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The Independent Critic

 An Interview with Louie Schwartzberg 
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You've seen the work of Louis Schwartzberg.

Doesn't ring a bell?

For over three decades, the award-winning cinematographer has been creating iconic and memorable images while becoming widely known as one of the industry's most innovative cinematographers. Schwartzberg's work in the areas of time-lapse photography, nature, aerial and "slice-of-life" photography are recognized around the world. Schwartzberg has been the recipient of two Clio Awards and received one Emmy Award nomination. He was recognized as one of the top 70 cinematographers for the "On Film Kodak Salute Series." He is the ONLY cinematographer who has literally been shooting continuously, around-the-clock for over 30 years.

Schwartzberg sat down for a telephone interview with The Independent Critic on the occasion of the re-release of "America's Heart and Soul," his first full-length feature film released by Disney Studios in 2004 and being re-released for a 10-day run in Bloomington, Indiana along with Madison, Wisconsin and Burlington, VT as part of the celebration of Disney's new independent film label, Disneynature.


The Independent CriticThanks for taking the time to talk to me. I suppose the best place to start is "How did this all come about?" "America's Heart and Soul" first came out in 2004. Why's it back in theatres?

Louis Schwartzberg

I'd sort of been watching everything that was going on...the shaky economy. "America's Heart and Soul" is about all about a change of mood, a sense of hope. I've always been inspired by stories of everyday people who do everyday, heroic things. So, I went to Disney. I just sensed that this is what America needs right now...a change, a sense of hope. We're starting out in three cities and we'll see from there.

I grew up inspired. My parents were holocaust survivors, yet they were always smiling regardless of what they went through. Their wisdom and passion is what drives them. These stories are a lot like that...biographical sketches, immigrants, quirky and eccentric but with passion in their lives.

The Independent Critic

What drew you into this kind of filmmaking? Birthed the idea for such a magnitude of a film? I remember reading Roger Ebert's review of your film and I thought to myself "He doesn't get it." He seemed to want you to paint a few sketches quite deeply, but I don't think that was your point. You seemed to want to paint more broadly, portraits of the fullness and the brilliance of America.

Louis Schwartzberg

I really don't remember Ebert's review, but yes. I got started as a Director of Cinematography for an on-air network. Of course, the finances were scaled back and they were sending me to places like Newark, Cincinnati. I was finding amazing stories. I'd think to myself "Why Cleveland?" or "Why Pittsburgh?" I was doing this in the late 80's, a time of rebirth in the big cities and the cities were rehabbing their urban landscapes. The stories were powerful.

I wanted the film to become a mirror to reflect, didactic. I didn't want it to tell you what to believe...I wanted it to be more like a cinematic Rorschach test. There's nothing political about the film, though I was surprised to experience the political right sort of laying claim to it...the patriotism I suppose. Everywhere I've gone with the film, I've seen and heard how talking about the positives inspires a trigger point. "America's Heart and Soul" makes you think about your own stories..."That's me up there," I've heard more than once.  People love the fact that it's not preaching. It's a film about remarkable, ordinary people.

The Independent Critic

I have to ask you one question sort of off topic. I was reading your bio and it reads "the only cinematographer to have been shooting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for more than 30 years." Can you explain that for me?

Louis Schwartzberg

One of my earliest projects was time-lapse photography of flowers. I've now been filming these flowers non-stop every 20 minutes for over 30 years. It's part of my work for "Naked Beauty," my next full-length feature to be distributed by Disney. It's amazing to me how simply the project began, yet now with environmental issues in the forefront we're learning how important it is. The disappearance of bees is a critical environmental issue. If bees disappear, 3/4 of food on the planet will also disappear. These flowers have become a central piece of the story.

The Independent Critic

Kudos to Disney for starting Disneynature. How vital is it that Disney's created this opportunity for filmmakers like yourself?

Louis Schwartzberg

It's really vital. Europe has supported nature documentarians for years. We don't have that legacy here. This gives us the opportunity to develop an audience here. I'm currently the only American filmmaker working under the Disneynature banner.

The Independent Critic

Wow.

Louis Schwartzberg

That's why it's so important. I think nature filmmakers have a vital role in protecting the environment. The beauty of Disneynature is that it creates a way for us to build an emotional connection with earth and nature. It goes beyond the academic. If you love something, you'll naturally do what you can to protect it. My goal is to create films that celebrate life and are optimistic, hopeful and about overcoming adversity. The media can help do that. We have the technology to change things around, we have to shift the consciousness.

The Independent Critic

What's next? Why see "America's Heart and Soul" on the big screen?

Louis Schwartzberg

This is a limited test engagement. Disney's trying it in three cities over the next 10 days (Editor's Note: The run began on April 17, 2009). Why should you see it on the big screen? The beauty...it should be shared together. It really should be a communal experience. You can really experience my own journey shooting the film on 35mm over many years of traveling across the country. It also has an awesome soundtrack, a John Mellencamp tune and several others.

The Independent Critic

Why THESE stories?

Louis Schwartzberg

Sometimes, I found them. Sometimes, they found me. We had a small film crew. We were really guerilla filmmakers. We were prepared. We definitely had a starting point...for example, Patty Wagstaff's story was one I already knew and I already knew I wanted to film. Others, though, just sort of appeared...like Minnie Yancey, the Appalachian rug maker. I really liked the stories that were tied to their region. I want people to see the people and their connection to the land. I also want people to see the people as they really are. I didn't change them. I didn't tell them how to act or what stories to tell. What you see is who they are. The stories are amazing.

The Independent Critic

Tell me about "Naked Beauty."

Louis Schwartzberg

Well, it's going to be released by Disneynature, of course. Right now, the plan is for Disneynature to release one film a year around Earth Day. This year, it's "Earth." Next year, it's due to be "Oceans" and, hopefully, "Naked Beauty" in 2011. I'm about halfway through shooting right now.

The Independent Critic

Is there anything else you'd like to say? Anything I haven't asked?

Louis Schwartzberg

I'd really just like to encourage people to get out to see the film. Tell people about it. If it does well in these first three cities, then Disney will see there's a market for this type of film. There's a lot of fear in our country right now, a lot of divisiveness. The timing is perfect for a film like "America's Heart and Soul." It celebrates our roots, our values, our diversity. I just really believe that everyone will find a story in the film that they can connect with and think "Yep, that's me up there." We complain about films like "Fast & Furious," not to bash that film, but films that are all action or violence. If we want studios to release positive and inspiring films, then audiences need to go see them.

The Independent Critic

Thanks so much for taking time with me. I wish you the best with this re-release. I'll be spreading the word down in Bloomington. I also look forward to "Naked Beauty."

Louis Schwartzberg

Thank you.


For more information on "America's Heart and Soul," visit your local movie listings this week if you're in Bloomington, IN, Madison, WI or Burlington, VT.

Still unsure if "America's Heart and Soul" is for you? These are the stories you'll find...

  • Roudy Roudebush, a horse wrangler from Telluride, CO.
  • Marc & Ann Savoy, Cajun musicians from Eunice, LA.
  • Mosie Burks, a Gospel singer from Jackson, MS.
  • Minnie Yancey, a rug weaver from Berea, KY.
  • George Woodard, a dairy farmer from Waterbury Center, VT.
  • Ben Cohen, Co-Founder of "Ben & Jerry's", Williston, VT.
  • Ed Holt, wine grower in Santa Maria, CA.
  • Ace Barnes & James Tuppen, oil well firefighters in Livingston, TX.
  • Weirton Steelworkers in Weirton, West Virginia.
  • Frank Pino & Dave Pino, a rock band in Waltham, MA.
  • John "Yac" Yacobellis, a bike messenger in New York, NY.
  • James Andrews III & Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, jazz musicians in New Orleans, LA.
  • The Art Car Festival in Berkeley, CA.
  • Paul Stone, an Explosive Artist in Creede, CO.
  • Patty Wagstaff, an aerobatic flyer in St. Augustine, FLA.
  • Amelia Rudolph, founder of Bandaloop Cliff Dancers in Muir Beach, CA.
  • Dan Klennert, a sculptor of junk art in Elbe, WA.
  • Charles Jimmie, Sr., a Tlingit Tribal Elder in Klukwan, AK.
  • David Krakauer, a Klezmer clarinetist in New York, NY.
  • The Vazquez Brothers, Salsa dancers in Los Angeles, CA.
  • Michael Bennett, an Olympic boxer from Chicago, IL.
  • Erik Weihenmayer, a blind climber from Ouray, CO.
  • Rev. Cecil Williams, Pastor of Glide Church in San Francisco, CA.
  • Rick & Dick Hoyt, marathon runners from Boston, MA.


© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic 

 

 

 

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