Time Frames: an interview with John Price by Chris Gehman


John Price is an important member of a new generation of filmmakers whose working methods anticipate a time when many of the services and products that independent filmmaker have traditionally counted on to allow them to work may disappear. Price routinely processes his own camera rolls, cuts his own negatives, and prints his own release prints. His films are made up of observational material gathered in the course of everyday life; he finances his personal filmmaking pratice by working as a camera assistant in the commercial industry. Price’s films have screened widely in Canada and at international festivals, and he has been profiled in retrospective screenings in Vancouver and Munich, as well as one presented by Toronto’s Pleasure Dome collective. His 35mm film Farewell was commissioned for the Images Festival’s 2003 Minute Movies program, and his newest film, Passages, premieres at this September’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Chris Gehman: How did you start making films?

John Price: I started in black-and-white still photography, while I was doing a Bachelor of Commerce degree. I spent a lot of time in the darkroom and became more and more interested in images. From there I began shooting super-8 films, and then 16mm, in order to introduce the element of time… At a certain point, static images just weren’t enough for me. I learned how to process my own films very quickly, since it was the same type of film and the same chemistry I had been using for stills. My first two super-8 films were short dramas, really terrible, and after that I started just documenting everyday things. I didn’t want to involve other people, I was more interested in representing my internal states. It was closer to the process of shooting still photographs, collecting images and then sequencing them after the fact.

This was in Toronto; I was shooting a lot of film while working as a marketing manager for a division of Bell Canada, playing golf on Thursdays (laughs). After I moved to Vancouver, I found a JK optical printer at Simon Fraser University. My first experience was a classic JK story: I saw all my super-8 material destroyed because the machine was so badly maintained. The film that came out looked really beautiful, but the original footage was destroyed. Then I joined Cineworks, the equivalent of LIFT in Vancouver. They had a 16mm/35mm Oxberry that had basically been unused, and I took it upon myself to learn how to use it. That opened a lot of doors, because it was a lot more reliable than the JK, and a lot faster. I moved to Montreal, where I did an MFA at Concordia, and had a lot of help from the NFB lab there, which is how I started experimenting with colour printing.

I was still shooting friends, events or places I found interesting. There came a time when a bunch of rolls of film would start to make sense together and I’d chop them up and reorganize them, and they’d start to exist as a complete film. Over time the idea of these films as kind of diary started to emerge. I moved back and forth between school in Montreal and working in the industry in Vancouver; I stayed in Vancouver for four more years once I was finished at Concordia, trying to finish a longer film. Finally I got a grant to complete it, that was After Eden—and I moved to Toronto as soon as it was done. That was a hard film to finish.

Chris Gehman: It sounds like you have a lot more raw material than finished films.

John Price: The filing cabinet keeps growing. I have rolls and rolls and rolls. There’s lots of material that has started to make sense together, I just haven’t had time to work on it. I could stop shooting now and probably have enough material to keep me working for the rest of my life. One thing I’ve gotten away from is all the optical printing, which is so time-consuming. The processing is really important, but I’m trying not to get so involved in printing.

Chris Gehman: After Eden showed at the Toronto International Festival, and you’ve had a few retrospective screenings. How do you feel about showing your work?

John Price: For me the filmmaking process is really the most important thing. It’s a kind of meditation, looking back at your life and seeing how you’ve changed, or how you haven’t. Exhibition is fine, it’s really nice to see what you’ve worked on in that kind of space, but that’s definitely not what motivates me to make movies. Exhibition is more the means to facilitate the ability to make more work. The retrospectives have been good experiences because you can really see a progression and people get a sense of where the work’s going.

Chris Gehman: I found it very useful to watch your films all at the same time. Wreck/nation was one of the few recent films I’ve seen that said something about Canada without being too self-conscious or feeling like it was simply an entry on one side of a current debate.

John Price: It was on the edge for me… That was my first experiment with colour processing and printing and with repetition. I was at Concordia at the time, so there was a lot more theoretical stuff coming at me. Rick Hancox was my thesis advisor and he was giving me Harold Innis to read and then the referendum was going on, which was impossible to ignore. The images of the train wreck have a lot of resonance for me from that time period, when I was driving across the country every year.

Chris Gehman: Tell me about the new film, Passages.

John Price: Two years ago I went on a trip, starting around Christmas in Geneva. From there I took the train to Munich, then to Budapest and Bucharest and finally to Istanbul. I had ten 100-foot rolls and a Bolex and basically I just shot the way I always do, with an open mind, just documentary/observational stuff. When I arrived in southern Turkey I found all these ruins, and there was no one around. I was sitting in this huge empty amphitheatre, made to seat 25,000 people, and there was a family in the distance, under an olive tree, shaking the tree to get the olives down. Then I looked back to see this enormous theatre and imagined, maybe, the plays of Sophocles being presented at the beginning of, well, western civilization. That was the most powerful moment I experienced so a lot of the footage was structured with that in mind.

I didn’t shoot a lot on the trip, I only had those ten rolls. But usually if I see something particularly powerful or striking I’ll write about it in my journal and those images will inform the way I structure the film later on.

I toured around Turkey for a month, and ended up on the Mediterranean in the middle of winter. Every morning the fishing boats would go out, and I was seeing people do things more or les the way they have for centuries. That was the feeling I wanted to get across… The whole question of tradition in contrast to the way we live in modern urban space. The way people have lived for thousands of years versus the way great civilizations have arisen and then ceased to be. Obviously the ruins were the most telling sign of the fragility of civilizations. There is a whole section of ruins in the film, which follows a section on people doing everyday things in modern urban settings. It’s structured in chapters, a lot like After Eden.

Chris Gehman: Tell me something about the larger film you have planned, that you’ve applied for funding to make. Of course, this is in the context of a forthcoming child.

John Price: …and a new house and a career change, probably… Well, it’s a lot simpler. I’ll be shooting with an old hand-cranked 35mm camera. The idea is to make an almanac-one film a week for a year. Each film will be about a minute-and-a-half long, with a title identifying where it was shot. I’ll make the prints myself on the Oxberry at LIFT.

I guess that ‘s something I’m exploring: whether to continue to do filmmaking in a traditional way, using all these now-arcane techniques, processing my own footage, negative cutting, hot-splicing, not involving a laboratory at all. I’m concerned with the balance between the personal and the technological within the frame; it will look like it was shot one hundred years ago, but there will be landmarks that are obviously contemporary. I’m also interested in the balance between domestic rituals and public spaces-shooting at home with the baby and then at nuclear power plants in Pickering. It’s an experiment, and I’m not sure if these short vignettes are going to work end-to-end in the context of a feature-length film.

Chris Gehman: Certain things in your films remind me of some other Canadian filmmakers: Jack Chambers, Philip Hoffman, Barbara Sternberg… to what extend are you working consciously in relation to that tradition?

John Price: For me it’s really an intuitive process, and it grows out of photography. A desire to frame things, and a love of texture, a love of the medium. I haven’t watched a lot of experimental films. Although when I saw Barbara Sternberg’s stuff I was mesmerized.

I’ve seen a lot of drama and love some of it. Conventional cinema really influenced me: the way things are lit, the way things are framed, and way the camera moves. But the whole organizational aspect is way beyond the scope of what I want to take on. I just want to say something very small. Actually, I don’t want to say anything. I just want to take photographs, but the element of time is so alluring. And the meditative space you enter into when you’ve working on these images is really valuable. The way the meaning of the images change over time and the people who inhabit the frames speak to you in a different way.

Chris Gehman: You’ve been pretty candid about the fact that in your professional work as a camera assistant you’re often working on material that’s basically crap. Is there any kind of positive relationship between that work and your personal work, other than the fact that it pays well and gives you breaks to work on your own films between jobs?

John Price: Actually the experience is very rich and in a strange way I enjoy the work. The people you work with are very creative and the process inspires me to do my own stuff because you use the same basic materials to make completely different kind of things. That work engages a different part of my brain, and gives me a break from the tortures of structuring the kinds of disparate material I’m working with. It’s much simpler, it’s very empirical. You’re thinking creatively to solve problems.

A lot of the stuff I’ve been working on is independent Canadian stuff, so usually there’s at least some thread of an idea there. When I work on American productions or on commercials, I usually don’t see any redeeming value in it. People’s creativity is mostly just being exploited for marketing. There’s so much transformative power in cinema that for it to be used for those ends is a bit of a bummer.

What I’d love to do now is teach. I think I can give more to young filmmakers than to the industry. I want to pass on these skills that are disappearing: no one knows how to do these things anymore!

Originally published in Lift Newsletter Vol. 21 Issue 4 September 2003