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Low Budget Legends

13Bit Interview With Manny Kirchheimer Part 1


We recently had the good fortune to visit with Manny Kirchheimer, filmmaking legend as well as low budget legend.

Manny is best known for his groundbreaking work in “Stations of the Elevated,” as well as “We Were So Beloved.”

Legendary editor, director, teacher and mentor to many filmmakers, Manny was gracious to recently talk to us about filmmaking, life and, of course, the philosophy of low-budget filmmaking. We at 13BIT are not afraid to say that we love Manny for his philosophy and his artistic integrity.

Enjoy!

MANNY K:

So we were talking about film versus —

13BIT:

Film versus video.

MANNY K:

Versus video. And, yes, I always worked in film up to my last two films, on the one I’m working on now, and the one just before. And it’s added years go my life, just as has the Final Cut Pro. But, these digital editing systems, I mean, the film before the last one which was about the history of the skyscraper and Louis Sullivan, I cut on a Movieola. I’ll show it to you later. It’s in the other room. You know, I cut everything on a Movieola. But, I don’t see any big deal difference between film and video, I really don’t.

13BIT:

You were saying that you would much prefer to have seen your last movie on HD rather than transferred to film.

MANNY K:

Well, no. Projected?

13BIT:

Projected.

MANNY K:

Projected. It was recently shown and they used the film. After a while, the film was transferred to HD and then it was de-flecked so that it’s pristine. Colors are magnificent. The timing is better than it was on the film, more even. And it would have made for a better projection. When you have — what I’ve found is that when you have great projection — you know, I’m not talking about a $2,000 projector. But, if you have as I have witnessed, you know, a $35,000 projector or God knows what they had at Lincoln Center a couple of weeks ago — probably that much or more — you get a magnificent look, you know, which is virtually the equivalent of film. And I always feel that a poorly lighted film can’t compare with a well lighted video. It’s all in the lighting.

13BIT:

That’s definitely the truth. You know, I mean, grainy is grainy and I mean everything just comes down to how you light it. But, I guess your students say that they still prefer film. Why is that? Why do you think?

MANNY K:

There’s a romance to it. There’s a romance to film. You know, because they’ve been — I ask my classes when they first come in, when they’re freshman, “How many of you have video cameras?” And, you know, nine out of ten raise their hands. And the one out of ten that has it, has shot nonetheless on video. They were brought up with this stuff. They were born into it. They want something more special, like when they go to the movies.

So there’s a romance and they talk about the film look. Well, there is a film look. But, to me, content is more important. And if you can on your own, independently, and independence is what it’s all about, if you can make a film because you’re allowed to and because video will let you, whereas film will break you unless you get a grant which takes years or maybe never, then do it. You’ll be able to make your film.

13BIT:

When did you start making films?

MANNY K:

That’s our guiding philosophy by the way.

13BIT:

Oh, just make it however you can.

MANNY K:

Yeah, do it. We know the more people where they say, “Oh, we’re trying to raise money to make a film.” It’s like, you’ll do that for a call. I’m in — well, I should say this out loud, right. But, I’m in a school, a terrific school of visual arts. We have 125 teachers, which is a wonderful per capita ratio. And I think there are three of us who make film, and the rest talk about how they’re writing a script, how they’ve got an option, how they’re looking for this and they’re looking for that, right.

And they’re wonderful teachers, and we’ve got a terrific faculty. I love our faculty. But, very few are actually making films which I think especially now is ridiculous. You know, okay, you want to make a feature that’s got big sets and actors? Okay, you can’t do that. But, you know, there were marvelous — I watch foreign films that are made in three rooms and a hospital. Okay, you know, well, how much can that cost already if you do it? You know, and the acting is superb and not necessarily by name actors. And it’s all in the script and how you handle it, I think.

13BIT:

I think you’re totally right. I mean, there’s no reason — there’s nothing stopping you now these days.

MANNY K:

Right.

13BIT:

And especially in New York when you have so many actors, like, from theatre that want to break into film or, you know, creative people that are just looking for a leg.

MANNY K:

Yes, and I’m jealous of my students. You know, I mean, our school turns out students, you know, in their fourth year, there may be 60 films. And I’m not talking about animation, just live films of which there are maybe six terrific films. Well, I mean, if the students can do it and not for much money — you know, now these films are anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes. If they can do it, I don’t see why I can’t do it. So, you know, it’s not that I’m competing with them, it’s just that I’m jealous. You know, here they are making films and I want to make films, too.

13BIT:

Do you watch films in the theatre? On DVD? But, then you have the web. Are they going to watch three minute shorts on YouTube? Or what?

MANNY K:

I don’t know. I mean, your guess is as good as mine. It seems to me that the most important thing, as I say, in a film, is its content and its feeling. It’s gotta have feeling. It’s gotta really get to you in a real way, not in a phony way. And I don’t know, I just don’t — you have to create the atmosphere for it. So, you know, after supper in a nice, dark room if I sit down with a nice 37 inch TV and watch something, you know, important, then you’re in an atmosphere for that.

I don’t quite see that as going in front of a computer and sitting alone on a seat and doing that. I don’t think it’ll come across the same way, and therefore I don’t think people will make the same kind of films for the web. Now, that’s just speculation. I’m not sure of that but, I’d hate to make a film that I invested, let’s say, three years in and I think my films all have feeling, and see it only on a computer via the web. Of course, very soon the web’s going to appear on your big screen anyway. So maybe that’ll change that, too.

13BIT:

So, when and how did you start making films?

MANNY K:

I went to City College of New York when they were the only school in America with a documentary film program. Hans Richter, the great filmmaker was at the head of it, and we hit it off right away, you know. I came into his room which was in a basement with pipes like third class on an old ocean liner. And I came in there and my dad had prompted me, and I said, “Professor,” you know, I’m already talking with a German accent. He talked with a German accent.

I said, “Professor Richter, are there any opportunities in film?” And he said, “Yeah, opportunities, there are many. But, no jobs.” And he turned out to be wrong. That is, there were many jobs but few opportunities. So, I got a job right away when I graduated. It goes back to 1952, and I thought, “Wow, I’m on my way up now.” And it was at a good company, but I realized very, very soon that you couldn’t really say what you wanted to say.

Nonetheless, I became an editor fairly quickly. And being an editor in the industry, I guess you haven’t had that experience, but it’s heartbreaking. It really is. You know, if you’re a camera man that’s fine because you go out, you shoot. You shoot something nice. The shoot is finished. You go on to another shoot. An editor, you stay with a job for three months to six months. And, especially in the documentary area, and the documentary area they don’t know what they have. The bosses don’t know what they have.

They send somebody out to get something, and they come back with, you know, 50,000 feet of film and they say, “It’s good looking stuff. Here you are.” So you come up with a rough cut after a month and a half or something, back in the day. You know, today you come up faster with the digital. And now they suddenly understand the film. And then they screw it up. They tell you do this, do that, do this, has to be out, in, shortened, try this.

And the film — any decent editor could’ve made the same film so there was nothing special about your work in the industry. And that’s the heartbreaking part, because every time you had an interesting project you thought, “Oh, this is going to be good.” And then it didn’t turn out that way. So I worked on 300 films and I would say I’d show you maybe four of them. I wouldn’t think I would want to show you the others.

13BIT:

So, what do you think was the big hindrance? Was it that there were too many cooks in the kitchen making bad decisions?

MANNY K:

No, it was their film. It was not my film. They were paying for it. You know, documentaries — CBS was paying for it. The producers came in and said, “Do this and that.” That’s what happens in the industry. You’re dictated to. The creative personnel is told what to do. In the case of an editor, he or she is really not told what to do because the bosses don’t know what they’ve got and then they take it away.

So, of course, that meant that the only way to do what you wanted to do was to become independent which is a long winded answer to your question. All right, so early on I started making little movies of my own, and I just kept doing it. Although sometimes there were gaps for money reasons. Because, when you work in film you really have to have money.

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