An all Austin based film with Austin talent directed by a UT Longhorn = Magpie. Here is our chat with the SXSW Bound Director Russell O. Bush.
1. Where did you grow up?
I grew up largely off the map from anything that resembled urbanized development. I lived in rural Northern New Mexico in a little town that hasn’t changed much since the 1930’s called Chama. My Father worked to restore 6 steam engines and 60 miles of railroad through the rockies. My family moved to Skagway Alaska from the High Country of New Mexico when I was ten to work on another railroad up there. Skagway is a town of 500 year round residents and is so isolated in the winter that we had to drive 120 miles to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory for groceries. I didn’t live in a town with a cinema until I was in college and I’ve always thought this gave me a special lens to view our exponentially growing world through.
2. Do you mind if I ask what the O, in your name, stands for? Not many O names, so quite curious.
No not at all. O, stands for Oliver. My parents have a great appreciation for Charles Dickens and “Oliver Twist” always struck a cord with them. My Mother also has Dutch ancestry and I come from a long line of folks with a “ver” somewhere in their first name…
3. Tell me a bit about your UT Austin experiences. Looks like you worked early on with Angela Chen on a few films, what were those shoots like?
My experience at UT has been really monumental in my development as a filmmaker. It’s a demanding program that asks you to check everything you think you know about filmmaking at the door. From day one you’re asked to make both ambitious documentary and narrative work, and I think the result is a group of filmmakers who really find their own voice in the medium of film, somewhere between fiction and reality, and striving towards some sort of greater emotional truth. There is plenty to be said about perfectly articulating some of the previously established modes of cinema, but I find what’s going on with the directors at UT personally a lot more exciting. It feels like re-inventing the wheel, as I think it should, every time a new project gets underway. UT hosts filmmakers in the MFA program from all around the world, and as I also work as a director of photography, I’ve had the chance to work on some really special projects that have intensified my passion for trying to understand the world around us. In the Winter of 2010 I worked as the cinematographer on Hammad Rizvi’s graduate film “Road To Peshawar” about an Afghani father trying to smuggle his injured daughter across the Pakistan border for medical aid. The film was set during the 1980’s Russian occupation of Afghanistan and we shot the entire film on location here in Texas on 16mm film in Big Bend National Park. It was a pretty ambitious project, but I think Hammad’s passion trickled down to the rest of the crew, and we came away with a film that holds up to the sort of authenticity a concept like that demands.
Yeah I did work with Angela Chen on a handful of projects. She’s a really courageous director, and very committed to her work. I remember flying out to New York City on one of her projects, which did principle photography here in Austin, just to sell a couple shots on the Metro and ground the film in the city. It was humbling to see that amount of work go into making a project really find it’s legs.
She actually played a huge role in “Magpie” as well as the Assistant Editor. As the synopsis of the film suggests, it’s about an estranged father, Phillip finding an intimate tape of his daughter, and in a complicated way, he ends up seeing a part of it. In order to shoot the main section of the film we first had to go out and make the tape that Phillip sees, then get the whole thing cut, and output to DVDs. Sounds easy enough but under some tight deadlines Angela was editing on set at 3am one night to get this whole sequence ready to shoot. It made a huge deal to have that thing ready to roll thanks to her all-nighter.
4. What is it most that you like about cinematographer work? Can you talk about what you learned from the earlier shorts you shot, Mister Cupcakes (Angela Chen), Western Brothers’ Adventure Story (Drew Xanthopolous), Allen Ho’s Parachute Kids, Hammad Rizvi’s Road to Peshawar, and Jessica Dorfman’s Orbit? What has been your experiences working with female directors in particular?
I really love working as a cinematographer. It’s actually incredibly important to me in my development as a storyteller and director. Above all it’s the process of learning about the world through the eyes and perspective of another director. I’ve been able to access cultures and personal experiences I would likely have never known with such intimacy any other way. When you make a film about something it’s not like you’re researching it, you’re living it, you’re inhabiting that psychology, and when you find the sort of collaboration where you really trust the vision of the director, you truly learn a lot about the world.
Personally I just really love being on set as well. It’s very exciting for me the process of chasing down a film, it’s win or lose every day in production and when you really get in a rhythm with a well oiled cast and crew, you just feel like your on the cutting edge of your craft, exploring dark and unexplored ares of the art-form we call film.
I’ve had the chance to strike some special collaborations in the last couple years. When I first arrived in Austin I shot a film for Drew Xanthopoulos “Western Brothers’ Adventure Story” a short doc about the imagination of a young boy in West Texas, and several years later I’m roaming around Tibet with Drew woking on my film. In the case of “Magpie” the collaboration I have with Allen E. Ho is one that been going now for over six years. I think from day one Allen and I have shot almost every narrative film the other has directed. Allen premiered his film “Parachute Kids” last year at SXSW with me behind the camera, so it’s super exciting for us to be back this year with “Magpie”. Excited looking into the future with more work on both the narrative and documentary fronts!
Working with female directors on the films I’ve collaborated with has been great. To be honest I really don’t think there is, or should be much difference working with male or female directors. Making a film requires an incredible amount of tact, vision, foresight and leadership, which both women and men can be amazing at lol. The stories and perspectives of the films I’ve worked on with female directors however, have had a different angle to them. They’ve mostly involved female protagonists navigating the landmines of adolescence strongly grounded in rich cultural circumstances, which I think is an important perspective to offer audiences. As I’ve said, it’s incredible to work on films like these, and it’s really a gift to experience the world through the rich eyes of others. I look at filmmaking as a lifestyle or a process of personal growth. While we make films that can sometimes feels like products, it’s really about much more than that, and it grounds me to remember the journey.
5. What did you most learn from your earlier film A New Man?
It’s funny you should ask. While “A New Man” didn’t get the chance to premier at someplace like Cannes or Sundance it has been incredibly valuable to me as a storyteller. It’s a 9 1/2 minute long take narrative film with a static camera, and was an invaluable opportunity to learn the beauty of simplicity. I never intended the project to come out as a single uninterrupted take, but we started the shoot with a wide master of the scene and it just really worked. The credit is really due to the actors on-board. Smaranda Luna, Scot Friedman, and Daniel Hershberger (who is also the lead in Magpie) lived in their characters so well it allowed me as a director to let them carry the film. I really believe every cut in a film is a small form of manipulation, so without making any edits the reality of the characters is just all over the screen. It was also a really valuable lesson in story telling and writing as well. I think it’s surprisingly easy for filmmakers to think they have to tell such larger than life stories with incredible arcs in time, which, especially for short films are up against the risk of becoming diluted or distancing to the audience. “A New Man” truly showed me that smaller stories, which allow us as an audience to quickly enter the psychology of the characters, can honestly take us places that films with much more in the way of bells and whistles commonly fall short of.
This was also the first film I’d made with Daniel Hershberger, who has since become one of my very close collaborators. Dan is the lead in “Magpie” and we have a trust in one another that allowed us to take the work we put into this film to a new level. Dan is one of the most committed filmmakers I’ve had the chance to work with and actually asked me if he could live on the set of “Magpie” during production to get closer to the character of Phillip. I took him up on the offer, and I think it made the difference. Every moment the camera wasn’t on Dan, he was still Phillip, developing all these wonderful idiosyncrasies. Our goal was to try and make the location and experience real enough for the cast that rather than making a purely fictional film, we were documenting an alternate reality. It’s a method I’d like to continue developing in my future projects.
6. How long was the Magpie shoot and what was the editing time frame?
Magpie, which in the long run ended up as a 24min film was shot under six days of principle photography, and one day several weeks before in which the featured home video was made. It’s however a project several years in the making all together. I guess it was 2009 when Allen Ho, the Co-Writer and Director of Photography, and I were roommates. One day I mentioned to Allen this crazy dream I had about video tape coming out of my body, and we sort of left it at that until Allen had the idea to put it into the context of a short film with the father daughter situation. I think it was even another year and a half until we had a formal script to speak of. We shot the film in January of 2011 right here in Austin, and actually only officially completed the film fairly recently. Between our other projects as cinematographers and a series of metamorphosis that “Magpie” went through in post, it really was a great feeling to finally sign off on the film.
7. What was the SXSW phone call like? Being already in Austin, and part of the MFA program, what are you most looking forward to in ATX in a few weeks?
Well the first thought after getting an acceptance call from SXSW… aside from a very serious fist pump, was how much it justified the work that our incredible team put into making this film, and how humbled I was to get to work with them. I’d be lucky to have the opportunity again. None of us were commissioned to make “Magpie” so if it was going to find it’s path off the page and onto the screen it was going to be by passion. It just felt good the turn all the tireless work from a freezing January in production into something more tangible.
When I got the call I was actually in Vancouver BC working on my next film, a documentary currently titled “The Vulture Project” which I shot with another really amazing team in Tibet over the Summer of 2011. Most of our material is in the Amdo dialect of Tibetan so finding a translator in post production who could work on our timeline was really a challenge. The translator Sonam Chusang and I were looking over a scene when the phone rang. It was a really great moment for everyone involved.
SXSW though, how do you get your head around it. It’s such a huge event, with so many talented artists and innovators. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing all the other films in the Texas Shorts Program at SX, and also looking forward to the work of other Austin filmmakers like PJ Raval’s music video (African Mayonaise), Andy Garrison’s (Trash Dance), Ben Steinbauer’s (Brute Force), and Mark Jarrett’s (The Taiwan Oyster). There are also so many cool surprise events to keep on the look out for. Anything’s possible at SX so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the MJ / Whitney Iconoclast concert! I’m also really excited to share this festival with my wife Annie who is my first source of inspiration, and a huge supporter of my work.
8. Have you seen or know of any of the other Texas Short Competition?
I have yeah. There’s some good UT representation in the screening program this yeah with Annie Silverstein’s “Spark”, Kat Candler’s “Hellion” and “Magpie”. I actually had the chance to work with Annie as a Teaching Assistant in a cinematography course last Spring at UT, when she was developing her film. I think it’s really smart, simple, and isn’t hiding behind anything. I actually haven’t gotten the chance to see Kat’s film yet, but I’m really looking forward to it. I was lucky enough to have a film I was the director of photography on, “Parachute Kids” directed by Allen E. Show show last year in the same program at SXSW… and this year with Allen behind the camera and me directer we’re really excited for the premier. Looks like there’s a lot of really strong work all around.
9. What is the Western China/Vulture Project? How long were you over in Tibet/Western China? What attracted you to this film?
The Vulture Project is a documentary I’ve been working on for about two years now, with my partner in crime Elisabeth Oakham. A couple years ago the both of us were working with National Geographic Television in Washington DC in their Natural History Department, (nature films). We were both doing a lot of story development research and came across a series of photos so intriguing it was impossible for us to ignore. The photos were of a Tibetan Sky Burial (Jhator in Tibetan) and they were presented in a way with absolutely no context; which had us trying to piece together the of meaning the ritual though our own research. The further we investigated the more it became apparent how many layers this story had to it… Ecological, Spiritual, Political. We had to make a film about it.
If you’re not familiar with it, in a sky burial after a person has passed away, their body is bound tightly in a cloth and transported, sometimes hundreds of miles, to a burial site know well for perhaps even a thousand years to both humans and the Himalayan Griffon Vulture or (Gyps Himalayensis). The body is laid out at the site and from the surrounding moutins the vultures are summoned to consume the body. The whole thing takes place in less than an hour.
What’s truly fascinating though is that while Sky Burial has been practiced for over a thousand years, it’s now being complicated by the increasing westward push of Chinese development into Tibet. Sky Burial has become a very potent anecdote to measure the delicate political situation in a rapidly changing part of the world on many fronts. In it’s intention, the burial practice is the final offering a person can make to the physical world. By allowing the vultures to consume their body the deceased is sustaining the lives of other sentient beings. However, in recent years Chinese tourists have been frequenting the burials in certain areas and paying admission to gain access. It’s a complicated interaction.
I think more than anything what attracted me to this story is that fundamentally, the social narrative that’s playing out in Tibet, is occurring all over the world. As the planet becomes a smaller place I believe it’s important to take note of the cultures and their intricacies that are getting marginalized and squeezed out. There aren’t any easy answers in this whole conversation, and in the end I really just hope that The Vulture Project can have audiences asking important questions.
In production we were over there for about a month. It was exciting, probably the most challenging month of my life, certainly not a vacation, but incredibly meaningful.
SXSW link to Magpie click, HERE.