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Monday, June 18, 2012

Q&A with Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy (directors of Francine and The Patron Saints)

Two highlights in this year’s BAMcinemaFest line-up—Francine and The Patron Saints—come from the husband-and-wife team behind Pigeon Projects, a company that Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy founded in 2005 to produce their hyper-real portraits of life at the margins of American society. Named among Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” their two latest works are tightly constructed and quietly devastating. The team’s first fiction film, Francine, premiered at this year's Berlin Film Festival and stars Academy Award winner Melissa Leo in a near-mute, highly improvised performance as a former inmate trying to adjust to life after prison. In The Patron Saints, a documentary set in a rural nursing home, Shatzky and Cassidy’s camera drifts through rooms filled with elderly men and women awaiting death. Praised by Cinemascope as “an impressively stylized document of the institutional apparatus of aging and dying,” the film uncovers the realities of its subjects’ loneliness, senility, and mind-numbing boredom while circumventing the pitfalls of melodrama and sensationalism.

With their shared backgrounds in documentary and photography, Shatzky and Cassidy’s sometimes unbearably intimate storytelling is heightened by a strong visual sensibility and a keen eye for the haunting close-up. The pair spoke with BAMcinématek about their search for emotional authenticity in cinema, their artistic inspirations, and their collaborative relationship.

Francine screens at BAMcinemaFest on Friday, June 22 at 7pm. The Patron Saints screens on Monday, June 25 at 7pm. Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy will be in attendance for Q&As at both films.

What drives you to make films?
Photograph by Robin Holland
Human behavior, in its inexplicable and often beautiful ways. Making films, for us, is an attempt to understand and probe at ways of being that can appear confounding from the outside. We try to share something previously unseen with viewers and introduce them to images, characters, and stories told from our own personal point of view, in an authentic way.

What films have served as inspiration in your work?
Melanie: I'm particularly interested in films that seem to get at something real. Films that are intimate and bring me closer to a person’s sense of emotionality. I like films where loneliness and dread are embraced, films where I can witness the creative ways in which people pull themselves up from their own sense of desperation. My favorites are Dog Days (Ulrich Seidl), Léolo (Jean-Claude Lauzon), and Fiona (Amos Kollek).

Brian: I tend to be drawn to work, film or otherwise, that has a severity, but which also lets in light. I was listening to a lot of choral and spiritual music, delta blues and also heavy, drone metal music while making both of these films. I recently watched Begotten by E. Elias Merhige, which I liked… Sombre by Phillipe Grandrieux and the writing of J.M.Coetzee also comes to mind.

What are some of the challenges you faced while making Francine?
Time was our biggest challenge. We had a very tight shooting schedule and an ambitious number of unique locations in the film, which meant that we were always on the move and often had to think very quickly. The logistical realities of our time frame required us to locate the heart of the scene almost instantly, and then really go after it.

The Patron Saints?
The greatest challenge that we faced while making The Patron Saints was the fact that on a moment-to-moment basis, very little happens in the context of a nursing home. There isn’t a whole lot of activity, and for the most part, the residents are in a state of waiting. Waiting for their next meal, waiting for their next visitor, and of course waiting for the inevitable. We spent close to five years making the film, which, to us, felt necessary. Within that time, we were able to build a certain trust with the residents, families, and administration, which, ultimately, was instrumental in creating a lifelike portrait. One comment that we hear pretty consistently from audiences is that the residents don't seem to acknowledge or be aware of the camera. We interpret this as a compliment. The residents became so used to our presence that our presence eventually became virtually unnoticed.

How do you work together as a husband-and-wife directing team and as co-founders of your own production company, Pigeon Projects?
We both have a hand in almost every part of the process and look to each other for confirmation during the various stages of a film’s development. We operate out of the conviction that both of us want to see the same end result on screen and that we each provide a necessary component to help get it there. Sharing in the various successes and failures together is also good, since we can experience the highs together and the lows don’t get so low. It’s a marriage, through and through.

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