Drea Cooper partners with Zackary Canepari on “California is a Place,” a series of films chosen as our latest Notable Narrative. Cooper has done documentary work in Colombia, Kosovo and India, as well as commercials for Apple, adidas and Google, but Cooper and Canepari create the California stories on their own time. In these excerpts from a phone conversation earlier this week, Cooper talks about the fine line between journalism and art, his hopes for nudging viewers toward fresh perspectives, and why there are no women in the series.
How do you describe “California is a Place”?
It’s a good question. The short version is “California is a Place” is essentially an online series of short documentaries about curious subjects and interesting people in California.
What made you decide to start doing it?
My partner Zack and I had worked together in some capacity years ago. He’s a photojournalist by trade, and I make TV commercials, and I’ve done other long-format documentary work. Last summer he moved back into town from India, and we were like, “Hey, let’s get together and start working on some stuff.” We were thinking about what kind of films we wanted to make, and when we started this a year ago, I think we were seeing the new opportunities for short format really taking hold online. The advent of Vimeo has really helped create a platform for short-format work.
Initially, it was just our interest in getting the band back together, so to speak, and working on something. A friend of mine mentioned the foreclosure skater story in Fresno. Zack and I were like, “Oh, that’s exactly the kind of story we want to be telling.” We hopped on it and called Josh Peacock on a Wednesday, and by Friday, we were in Fresno shooting.
You’ve done documentary work; you’ve done commercial work for big clients. Visually, how do you see the “California is a Place” fitting in along that spectrum?
I think it’s a little hard to talk about that without either you having seen some of the other work or us dissecting the work. But to get to your point about how do we think or approach “California is a Place” visually and what are some of the questions that come out of our approach – first and foremost, it’s a visual medium. Film is a visual medium. So for Zack and I, No. 1, it’s all about the visuals.
The visuals and the story go hand in hand, but in order to convey that story, we have to think about it visually. For us, the California series is a perfect example for how Zack and I like to tell stories visually. There’s a huge emphasis on the aesthetic of the visual in “California is a Place.” People can describe it many ways, but for us, it’s a painterly approach. We like to look at situations, whatever the circumstances are that we’re in, whatever is the story we’re trying to tell, and we figure out how are we going to frame this in a way that helps propel and move the story forward and convey the information we’re trying to get across.
Sometimes that involves very simple static shots, like in Big Vinny, where it’s almost like a photograph, one after the next after the next. Every once in a while the camera is tilted and turned in a way where it makes you say, “Oh, OK. Something is a little off here.” There’s a whole industry going to shit, what Big Vinny had to say about the good old days and how things have changed. For us just turning the camera a little bit can help a viewer say, “Oh, maybe I should look at this a little differently.”
I noticed that you take it in and out of focus on that one.
There’s composition, obviously, and then another detail is focus. For focus, we’ll go in and out of focus on certain subjects or objects and draw attention in to a certain detail, while at other times you can hide other details in the shot. By choosing a point of focus, you’re telling the viewer, “Pay attention to this guy, pay attention to his hand. Look at this person’s musical instrument, or don’t be distracted by all the other stuff on the table. Just look at this one detail.”
This is nothing new in terms of visual storytelling or filmmaking. People have been using focus and composition from Day One, but I think what strikes people about the California series is that there isn’t a single shot in there that isn’t thought out, or that’s haphazardly stuck in to fill a gap. We have the luxury of working in a five- to seven-minute format. You open it up to an hour, and you’re telling different stories. There’s more room for filler, but what we’re trying to do is make every single shot count. Sometimes those are still, quiet, painterly shots. Sometimes they’re fast-moving shots. Sometimes they’re slow motion. Obviously it’s more complicated than that. You add music to it, then there’s the pacing of the edits. Once you start adding music, people start asking questions: “Where’s the line between documentary and art filmmaking? Are you doing journalism, or are you just making entertainment?”
That’s a little what I wanted to get to. Do you see this fitting into journalism or art?
That’s what’s so tricky about what journalists are up against. Zack and I certainly don’t consider ourselves journalists, although Zack works as photojournalist, and when he is hired by newspapers and publications to go shoot photos, he switches gears. When we’re making films, we think of ourselves as filmmakers.
But at the same time, when we’re working with real people, who have real stories, we’re trying to be as honest and authentic to that person’s story and that person’s world as possible while still embracing this idea that the maker is right in the middle of this story. The person who’s making the thing has a hand in it. There’s a huge distinction between what we’re doing with “California is a Place,” and what The New York Times videographers do when they go to do a story. There’s a certain format that those guys follow, and it keeps within the realm where the rules have in some ways been laid out pretty clearly for how you tell visual stories.
I don’t think journalists have the freedom and capacity to explore visually some of their stories. It’s pretty straightforward. You go, interview the guy, you get some audio, and you narrate. You essentially do a radio piece with some pictures. Sometimes those stories are interesting, because you want to follow them anyway, but do they give you goosebumps? Are you emotionally impacted in the same way by one of those pieces as you are by a film? I don’t know, and that’s where the line starts to become challenging for people who are on both sides of it.
In print, narrative journalism is often defined as true stories with characters in a setting who change over time. These videos feel more static than that in some ways, but they do seem to say things about the ways in which California is changing or has changed. Do you think of the individual films or the project as narrative?
Oh, yeah. I think each film for us stands on its own. It’s a complete story in and of itself. It’s complete within the five to seven minutes that it has to present itself. Is it a complete telling of that person’s life? Absolutely not. Is it a complete telling of the issues related to the situation? Of course not. Is it a glimpse into what this person is dealing with? Yeah. Is it emotional and impactful? We hope so. That’s what we’re hoping to do – to make people go, “I’m engaged. I’m interested in what this person is doing or has to say, or where this person lives.”
From there, if you look at “Borderland,” for example, we don’t want to be didactic with any of our films. We want people to present their ideas and opinions and we do everything we can as filmmakers to present that information in a way that allows a viewer to still draw his or her own opinions or make his or her own conclusions.
Each film stands on its own, but as a collection, these are short stories about, for the most part, big issues that California deals with: immigration, the economy, the arts – and deviant culture with respect to “Honey Pie.” There’s definitely an argument to be made for the narrative style or the narrative form in some of the work we’re doing.
Do you feel an accountability to the larger theme? Your commitment is to the small piece of the story, because that’s what you’re tackling, but how do you balance that with the larger issues at hand? It feels like you’re balancing.
What we’ve tried to do with most of these stories is that we start with a big theme, a big issue. “Borderland” is about immigration, for the most part. They’re short films, so I think we get away with a lot in terms of not having to take up the responsibility of hearing all the other voices in the argument or hearing other people talking about it. They’re short for that very reason, too. So, here’s just a moment with one person. You can add his opinions or idea to your own conversation that you may be having about immigration.
The last thing we want to do is let someone like Dick go on and on, not just about his issues regarding his daughter’s addiction or why he’s doing what he’s doing. But of course, that guy went on to talk for another hour and a half about nothing but politics. We chose not to include all of that stuff, because for us, that just became more of the same. That’s an argument or an opinion that we’ve heard before. For us what was much more interesting was to explore the landscape this guy lives in. Let’s explore the border itself. Let’s see the fence up close and personal in almost every shot, because for Zack and I, we’d never seen it like that. We live in California, and I’ve been over the border a dozen times, but I’d never seen the fence. It’s a fairly new thing – that huge 18-foot fence was just built in the last five years.
Do we feel a responsibility to kind of deal with the bigger issues and tease them out more? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think we’re skirting a responsibility, either. We’re very conscious about how we frame peoples’ stories and what we choose to include and what we choose to cut. The whole idea is to create a piece where we feel like it’s a fairly honest portrayal of what this person thinks and feels, in an edited version.
Who or what inspires you?
As in other people who’ve inspired what we’re doing now?
Zack and I talk about “Baraka” all the time. You know “Baraka”?
The film? Yes.
That to us is an amazing and beautiful film. I was in college in 1995, and a friend screened it in our dorms. So, that was definitely an inspiration.
Errol Morris has also been a big influence on me, and I think when you asked some of those earlier questions about journalism and art and journalism and cinema, I think Errol Morris is definitely a filmmaker whose body of work does nothing but complicate those questions. I’ve learned a lot from watching his films.
In terms of other narrative films, not documentaries, but fiction, Alejandro González Iñárritu – one of his first films was “Amores Perros.” He’s a filmmaker who moves the camera in a way that creates an immediacy, you feel connected to the people you’re watching and the environment you’re in. That’s not easy to do, so we take some cues from him, too, especially in that film… “Babel” was good, too.
And “Amélie,”everybody loves “Amélie.” It’s a great study of narrative, too.
Anything else you want to say about “California is a Place?”
I’m just surprised we haven’t gotten more criticism for not having any women represented, other than the dolls. So I guess you could ask me the hard-hitting question about why we haven’t focused on any women.
So how come you haven’t focused on any women?
The ones we have managed to find haven’t panned out, but we do have one coming. It’s the story of an elderly synchronized swimming team. It’s a group of elderly women who live in a retirement community, but we’re focused on one character, a female character named Margot, who’s 79. But that’s all I can tell you.
We’d love to follow more women’s stories, but it sort of comes down to the situation. We’re two guys, and it’s not always easy connecting with different women to tell certain stories. I think it creates a whole sort of set of challenges when it comes to access, but there are definitely some women-centered stories we’d like to do.