A Conversation with AJ Schnack about 'Field of Vision'
By Tom White
Field of Vision, a new platform for short-form and episodic documentary, launches September 29, in collaboration with The Intercept and parent company First Look Media. Field of Vision will commission up to 50 original nonfiction works a year, pairing filmmakers with developing stories around the world.
The visionaries behind Field of Vision—Academy Award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, Cinema Eye Honors co-founder and filmmaker AJ Schnack, and former Hot Docs director of programming Charlotte Cook—had spent the last year developing and honing the idea, building the infrastructure, and commissioning new work for the inaugural season, which runs through November.
The guiding light here is visual journalism infused with cinematic artistry, the idea being to respond to stories, issues and ideas not only quickly but with creative verve. Among the filmmakers slated for the first two season: Kirsten Johnson, Heloisa Passos, Michael Moore, Shola Lynch, Yung Chang, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, Beau Willimon, Jarred Alterman, Jill Magid, Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega. The first two films of the season are Iva Radivojevic's Notes from the Border, about the refugee crisis in Europe, and Dustin Guy Defa's God Is an Artist, about art and rebellion in Detroit following the arrest of artist Shepard Fairey for vandalism.
The Field of Vision team presented all of Season One at the New York Film Festival Sunday night, including Poitras' Asylum, an episodic series about WikiLeaks founder Julian Asange. We caught up with AJ Schnack as he was prepping the highly anticipated premiere.
In the press release and other materials about Field of Vision, what struck me most was that the three of you cited World in Action and Life magazine as two inspirations for this new platform. They each have a long, distinguished history in journalism, dating back, in the case of Life magazine, to the early 20th century. Talk a little more about how these two entities served as guidelines for you.
Aspirationally, we wanted to look toward things that had really used visual imagery and cinematic imagery to tell stories that were happening right now. One of the great things that still photographers in Life magazine did and continue to do, is they can capture a moment that is a different way of looking at a story that's unfolding that can completely change your perception just because of the way they approach how they train their lens on a subject. In both cases it's reflective of our belief in what documentary-making can do, especially as we're tackling things that are happening quickly and immediately. But how do we approach it differently than, say, a cable news report, or a network news report or something that takes a longer period of time? Aspirationally, World in Action and Life magazine are important places for us to look at people who did it with such high standards.
You also cited in a couple of interviews that you once headed a music video company. What was it about that process that served you in launching this new endeavor?
It was a little different in that we had a team of filmmakers who worked with our company, but Field of Vision is not going to have an in-house team of filmmakers who we'll just keep circulating among various projects. The really enjoyable part of [the music video company] for me was the collaborative nature and the quick turnaround of those projects. You'd get a call on a Monday saying, We need to shoot in two weeks; send us a concept. You'd know whether you'd have the job hopefully within a week or a week and a half. You'd shoot a week later, for a couple of days, then you'd edit for a couple weeks, then it would go out. It would be on MTV, or it wouldn't. I think that—especially in the documentary world, where you can often spend years and years on a single story—the idea that there might be these quick turnaround projects, not just for us to collaborate on but also for filmmakers...It's exciting to get into that world again.
Given this kind of responsive work, one crucial aspect to documentary-making is gaining the trust of your subjects and gaining access, which in itself could take a long time, but in so doing you achieve that kind of intimacy that really deepens your story. How do you reconcile that concern with your mission to get work out there in the spirit of good journalism and good cinematic artistry?
We're not seeking to replace what people do so well in deep-dive, long-form, long-duration work; it's a crucial part of what makes documentary so special. The reality, though, is that documentary is many things, many different kinds of filmmaking work that fall under this broad topic that we use. I think it's the ability of people to take an approach that is fast-responding to an individual's story or a different look at a story that might be in the news, but coming at it from a different perspective.
I'll give you an example of a film we're showing tonight that Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher did. They made a film about the town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and a religious freedom battle that was going on there earlier this year. We thought about doing a story about the discussion of the Religious Freedom Act in Indiana, and about the pizza owner who wouldn't make a pizza for a gay wedding. We didn't want just to send someone to that pizza place and do the same story that everyone else was doing, but we thought, What is happening in the world where we can talk about this, either directly or indirectly, but it's a story that's in this world and in this topic? So we sent [Michael and Donal] to Eureka Springs, where this local ordinance protecting LGBT rights was going to go up for special election about whether it was going to be repealed or not. And that's a story they came [away with]. They met some very interesting people; I think they're indelible characters in their own way. [Michael and Donald] were able to do it in a shorter turnaround then someone going there and spending a year in the location would do. So you can have it both ways, and I'm excited to see what filmmakers are going to come up with.
I wanted to talk about the upcoming season, which launches Tuesday and runs through November. I know that Laura first approached you about this idea in April 2014, then the two of you approached Charlotte six months later, then the three of you started the curatorial process last May. This is your test run in how this is going to work. Did you come up with a wish list of filmmakers and a wish list of stories you wanted to pursue and then match them up? How did that work?
We just made a list of people we'd be really interested in working with. We also knew that, at least for the first batch, we were probably going to reach out to people who we had at least a passing knowledge of their work, or maybe had somewhat of a connection, to because we were going to ask them to be the guinea pigs to go through the process for the first time; we were setting up the structure as well as assigning films. And we were paying attention to what was happening in the world, whether it was in the news, or an article we were interested in or just talking generally about things. We would then toss ideas around, then we started pairing up the ideas with some of the filmmakers we were interested in starting with.
Once you contacted the filmmakers and told them about this, what kind of timeline did you establish with them? What were the guidelines?
Everyone had a different schedule. Some things were tied to a specific date where something was happening; some things were based around people doing other work, and the events in the films weren't specifically timely to a specific event. So we just started commissioning and talking to people in May and June and told them all we were going to need rough cuts by August, and then we would probably want to start showing things in the fall. That was a general timeframe, and then as we knew about the New York Film Festival, that general timeframe became a lot more specific.
Once they got their rough cuts to you, how did the three of you work with the filmmakers?
We did phone calls with most people on the first rough cuts and just had a general discussion of what we thought of the film, then on the second rough cuts, we gave more specific notes that came from all three of us.
What about the fact-checking process? I know the New York Times Op Docs process is very rigorous. How does that work with Field of Vision?
Our fact-checking and copyediting and legal process goes through First Look Media, which also is the parent company of The Intercept. We work with them on everything, getting a bunch of eyes on it before we publish.
Now that you have this first season under your belt, what were some of the key challenges in developing it? What kind of adjustments are you making going forward in fielding more work and viewing more work?
The challenges were just about that we were building something new. First Look was getting a new video player, and they did a redesign of their site. It was a challenge because we had to build all the scaffolding and everything around it, coming up with a filmmaker agreement that we wanted to be incredibly friendly and supportive of filmmakers. That was all stuff that we built alongside doing the films. To a certain extent, we have a lot of that done, but there's still more of that to build. So I think that the focus right now is commissioning more work and getting those other things in place. I think that generally, we're incredibly proud of the films that we're going to show tonight. I think they represent a breadth of topic and filmmaking style that to me, both as a filmmaker and a film watcher, I'm incredibly excited about.
As you move forward to the next season and with a target of 50 short and episodic works a year, is it going to be a similar process in that you initiate the calls with the filmmakers that you want to work with, or are you going to be fielding pitches? Is it going to be a mix of assignments from you and pitches from the field?
Yes, it will be a mix. We'll still be assigning things that we want to see done—pairing events or people with filmmakers—but we're starting the process now. Obviously the first work that we were doing, because it wasn't public, was all commissions, and I think we'll start now to do more things where people come to us with ideas both for single, individual one-offs and also for multi-part episodic works.
In dividing up the responsibilities among the three of you, in the programming of the first season, what were your respective roles? How did that fall into place?
I don't think we have a delineated thing yet where one of us does one thing or one of us does the other. I think there's some aspect of the fact that Charlotte is in the office every day, and is really looking for new filmmakers and understanding the field in the way that she did when she was at Hot Docs. She'll certainly be going to festivals and looking for new and exciting work and people we'd like to work with. I think Laura and I will continue to come up with ideas and the kind of assignments that we'd like to do. All three of us have done each piece of it. It's been kind of a lovely troika so far.
With you and Laura being filmmakers, you'll obviously be pulled into your own projects that may or may not be for Field of Vision. How are you going to sustain that?
We sort of built in from the beginning, when Laura and I were talking about it, that we were going to continue to do our own work, that we were not exclusive to this entity. That said, I think we're incredibly excited about the entity, and obviously Laura has already created something for it. What we've done is to set up a separate system outside of ourselves so that if we want to do something and we think that it's right for Field of Vision, it actually has to be signed off on by other people within First Look. This is not a project to commission our own work.
We're incredibly excited about it. I think you'll see occasionally that we'll do something for this project and you'll see us continue to do other work. Six months into this now, that's been the case so far and it seems to be working. I think it's important for Laura and I to continue to make films because this has always been thought of as a filmmaker-driven project. I think the second we would forget about that element would be when we were losing sight of one of the reasons why we wanted to do it in the first place.
And just logistically, Laura's homebase will be Berlin, and yours in Los Angeles, and Charlotte in New York?
Laura's actually in New York; I'm going to be in Los Angeles but I'll be in New York a lot more often than I normally would have been. Laura and Charlotte will both be in New York City.
I cited New York Times Op Docs before, and a lot of folks have been referencing that in talking about Field of Vision and I know there is a distinction. There are other players in from the journalism field that are ramping up their online video presence, like AJ+, Time Inc., and Conde Nast and all of its respective magazines. What are the primary means that you're distinguishing your selves among these other endeavors?
First of all, it's great that all of these things are happening, and I would love for them to be as active as I hope that we will be. For every announcement that is made about a new entity, I always am excited when the work actually appears. I think that if all of these places that you're talking about, and others that we might hear about in the future, are out there making work and commissioning filmmakers and giving them the budgets that they need to actually make the work and sustain themselves during the process—not just assume that the work itself is somehow the reward or the pay—that would be an incredibly exciting thing for filmmakers. We went through such a period of time when a lot of the opportunities that we had from broadcasters or from a foundation, it seemed like some of that money was becoming less and it was more restrictive. So the idea that there are a lot of opportunities for work to be done even just for a month, I think that would be fantastic. So it's not so important for us to distinguish ourselves. We just are going to be doing things in the way that we want to do them. We have a commissioning budget that we can actually pay people to make films and we are excited about doing episodic, which I think others are not talking about as much. We just hope to do great work and work with great people, and I would assume that all the other places you mentioned feel the same.
I wanted to ask about collaborations and getting the work out there. In other interviews you've cited film festivals and of course the Field of Vision website. Are you thinking of showcasing this work in collaboration with other entities, say POV or Storyville?
We're already starting to talk with various partners, and we really want to do the right thing for each film. For some of those films, the right thing might be to get them up quickly on the Field of Vision website. For some films it will be working with a partner, and maybe they will screen the film first and we will get it at a later time, or maybe it's just something that we produce and someone else distributes. And I think we're just going to take it on a case-by-case basis.
To watch the films, visit theintercept.com/fieldofvision.
Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.