Interview with Betsy Nagler

by Emon Hassan on April 1, 2008

During my year with Shooting People, I got to meet many filmmakers; we’d have social gatherings once in a while. Most of those “filmmakers” I despised. Very few brought something different and worthwhile to the conversations I like to engage in. Betsy is one of them. She’s a person of many talents who’s funny, has a wide breadth of knowledge beyond films, and an excellent writer. Some of her emails can be printed into book form and sold at mega-stores that matter. I doth not exaggerate.

I’ve wanted to interview her for a long time just so I could pick her brain and share it with you. And here it is.

E: Do you remember your first creative writing work? What was it about and what had inspired you to write?

B:My first creative writing, that I can remember, was a write-up of a third grade science experiment where we were supposed to be raising and studying terrariums full of salamanders. Well, I somehow couldn’t help turning this into a short, pencil-scrawled novella, complete with illustrations, detailing the deep and dramatic life-cycle of the salamander – where, oh where, would it all end?! (Shriveled up, dead, and stuck to the side of the tank, as it turned out. Maybe this is why to this day I tend to like dark endings).

I think that in that particular case, I was inspired by the idea of trying to make a boring assignment interesting. Escaping boredom has actually always been a big motivator for me. In all seriousness, it’s only slightly ever moved one or two steps away from that: I write as a way of exploring something that interests me, of getting inside it and understanding how it works. Crawling around inside the salamander, I guess.

E: What were you reading, listening to, and watching growing up? Who would you say have encouraged your creativity the most: (i) within your family and (ii) outside?

B: As a kid, I read everything. I was into all the sci-fi/magic/fantasy stuff – The Chronicles of Narnia, JRR Tolkien, the Dark is Rising series, A Wrinkle in Time – and I also liked some of that girly, Anne of Green Gables/Judy Blume stuff too. Anything that had a good story and good characters. As I got older I got interested in magical realism by people like Garcia-Marquez, Gloria Naylor and Salman Rushdie, and also just their phenomenal use of language. On TV, well, I watched all the same ridiculous shows that anyone my age did: Zoom, Electric Company, Brady Bunch, Star Trek, Charlie’s Angels. I also loved those Japanese monster movies, particularly the ones with Gamra. And I was into animation. I used to go to all the festivals, saw all the early Pixar and Bill Plympton stuff, etc. A lot of absurd humor there, which I also love.

Both of my parents always encouraged me to be creative, and now we all argue about whose fault it is that I ended up like this instead of going to law school. No, that’s not really true, I am actually fortunate enough have two intelligent and supportive parents who always loved to read or look at whatever I did. At school, I got high marks, but aside from the unusual teacher here and there – Mr. Michaels, 3rd grade art — there wasn’t much encouragement to do something creative or think outside the box there, unfortunately. I’d say I was more lucky to find peers, through high school and college and film school, and now who I work with or in my screenwriting group, who help push me that way, either by collaborating or by giving me helpful feedback, or just by setting a high bar with their own work.

E: The first time you decided to become a filmmaker: Do you remember what you wanted to make?

BN: Well, I was really a Spielberg kid. I came of age in the Star Wars/Close Encounters/Indiana Jones era, so my dreams were blockbuster central for a long time. And I still think that those are fantastic films. But you just can’t make Raiders of the Lost Ark with a cast of 50 stuffed animals, or claymation. Although I tried. That’s kind of what my first animated films were like.

When I started to get serious about becoming a filmmaker as a young adult, I wanted to be a cross between Jane Campion and Spike Lee. I still basically do, with some Errol Morris and maybe the Coen Brothers thrown in. If you can picture that. Oh, and Lucrecia Martel, she rocks.

E: What series of events led you to your first film work? What do you remember of that experience?

B:Well, in terms of film work, as I mentioned, I started making animated films as a kid. A friend of mine had a super-8 camera and was playing with it, then I got one of my own and proceeded to go crazy. I made films or took photographs through college at Stanford, and then got the bizarre idea to go to grad school in film, where I made a bunch of shorts that I’m not terribly proud of, even though a couple went to festivals.

Then there’s film work – aka professional work. When I was in my third year of graduate film school at NYU in 1993, I’d shot my thesis film and started editing it and it was becoming extremely apparent to me that I had not made the next La Jetée, or even Ramblin’. In other words, I wasn’t going to fly out of NYU with three agents, Sherry Lansing and a bevy of development executives begging me to come to Hollywood. So, I was looking for a way to get some experience working in the film business, not to mention earn enough to eat and pay rent. And my roommate, who I’d known since junior high, had started working in production as well, as an electrician.

So I said, “Hey, I’ve set a couple of lights, I can be an electrician!” and promptly persuaded her to get me hired to work with her as swing on a film called Sleepover. I was working for DP Joaquin Baca-Asay and gaffer Joe Zizzo, both of whom have gone on to do big things, and they were nice enough to put up with my ignorance and teach me that anything having to do with lighting or grip that I had learned in film school was utterly wrong. Of course, since I was working on deferment, they couldn’t do much better than me anyway! (Although, in a strange twist, we did all actually end up getting paid on that job, which, as you know if you work in the film world, is almost unheard of). And I also learned that film production often takes place at night, in the cold, in the rain, and that rubber pants are not as crazy an idea as you might think.

E: You’ve done – and continue to do – a lot of sound recording work for film and television. Can you name some of those projects and why do they stand out in your memory?

B: My first sound recording job was on a gay sex comedy called Lie Down With Dogs, one of the first gay films to be made and released for a wide audience. That was a fun film – no money, but we did get to spend two weeks in Provincetown, and it was a fun group of people. The director basically mortgaged his life on credit cards to get it made and then it got picked up by Miramax – and so, yet another complete anomaly, we all got paid on that one too. Plus, the producers were so happy the work that I did with truly bottom-of-the-barrel equipment that they put my name in the head credits. In fact, it’s the first name you see on the film! Interesting postscript: years later, when I was working on a movie where we were shooting nights at the Limelight, a tape of Lie Down With Dogs turned up in a sex booth.

The first film I worked on that ever became a hit was Daytrippers, on which I worked as a boom operator. That project was memorable for the fact that pretty much every non-union crew person in New York at the time worked on it for a day or two, and so I met a ton of folks with whom I’ve continued to work throughout the years (including a good friend who is now my co-producer). Another thing I remember distinctly about Daytrippers was showing up on set not knowing anything about the project, only that it was yet another crazy deferred job, and trying to pay attention to two actors doing a blocking rehearsal. And then they went off to hair and make-up and came back, and they were Campbell Scott and Hope Davis. That was when I knew I was on to something with this film work.

I’ve also worked, for from a day to several weeks, on Walking and Talking, The Sopranos, Law & Order, Sex & the City, and Before Night Falls, which are mainly memorable because people have heard of them, and because I got to flirt with Johnny Depp.

E: What does a sound recordist do? What is a typical day like for you? Who are your primary collaborators on set?

B: The sound recordist (or location sound mixer)’s job is basically to record dialogue in a way that makes it most useful to the editor – aka, so it is clear and clean of outside noise, and so that it more or less matches what you see on screen. Movies, commercials and episodic television are all different, so I’d say there is no typical day, but in general: we show up; we eat breakfast burritos; we set up the equipment; we listen for any annoying sounds that are going to make us miserable and try to track them down and turn them off/cover them with a heavy blanket/beg the production to pay somebody to stop leaf-blowing/playing merengue at high volume; we watch the blocking of the scene and strategize the best way to mic it; we mic people or plant mics if we have to; we shoot/boom/mix the scene, usually a gazillion times, and try to get the best sound we can; and then we move on to the next scene and do it over and over and over again for an average of 10 to 16 hours.

Most feature and TV sound departments have three people who work together: a sound mixer, a boom op and a third or utility person, who helps organize the 20-odd cases of of equipment we bring to set, and often mics people or acts as second boom. On commercials there is only a mixer and a boom, and on a doc there’s only one poor, lonely sound person who has to do it all. But of course we also have to collaborate with the rest of the crew: we need to stay in touch with the ADs to know what’s going on and what we have to do next; we work with the DP, gaffer and grips to deal with framing and lighting issues that affect where the mic can be; and of course we have to work with the producer, actors, director, and editor, to make sure we’re getting it all just the way they want it.


E: Over the years you must have accumulated a lot of tips on recording good sound. Can you give 5 examples?

B: 1) Always keep your ears open for sound problems. You have to do a sound check at the beginning of the day, but you also have to be prepared for something to crop up later, because you never know when, for instance, the gaffer will decide to turn on the refrigerator (yes, this happened to me recently).

2) Choose the right mic for each situation. It can make all the difference.

3) Have a great boom operator. Enough said.

4) Think like an editor. Try to keep the big picture in mind – what sound will be most important and how it will be used.

5) Know when to speak up. It’s very easy to get pushed around on set because truth is, you’re not the camera department. But if an adjustment has to be made to fix a noisy mic, or there’s a sound problem that can be found and solved, or if you just really didn’t get it the first time and need another take, you have to assert yourself.

Bonus #6) Don’t stress. It’s never worth it.

E: From your observations, what have you found common among good (a) directors, (b) producers, (c) actors, and (d) crew?

B: a) All directors come to set prepared and they know what they want. They may not have everything storyboarded or know all the dialogue, but they should go in with an idea of what every beat in a scene is about. And then they should be prepared to chuck it all out the window if necessary. That gives them the room to be creative and collaborate.

b) Producers: same thing about preparation. They have every contingency covered and they think really well on their feet – only about things like hiring the right people and making sure that they are in the right place at the right time.

c) Actors: also, they really should come prepared, knowing their part and being emotionally where they need to be for every scene. Many actors are just plain talented up the wazoo, and so they can come less prepared and pull it off with sheer power and charisma. But my favorites are the ones who have that and also have the craft to be incredible take after take after take, and hit their marks every time. David Strathairn, Michael Imperioli, Catherine Keener, Cynthia Nixon – those are some actors I’ve worked with who are like that.

d) Crew: again, they really know their jobs, and they know them well enough that they can work as a team pretty seamlessly, without ego.

E: What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about television commercial shoots?

B: Probably that because we’re making a 30-second spot, that it all gets done really fast. Au contraire. Those 30 seconds are the most important 30 seconds in the lives of a whole gaggle of product marketing people and advertising agency personnel, and they are for darn sure going to make sure they’re perfect, and if you have to shoot it 500 different ways, so be it. But on the other hand, I have worked on many, many commercials that were funnier and more interesting than the features I’ve worked on.

E: What projects of your own have you been working or plan to work on?

B: Since last July, I’ve been co-directing/-producing a documentary called Flat Daddy. The film tells the story of a phenomenon begun in 2003 by a woman in North Dakota who came up with an ingenious way for her baby daughter to remember her dad when he was deployed to Iraq for a year: she took a photo of him from the waist up, blew it up to life-size, stuck it on poster-board, and called it “Flat Daddy.” Not only did the idea work, it took off, and now, thousands of Flat Daddies are living in homes across America, standing in for men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. So we’ve been traveling around the country, following the stories of a handful of these military families and looking at how they’re using Flat Daddy to stay connected — and how that reflects what’s going on in their lives as the war continues.

Flat Daddy

E: How do you approach, as a writer and/or director, working on a documentary than a fiction film?

B: Documentaries and fiction films are very different animals, that’s beyond question, but they have more in common than you might think for a director. Again, the key to being a good director is to come in as prepared as you can be. So we do our homework: we pre-interview folks to get a sense of their story over the phone, and try to research a community or event as best we before we show up on somebody’s doorstep and turn on the camera. You also have to be aware that you’re not working with actors but with real people who are opening up their lives to you, so you need to be especially kind and considerate in helping them get comfortable with having you there. In a documentary, or course, you have to be more open to the possibility that anything can happen, and frequently does – which is also the beauty of it. (Although those kind of gorgeous accidents are also the stuff of some of the greatest feature moments) But at the same time, as with fiction, I always find myself looking for the shape of the story, the interesting people who are an integral part of it, what details stand out that make it unique — and what’s going to save my ass in the editing room!

Flat Daddy

E: You’ve also edited films. Do you agree that films are, to some degree, re-written in post? If yes, do you have instances that have proved the case? Has editing helped your writing and vice versa?

B: Editing is a crucial part of the process. Every director should do some editing so that they really understand what they’re going to need. I don’t have any films of my own that were rewritten in post, but certainly with docs, you are finding large parts of the story in the edit. But hopefully, what you end up with is something that fulfills exactly what your intention was all along.

I’m not sure that there’s that much of a connection between my editing and my writing, but I definitely always have a picture of what the final film’s going to look like and how it’s going to move on-screen. And I try to write in a way that makes you feel and see that when you read the script.

E: What’s your writing routine like? Do you have a method to how you approach writing a script? Do you outline? Do you follow certain ground rules?

B: I do outline. I think because screenwriting is so structured, it’s pretty necessary. And I do tend to follow a basic three-act structure, without being slavish to it, or to genre. Again, you go in as prepared as possible, then you can deviate from the plan. But in general, most audience members want to have characters who develop and change and a story that flows from those character arcs. I also try to flesh out the world and particularly the characters as much as I can in advance. This often means research – either visiting or reading about the milieu you’re trying to evoke – and really trying to spend some time in the head of each character.

E: What are the best 3 pieces of advice you’ve gotten about writing/filmmaking? What would you add to that when you advise others?

B: 1) Know what you want. Know the root of your idea and what excites you about it, and try to remain true to that. And my addition to that would be to know how far you can give on it (because you probably will have to give, either because of someone else’s ego or money or bad weather or just plain bad luck) without losing sight of what the work means to you.

2) Again, preparation. Do your homework. Then do it again.

3) Enjoy it. Sometimes it’s a grind and it’s hard to remember we’re doing this because we love it. We’re making movies! And I’d add to that: continue to do your own work and don’t get sidetracked by the “glamour.”

E: Why aren’t there more established women screenwriters and filmmakers in the industry? Where is the problem?

B: You know, it’s still very tough out there for women, and the reasons have more to do with the industry and what is perceived as being “marketable” than with overt prejudice. Although that still exists. Believe me, after nearly 15 years in the business, I still get meet men all the time who just automatically assume that because I’m a short blonde female that I don’t know how to do my job – or any job, other than arm candy. But worse, because the film business is, above all, a business, it’s about minimizing risk. So the powers that greenlight often go with a tried-and-true formula, or at least something that makes them comfortable. And who are they? Well, by and large they’re men. This is why Will Ferrell, God bless him, can continue to make the same movie over and over again with alternate big hair while a lot of us get told that comedies with female main characters don’t sell. Of course, as an audience, we’re culpable too: we’re conditioned to want movies with archetypal male characters who go on to save the day, no matter what stupid shit happens along the way. And as long as that’s what we pay for, it’s what we’re going to get. But I do think things are changing. There are a lot of talented women writers and directors out there creating interesting and complex stories and characters and an audience of grown-ups that I think is hungry for them – and a whole host of fantastic actresses ready and waiting for those parts.

E: What have you sacrificed to get to where you are today? What makes it all worth while?

B: Sure, I’ve sacrificed a few things. My knees. The chance to pay off my student loans before I turn 40. Billable hours (remember, I coulda gone to law school!). But when you’re flying off to Vegas to work on a project you’re excited about, life seems pretty good. Although it would seem a lot better if we knew we had money for post…

Betsy Nagler is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, writer and location sound lackey. Her directing credits include short fiction films and industrials; ‘do, a documentary on how people feel about their hair which was awarded completion funding from the New York State Council on the Arts [watch trailer]; video letter segments for the popular Nickelodeon television show Blue’s Clues; and her current documentary work-in-progress, Flat Daddy. She continues to write short stories, screenplays about subjects such as reality television and suburban crime, and essays about her experiences doing location sound for feature films, episodic television, and Verizon commercials with the guy who says, “Can you hear me now?” She can be contacted at bnagler@dofilms.com.

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