An Interview with Gus (Twilight of the Mississippi)
It’s been a while since we checked in on the progress of Twilight of the Mississippi, so read on to see how Gus and Walken have been advancing on their first feature-length film.
There were a few points during the editing phase when you went out and shot more footage. Do you feel that you have enough at this point?
I’ll never have enough. I reached a point where it was do or die, and it just has to get done. It’s gotta get ripped out of my hands. It has to get done this summer, that’s really important. It was more of a time thing.
Why does it have to be finished by this summer?
The trip was 2010, I think 2012 is pushing it. Any longer and it’s just– if it comes out three years after the fact, it’s too long. I need to get this done. I don’t want to sit on this for a-whole-nother year. It’s time to move on.
How has the focus of the film shifted?
It’s constantly shifting. In fact, it is still shifting. It will probably be shifting until the last edit we put on it. Y’know, you get an idea in your head, and you go out into the world and try to capture that idea. Then you come back and look at what you’ve got and then it’s matter of making what you have work. You’re kind of obliterating the idea that got you there in the first place. We made this whole movie backwards. In a narrative film you write a story, you storyboard it, then you go and get all the shots you need, and then you put it all together. We did the exact opposite way, we got all the footage on the trip. Then we had to construct a story after the fact. So, we’ve got 700 hours of footage from this trip, what story is here? There’s a million stories we could’ve told, but it was a matter of what story is most supported by the actual footage we have and not the ideas we want to get across.
It really is a chaotic process. The stories we wanted– there were a lot of great ideas that we had that are not [in] this film. We just don’t have the footage to support them. It was originally about the end of the world, it’s not about that anymore. It just isn’t. It was about resistance on the river, we were going to document that. It’s all still there, absolutely, but that’s not the heart of the story. To tell you the truth, I don’t know what the heart of the story is. It is what it is, that’s the film that we have. You just have to see it. It doesn’t fit into a synopsis very easily.
The pieces are just falling into place. That was always our intention. We were going to construct all these scenes, every scene is a piece of this puzzle, and then we were going to fit them together. Sometimes they fit together very magically, and sometimes with a lot effort. That’s exactly the process we’ve been working with.
This process of gathering footage and then figuring out what the film is about, is that a process you see yourself using again in future projects?
This is the biggest thing I’ve learned out of making this film. The next film that I work on, I will start with a story, start with a screenplay. There is inherently no way of knowing what footage you are going to get when you’re making a true documentary, because the story unfolds in front of you. That’s not what I want to do next. I would love to come back to that, I’m not done with documentaries. But the next one I make, I want to do the exact opposite. I want to make a narrative film with a lot more control, like so much control. I want to test those waters.
For this film, you’re directing, editing it, you’re in the film, you shot it, conducted the interviews– do you see yourself doing all of that in future projects?
Hell no! [Much laughter.] I’m really glad this project happened the way that it did. I was able to explore every role, inside and out, that there is in filmmaking. I know now where my strengths are and where my strengths are not. I really learned the power of why filmmaking is a team effort. I don’t believe in the rugged individualistic approach to filmmaking. I don’t think it works very well for film. It’s a collaborative art form. That’s the beauty of it, you work with other people. I do not want to do everything, I want to be a part of everything.
Do you intend to work with these same people again or are thinking that you want your next thing to be completely fresh?
Oh, nothing will be fresh. I want to keep working, to some extent, with everyone I’ve met through this whole process. I’m not done with the Mississippi river, I’m not done with any of the towns or anything. I want to keep those relationships growing not just artistically, but personally as well. I don’t want a clean break. I’m very entrenched in the world of this film and the people in this film.
Why would you want to start over from scratch every single time? If you’re working well with somebody, keep that momentum going. Find the people you know in the world that you can work with, and stick with those people. That’s not just true with filmmaking, it’s true with life. You don’t have to, every two years, move on to another community and meet a whole new group of people. Have life long friends, for sure. Have people you work with for your whole life.