Laura Israel on ‘Don’t Blink: Robert Frank’ and Subject Matter Dictating Documentary Form

By Jamie Maleszka

New York Film Festival

An unconventional life calls for an unconventional telling. Laura Israel’s biographical portrait of iconoclast photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank is tailor-made to its subject. Unorthodox in structure and aesthetic, Don’t Blink: Robert Frank is an associative mosaic with a rock-and-roll heartbeat, a blend of the photographer’s black-and-white still images and his avant-garde films with snippets of interviews, both new and old. It aims to capture the experience and singular essence of his body of work. Revealing without divulging, daring, blurred and human, Don’t Blink is a survivor’s necklace strung with gems and stones from a lifetime of artistry on the outer verges.

Israel’s vantage point is a unique one. She has been collaborating with Frank as an editor on his experimental films since the 1990’s. Theirs is a friendship shored by kindred decisiveness and in her own words, “spontaneous intuition.” That shared understanding may have helped to disarm Frank’s notoriously sharp criticisms. “He has never really been that way with me,” she says, “which I’m always surprised about. Everyone is surprised about.”

I shared a telephone chat with Israel the morning following the film’s world premiere screenings at this year’s New York Film Festival. Quick to laughter, she talked openly on why subject matter should necessitate invention of form, how she mines for stories beneath those regularly told and allowing Frank’s work to speak for itself.

Nonfics: Don’t Blink feels almost like this strophe and antistrophe, this call and response between you and the work of Robert Frank. Did you know from the outset that the style of the film would serve his aesthetic?

Laura Israel: I think this is where I depart from other documentary filmmakers. I don’t think that there should be a form that you should follow. I think the form should be invented with the subject matter. I think in order to best show Robert Frank, you have to come up with a documentary form that lends itself. In that way, it’s really interesting to me to try to figure out how to do that. I put a lot of thought into it before shooting. How we could shoot it that we could incorporate his work and that what we were shooting would go with that. That was our mission. A lot of what Robert wants to say he says in his work. I recognize that and wanted to show that.

New York Film Festival

In the film, a woman says that his pictures need no caption. The images say all they have to. You stick with the same sentiment. There are minimal talking head interviews. It’s close to the vest and let’s the work speak for itself.

That’s exactly how I felt. I have the access, and to have access to Robert was one of the biggest things of the film. Having access to him and also his work was so powerful and such a unique opportunity, I thought why not? Why do I need to go and have an interview with a curator? I can always get that. That access to him was unique and I also thought why not emanate from Robert. Have the whole thing emanate from him.

You also capture the duality in Robert’s work. There is this sense of both mystery and presence, and a spontaneity and haphazardness while still being detailed and accurate.

Well, in the same way that it was sort of Robert-specifc. I tried to sort of emulate what Robert did with The Americans. He put the way he felt at the time into the photos. So, I tried to do that. This is my take on him, my point of view. That’s why the music choices were made. That was my interpretation. Otherwise, it would become more of that set documentary form that to me is less interesting.

Somebody asked me if I watched other documentaries about filmmakers and did that inform what I did here. And I did see a few other ones but they didn’t inform it. They actually showed me what I didn’t want to do [Laughs]. I saw documentaries where I felt I knew everything about the artist and why they did everything, but I was so bored with it. The artwork appealed to me more before seeing the documentary. After I saw it, I kinda look at it and said well, yeah, now I know exactly what that’s about and now it doesn’t hold the same interest to me. I kinda wanted to not do that [Laughs].

New York Film Festival

It’s the difference between a slideshow of someone’s life and actually conveying the spirit of their work.

Right. I felt like there are all these different ways you can consume media nowadays. Some people complain about the film, saying, “Oh I can’t look at this.” I’m like: go get a book. Or go see a show. That’s a different ways of looking at it. This is a time/space medium that aims to make the work accessible to people that know it well and some people who don’t know it all. So it’s riding a fine line. I’m just trying to motivate people to maybe go find out more or to look at it a different way so that when they see it again, they can stand on their own with it. I felt it really necessary that my inspiration be in it. That I’m adding to it.

The film requires active engagement from its viewer. It made me wander back over to my bookshelf and leaf through The Americans. I also remembered first coming into contact with Robert’s work. As a teenager, Pull My Daisy was showing at Film Forum. Now, I had been milk-fed on Back to the Future and Top Gun. So, watching that film blew my mind. I didn’t even know that style of filmmaking was even an option.

[Laughs] Oh that’s so great.

Do you feel that this was your story to tell? It feels like the detours of life and friendship brought this documentary into your eventual crossroads?

I guess half of it is that I know Robert and he trusts me. The other part of it is that he’s ready to tell his story now. I think that’s part of it too. It just happened at the right time. And I made it pretty painless for him, I have to say. [Laughs] I don’t think I really didn’t push him too much because I know him pretty well. I’m more like him in a way that I enjoy going with the flow. Whenever we were setting up a shoot, I’d set up a few different things and we’d just play it by ear. For me, that’s more interesting anyway, when things are more organic. I’m more interested in that. I think he and I are more like-minded in that way. I think he always likes my not being too sensitive. I don’t make a big fuss. And I don’t make it out to be too much of what it shouldn’t be. It’s more like, okay this is a simple story. I’m trying to tell the story. We’ll work on that.

And letting discoveries happen along the way.

Right. It’s a little bit organic. I do have to say that once I did the research, I really had a lot more of a beginning, middle and end in mind for the film. The way I wanted it to unfold was there were these points I wanted to hit, but I tried to be flexible. Because there are always those stories that you tell and then there are those stories that are underneath, that kind of come up to the surface at some point. So, to let that happen rather than already deciding what it is about, you need to discover it a little bit. I think it’s more interesting that way.

New York Film Festival

I’d imagine that’s were your curiosity gets the real workout, in the actual in-real-time, on-camera exploration of the story.

Right. I mean my main reason in doing the film was to sort of hang out with Robert and find out more about him. And within doing a film, meeting people and finding about them, that’s what’s really interesting. And having been an editor for years, my favorite thing is outtakes. You know, for some reason, the whole film having a feeling of being an outtake is very interesting to me. I mean, obviously if it makes it into the film then it’s not an outtake, but it’s the feeling. I’m drawn to it more.

You feel like you are catching a glimpse of authenticity. A peak behind the curtain.

Yeah. Like you’re let in somehow.

Was there anything in particular that you did to maintain that balance between friendship and that of subject and filmmaker?

I don’t know to be honest with you [Laughs]. The first time I ever worked with him, he came over to my studio. We were on 3/4 videotape. We had to look at all the footage and make a select reel so you don’t have to press forward and rewind so much. I said to him offhandedly, “We’re going to make the select reel. Should I prepare to go back to the originals? Are you going to want to go back once we do this?” And he said, “No. First thought. Best thought. Once we do this, we don’t go back, we move forward.” I said to myself at that moment, this is my kind of director. And I do the same thing. The first thing I do is watch the footage and then that’s it. Whatever the intuition is, I’ve realized very early on that two months from now, two years from now, those same shots are going to appeal to me in the same way. I think that’s one thing that Robert and I have in common. I also have a bit of that spontaneous intuition. It was easier then for us to move forward together.