Documentary director discusses how ‘California Typewriter’ evolved
By Lou Fancher
Cinematographer Doug Nichol answers questions about the making of the documentary“California Typewriter,” which he directed, shot and edited. The film will be screened atBAM/PFA on June 4.
Was it difficult to get celebrities like Tom Hanks to participate?
I found myself drawn to this subject in a mysterious way and it just kept evolving. I would meet one person, film them, then another door would open that would lead me on to someone else. I basically followed it where it led me. The famous artists in the film came to it much in the same way. A friend was working with Tom Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson on a script and got her the trailer which she showed to Tom. I made a wish list of authors and artists who still use typewriters and was lucky to be able to get the people I did.
What one story had to be cut that was hardest to eliminate?
I did have a story about Theodor Kaczynski (The Unabomber) and his typewriter. Herb (Permillion) used to repair all the typewriters on the UC Berkeley campus when Kaczynski was teaching there in the 1960s, before he left for Montana and wrote his manifesto about the dangers of Technology and humans eventually becoming controlled by machines. The FBI came to California Typewriter to check their typewriters (matching typefaces) when they were searching for him after he killed people. It all tied in to a guy named Steve Soboroff who buys famous people’s typewriters and he owned the Unabomber’s typewriter. It was too big of a story and it pulled the film in another direction so unfortunately it had to go.
What are the elements of a good documentary?
I think it’s listening to what the film wants to be. When you begin any act of creation the best thing you can do is just make something that you want to see personally. With this film I just did what I wanted to do, funded it myself and made something that I wanted to make. I didn’t know if anyone else would like it and I didn’t really care. I just needed to create it.
Did you have the theme of the digital world’s threatened takeover when you began, or discover it as you shot and edited the film?
Everything in this film emerged from the act of creating it. Nothing was thought out ahead of time. I didn’t have to pitch the film idea to anyone or raise money, I just picked up my camera and went out and started making it. Once I started filming, then the ideas started to form and take shape. It was like putting together a huge puzzle. I had it all laid out in index cards across my editing room walls. I would stare at the cards and start making connections. The editing room is where it all came together.
People in the film who aren’t accustomed to being in front of cameras appear natural, relaxed. What is your approach to interviews?
I found my best interviews happen when I just let the people talk and kind of get out of the way. In most of the interviews I was filming two cameras and recording the sound: doing it all myself, so there was just me and the person I was filming and it was quite intimate. They were able to open up. Many times I use silence. When someone finishes saying something, I don’t ask another question. I let there be silence between us and then they may offer something more interesting in order to break the silence.
As far as getting real people to be natural on camera … people are naturally this way. It’s only when you first start filming them they might get self-conscious. This fades over time as you get to know each other and then as a filmmaker you can eventually disappear. It’s all about putting in the time.