As part of our “Artist to Artist” interview series, filmmaker Catherine Gund spoke with choreographer Elizabeth Streb (2000 Performing Arts) about their new film “Born to Fly,” the human condition and making every breath count. The following is an edited excerpt from their conversation. You can listen online to the full podcast, or subscribe through iTunes.
Catherine Gund: So, I’m Catherine Gund. I just made a movie called Born To Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity, which premieres at Film Forum in New York on September 10. I’m here with the one and only Elizabeth Streb, and the two of us are going to have a conversation about what it was like to make the movie, why we did it, what we think it achieved—or didn’t achieve—and what people might get out of it. But I think we should just start with what maybe you thought, at the very beginning, about the idea of making a movie, having a movie made. What did you imagine it might be? Because I know, no matter what your answer is, it was not what it ended up being.
Elizabeth Streb: Well, for one, I was extremely excited and inspired because I know that you were around STREB and SLAM [Streb’s school and creative center], both with your children and yourself for years and years and years, so it wasn’t someone coming in that I didn’t know from the outside. I felt that you would have the worm’s eye view, the eagle’s eye view, the human eye view straight on, from the bottom up, from the top down. And I completely trusted that however you saw the story of STREB leading up to the London Olympics [where Streb staged public performances on London landmarks], I completely trusted. And I don’t think I, in my mind, fabricated what it would be like, at all.
Catherine: Which was probably a good idea. I mean, I didn’t know either. That’s kind of why I make documentaries and what I love about them is that they are about relationships, among not only the makers and the people who appear in them but, sort of, the making of meaning. The word “editing” is such a technical term, but in the bigger sense, to me, that’s the creativity. We’re editing meaning, we’re editing a story. We’re taking from this huge chaos that is the universe, or one tiny dot of someone in it, and trying to thread together a 90-minute experience that tells something, but it’s never going to be a portrait of a person—a person’s life story—we could even, of ourselves, make so many different stories. So, I didn’t have anything in my mind either. I just felt blessed every step of the way to be working with the people I was working with, and your energy with everyone who comes around you, whether it’s a mother of a dancer or a journalist or someone just walking in off the street, everyone—you come up and talk to them and say hello, and you find out something about them and they find out something about you, and people leave with a feeling of Elizabeth. So, everybody who came along—the camera people and the interns and our editor and everything—were all caught up in it, and it was so effortless, really.
VIDEO: Official trailer for “Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity”
Elizabeth: In retrospect, I’m always curious about the idea of which parts represent poignant information. I felt that I wouldn’t have been able to make those choices ahead of time. The moment when we’re on London’s City Hall and I’m alone and I’m walking over to the roof, and I touch it with my hand and I go, “This is perfect.” That says so much about what happened, and some of the invisible mysterious build-ups to that particular project, but, in the end, all the projects at STREB, all the extreme action projects that we embark on, and it is a huge collaboration, it’s not just me. I really think our Magical Mystery Tour…like, I don’t really know which parts I’m going to keep, which parts I’m going to throw out. And I thought the film exhibited that, that it was so much about we didn’t know and added to what we were being rigorous about discovering.
Catherine: I love that. I think that was part of my intrigue in the beginning, too, and the trajectory we took in making, which was really to frame it as an artist about an artist—a collaboration between two artists and not a documentary portrait of another artist. We kind of approach our work in a similar way in terms of discovery. And one of my favorite things people have said coming out of the film is that they discovered something that they didn’t know about you, or they’d never felt that way, or it opened up a part of brain that they hadn’t used, or they saw something new in a new light. And that kind of discovery and always approaching it—not thinking of the end game constantly or finished piece I think is part of what our collaboration was.
Elizabeth: And also that the process got framed in such a beautiful way. Sort of like you can get into the nitty gritty parts of how you do something and then it becomes so linear that you’re like, “Ugh, I’m going to have to listen to this story.” You get that feeling, which is what I’m trying to cannibalize in my choreography. I don’t want you to think about anything but that single moment and paying attention to that present tense moment, rather than, “OK, I get it: theme variation theme. Now they’re going to talk about her when she gets older…” It wasn’t about anything predictable in terms of how the story was laid out, and I thought the glimpses were almost—not sporadic, because they held together with a whole lot of glue—you felt like it was adding to the picture but not in that linear way where you get tired of the story because you know it is a story. Trying to break apart the frame and break apart the form a little bit, and film is so great at doing that.
Catherine: I think I struggled with that because we’re taught or told or used to the linear narrative. And it was a challenge. I really credit my editor Alex Meillier for saying, “It’s OK. Just stay with it. Stay with it here, stay with it there.” I’ve had many editors, but other people, as well, who come out and say, “I was wondering which way you—it was about so much!” And then, right at the end, by the time you get to London, everything falls into place and you know exactly what the film was about and why it was put together that way. But it doesn’t baby you, it doesn’t hand-hold, like you said, it’s not predictable. And I think it allows us to be a broader mind than we are challenged to be in this society anymore, where everything is dictated, everything is short, it’s all sound bites… Most movies are so… I watch these trailers and then I think I don’t need to watch the movie. What else does the movie have? The trailer is like the short version of the same thing and you don’t need more—
Elizabeth: Because they put the best stuff in the trailer.
Catherine: Because you know what it’s going to be, yeah.
Elizabeth: I just saw “Snowpiercer.” Have you seen it? Oh my god. It’s so good. It’s really beautiful, I think. It’s also a little dark, but it’s also so poignant in terms of what everybody’s willing to do to survive. I feel like, in a way, my investigation into movement has always been about the human condition. And my experience, certainly coming from a very working-class family, by default, in the end—I also thought that was handled so beautifully, because it’s not morose to be adopted. I hate that, “Oh, you were adopted…” I can’t stand that. It was an advantage. Because everyone knows their biological parents are a real shot in the dark. So, I can make up anyone I want to be my parent. But I think that the information I received, growing up with someone who works so hard, as it was, the way you displayed my father’s condition in the film, you really realized, wow, there’s something about that ethic of working that hard for as long as you could and then you just crumble. You know what I mean? At the end of his life he just had a heart attack, immediately, right around the time he was stopping that. I thought that it informed my action invention. And I don’t really like stories about artists. Like, who cares? Who cares about that personality? I know people do. But I think it’s a conceit of the art world to place these artists on these pedestals. And it’s, I think, dangerous to the artists, too, because then all of a sudden you think all the ideas you’ve had are so great and it’s very hard to come up with an idea that you haven’t somehow touched in the last 30 or 40 years, and I think being pampered also meddles with that possibility of being willing to fail again. I thought the way it demonstrated… I learned from it, from watching it. You know, sometimes I have to wince, because, one, I can’t believe I said that, and two, even listening to the dancers in such a personal way, and what their motivations are, because I’m freed from that in lifetime.
Catherine: Yeah, it’s so interesting. One of the things that sticks with me along the lines of what you’re saying is what you say when you talk about “try.” And you were applying it to stunt people and boxers and rodeo and this and that, and you’re in the gym and you say, “It’s who can get back up.” And I would agree that a portrait of an artist is so much less compelling as something I would spend time with than the notion of experiencing the “try” that an artist applies if they’re a fascinating, brilliant artist, no matter what their output is. So, whether you say it a certain way—like you were saying, it’s hard to come up with a new idea, but it might not be the idea—the brilliance, really, of the work that is “FORCES” and that is London, things that you’ve been doing for years and struggling with, it’s the struggle, it’s the “try,” and it’s being there. It’s not actually a finished piece.
Elizabeth: There is no such thing as a new idea, it’s just a new problem. But I think humans get weary as time goes on, and you’re thinking everything about what it takes to go into that dark cave of not knowing, and you just want to figure out how do you renew your stamina for that quest and never, ever end until you’re basically dead.
Catherine: Basically or in fact.
Elizabeth: In fact, gone. Take your last breath. There is such a thing….
Catherine: …as your last breath. But you never know when it’s going to be.
Elizabeth: It’s good that you don’t know that you have five million, two hundred and eighty nine trillion breaths left. Make every one count.
Catherine:. I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker the other day of a little kid jumping on his parents’ bed saying, “Wake up! Wake up! You only have 30 more years to live!” It was funny.
Elizabeth: That’s great.
Catherine: I have a question: if you could go back to the moment when you came over to see the final rough cut—it wasn’t the final cut because we had some exchange and collaboration on some changes to the film after that—but it was your first time seeing the film as it was going to be, more or less, and…it was such an intense moment, and I was just wondering if you could talk about what you were thinking or feeling.
Elizabeth: I was so excited to be going to finally see it. I remember that we’d gone back and forth and talked about right of first refusal and all of that silly stuff—we had a little moment in there where, in my office, I awkwardly in the middle of it asked for certain things, like we’ll have right of last cut or editing choices. But I knew when I walked in there that I had no desire or plan to do any of that. I knew I trusted you. I didn’t pay that much attention to where you had the cameras through the whole year, or however long it was, but I could feel it, the eye gazing on whatever we were doing and certain things we were talking about, and I felt so relaxed during all of the filming. Well, except for that one day, that one extraordinary day [the London performance]. I wasn’t very relaxed. I was nervous.
Catherine: It was interesting, too—you hadn’t seen footage and you might’ve noticed where the cameras where, but there was, I thought, also a kind of cool thing that we did in terms of having breakfast and having these kinds of conversations for a few hours, like three or four hours, every few weeks. Sometimes we didn’t talk about the movie at all, or anything. We would talk about the news or some movie that we’d seen the night before. We were just getting together. But I felt that those were a way for us to make sure that, despite our separate responsibilities on the movie we were on the same track.
Elizabeth: In the same pool.
Catherine: In the same pool and it was sort of, inadvertently, a kind of a check-in, almost to make sure that we’re still doing this thing and we both still think these weird ways, and we both still are not sure what we’re doing but at least we’re doing it.
Elizabeth: It was sharing commonality on that confusion. I always am confused, no matter what I’m doing, I make myself be confused. You saying, “I don’t know what it’s going to be”—I felt relieved by that, because how could you, really? I still struggle with what is the story of ACTION? Even in “FORCES.” But I thought that those were really critical things, bringing us closer and closer in our minds, our bodies, our spirits, that we’re in this together, and we both understood that, even though in those breakfasts we weren’t really discussing, “This is what it should be.” And when I went to see it, I was struck by the beauty of what you’d done. Just the utter beauty. The opening credits and the angles and the intimacy, how close that camera came to me a couple of times and how I think it made you feel, even though it was me or other people, that you were there. I thought the physicality of the film and where the frame was and how it angled to whatever it was shooting really told a physical story, separate from STREB’s physical story, which I felt. By the end of watching it we were just cheering, and crying, too.