IN CONVERSATION WITH ELIJAH WINFIELDby Ana Saplala
The last thing I expected one late night, in early July, was one of the most profound conversations that this short summer had to offer. Several lengthy exchanges on Letterboxd lists and documentaries resulted in addressing cinema’s inherent need to understand the intersection between history and identity. Beginning as a string of messages at the tail end of June, it has now unfolded into a platform whose aim is to champion a breadth of perspective on filmmaking. Though its most important voice stood out in ways more than one – especially ones in which my own words would do it an injustice.
Where it was a pleasure to speak to Elijah Winfield for the first time, it has become an honor to sit down with him the second time around. We met up on Zoom to discuss the process of filmmaking, his storied filmography, Barry Jenkins, and the formation of PAGE2FRAME.
Before we get to the root of this interview, I don’t think I can talk about Yesterday, it rained without bringing up Time Waits For No Man, and I say this because Time and Yesterday are tonally adjacent to one another in their personal reflections. I guess what I really want to address is the timeline that exists between the making of these two films. What was the pandemic’s role in signaling that creative shift between writing/filming Time, and eventually getting to work on Yesterday?
The pandemic definitely affected a lot of other filmmakers' works and just everything in general. It's not awkward answering questions about it, but it is, in a way, simply because the difference between Time Waits For No Man, and Yesterday is the difference of age. With Time, I was about to be 19; right now I'm 21. Technically speaking, I was 18, and I guess the entire thing was about it being an account of what my headspace was, during that period of time. I was very pessimistic, which I can even tend to be now, but it was more so pessimism in the sense that I thought there was no use in solving a problem. I don't mean it in the literal sense because figuratively, all problems are in motion.
There was a hardship in my life when I was writing Time. I was scrambling to begin the quest of making a piece about anything in my life, from when I was a child to when I was becoming a young adult. One of the biggest differences is that when we grow up, we mature. At least for me, because when I started, it wasn't so much about overpaying bills, and having college to worry about, and loved ones that we have to still keep in touch with, and that we have all of this to take into consideration. It was about the fact that not acknowledging the truth of what I went through as a child was gonna affect me so much as an artist and as a person.
I think I addressed this as well, with Yesterday in that living isn't so much about you know, yesterday was this, and today is going to be terrible. It’s more so about the fact that yes, this is yesterday, but what may come tomorrow can be something completely different. And although that is scary, it was very hopeful in the same sense, because yes, this is today, but I don't know what tomorrow is. I may feel terrible today. I may walk outside and the earth may have nothing that it can provide for me. But tomorrow, the flowers may be blooming in a different type of way. Tomorrow may renew my trust in humanity.
I especially see that in Time, which reminded me of A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson, in that every aspect points to the complexities of mental imprisonment. But more so Chantal Akerman’s Je, Tu, Il Elle because of how much Time’s narrator is verbally suffocating from this form of isolation. Do you ever feel mentally confined in the process of filmmaking?
Absolutely. Especially when I was filming Absence of Color, which was the biggest task I ever had as a filmmaker. And it wasn't entirely on the filmmaking side of things as well, but also in post production. We shot Absence of Color in two weeks with one camera, and barely any budget, and we didn't know it was going to be a feature until that second week.
It's crazy because in that second week, since I was handling so much when we decided that we wanted to make it a feature, I had so many tasks that I needed to do. But at the same time, I still had to figure out what we were going to do to extend it to a feature because we were sitting at a length of 40 minutes. Even though I had to figure it out, I had nothing, and I guess it was because of the stress - that was making me just go crazy. With not being able to think about anything added, I thought, how are we going to finish this film? In terms of sheer creativity, is what I’m producing going to be good enough? Is it going to make enough sense in the film? What could I possibly do for this film?
That feeling was even more enhanced in the editing process because whenever you shoot something guerilla-style, it isn't ever gonna go exactly how you want it to go. That's just the reality of things. So when I was editing Absence, I was literally isolated from everything and everybody. I was waking up at eight in the morning and going to sleep at three in the morning. I was working on the film nonstop and I would stop to get food here and there, but that's about it. That was for about three weeks straight, and it takes a lot from you. It was driving me insane because there's so many things that I had to fix, and so many things that I had to almost create in post-production to make certain things in the film make sense.
There were also certain things I couldn't create because I didn't know how, and that was the biggest challenge. For the entire process, especially editing, I was just in my own head a lot. Because when you're isolated working on a film that was so personal, you think, “do I even want anybody to see this?” Because this is so personal and so transparent. There's a difference between Absence and Time in that you can very easily make direct ties to my personal life with Absence of Color. Because I say certain things that are directly tied to myself. Whereas in Time and And So, It Goes, you have these characters portraying the emotions that you may have, or that you may be wanting to convey, or they may be wanting to convey. And the difference is that I wasn't a narrator; I was just telling viewers how I felt.
I find your writing in Yesterday to be entrenched in thought. It bleeds into your characters in the way that Philippe Garrel’s films observe the soul. Where do you find the soul of your work?
I've never even thought about that. I guess through the experiences I've been through, and moreso the fact that I personally resonate with them - can be the soul as well, but I guess it's more the heart of things. It’s really the experiences I've been through, and the relationships I've had. Not just romantic relationships, but ones with family members as well. A lot of my current filmmaking is so closely related to my real life right now - which is me just trying to latch on to some type of stability, and trying to create some type of peace for myself–or at least be on the road to doing that. Because I don't want to live my entire life in extreme anxiety, and stressing out about everything. Although there's going to be pain in life, I would like to limit that to a certain degree.
What keeps me alive with filmmaking and keeps my films alive is my ability to think about who's a reason behind me making these films. I don't necessarily mean me making a film because I'm trying to get my mother a house, or making films that make enough money to buy my father a watch. It’s often whatever may have happened between me in a relationship with a loved one or passed away, which made me want to write Time Waits For No Man. More than that, I guess it's just the love I have for cinema, and I appreciate cinema so much. And it's because that's what keeps me alive, you know? I'm not taking away my love for family and friends.
But when I think about what keeps me alive, if you took away cinema from me; if you took away writing– if you took away that art from the ability to create, which you believe in, even if it’s just appreciation, I lose a sense of meaning, and seeing the beauty in the world that I have for humanity, because I lost that at a very young age, and I rediscovered it through cinema. And if you take that away from me, that's that.
And I’m often talking about my films more than myself, but it's hard to talk about my films without talking about myself because they depend so much on me. They depend so much on how I feel about the art itself in that time period, and I've thought about certain relationships, and work and class. So it's so difficult to even talk about some of my films without talking about myself. But I hope I answered your question well.
I think you did. As a writer, I can totally relate to overthinking how you hope people receive the experience you create, because you can express how you want people to receive it in a certain way, but that's not always guaranteed. And I think that getting reception through your work is an experience in itself that you have to create from anyway, even if there's so many things that could stop you from doing that.
I remember us discussing the formation of this platform back in June, and you mentioned that you wanted to create a platform that served as a film journal, which is in the same vein as Cahiers du Cinema. You also wanted to create an online community for film writers and filmmakers, which is what’s currently being done by a more contemporary blog like Seen. Considering that you’ve already played an important role in running madeintheURL, what made you want to create PAGE2FRAME?
madeintheURL is pretty sick; shout-out to Chris, Lamzy, and Jordy. But there’s a difference between that and PAGE2FRAME. madeintheURL is more focused on underground culture, as a collective, where you have less film-oriented stuff, and a bigger focus on graphic design, music, art, and even clothing. With PAGE2FRAME, we're putting all of our time on solely underground filmmaking. The chances of you
promoting your film would be higher with P2F, simply because the entire goal is to give you some type of support. It’s to make sure that whenever you have your film up for release, people are aware that it's coming out, so that when you release your film, you don't just release anything without that support. You can release a review to go with it, or maybe an essay, an interview, a feature, like what we’re doing now. And that's our entire goal; we want to be creating that type of home and platform for these underappreciated filmmakers, while also paying homage to and supporting underappreciated avant-garde films. That way, people have a sense of something they’re familiar with.
There's definitely other underground and experimental film outlets and magazines, and whatnot. But I know for myself, Jacob, Taylor, Lamzy, Jordy, etc. We’ve never seen each other’s works on those platforms. And I myself haven’t had my work on those platforms. There’s some people that I haven't even named, which I will name–Ciara, Simi, Larone, etc; they don’t even get reviews or interviews at all.
It may sound a bit egotistical, but I consider myself a pretty good filmmaker, and I had one review, one interview, and the most reception I've ever had in my life, with Yesterday, it rained. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, like, we at PAGE2FRAME are very aware of these other outlets. But the truth of the matter is that they're not showing any of us. So why don't we build something for us that can also benefit people just like us?
I think if there's any blog that's able to achieve a hybrid of a film journal and a streaming platform like No Budge, PAGE2FRAME will definitely be very effective.
I’d like to go back on Cahiers, especially because it was a platform that fostered analyses of cinematic achievements. What innovations in cinema would you like to feature on this platform?
A big difference between then and, now, is how we talk about digital filmmaking. I love digital filmmaking, and I love film as well. I guess this may just be me rambling, but I appreciate that the biggest innovation is that we can shoot certain things on digital that film can’t capture. I was just talking with Lamzy about this the other day, but, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I'm pretty sure every Barry Jenkins film from Moonlight onwards has been shot digitally.
And it doesn't feel like that, does it?
His work brings you closer to the humans that he's actually shooting. There are so much more lush colors and landscapes on his films than filmmakers who try to shoot on film and have no idea how much tedium goes in that process in order to get what Barry Jenkins gets on digital. What Barry Jenkins does with Black skin is absolutely magical. What he and his DP-– I forgot his name–- do with Black skin is just magical.
Yes, James Laxton.
...But yeah, one of the biggest differences between now and then in filmmaking is the introduction of digital cinema. We're obviously going to be showcasing films that were shot on actual film as well. But, we're also showing people that it's okay to shoot on digital, because I've seen some beautiful pieces shot on digital. This platform aims to show people that you don't have to do one type of filmmaking, and that as a filmmaker, you don't have to be so conventional and you can branch out, be as highly experimental as you want, and we will back and support you because our job is to kind of save you from not having to conform to anything. You don't have to conform to anything, especially for us as a platform. We will provide for you what we can, and be that light to your work.
How do you think this platform will change the way you write for and about film?
I don’t think the platform will necessarily change the way I write about film, but I think it will influence me, since everything in my life influences me. I'm always influenced by what's going on, whether it be relationships, or whatever affects my mental or emotional state. That's what influences me the most.
So running an entire platform that will potentially become a business holds such importance. It will instill a lot of responsibility into me, and it will change the way I look at certain people because I'm pretty sure I'm going to fire a friend, but that's probably not going to happen [laughs]. Again, I don't know, necessarily, if this platform will change the way I write but it will influence me without a doubt just simply because it's significant. This is not a very miniscule thing at all, this is very important.
Where do you hope PAGE2FRAME will find its soul?
If you're talking about the staff and myself and the entity of the publication, we're gonna find it in the same hope that we have for cinema. PAGE2FRAME is our appreciation of cinema; it’s our belief in cinema. It’s our hope in cinema, and us trying to show the world that this isn’t just the only way that you can make films when you have an abundance of films.
So when you have people saying that cinema is dying, or cinema is being redundant, or whatever else, you have this, and this exists, because you have these beautiful films by these creative minds and these absolutely underappreciated but just overachieving filmmakers. And, I say overachieving not to take a jab at their skill, or to undermine their skill by any means, but to say that these people are working off budgets of like, $20, $30, $100, $20, less than $1000.
That's why I say that if you believe in film as an artform, you gotta believe in PAGE2FRAME because we believe in the auteur approach, in that if you wrote and directed the film, you shouldn’t be a dick, but you should have your creative freedom, and that should never be taken away from you because we care about the art more than anything. The money is money, and the praise is amazing, but we care about the art, bro. That's what we do it for because the art is always gonna live longer than the business.
I knew about Portrait of a Lady on Fire before I knew about the studios that distributed it (Pyramide and NEON). I knew about Seven Samurai before I knew about the studio that Kurosawa was using to produce and distribute (Toho). These businesses will never live longer than the art forms themselves.
And, finally, which one of your films best defines where you
Yesterday, it rained. If I were to take a film of mine and bring it to somebody and say, “Yo, this is what to expect from me as a filmmaker”, it would be Yesterday, it rained.
So thank you, Ana. Thank you.
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