This interview was originally published on the Documentary Channel Blog during Hot Docs on April 25, 2013. It is being reposted here now that the film is on VOD.
The 2013 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival opens tonight with a fresh new voice in nonfiction filmmaking. My initial reaction to Shawney Cohen’s feature debut, titled The Manor, is that it’s like Crazy Horse as made by Ross McElwee. But while it is a personal film about Cohen’s family and the strip club they own and work at, it’s stylistically and thematically unlike either of those comparisons. The doc primarily tells the story of Cohen’s obese father and anorexic mother, putting himself in only as a supporting character who is also the narrator. And the strip club merely serves as a setting, where naked women walking around is just a normal part of the background.
I talked to Cohen earlier this week as he was finishing up a shift as bar manager of the club, and the conversation went a lot longer than I’d expected. He’s not just some novice documentarian who took an easy in by filming his family. He knows documentaries, he’s conscious of his technical choices as a filmmaker and he’s open to discussing the process at length. I could have guessed all this from the way he speaks in the film’s narration. So, I invite you to read this long interview, even if you haven’t seen the film. It’s a pretty great bunch of answers for and from a relative newcomer, and I do believe we’ll be hearing about and from him a lot in the future.
Documentary Channel: What did your family think of you filming them all the time? Did they expect it to turn into a legitimate feature like this?
Shawney Cohen: In the beginning I’m not sure what they expected. This was my first feature, and they knew I was involved a bit in film before. But I think their expectation, to be quite frank, was low. I look back now and think that was one of my best assets, because if they knew it would be in a bunch of festivals and have critical acclaim and open theatrically in Canada nationwide they probably would have reacted quite differently.
I didn’t just show up one day and say I’m making a film. I’d worked here for quite a long time before I decided to pick up a camera. I showed some footage to a producer friend in New York and she was amazed by it. For me it didn’t seem like the biggest deal because I grew up with this. It was very normal to me, getting a lap dance when I was 13. I was so immersed in it at such a young age. I didn’t think anyone would be interested in this material.
I kinda got addicted to filming my father for other reasons. One of the first times I shot him he was on the phone talking to a friend in Israel. I couldn’t understand quite what they were saying, but he was so unaware of the camera he literally just jumped into the lens. I didn’t know I was going to make a documentary at that point. I just liked filming my father. So, for months I just did that. I acquired quite a bunch of footage before we got a production company involved and went to broadcasters.
It wasn’t until I filmed my mother where things started to change. It was interesting because we never really talked about her disorder, but for some reason when I pointed a camera at her she kinda used it as a tool and opened up and said things to me I wasn’t expecting. It slowly just manifested into what it is. It wasn’t a big decision to make the film off the bat.
What do they think now that it’s done and getting a lot of notice? Are they still okay with it?
They are. Surprisingly. I thought they would have more of a problem. I was really worried. I showed it to them four or five months ago and it was the longest 80 minutes of my life. I didn’t know how they’d react. I was a little nervous. I didn’t know if my mother or my father would freak out. It is truthful, but they liked it. One of the things my mother said immediately after the screening was, she looked at my father and said, “Roger, that’s you.”
That made me feel a lot better. I think the reason they liked it is because I went to great lengths to tell the truth and not make an overly crafted documentary. I don’t mind some of these documentaries that come out that have a lot of craft and techniques to make you more interested in the story, but for this I thought when it comes to my family it’s only going to work if I just let their stories really be their stories and not change anything and let the chips fall where they may.
So when they watched it, there’s not much they could say. My father was pleasantly surprised. He thought it would be a lot harder to watch. He said he wished he could see more.
Did you set out knowing you wanted to focus on your parents’ eating disorders?
No. I filmed everything. I filmed like 200 hours of footage. Everything from crazy stripper stories to some of the life of The Manor. There’s crazy history, like it was owned by one of biggest beer moguls in the country. It was his house, and he bought it in the late 1800s. During Prohibition, the rumor was that Al Capone would stay here because of its location to Detroit. What I found interesting about the building itself and this complex is it’s always had some deviant history.
It became obvious what the story needed to be when I was filming my parents, because they were the heart and soul of the film. I knew that it was very much about addiction at a certain point, probably halfway through, because my father was completely obsessed with his health, his mortality, his weight. My mother, the same. I found that their images were completely opposite, and I found that fascinating against the backdrop of a business that is completely dependent on image.
For me, that was the only story. I focused on them. Out of that it just became about their relationship. People ask me what it’s about and I’m hesitant to say it’s about a strip club. It’s about my parents’ relationship and human nature and addiction.
Saying it’s about a strip club, though, will get more people to see it.
For sure. I’ve been arguing with people who really want to push the strip club angle. I’m curious to see what people will think of it. A lot of the press in the write ups about it really push this idea that it’s a film about a strip club. And there’s very little of the actual strip club in the film when you think about it.
Hopefully it will be a pleasant surprise and people won’t be shocked.
I like that you start out more expositional than you wind up being throughout. Can you talk about the narration and how much you wanted to say and comment on and where you decided not to?
That was a crazy process. There was more narration in the original cut. It was a lot about my story. But it became obvious that my problems and my approach and my issues paled in comparison to my father and mother. I felt like, for lack of a better word, the normal one in the family. When I tried to include more narration about my problems, they fell flat and were almost narcissistic.
I switched the narration to be more about me telling the audience how I felt about what they’re seeing. That felt inappropriate as well, because the images did a lot of the talking for us. I don’t like overly narrated films. In the end, it felt most appropriate to get in with me because I’m a storyteller and that’s what I do. I’m part of the story but I really set up the film in the first two minutes, give you some context in the first eight or nine minutes, and then the story gets going. Once we know what the first act is and who these people are and we get an idea of what we’re watching, the film takes over and really tells the story itself.
You can make an argument that it’s lacking in narration in the middle, but I think there’s enough of me in it. We tested the film with a few audiences and a lot of people required more narration and wanted more and more. I was really surprised. You need to pay attention to the film and watch it and let the film unfold. You get kind of lazy when you’re over-describing things. I guess people just have short attention spans.
It’s interesting that you allow yourself to be so in front of the camera so much. A lot of personal documentarians shoot everything themselves so it’s more first- person and they’re sort of hidden. What made you choose to do it this way?
I did shoot a lot of it myself, but I had a good team around me filming as well. It just needed to be like that. I needed to be part of the journey, because I am a part of this journey. Without me in it, it would have felt a lot more absent. It was done for reasons of balance. It would be awkward to film my family and just be behind the camera. It would be a completely different film. I wanted it to be a family story about the four of us.
In many ways it’s also about me and my issues. I haven’t seen too many films done like this before. There’s a film that really inspired me, John Maringouin’s Running Stumbled. He also filmed his family. He’s this Hollywood guy who comes back to Louisiana to visit his parents for the first time in like 20 years. And when he gets to the house, he finds the family are drug addicts. I love how he put himself in the film. He had one of his friends filming him.
That he was involved was really fascinating because he directed but it was his family and he was a part of it and he wanted to see his reaction on camera, not behind the camera. In a very similar structure, he was in it quite a bit in the beginning to set up the story, and then was in and out of the film after that. It was a big inspiration because I felt like it would be okay to approach a film like this.
And ironically enough, for those who do hide behind the camera, the film ends up being more about them anyway.
There are no set rules to making docs. One interesting thing, as well, is what I didn’t shoot. When not to shoot is just as important as what you shoot. There are moments that were fascinating but I thought inappropriate to put in the film. You take criticism as a director for doing that, but you reach a certain point while filming your family where you have to answer the question of whether you’re going to follow common guidelines of film ethics or family ethics.
Film ethics is to tell the complete story of them, and by the end of it family ethics trump all. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to tell the truth, but there are boundaries with people’s privacy that you should respect. I think family ethics prevailed and it was more important to follow those guidelines than the opposite.
I wasn’t entirely clear, did you live with your parents while you were shooting?
I live in Toronto. When I was shooting the film I moved out of my apartment for a bit, and to save money I actually moved into the Manor. I lived with Bobby, one of the characters you see in the film. That was interesting. For six or seven months I lived upstairs with him. That was fun. That was the point in the film when I got my best footage, because I was always around here.
There’s a scene with my father yelling at Bobby for selling heroin. Access like that came about because I was living here. My father woke me up at 9 o’clock in the morning, and he was pissed. I asked him what was wrong and he said, “I have to talk to Bobby about drugs.” I just grabbed my camera and ran downstairs and shot that scene. That would never have happened if I hadn’t been staying here.
It was an amazing experience. For me it felt like I was living in a Bukowski novel for a bit. It was nuts, but it was great. There was something quite amazing about the people and their stories here.
From my conversations with documentary filmmakers I’ve noticed a lot of the ones who get the best material are those who move in either with the subjects or nearby, as opposed to those who just come around occasionally to see if anything is happening with the story.
The best documentaries I’ve seen in the last while, the filmmakers really immersed themselves in the subject. One of my favorite films of the last few years is Undefeated. It is a football movie, not terribly a subject I was interested in, but it is such a good doc. I saw an interview with the director and he literally immersed himself with the football team for three years. He said he hadn’t really talked to his family much. He missed weddings and birthdays. And after three years he came out of a bubble.
But it was a testament to how good the film is and the footage he got. Films like these are all about access and how close you get to the material and how often you’re able to film. He got the moment where the football coach tells the kid for the first time he got a scholarship and the fight in the locker room. You can only get these moments when you’re this close to the subjects and you’re shooting all the time. It’s really tough to give yourself a two month deadline and say you have to be done by a certain date. Especially these verite films.
But they’re exhausting. People ask me what my next film is, and I want to think hard about that. I have some ideas, but it’s really important to find a subject you’re going to fall in love with and be able to spend two or three years of your life with, because that’s how long they take to make. This film took three years to shoot and a year and a half to edit. I can’t imagine how it could have been any other way. That’s just how it needed it to be.
You’re not a co-editor of the film, as some documentarians are. Were you mostly hands off?
I was hands off in the beginning and then I became more hands on towards the end of the edit. Once I saw the direction it was going there were artistic decisions that I thought I could comment on as a director. We had a very talented editor, Seth Poulin. He did The Bodybuilder and I, which I really like. That’s kinda why I chose him, because of the approach he had with that film.
I imagine it’s very hard in the beginning to be objective and also difficult to re-watch some of that material.
It’s hard to watch the footage. I had to organize it all before we got the editor, so for me the toughest process was watching the footage. It took me four months to go through it all. It was difficult, especially with my mother. When you’re filming it you’re kind of removed a little bit. Because I’m in a lot of the shots I hadn’t actually seen what it looked like.
It seemed like a more fun process in the beginning, and the context seemed more playful, but when I watched it and started cataloging it, it was very obvious that it was going to be more of a tragedy. That surprised me. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about how everything seemed normal in my life. But when you watch and analyze all the footage you realize the topics are very serious. That was one of the most difficult times in my life going through that footage.
I really like the music, and I never really ask filmmakers about the score. What can you tell me about yours?
It was done by Jim Guthrie. He’s quite talented. He’s a composer in Toronto. What I like about Jim is you’ll give him an idea and he’ll work with you and give you an option and if you don’t like it he’ll give you two or three more options in the next two or three days. I like composers that are really versatile and will find what you’re looking for and don’t necessarily fall in love with every piece of music they use. For me that’s really important with music. It’s so subjective. He’s so willing to give you different takes and tones and viewing and doesn’t just stick to his guns and say, “I need this scene to be like this.”
Tell me about the honor of opening Hot Docs. It’s pretty awesome for a brand new voice to get that slot I’m sure.
It surprised me. If you look back at the type of films that opened the festival, last year was the Ai Weiwei film, the year before was Morgan Spurlock. Quite a long line of social issue documentaries and documentaries that are quite different than this film.
I was really grateful. I think it’s a very brave decision for Hot Docs to do that. Then it just became a whirlwind. Tons of press and everyone wanting to know about the film and my family. It just happened kind of recently so I’m still digesting what the film means and how it will be received. It feels like a great honor. It was stressful, but now it feels more rewarding. Especially when the reviews come out and are positive. People seem to like the film. That for me was the most important thing, legitimizing it.
Have you contemplated the possibility of this being a success that could take you out of The Manor for good and into a career?
It’s funny, people ask me that, and I kinda want to continue working here. I don’t think there’s a problem in that. I consider myself a strip club manager and a filmmaker. I don’t know why that’s so unusual for people to understand. It’s okay to have these two jobs. I hope to start a new film this summer but I don’t want to give up my shifts at The Manor. It’s still a part of my life and will be a part of my life.
I don’t think it’s unusual, but I felt like at least in the beginning of the film you seemed like you wanted to get out.
Something changed. I became closer to my family through this process. I became less judgmental of the business. Over the past few years it’s just been more fun. I’ve accepted it more. I found it interesting that I wanted to continue to work here. That’s what’s changed most in my journey.
This is re-printed with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.