Confrontation, Ambivalence and Death: Discussing ‘One Cut, One Life’ with Filmmaker Lucia Small
It can be difficult for two passionate filmmakers to collaborate on a project. The task is made more difficult when those directors have a history together of past work and disagreement. Add to this equation a deadly bone marrow disease, the existential ticking clock for one collaborator, and bundle the entire thing in an audacious documentary form. What you get is One Cut, One Life. Logistically difficult to make and emotionally difficult to watch, this is the latest project from documentarian Lucia Small, and the final project from the late, great filmmaker Ed Pincus.
As discussed in this GALO review, the film documents the complex relationship between Pincus, his wife Jane, and Small as the three navigate Pincus’ declining health. Though all three reveal themselves to be admirably poised and eloquent in the face of death, conflict and arguments unfold, both over the best use of Pincus’ last days and over the presence of the camera.
Pincus was an unarguable master of first person nonfiction documentary, so it was natural for him to approach any major life event, even its end, in a documentarian mode. Yet the camera affects its subjects in strange and unpredictable ways. In the film, Jane appears justifiably uncomfortable with Pincus’ use of the camera in an attempt to avoid facing his end and, equally justifiably, she appears unsure of his younger female collaborator. Small, likewise, appears to be conflicted about the project. On the one hand, she sees how important the film is to Pincus and insists to herself as much as to others that film can contextualize loss and grief. On the other hand, she shares Jane’s fears as the project becomes a race against time and an obsession of questionable value in Pincus’ final days.
But One Cut, One Life is not all about Pincus, and Small stresses it was never meant to function as homage to his career. It is a film about one subject from two distinct points of view. For her own part, Small delves into her experience of two recent deaths, her friends Karen Schmeer and Susan Wolf, whose violent departures came suddenly and in quick succession. Small’s sections are infused with determination as a female filmmaker, at once respecting her older partner and refusing to be overshadowed by him. Small’s subject may be the confusion and ambivalence wrought by death on its survivors, but her voice is confident. She confronts the dissonance with Jane head-on and pushes back against Pincus’ wilder notions. Ultimately, it is Small, the youngest and ostensibly most naïve of the primary subjects, who emerges from the film with clear vitality and unflinching courage.
GALO sat down with Small to discuss life, death, and documentary. In a meta twist, Doug Block, a friend of Small’s and a documentarian in his own right, was also present, filming the interview for another upcoming project about documentary filmmakers.
GALO: You met Ed back in 2002 on a film jury. Can you tell me a bit more about that experience? What sparked such an intense, immediate connection?
Lucia Small: I think it was the way we watched the films. My mentor, or my hero, was Ross McElwee. I had heard about Ed and knew he was Ross’ teacher, but that’s all I knew. So when I walked into the room and saw him there, it was a very naïve, innocent meeting. I didn’t know who I was meeting. We sat for four days with other people and it was eerie how closely we reacted. There was only one thing [we differed on]: there was a system where someone would raise their hand when they were done watching the film — Ed would always raise his hand first and I would always raise my hand last.
GALO: That experience really sparked your first project together, The Axe in the Attic. How was the mood going into that project different than coming into this one?
LS: After the jury, he wrote me and told me he wanted to return to film. I was flattered, but I didn’t know his work. So we exchanged [our] work. I showed him Genius, and he had these old, bad videotapes of Diaries and all his old movies. I was just amazed.
He was very dogged and really wanted to start, but there was always the financial issue. It took us three years, talking about the possibility of working together. Initially, I started transcribing things for him. I told him, “I need to be a peer if we’re going to work together.” That’s in the movie. I really felt that was important to me. I easily got intimidated by his confidence. He said to me that I came off very confident and only later, during the shooting of The Axe in the Attic, did he realize how much I suffered with my confidence. I have a strong will and I have a strong desire to do the work, but I second guess myself a lot, more than he does. So it was this dialogue about that.
And then, of course, there was the Jane factor. When I watched Diaries, I thought she was a heroine. I thought she was amazing. And then we met and she had a hard time warming up to me. You saw in the film that lunch during Axe in the Attic — that was actually the second time I met her, but it was the first time we talked about Ed and I working together. And it wasn’t pretty. It was hard and complicated. After that lunch, I said, “I don’t think I can do this.”
At that point, we were already two and a half years into our discussion. We had conceived of a road trip movie before [Hurricane] Katrina hit. We had thought about going across America, taking a temperature of the country. He wanted to go visit his Harvard gang, his students who ended up in Hollywood. And I wanted to do a film about young kids going off to war. It was 2003, and Bush hadn’t even declared war on Iraq yet.
But then Katrina hit. I was very shocked. Actually, we had lunch with Doug [Block] at this restaurant, just to figure things out. It was very scary, very exciting, and very nerve-wracking. Ed had a strong will. He was the guy who had written the book on filmmaking. He had a huge impact with MIT and Harvard in the lab. So, it was much more nerve-wracking the first time.
The second time, it was very different. I didn’t think we’d ever make another film together. We had become friends long before. We had our falling out and we didn’t talk for eight months. And then we went to do the director’s commentary on The Axe in the Attic, and we healed and made up and processed things, because we were endless processors. So, [with] this one, I was very reluctant about [it] for different reasons.
Even the stuff I filmed right after Karen and Susan died; I didn’t intend to put it in a film. I felt very private about it. It was sort of a dairy for me, rather than something to be made public. Ed actually had given me the little camera to do that work. Doug encouraged me to do it, too. Something about sudden deaths, even death generally, seems so sacred. It’s just a delicate time. I knew as Ed got diagnosed with this terminal illness that it would be really tricky — especially with Jane.
So there were two conditions for this film. One, Jane had to be on board. And two, we had to be as authentic and sensitive to the situation as we possibly could. And we would have to put it down if it just became too much. But it was a slow start. Initially, he was coming down to do the color corrections on his films. So the scene where I’m filming him doing the corrections on Diaries, that’s one of the first scenes where I filmed him. It was tentative. We knew this was a big experiment. We didn’t really know if it was going to fly. We couldn’t tell. [With] Axe, we knew what we wanted to do in many ways. With this one, we just didn’t. It was a new experiment. Because we had the history and because we had trust — we had the falling out and rebuilt trust — it made sense. But as you see in the film, there was a lot of back and forth.
GALO: How does the final product compare to whatever ideas you had at the beginning?
LS: When I make films, I see them in my head before I make them. A lot of it is how I imagined. The back and forth — I really wanted to play with these two points of view. I didn’t want to make a legacy film to Ed and Ed’s work. If there was anything I wanted to say about Ed’s work, it was in the form itself. I said, “You’re an experimenter. Let’s take your form and experiment with this. This may not work.” He didn’t think it would really work. He said, “Let’s just test it. Let’s just see.” He was worried — we were always worried — that he was going to die too early to finish the voiceover. The process that goes into voiceover writing is very intense.
GALO: I wondered, actually, if you had a plan if Ed became too ill to work. Did you have any idea what you would do?
LS: I had some idea. Luckily, I had some team members. I had Mary Kerr, the producer. I had Danielle Morgan helping me as an editor. It’s funny, this personal work seems so easy, but it’s so complicated. As I say in the film, it’s filming that frames the pain for me. It helps me be happier in that pain, or process it better. So that’s what I kept going back to.
We recorded a lot of practice voiceovers. I recorded Ed and asked him to tell me the opening of the film. I said, “How do you envision the opening voiceover?” I had him say those things to me really early on, just in case I had to write it myself and it would become a whole different film. That was the film’s fail-safe.
I had less of an emotional fail-safe for myself. All I have is a lot of really amazing friends. I got really sick right before Ed died. I got pretty ill for about a year. So I don’t think I had prepared enough for him dying. We didn’t fully finish, but we had made our peace. We saw the film in its almost finished state together. We watched it a week before he died, so I felt reassured that way. But to answer your question, it was all very organic.
GALO: We talked a bit about the two points of view, especially with first person documentary. “First person nonfiction” I think is what Ed called it…
LS: Yes, you’re right. He hated “personal doc.”
GALO: Yeah, why was that?
LS: I think I asked him that and I think he just said, “It’s not personal. It’s first person. That’s just the point of view that it is [in].” That was the most he ever said about that.
LS: But I’m completely paraphrasing. It’s interesting because there are so many questions that I wanted to ask him but didn’t, even though I had the camera and was asking a ton of questions. There were many times I asked him if he was afraid to die. That didn’t end up in the film, because to me, it’s within the context of the whole thing. To me, he seemed pretty fearless, but there was a layer of fear.
GALO: Were there any questions he was resistant to?
LS: No! No, he was very open. He was very giving.
GALO: So going back to first person nonfiction, this form uniquely treats the director as both subject and object. How do you think that works in a collaborative mode? Do the two sides come together? Or are they distinct but interacting?
LS: I think Ed was skeptical about this experiment and I was more dogged, and I think we were both right. I think that his skepticism was that by making it, we become one voice. Yet, you see the way he speaks, in a much more objective, philosophical way. I speak more directly. So our two voices are very different. You could call them male/female, but I get nervous about calling it that because a lot of lines get crossed.
At the end, I think we got so close (and I ended up taking over the bulk of the filming as he got sicker) that it does merge more into my voice. However, the last scene is his scene. He speaks it. And he speaks it more directly, more emotionally. But right before that, he has this beautiful sharing of a dream he had. And that was always very organic. We helped each other write. So he came down and told me about this dream, and I started to type it out. And I immediately had him record it. I think it’s one of the best pieces we wrote. It’s so complicated that yet there are distinct voices. Yes, I think it was successful, but in the process of making the film, being both director and subject and playing off each other, we become one voice. I think both of our styles of films are integrated in this piece. It’s very much a collaboration.