Where do I even begin? I have been working my way through your body of work for a while, but I still have 6 movies to go until I’ve seen them all. My first was probably The Secret of Roan Inish, since I watched it as a child, and my most recent was Amigo. I’ve been following the release of Go For Sisters very closely, and await its release on DVD eagerly, because unfortunately, I live in an area without ready access to art house cinemas.
The first things that I appreciated about your films were their stories. Since I was exposed to your movies at such a young age the story element was really the only element that I had the adequate maturity to appreciate. As I grew older, my mom would share with me aspects of your filmmaking process, such as how you write screenplays for B movies or Hollywood blockbusters as a means of obtaining money to finance your own independent films. It’s a wonderful idea; I would do the same, if it meant having ultimate control over my works. Then I discovered the director’s commentary, and a whole new world opened up to me. I remember once I expressed my interest in filmmaking and directing to my parents my dad would suggest watching a film’s director’s commentary. It took me a very long time to do this because I never thought that watching a movie with someone talking over it could possibly be as enjoyable as watching the movie without the talking.
But I must go back for a moment. Before I ever watched a directors commentary I went back to one of my first loves– reading. I found your book Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan. This was the ultimate director’s commentary. Not only did it provide a discussion of your process, but it also included storyboards and the screenplay for that film. I loved reading about the realities of a lower-budget independent film shoot, such as when you specified a particular shot as your ‘rain location’ or when you described how you shot ‘day for night’ using creative staging (in a forest where it is already darker), filter, and lens use. I always knew that movies were somewhat magical, but after reading that book, the magic took on a whole new meaning.
Next, I viewed the director’s commentary for The Secret of Roan Inish. I loved how the concept that the story was told from the point of view of a young girl pervaded every aspect of the film. After initial, and therefore not particularly analytical, viewings of the film, it never occurred to me that the camera height for the entirety of the movie was reflective of the point of view of the protagonist. After the director’s commentary pointed this out to me I had an important and profound realization about film as a visual art form. While it is possible for a director to have a unique visual style that utilizes avant-garde compositions and lighting that function on a more aesthetic or subtly thematic level, it is equally possible to use the visuals in a way that only serve the purpose of the narrative. This is just as much of an auteur choice as the above, but it is distinctly different. I realized a visual choice can be literal while simultaneously working on a thematic level, and while that may seem obvious, it was your film that made me aware of this. The choice to shoot The Secret of Roan Inish from the height of the protagonist is a literal choice, in that she is a shorter young girl, but in evoking a children’s book, this choice works on a higher level that reinforces the fantastical quality of the story.
I can’t continue this letter without discussing my favorite film that you have made: Limbo. I especially enjoy watching films that are entertaining stories with compelling characters, but that are also socially aware. My all-time favorite filmmaker is Charlie Chaplin. He excelled at this. You do too. Your films are always ‘issue’ movies without being excessively pedantic about it. Nothing is more tiring to watch than a film that keeps reminding the audience that it is about ‘something.’ Why does it have to be about ‘something’? Why can’t the ‘something’ be the backdrop for the drama? In Limbo, Donna, Joe, and Noelle’s story unfolds against the shutdown of a fish processing facility and the desires of businessmen to develop Alaska into America’s next playground–both important economic, social, and political events. These are not necessarily the emphases of the film, although they do provide motivation and catalysts for the characters. These external events are given enough importance not to distract from the character drama, but to remain in the mind of the viewer after the film reaches its conclusion (and what a FABULOUS conclusion it is!)
I don’t want this letter to grow too long. However, all of my friends can attest to the level with which I admire you, and I just want to be sure that I express how your films have inspired me. Fame, when it comes to meaningful art, is not a necessary thing (although it certainly assists with recognition), but I wish more people were acquainted with your work. My peers who have heard your name or seen one of your films are few and far between, and it makes me sad. Your voice is unique in the American film-scape, and I believe that anyone truly passionate about movies in the world should devote serious study to your body of work. Thank you for your contribution to my film education. I look forward, as always, to your next work.