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Backstage Pass: New Docs Profile a Pair of Theatrical Icons

By Tamara Krinsky

From Robert Wilson's 1970s theater work 'Deafman Glance.'

One of the most difficult challenges in making documentaries about the theater is the elusive nature of the creative process. Inspiration strikes in the private regions of the imagination, manifesting itself through an ephemeral, live experience. If you're not lucky enough to be sitting in the audience, you miss it.

It is precisely for this reason that directors Katharina Otto-Bernstein and Freida Lee Mock thought it important to make films about two of today's most significant theater artists. Robert Wilson and Tony Kushner have each produced a body of work with a distinct aesthetic, winning multiple kudos along the way. Otto-Bernstein and Mock wanted to use the power of film to introduce their work to a wider audience than that often allowed by the theater. 

Robert Wilson, the avant-garde master of long-form, large scale, starkly visual pieces whose life is explored in Otto-Bernstein's Absolute Wilson, is perhaps best known in this country for Einstein on the Beach and the more recent The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets. His work is produced far more often outside the United States, and he has directed theater and opera everywhere from Berlin to Iran to Sydney. His collaborators have included Philip Glass, Susan Sontag, David Byrne, Lou Reed, William Burroughs and Tom Waits, among others.

Mock's Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner explores the different facets of the author of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Homebody/Kabul and Caroline, or Change, among others. A master wordsmith, Kushner crafts dense plays filled with fantastical imagery and complex characters. His works are often controversial, fed by his activism, political beliefs and concerns with morality. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.

Both directors began filming with a plan as to how they wanted to structure their documentaries. Says Otto-Bernstein, "Before I even knew how to fill the film, I had a concept of how I would cut it, which was very different than how I normally work. Usually I do much more cinema vérité, but you couldn't do that with Wilson because he always travels. He'll go from Paris to Tokyo, from Tokyo to Los Angeles, and then from LA to Copenhagen. You couldn't afford to follow him."

Otto-Bernstein employs a traditional structure for the piece, utilizing a combination of interview and archival footage and photographs. She says that because Wilson is such an abstract figure, she wanted to give the film a more classical feeling. She jokes, "You start off wanting to make a rather unconventional piece, but the only way to bring Wilson closer to an audience was to really show his topsy-turvy, fantastic life in a way they could understand. If two people are abstract and unconventional, then you just have a mess!"

Mock usually has an idea of how she wants to begin and end her pieces before she starts shooting. With Wrestling, she knew she wanted to begin with a commencement address. She first became interested in the playwright when she heard him give a brilliant, funny, potent one-minute speech at a graduation ceremony. She explains, "At the time I thought, ‘I may not know a lot about Mr. Kushner, but I thought if I could captivate my audience for the film the way I myself was swept away by hearing him speak for only one minute, I might just maintain their attention!' "

When Mock first talked with Kushner about doing a film about him, he jokingly said, "But I don't do anything. I sit and write." To give the film a dynamic feel, Mock planned to use the different aspects of Kushner's life, such as his community involvement, work with students, identification with Judaism and social activism, as the building blocks with which to tell his story. She suspected that she would end the film with the 2004 US Presidential election; however, she was not sure of this until she was on the phone with Kushner when he decided that he needed to go to Florida to help voters.

"Things happen along the way," says Mock. "As a documentarian, you want to be awake to all those possibilities. Other wonderful moments that weren't originally planned when we started the film were Tony's marriage to [his partner] Mark, and his father's 80th birthday. These were personal moments which normally wouldn't be open to an outsider, but I gained his trust along the way. As you figure out how to get to the heart of a story without being too intrusive, these are the kinds of things you have to navigate."

Otto-Bernstein had to work hard to gain the rather reclusive Wilson's trust. While seemingly a very open person, Wilson was actually quite reluctant to talk about himself. She interviewed him over the course of several years whenever he returned to the US. During the first several meetings, certain subjects were taboo, such as his homosexuality and his production of the CIVIL WarS: A Tree is Best Measured When It Is Down, a multi-national epic commissioned for the 1984 Olympics whose funding was halted mid-process by the Olympic Committee. Otto-Bernstein says that Wilson had been interviewed so many times about his work that he had developed formulaic answers to most of her questions. She knew she needed to break through to the personal side of the man for the film to work, and was almost ready to walk away from the project when it seemed as if this wasn't going to happen.

Finally, in Otto-Bernstein's words, "There was this famous one night" when Wilson agreed to come over and "get personal." His one stipulation was that it was just to be himself and Otto-Bernstein--no crew. Recalls the filmmaker, "I thought ‘Oh God, I don't think I've set a light since film school! If a bulb burns out then I'm screwed. This is the end of it.'" Wilson said he would be there at eight; he showed up at 11 p.m. and asked Otto-Bernstein to make him dinner. After she did, he then kept his part of the bargain, opening up about what it was like growing up in Waco, Texas; his troubles with his family; his experience with a childhood speech disability; and his sexuality.

Learning about Wilson's and Kushner's early lives was a key element in figuring out how to meet the challenge of visually documenting a largely invisible process. Otto-Bernstein and Mock each find ways in their films to cinematically illustrate the connections between their subjects' upbringings and the effects it had on their work. The filmmakers did extensive research on Wilson and Kushner, and were able to find moments in the men's productions that clearly mirrored themes and images from their childhoods.

Otto-Bernstein was able to make use of Wilson's extensive archive of family photographs. "There are recurring symbols in Wilson's work," she notes. "You always have the lonely child, the figure of the idiot or the marginal person on the fringe of society, the cold mother sitting on a chair and the father who doesn't understand the family." She juxtaposes the photos that inspired these motifs with rehearsal and performance footage, giving the audience member a sense what's going on in Wilson's mind.

Similarly, once Mock began delving into Kushner's body of work, it was obvious where his inspirations had their source. "He didn't per se say where each moment in his plays specifically came from," she notes. "But once you begin to know about the family and start deconstructing, you could just tell. The influences on an artist are personal--we all have those moments--and it was interesting to see the cause and effect." For example, in the film Kushner describes his coming-out process to his parents. This voiceover is laid over with footage from Angels in America, where the gay Mormon character Joe Pitt calls his mom from a payphone and says, "Mom, I'm a homosexual," much like Kushner did when he came out. The reward for the audience is a sense of the creative journey of the playwright.

Both Otto-Bernstein and Mock agree that film cannot substitute for seeing a live theater piece, but they are each hopeful that their documentaries will lead to a greater understanding of the artists they've chosen to profile. Otto-Bernstein's film is a rare glimpse into the private life and a history of a larger-than-life figure. "There are so many moods to Robert," she explains. "You see how he can come off as warm, generous, kind, eccentric, impatient, distant, manic and brilliant--sometimes all at the same time. He is a living contradiction and part of understanding who he is is to look at those contradictions."

Says Mock of Kushner, "A lot of people know about the work but may not realize the character of the person who's creating it. Kushner is extremely funny--that's what I discovered--and film can capture the essence of his character. It gives you the opportunity to see the core essence of an artist."

Wrestling with Angels had its world premiere at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. The film is being released theatrically by Balcony Releasing in US theaters this fall, with an initial date scheduled for October 4 in New York. Absolute Wilson premiered at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival and is being distributed in the US by New Yorker Films. It opens in New York City on October 27 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, followed by a broadcast on HBO currently scheduled for next summer.


Tamara Krinsky is the associate editor of Documentary and a classically trained actress.