Winner of the Vimeo Audience Award for Short Film at the Tallgrass Film Festival, Ty Flowers’s TIME SIMPLY PASSES made it just under the wire as far as time consideration as a short film. (It’s running time is 54 minutes.) However, that extra screen time obviously helped make an impression on the audiences, as Flowers doesn’t “simply” deliver another film about a man wrongly convicted that finally receives his due years and years later. He shows what happens when happily ever after ends up including another agonizing and just as criminal wait before justice is served beyond some smiles and handshakes for the camera.
1 The idea for the film came out of work your father had done on the case. Was he skeptical or enthusiastic of it as a documentary subject?
My father was extremely enthusiastic about turning it into a film. He’d always wanted to make a film about the James Richardson story for as long as I can remember, but lacked the resources, infrastructure and the know-how. I believe when I was a kid he’d written a narrative screenplay about it, but that was so long ago that I’ll never know what happened with it.
So, it kind of serendipitously came together as a project of mutual interest. He was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s about a year before we started working on this, so I realized quickly that I’d have to learn everything I could from him about the story and get ahold of as much research as he’d compiled before he simply couldn’t remember it.
That’s why this project is in many ways a multi-generational effort. Plenty of people can track an incarcerated individual’s life long enough to see them released from prison — it’s another thing entirely to follow what really happens to them over the following twenty-five years, and to follow that story faithfully when most of the information about it has been lost or obscured over time.
In order to track a story spanning nearly fifty years of mostly forgotten history, it required journalistic efforts that would survive the limits of an individual’s lifespan. It required both that my father had the discipline to follow a story for thirty years of his life, and that I had enough knowledge, energy, and ambition to be able to take it on without fear that I’d do an ill-conceived or amateurish job. If this had happened ten years ago, I don’t think I would’ve been intellectually or financially able to make it.
2 Through the making of the documentary, you have got to know James Richardson pretty well. Did you have to deal with concerns over becoming too close/friendly with him and how that could affect your objectivity as a filmmaker?
One of the most important things for me in working on this is that I avoid obvious overtures towards false sentimentality or unearned empathy. There are many cases in documentary filmmaking where the circumstances of a subject’s life are used as a mere prop in service of a filmmaker’s pre-conceived notions or ideological agenda, and in those cases when contradicting information about the subject comes out after the fact it undermines both the film and more importantly the message that the film had hoped to convey.
I was glad that James and everyone else involved was willing to share their story with me, and without preconditions that they be portrayed in certain lights or that any information unfavorable to them be excluded. My hope is that by laying the information bare within the film that viewers are able to draw their own conclusions about the true nature of our justice system without lingering doubt or suspicions about unscrupulous manipulation on the part of the filmmakers.
In our case, luckily, James turned out to be an overwhelmingly kind, gentle, and decent person, and we didn’t have to make any hard decisions with regards to any doubts towards his innocence or basic character.
3 Did the focus of the documentary evolve over the course of the filmmaking from the story of Richardson’s false arrest to the story of the state neglecting to make the proper restitution payment or was that always the plan from the beginning?
I love these questions. The quick answer – it was sort of the opposite process.
Initially, the film was going to be a short about the ongoing legal battle to grant James a financial settlement with the State after all these years. My assumption was that the back-story would be too complicated to explain properly, too difficult to find relevant supporting material for, and that the real story was about the ugly bureaucratic nature of modern politics as seen in the battle over whether or not to approve such an obvious bill.
We interviewed political figures in Florida, and while doing it became clear to me that the promise of a financial settlement was being used by many to represent a happy ending and a satisfying resolution to the many injustices dealt to James over so many years. After speaking to James about it, I was encouraged to find out that he wasn’t very interested in the money either. So, for me the decision to expand it into a much longer and more complete documentary came from there.
If the money isn’t going to fix it for people who get wronged by the State, why do we act like it’s all we can do? What else could be done to hold powerful people accountable for their actions in destroying a man’s life, and why does it feel like we’re always going to be doomed to repeat these circumstances again and again? Those are the questions that are interesting to me, and they’re ones that I feel are entirely underrepresented in the film world of today.
4 When you utilize a lot of old documents and footage, sometimes that can lead to a feeling of “dryness” with a documentary subject. Were you concerned about that with this film? And if so, how did you work to try and balance that for the audience’s sake?
As a documentary filmmaker, you’re for the most part limited to representing factual events in one of four different ways:
1) You can interview someone who witnessed an event or is knowledgeable about it and they can describe it to you.
2) You can hire actors to re-enact an event in the style of conventional narrative films.
3) You can shoot verite footage of an honest-to-goodness real-deal event as it miraculously unfolds before the lens, which is great but you’re limited by only being able to include events that occur in the present, which is a comparatively limited glimpse of what’s really going (in the grand scheme of things). Also, your own presence in these situations often unmistakably alters the natural course of events and people’s behavior during these shoots, and too often I’ve seen otherwise engaging documentaries veer into reality television territory, which is something I hope to never, ever be accused of doing.
4) Lastly, Archival – You can show images, articles, photographs, and footage of an event from the time & place where it originally occurred. For my money, that’s the most useful, honest, and powerful way to depict anything in a documentary.
It’s the clearest representation of an idea that you can convey short of being there yourself. The different and evolving textures of different media over time gives you so much more helpful contextual information than you could ever hope to convey. You see how people dressed, how people talked, how limited and bizarre their collective understanding was of certain issues that we all take for granted today. You connect the dots. You get the sense that people maybe cared about something a lot once and now nobody remembers what that was, and it makes you notice how many things you cared about and care about in recent years that will eventually drift away without resolution and how frustrating it all is and how fickle we all are.
So, I think the narrative and aesthetic argument for archival is self-evident.
The big, sad, hidden issue is that copyright law in this Country really only allows the wealthy to use archival material. The value of otherwise fallow material is frequently set by those who hoard it, and the price assumes automatically that all films are going to be big multimillion dollar blockbusters and they want to make sure they’re getting paid well for their role in it. The result is that the past gets forgotten, lessons get lost, and only the safe, easy stories worth the money are granted the necessary funds to show archival material in film.
So, avoiding dryness was extremely important to me given that the subject matter of the film gets bogged down in many legal details, but the antidote to that was more logical than structural. By cutting out needless details, self-indulgent posturing, and by focusing on the clearest explanations of facts, I believe we succeeded in making a film that is both entertaining and substantive. That’s also why the film is 56 minutes long, rather than two hours (or more), which it easily could’ve been. I cut out literally every possible part that I couldn’t support with evidence or that wasn’t necessary to telling the story of James’ incarceration, release, and long road to resolution with the State. Films should be as long as it takes to tell a story, and nothing more. Films shouldn’t be two hours long because films are two hours long. It’s disrespectful to the time an audience donates to watching your film.
Additionally, basic cinematographic and auditory flourishes throughout help alleviate any lingering concerns about dryness or boredom. I composed an original score to the film with my old music partner Phil Nicolazzo, which is an incredibly important component of documentaries that almost always gets short shrift. I’ve seen some otherwise palatable documentaries that actually use stock music, which to me is bafflingly amateurish.
5 While at the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita, you spoke to me about your admiration for Errol Morris. Could you elaborate on why you are a fan of Morris and his work?
I admire his editorial patience in his earlier work to let certain scenes play out organically without cutting away (Gates of Heaven, for one), which allows his audience to form opinions about and gain an understanding of the character of his interview participants without telegraphing his own feelings on it too transparently. I also enjoyed his ability to connect disparate elements together to create new narrative concepts (as in Vernon, FL and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control).
In later years, he developed that Interrotron thing which I don’t really agree with. I feel that people making documentary films should be putting forth the necessary effort to put subjects at ease so that we can break away from how weird it is to point a camera at someone — We shouldn’t be forcing subject to engage with the artifice of the medium more fully. I don’t need an interview subject to make eye contact with an imaginary audience in order for the audience to feel a sense of honest communication.
6 You received a big “prop” check from Vimeo for $1000 for winning the Audience Award at the Tallgrass Film Festival? Can you actually cash that thing or do they give you another “real” one and it gets framed?
Ha! Yeah, winning a large novelty check has been a lifelong ambition of mine, and what a nice weird surprise that was! As much as I would love to take the check to several banks or attempt to jam it into the ATM slot while I force people behind me in line to tolerate me, I simply have too much respect for everyone to do that. So, I suppose I do not know the answer, but for now a large novelty check is more satisfying to me than the cash equivalent.
7 Popcorn or candy?
I know I’m milking this interview a lot already, but decent popcorn really is a forgotten art. I was shocked (Shocked!) when I snuck into the back room of a movie theatre in Florida in maybe 1997 and discovered, to my horror, an unspeakable number of bags and bags of pre-popped popcorn sitting in a storage room. Presumably some real shrewd business monster realized at some point that if you make it all in bulk, throw it in a storage room, and then pour it into a machine that looks like it could make popcorn, that people wouldn’t know the difference and they’d buy it anyway. Or that if they did then they’d be too cowardly to complain. And to a large extent most people have forgotten what the real thing actually tastes like. It’s fantastic. It’s makes so much sense, and if you find a theatre that still respects popcorn you immediately understand how it became such a component of cinematic culture.
TIME SIMPLY PASSES will screen next at Peloponissos International Documentary Film Festival in Kalamata, Greece on January 20, and then at The Tank in New York City on March 10.