"88 Miles to Moscow" aired as part of the 2013 edition of "Fine Cut." A summary: 15-year-old Niki tells her very curious mom about a trip she just took with her ex-con dad, but somehow fails to mention missing the train and having to find her way back with the help of a young Russian garbage man.
Here, we speak with Karen Glienke, the director of "88 Miles to Moscow," about directing fiction versus documentary, the lessons she learned as a secondary school teacher, and what she learned from Mike Leigh.
You've made both narrative and documentary films. How do the two processes compare from a filmmaking perspective?
My first film was a documentary, and the process of uncovering these human stories felt very natural to me. I fell in love with the process of connecting with the subjects, inviting and enabling them to tell their stories in as honest a way as possible, and then finding the visuals that would most powerfully convey the emotions that fueled the stories. I also loved the adventure of going out into the field, and the way the stories would evolve in surprising and unplanned ways. The documentary process is about placing yourself in an environment where the story lives and grows -- or sometimes just following a gut feeling that something worth capturing will happen in a certain place and time -- and catching images, sounds and content that further the story... but also vital is an absolute willingness to NOT control the story, to not interfere. Of course, as the director your imprint is on the story as it is always your lens, and the story is told according to the choices you make -- but reality will unfold as it does. You can give it an angle, but you can't write it and don't know what the outcome is until it plays out.
So the obvious difference between narrative and documentary filmmaking regards the issue of control. Most of my narrative films begin with a script that tells a story from beginning to end. While in both styles of storytelling, as director I influence the look and tone of the story, with narrative I know where the film is going and I am often doing everything I can to control all the filmmaking elements in order to tell that specific story. With documentary I can influence, but my control is severely, by the very nature of the art form, limited.
While the differences are significant, my narrative filmmaking has always been informed and inspired by the reality and humanity of documentary -- particularly 88 Miles to Moscow. While I always aim for performances that feel as true and organic as possible, I took things a step further in this film with the extensive improvisation I conducted with the actors. While we were guided by the story, I gave my actors the freedom and space to really inhabit their characters and find the truth in the moments. If anything didn't feel natural and true, I instructed them to follow their instincts and take things in a new direction. I wanted these fictional characters, their actions, and their choices to feel as real as the human characters in a documentary.
So there's quite a continuum in terms of the control the director can exert on a project vs. being open to letting things take shape as they will, letting things evolve according to the idiosyncrasies and surprises and energy flow that plays out during the course of production.
In addition to holding many roles in the filmmaking community, you also worked as a secondary school teacher. Are there elements you learned during this time that have helped you behind the camera?
While in many ways filmmaking and teaching 7th grade seem worlds apart, I have absolutely applied some of my hard-earned skills and wisdom to filmmaking. At the heart of both endeavors is the human element -- working with people, finding and encouraging skills and talents and being very strategic in applying them towards a higher goal. As a teacher, success in the classroom was often dependent on my ability to communicate clearly and to instill in the students a belief and confidence in myself as their leader on our daily journeys. The lesson plan bears some similarities to the shot lists for a day on the set, in that it sets out a structure and goals to your day -- but as I learned in the classroom, you have to be constantly open to altering your route according to the quirks and unexpected events of the day, always taking what reality throws at you, improvising and altering so that at the end of the day, you have hopefully achieved the most and best that was possible -- and if you're lucky, you optimized the moments and even found something beautiful.
In the classroom, I also had to master the art of wearing many hats, often simultaneously -- instructor, organizer, diplomat, artist, parent, friend, judge, creative consultant -- the list goes on. This is a skill that has definitely transferred over to filmmaking, where through the course of making a film (the kind of low budget, independent films I've done), you fill so many different roles, it's often dumbfounding -- story visionary, writer, producer, casting director, scheduler, location scout, salesperson, personality manager, manipulator, consoler of parents, budget analyst, time management guru, costumer, production designer, makeup/hair artist, shopper, shot lister, storyboard artist, personnel manager, craft services provider, damage control genius, check writer, post production overseer, editor, graphic artist, promoter, and oh yeah... the person who says "action!": the director!
You recently completed your MFA in Film Directing & Production program at UCLA. What was your greatest learning experience while studying there?
My time at UCLA was truly amazing for the breadth of the education and experience I gained while there. But I'd have to say the greatest learning experience was sort of a cumulative one acquired over time -- which is about artistic vision and artistic process, about following your heart to tell the story you want to and need to tell. It's about learning to hold onto your vision while also listening to all of the voices around you offering feedback, help, and suggestions. In other words, learning the art of collaboration in regards to YOUR story -- listening, choosing what to take and what to leave in the process of incorporating the contributions of others into your artistic vision. In other words, I would say that the single most important thing is learning to follow your instincts as an artist and filmmaker with a vision that is uniquely your own (and without which quite frankly you have nothing to say) while utilizing all of the talent and mechanics necessary in the course of pre/production/post, towards the aim of realizing your story for the screen.
Who do you consider some of your greatest artistic inspirations?
Some of my most profound artistic inspirations include directors Mike Leigh, the Maysles brothers, Roman Polanski, Agnes Varda, Woody Allen, Jane Campion, Fellini, David O. Russell, Charlie Kaufman, John Sayles. Other artists: Tom Waits, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway, David Sedaris, Mary Karr, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Milan Kundera.
A note about Mike Leigh, who at present I would consider my #1 greatest artistic inspiration: The process I used in thesis film, 88 Miles to Moscow, was very much inspired by the methods of Mike Leigh. While I had a blueprint for the story, I focused on casting the best possible actors to build and embody the characters, and then conducting extensive sessions of improvisation where the details of character and story were derived. Significantly, in most cases the actors were not allowed to know things about the story that their character would not actually know. The process was liberating, creatively inspiring, and fun as hell.
What's next for you?
At present, in addition to promoting and hitting the film festival circuit with 88 MIles to Moscow, I'm working on a feature script inspired by the day when, in a rather desperate situation, my cell phone died and I realized the only numbers I know from memory are those of my childhood home and first childhood friend. Throw in an eccentric conspiracy junkie, a compulsive gambler with a broken heart, a single mom anthropologist who's making a study of these characters while sorting out her own demons, a road trip, and a ticking clock. I'm aspiring for that mix of intriguing/passionate/funny characters and events that I love, with a spine of realism. Hopefully it's something that could be my next filmmaking project. I'm also exploring some documentary themes, as there's nothing like just being able to go out on your own with a camera and find a story.