volunteers worked all night painting shadows throughout the financial district, shadows which were supposed to bring to mind the shadows which were left when human beings were vaporized at Hiroshima. We were working closely with the people who organized the event, so the painters were totally cool about our presence. Things were a bit more difficult the next morning. This was a tiny production -- a 15 minute 16mm sync sound documentary which we made for under $4000, including master positive, dupe neg, and several prints! Joanne and I were the entire crew (a friend was good enough to help out for a few hours, but she had to go to work the next morning and left around 2AM), and we had spent the entire previous day picking up the equipment, the entire night shooting the artists, and now had to somehow keep up our energy to shoot perhaps the most important part of the film, which was the reactions of people as they walked through the district on their way to work.
The plan had been that posters would be put up to inform people about the project, and give them some idea what the shadows meant. Either not enough posters went up or they weren't sufficiently visible, but the truth is no one we talked to had a clue as to what the shadows were. We ended up having to be much more confrontational then we had planned to be, demanding that people tell us their thoughts and opinions about the bombing of Hiroshima. That's one of the interesting things about running around with a camera -- you can be more direct with people, go up to perfect strangers and ask them all sorts of searching questions which you would never dare ask them in other circumstances.
PH: You've been behind the camera on many music videos. What challenges exist in capturing a musical performance on film?
ZW: From a technical point of view, the challenge is pretty straightforward. When setting up to shoot the performance parts, I may spend a fair amount of time on the initial set-up, but I want to create a situation in which, once we start shooting, we can continue to shoot without significant interruption. Once the band gets going, you don't want to have to make them stop...you want to build on their energy and keep the momentum going. That means designing lighting setups which can work well (with some slight tweaking) from a variety of different angles, and which allow you punch in and get great close-ups with a minimum of reworking.
PH: You were also behind the camera on two features which were, for the most part, severely barbecued by the critics: "The Rook" and "The Next Step." When you first received these assignments, did you realize the films were going to turn out wobbly? And if so, how do you keep a sense of focus and purpose while working on films which show no signs of turning into works of art?
ZW: Well, I'm not sure that 'barbecued' is entirely fair! "The Next Step" received a rave review from Stephen Holden in the New York Times -- maybe the most positive review of his I've ever seen -- and "The Rook" got very positive reviews when it opened in LA. The truth is, I've turned down an awful lot of projects because I just couldn't find anything positive in them. But there are damn few masterpieces floating around out there waiting to be made, and there are many reasons I might decide to work on a project -- maybe I like the director and want to keep open the possibility of working on a future project with him or her, or perhaps despite other weaknesses the project has strong visual possibilities. "The Rook" is a good example -- whatever the weaknesses of the story (and the dialogue is actually very sharp), it was clear as soon as I met the director that he had a truly unique visual sense, and that film would offer extraordinary visual opportunities for a low-budget feature. I'm very proud of visual atmosphere which we (myself, director Eran Palatnik and production designer Sebastian Schroder) created on that film.
PH: What is the story behind "States of Control"? What kind of timeframe and challenges were involved from the inception of the story through the conclusion of post-production?
ZW: "States of Control" focuses on a woman determined to break through the sterility of modern life. Locked in a dead marriage and unsure of her talent as a writer, Lisa yearns for a powerful disruption of her controlled Manhattan existence. She turns to the friendship of an older man, a theater director who espouses a seductive political nihilism. Inspired, she starts testing the limits of her will and her desires: she explores pornography, forces herself to go for days without sleep, and engages in escalating acts of everyday rebellion. As her husband and friends fall away, Lisa takes an explosive action to transform her life. Isolating herself from society, she risks everything to fulfill her desire for final release.
The genesis for the story was a question I asked myself many years ago: What would happen if a person decided to follow her ideals to their logical conclusions, and absolutely refused to make any compromises applying them to her life? I grew up in the sixties, and had long been disturbed and fascinated by what happened to the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and its evolution into the underground Weathermen organization. Even at the time (and I was very young), I sensed that despite the political rhetoric what was really at stake for certain individuals was not just a desire to change the world but also a need to transform themselves, to obliterate their identity and create an entirely new personality. Also, I had long been interested in the origins of Fascism in Europe, and I was struck that certain intellectuals were drawn towards these extraordinarily destructive movements because they represented in part an attempt to organize everyday life and society around the pursuit of certain kinds of experiences which in another context might be considered mystical or spiritual. So God knows I had enough ideas floating around that I wanted to work with!
The production went amazingly smoothly for a low-budget indie, in part because I was able to call in all the favors I had accumulated in 15 years of working as a Camera Assistant, and then a Director of Photography. And I was extremely privileged to be able to work with a truly fine cast and crew. The biggest challenge was probably the subway scene, which comes near the end of the film. It wasn't essential to the narrative, and of course getting permission to shoot on the NYC subways is very difficult because of high insurance requirements. There was a lot of pressure to drop the scene, but I had a sense that it was essential to the tone of the ending, in a way it's an emotional high-point that absolutely nails the emotional state which Lisa is in at the end of the film. As a DP, I had stolen scenes on the subway before and I was convinced we could do it. In the event, we were just able to get the scene but it was much closer than I had anticipated. As we were preparing to do a second take on Jennifer, the train rolled into a station and two transit cops strolled into our car! We threw a coat over the camera and tried to look inconspicuous, and bailed out at the next stop. It was worth it; that scene always gets a really strong reaction from the audience.
PH: Although you've done excellent work as a cinematographer, you were not the DP on "States of Control." Why did you give the cinematography assignment on "States of Control" to Susan Starr?
ZW: Directing and shooting are two very different jobs, and I find it impossible to do both of them well simultaneously (except on some documentary projects, but that's a different story). They both require different ways of thinking, and different priorities. As a director, I had to teach myself to be more confrontational than I am as a DP. And there is an element of cheerleading when you are directing, you have to infuse everyone on the set with your enthusiasm for the scene, communicate a sense of excitement about what everyone is working together to achieve. Much of shooting is problem solving, methodically figuring out the best way to create a certain visual atmosphere. Directing is sometimes a bit more intuitive, trying to catch an emotion, trying to respond to the actors' feelings on the set. I don't want to make too much of this distinction, but the few times I've tried to shoot and direct, I've felt very clearly that I had to pick one role and stick to it, short-changing the other. And finally, both are full time jobs! When I'm shooting, I'm working at 110 percent of my capacity for 12-16 hours straight. There's simply no time or mental energy left over for the not-so-minor task of directing!
The decision to work with Susan was an easy one. We both came up together as camera assistants, we had known each other for a long time, and I had tremendous respect for her judgment, ability, and dedication. And the quality of her work on the film speaks for itself.
PH: "States of Control" offers an intense and grueling emotional transformation for Jennifer Van Dyck's character. How did you prep Ms. Van Dyck for this very demanding role?
ZW: It was clear from her very first audition that Jennifer had 'got' the character, that something had clicked for her. And it was equally clear that she possessed immense intelligence, skill, and subtlety. I spent a week with her before production started basically giving her information, giving her background about some of the historical figures that had inspired the creation of Lisa. I asked her to read some things from Kirkpatrick Sale's history of the Students for a Democratic Society, and also a few chapters from George Mosse's brilliant book about the relationship between the avant-garde and European Fascism in the 1920's, "Masses and Man." I told her my thoughts about Lisa's background and history prior to the events at the start of the film. And we went over the script, talking through the various different emotional reactions which Lisa might have to the situations in which she found herself. My main goal was to present Jennifer with options, give her interesting choices, and then let her put it all together. Which she did brilliantly.
Jennifer's abilities never ceased to surprise me. Near the end of the film, there's a sequence which required her to run through Times Square. I'd shot athletically demanding scenes before; even fit actors usually can only give three or four takes before their fatigue starts showing up on screen. I was prepared for this to happen, and determined to get the running scene in one or two takes. On the first take, Jennifer took off so fast the van we were shooting from couldn't keep up with her. One of our PA's managed to flag her down several blocks away. When we caught up with her, I asked her to slow down a bit for the next take and said something about not wanting to tire her out. She seemed unconcerned. We shot several more takes, still no sign of effort on her part. I started thinking up all sorts of extra shots to build up the scene, and we kept shooting till we ran out of time. At the end of the night, Jennifer casually mentioned that she happened to be a marathoner and ran seven miles every day!
PH: What's next on your professional horizon?
ZW: Completing the Washington documentary (and there may also be an international installment in the 'Zack gets arrested' series in the not-too-distant future), working on a new script for a feature I would like to direct next year, and possibly DP'ing a feature this winter.
BOXOFFICE MAGAZINE review of States of Control
filmcritic.com review of States of Control
DVD Verdict review of States of Control
ARTS TODAY (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) interview with Zack Winestine
FILM THREAT interview with Zack Winestine
FILM FORECAST interview with Zack Winestine
PRINCETON Magazine review of States of Control
INTERNATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER article about States of Control
WIRED Magazine review of States of Control
FILMRUTAN (Sweden) Ron Holloway's review of States of Control at the Mannheim International Film Festival