From Poem to Film: Interview with David Moolten
From Poem to Film
An Interview with David Moolten
David Moolten’s “Astronaut Goes From Migrant Fields To Outer Space,” a short film featuring video, animation, and spoken word, has recently begun screening at film festivals. WeWritePoem’s staffer Irene caught up with David for the inside scoop.
David, you’ve actually made a film called “Astronaut Goes From Migrant Fields into Outer Space” out of a poem? How did that idea germinate?
I was inspired to write the poem by a headline, which became the title of the poem. I was and remain struck by the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino sentiment espoused by so many people, much of it motivated by misinformation and exploitative messaging from the right. The accomplishment of Jose Hernandez provided a positive counterexample to the hate-speak, and a way to rise above polemics if you will. The decision to make a movie I think was motivated by other video poems I saw on the internet, and my recognition that film might offer poetry a dynamic partner in imagery and a way to expand the interest in and audience for poetry. This issue seemed worthy of the attempt, and the poem one that might lend itself to the process.
Where is your poem published?
Can you tell us about the process that’s involved in making the film? Since it being a first for you, how did you go about producing it? How much did it cost?
I made this movie on a shoestring. The main investment was a lot of time. I used Toon Boom, an animation program, Sony Vegas, a film editing program, and my none too powerful (or RAM-equipped) laptop to create the animations. I shot the brief video sequences using a standard camcorder. I used photographs that I shot as well as public domain photographs, which I manipulated in various ways to enhance and facilitate the animation. The movie is short and fairly simple. My budget was under $500, though I already owned much of the equipment, ancillary software and resources.
I taught myself how to use Toon Boom and Sony Vegas, and there was much trial and much error, multiple iterations of the movie, before I was satisfied enough to submit it to juried festival competitions.
Is Jose M. Hernandez, the character in the film, based on someone you know personally? Why the idea of a migrant working in a strawberry field going to space as an astronaut? It seems pretty wild to me.
I don’t know Jose Hernandez other than what I’ve read about him. I followed the Discovery mission on television as well as on the internet. Again, the metaphor of going from humble, “lowly” origins of a child laborer and migrant worker to literally great heights, represented for me the immigrant’s American Dream, which has existed since the time of the pilgrims, and should not be denied pilgrims such as Hernandez.
So, a true story. I didn’t know that. Are you a child of rocket science? What is your fascination with space?
I was born during the 60s and remember the glory years of Apollo moon missions. Space represents a still pristine and unconquered frontier, a humbling scale, and a place without the prejudice of borders or nationality.
Where and when did your film premiered?
The first festival to screen the movie was the SENE (South East New England Film Festival) in Providence.
How did you go about promoting your film? How does a prospective amateur film maker go about submitting his work?
I placed an early iteration of the film on the internet (Youtube and Vimeo). Thanks to two poet-filmmakers, Ren Powell and Dave Bonta (whose work I admire and whose encouragement I want to publicly acknowledge) I decided to do more with the film. I did additional editing, changing several scenes, and adding some material.
As far as submissions are concerned, I use Without A Box, an online submission service which has really revolutionized the festival submission process, allowing filmmakers to organize their submissions and cross-utilize many of the materials (film descriptions, synopses, director’s statements, director bios etc.) for multiple festivals. The festivals in turn agree to use the service and accept the generalized submission materials. Some festivals even allow online submission of a video file, and only require a DVD (or other film format) for the actual exhibition if accepted.
What other film festivals screened it? What is the general feedback from the screenings? Any published reviews?
Nearly all the festivals are juried, meaning that a judge or panel of judges evaluates all the submissions and selects a fraction (usually a fairly small fraction) of the submitted entries for actual screening. So I was and am excited just to have my film screened at these festivals.
I have had a few nibbles from the press, including one long conversation with a reporter I’m hoping may culminate in a review. I also did have the interview with WILDSound and their festival also allows audience feedback which is ultimately placed online in video format. I’m hoping that might be helpful for me when it’s available.
Thus far the film has screened at: The Southeast New England Film, Music & Arts Festival (SENE); The Imago Film Festival; The Hearts and Minds Film Festival; The Athens International Film and Video Festival; and WILDSound Toronto Film Festival.
What are the aspects of turning a poem into film that may be interesting to some other poet who may wish to follow the same path?
For me, the hard part was not simply doing straight representation of the poem images in the film. This is an easy trap to fall into, and I edited and remade parts of the movie after I felt I needed the film imagery to stand more on its own. It’s a balancing act, because if the imagery strays too much in imagination or pacing, then you can have visual cacophony.
Are you saying that the film in fact veered much away from the original poem because it wasn’t a straight representation of the poem images? That film as medium must necessarily be an adaptation? Can you elaborate on what you mean by visual cacophony?
I purposefully made edits in iterations that resulted in the final version of film so as to allow the images to add dimension and complement the poem rather than merely reiterate (and limit through the film’s interpretation) the poem’s imagery. I did try to stay within the framework of the poem, and honor its pacing more or less. For me visual cacophony would occur when the film’s visuals start to distract from the words rather than enhance them (and/or vice versa).
I think this is a heavy artistic topic–what is the obligation of the poet and/or filmmaker in a film like this? What is a “video poem” or a film made in response to poetry? What are the “rules?” I’m sure I don’t have the definitive answer to these questions or even my own resolved answer for myself. I’m still trying to figure out “what works” in a practical way, what satisfies my aesthetically, what satisfies “my audience,” which is equally hard to define. Should I be aiming for the “general public,” a poetry audience, an art film audience? For myself I believe now I want to continue to expand the role of film in my own interpretation of poetry with film, allow the visuals to have a more equitable relationship with the words. If I were to critique “Astronaut,” I would say I don’t have equality, that the visuals serve the poem more than the other way around. I could of course be mistaken. But this is my impression. Is this bad necessarily? I don’t know, maybe not. But I’d like to shoot for more balance, more cinematic flow, longer scenes in my next film, hence my desire to do a piece that covers three poems rather than just one (see below).
Any future projects in the same vein?
I’m working on a film that I imagine as a triptych of love poems.
Where may the reader see the film if they wish to?
I pulled an earlier version of the film off of Youtube as it has been edited significantly and I felt I shouldn’t compete with the festivals, some of which prefer that there not be a Youtube release until the film stops running at festivals.
I do expect there will be some additional screenings coming up soon.
David Moolten is a poet and a filmmaker. His most recent book, Primitive Mood, won the T.S. Eliot Prize from Truman State University Press and was published in the fall of 2009. He is also the author of two previous books, Plums & Ashes (Northeastern University, 1994), which won the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize, and Especially Then (David Robert Books, 2005). His poems have appeared in Poetry, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southwest Review, and Epoch, among other journals and reviews. His work has been widely anthologized and his honors include a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. A physician specializing in transfusion medicine, David was educated at Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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