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Empathy and Suspicion: Lance Oppenheim and Daniel Garber on "Some Kind of Heaven"

Lance Oppenheim and Daniel Garber discuss their film "Some Kind of Heaven" and how they collaborated in the edit.
Marc Nemcik
Lance Oppenheim’s debut feature, Some Kind of Heaven, follows a small group of residents in Central Florida’s The Villages, America’s largest—and most notorious—retirement community. Following several superb short films, the 24-year-old director brings a mature generosity towards his subjects that veers beyond easy humor to create a profound portrait of a place that carries plenty of preconceived notions.
I spoke to Oppenheim and Some Kind of Heaven editor Daniel Garber (The Reagan Show, CAM) at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri in March, right before the start of COVID-19 lockdowns. Rather than discussing the film’s newfound prescience, we talked about their experience on location, bringing out humor in the edit, and outside references on the film.

NOTEBOOK: I’m sure you’re getting annoyed with people bringing up your age, because they do it as if it’s inconceivable that you’d make a good movie. You’ve been making shorts for years, but how did you navigate finding producers, and trusting getting into the industry?
LANCE OPPENHEIM: This film started from a similar place, but a lot of the shorts I had made, I worked with my sister. My sister [Melissa Oppenheim] is not a movie producer, but she’s very pragmatic and smart—basically all of the things I am not. [laughter] She’s older than me, so taking orders from her little brother gets annoying, but having her there was very helpful.
In terms of funding, the first [New York Times] Op-Doc I had done my freshman or sophomore year of college, I got grant money from college, which was amazing. I was there at a point in time when not a lot of people were applying for the grants. A lot of the grants at school were not film-oriented, they were in anthropology or research, and I would always try and twist what I was pitching to make it seem more academic. I would get seed funding from there and then essentially, I would shoot a bunch of stuff, and then I would take a lot of time making sense of it in class. It was a co-curricular sort of thing.
Afterwards, I worked a lot with Op-Docs. They have open submissions, so I submitted a bunch of stuff and never heard back. I found one of their e-mails on LinkedIn, and basically spammed them into taking a meeting. I came into this meeting with a geeky folder with all these printed one-pagers of things I wanted to make.
In terms of finding producers, this feature started with me, my sister, and Pacho Valez. He gave us a lot of support and believed in whatever it was we were trying to make. Then, it was really my college buddies. The atmosphere of how we were making the movie never felt like we were making a feature or something there was an intense amount of pressure to do. The guy who shot the movie [David Bolen], I’ve been working with him since I was 16 or 17. The sound guy [Ari Balouzian] I’ve worked with on every short I’ve made. We’re all very close with each other and shooting through paper bags trying to collaborate and find something interesting that we’re curious about. While I am the director of the movie, it’s a lot of voices, and us jamming together and finding how we can be in-sync with each other. Christian [Vazquez], the co-producer, is responsible for bringing a lot of that energy.
NOTEBOOK: How do you think the age factor impacted the subjects? My experience was that, as long as I was in school, whatever plans I had with a project, I could pitch it as a student project and it would make everyone at ease. Was that what you felt as well?
OPPENHEIM: A little bit. There are two sides to it: In terms of being in that world, in The Villages, as a younger person you immediately draw attention to yourself. If you’re young, you’re usually visiting a family member, and I was staying for longer than most family members would visit.
In a lot of ways, it worked to my advantage. For one, a lot of outsiders draw a ton of skepticism quickly, because most people that have come in from The New York Times, or Buzzfeed, or whatever—they’ve written a piece about the place—and people have felt burned by them. When I came in, I was just like: “Hello, this is not my world. This is not my place. I’m from Florida, and I grew up around so many retirement communities, I’m just really curious about how this place works. Can you show me around?” That helped to get my foot through the door, meeting a bunch of people. They were always really curious about who I was and what I was doing there.
Working with our subjects, none of them have children or families. We learned of this over time and in a lot of ways it became this dynamic—it wasn’t paternal or maternal, or a grandparent speaking to a child— but it felt like, in some ways, we were playing into some kind of thing where these are folks that don’t have a lot of people to talk to, and here is one who is younger talking to them like a person, and not a young person talking to an old person. I wasn’t looking at them for wisdom or life lessons. I was there as a friend and filmmaker. Both of those things turned into this loving energy of a certain kind.
On the business side, it was an uphill battle. You want people to take you seriously. Through some of the shorts I made, it was easier, and people were able to look at the work rather than the age. In a lot of ways, it also worked to our advantage that I wanted to learn as much as possible and remain as involved in the process, from publicity to money, and I often would make bad decisions or say something stupid like: “I don’t know what I’m talking about! I’ve never done this before.” Sometimes people were more protective of me in that way. Darren Aronofsky was someone who served the role of saying “You know what you’re doing. Believe in what you’re doing.” He deeply respected Dan and his work on the film. “Work. Keep working, and I will provide the infrastructure. I can mute the other noises for you.” That was extremely helpful. I’m grateful to him for that.
NOTEBOOK: How did the two of you get connected then? Did you already start working on the project at that point?
DANIEL GARBER: Lance had started on the project before I came on. He had done his first shoot, which was almost 20 days. He had this very messy rough cut put together that was gesturing in a direction of where he wanted things to go but he knew that he didn’t have all of the elements in place. Pacho Velez put us in touch in November 2018 or so. Lance came down to New York from Cambridge and we got coffee and immediately hit it off. Part of it was that, having gone to the same film program six years apart, we just had this shared vocabulary that made it very easy to communicate our ideas to each other. We also found out that we lived in the exact freshman dorm room, six years apart. It seemed like it was meant to be. Fortunately, I had the chance to go down to Florida on the second shoot. I got a chance to experience the place myself, which is a rare luxury for an editor.
OPPENHEIM: He met the subjects. Reggie in the film would always say: [does impression] “How is Dan, the editor?”
GARBER: The only one I haven’t met is Dennis!
NOTEBOOK: Has that been your experience in the past?  Where you’re actively meeting subjects? Do you think that helps you? Or in retrospect, would you prefer to be a step removed?
GARBER: It was nice! Part of the issue in documentary editing is that not meeting the subjects gives editors insulation, where they don’t feel like they’re accountable to the real people because they’re not present. So now that I’ve met Reggie and Anne, I need to be able to look them in the eyes and tell them why we made the decisions that we made in the editing room. It shouldn’t just be that I can hide out in my office and then Lance has to go do the dirty work of interfacing with these people.
OPPENHEIM: Given that the movie does have some constructed elements, or the way we’re shooting has an artifice in the process, having you there was good because there are so many different ways in which documentaries can gloss, or glean, or fragment, and slop things together. People boiling down the essence of a person’s life that the person wouldn’t necessarily agree with. You being there gave you a healthy perspective while we were working on things. Sure, it needs to tell a story. Sure, we’re creating something cinematic. We’re following some of those rubrics, but we also need to be aware of who these people are and what is actually true to them.
NOTEBOOK: I’m sure you had plenty of outside references that you were thinking about. As soon as you decided to work together, did you share any films?
OPPENHEIM: You watched a terrible 45-minute monstrosity I had done, which I think was helpful in a lot of ways.
GARBER: It was very promising. It wasn’t a monstrosity!
OPPENHEIM: But it wasn’t working! I had also made a sizzle reel that I would send around to everyone. As soon as I cut it, I sent it to every single person whose email I could find on the Internet. It was basically cutting things from the first trip, trying to get money to go back. I was so desperate to get to the deductive phase, and for so long I was in the inductive phase before Dan was really on. Dan has a really rigorous way of screening material. We would watch every clip, every second of audio, and would put it in this giant Google sheet. Dan would have a column for his notes, and I would have a column for my notes. Red is stuff that isn’t very good, orange is stuff that’s fine, and green needs to be in the movie. In terms of other references: Safe, the Todd Haynes movie, we loved in terms of figuring out how to tell a story like Anne’s in the movie. Edward Scissorhands.
GARBER: It’s funny that they keep invoking Errol Morris and Ulrich Seidl. Those were some references in the beginning of the process, right when I came on, but very quickly we moved away from those. We were looking for different references, and didn’t want to lean too much into the alienating way that Seidl sometimes approaches his subjects. We organized this screening series, where no matter how hard we were working on the film, every week on Friday night we would invite some friends over and have a screening of some film we thought would be worth watching. Safe was one of them. Gloria, the Sebastián Lelio film, not the [John] Cassavetes. Edward Scissorhands. Short Cuts.
OPPENHEIM: The earliest visual reference that was in this was Larry Sultan, the photographer. He has these two series: “Pictures from Home” and “The Valley.” The way he described taking those photographs, he said his process was him riffing off of reality. “The Valley” is a photo series that’s basically a behind-the-scenes of porn sets in the San Fernando Valley in the 90s and early 2000s. He would basically borrow the lighting setups, the stuff that was already on location, and use it for his own photographs. That idea is really what I hued closest to on making the movie.
Everything that happens in the film is real, and we’re not scripting things and giving people things to do, but the ways in which people are going about things… we’re shooting on a tripod. I’m being extremely upfront, most of the time, about how and what we’re shooting, and how it would make it into the film. The combination of the two invited a lot of performance from the subjects. Towards the beginning of the process it was awkward, and never quite worked. As we were going deeper into the process, I don’t want to attribute it to them, but when they watched the movie, they were able to laugh along with it and enjoy the film. They felt like they had a hand in making it. They felt like they were collaborators, performing scenes from their everyday lives. Even though it’s real, they’re giving pretty amazing performances as documentary subjects. Not to say that there should be a Best Performance Award at the Oscars for documentaries, but that’s certainly what happens when you see a film like Garrett [Bradley]’s film, which is an amazing film, but Fox Rich is made to be on camera. She knows how to work the camera, and knows how to be on camera. It’s one of the best parts of that film, just how amazing she is. Now I’m off on a tangent!
NOTEBOOK: As far as the edit, the biggest impact I saw on the movie was bringing out the comedy without making it at the expense of your subjects. I’m curious how that played into how you were cutting the film? I heard you mention before that it started as an institutional portrait before it turned into what it is now. Was there a rough cut screening where you were like: “Oh my god! This is really mean! What are we doing here?”
OPPENHEIM: That’s exactly it! [Laughs.]
GARBER: Some of the earlier versions, when it was more of an institutional film, and less focused on individual characters, did at times treat people with too distant of a lens and with not enough empathy. There was a version of the film, that we screened for an audience, that came across as particularly mean. Not necessarily mean to our main characters, so much as to our minor characters, to people who would choose to live in this place. What was strange about it was that it wasn’t something that we intended, or even recognized when we watched it ourselves. The way that the audience perceives the film is always contingent on a whole host of things. It turned out that the one culprit was this one sequence that was mostly archival videos, marketing videos of The Villages. That was close to the beginning of the film, and when the audience watched it they were immediately on high alert because that sequence telegraphed that we were skeptical of the place. What’s challenging about trying to strike that balance where it’s funny, but not at the expense of people, you never know how an audience is going to receive it until you’ve actually shown it to them. Sometimes an issue in one part of the film can have an effect in a totally different part of the film. There’s always a constant push and pull to figure out what people are responding to and how their lens on the entire film is shifting over time.
OPPENHEIM: All the people bringing up Errol Morris—and I love Errol Morris, so I’m deeply humbled by that—in his earlier work he’s walking that tightrope that I think this film is certainly on as well. You’re exploring the real in a very hyperreal place, and the parts of what makes this setting so interesting are very funny and uncanny. It’s something that is hard to understand, especially when you’re looking at it from a very distancing place. They have a newspaper there that only prints the good news. They have a radio station that only plays hits from the 50s or 60s. A lot of these elements raised a question that was guiding the previous version of the film: how does a fantasy world actually operate? Dan put it pretty well, but when you’re looking at these institutions with skepticism, it isn’t nearly as interesting in finding humanity in a place that seems devoid of it. The people that are in the clubs, in different kinds of interstitials in the film, they’re all smiling and their approach to aging, and the way the place wants you to think about aging, it’s a very graceful process. Smile, take it in stride, and laugh! Ignore all the bad things because right now you’re having fun! For a lot of people, that’s a helpful coping mechanism, but obviously underneath that is hurt, and desire, and sorrow. The stories that seemed much more interesting, which Dan and I figured out eventually, are the people are still yearning to be somebody, to become, or change, like seeing an 83-year-old, who is still dealing with a lot of the same shit that we deal with as younger people. The relationship issues that you never really get through, or get over, are so much more interesting. It’s a story that can happen anywhere, but the fact that it’s happening in a place like The Villages is what makes it a lot more interesting.
In a lot of ways, the way in which the people cover The Villages on TV, a lot of people choose to focus on how sex’ed up it is, and how many people have STD’s there. People also focus on how racially homogenous, and how deeply conservative it is. Both of those things are very interesting, but what appealed to me as a filmmaker was finding humanity. Finding love in the people who choose to live there. They’re not all bad. It’s not the whole “OK, Boomer,” thing. Not all boomers are bad people.
NOTEBOOK: It seems like the two of you have a particularly tight relationship in the edit. In a way, by choosing to be co-editors in the credits, you are projecting how you see your role, or those of others.  I’m curious how you landed on that, here and in the past?
OPPENHEIM: In the past, with my shorts, I’d spend a lot of time with them alone. Nearing the end of the process, I would bring someone in. I worked with this great editor, Matt Schaff, on my cruise film, and another great editor, Ien Chi on this other Op-Doc. In a lot of ways, the editors I was working with in the past were kind of pinch hitting. They would be giving energy and life to something I felt like I had worked on too hard. They would show me different avenues of where to go, and then I would finish the film after Charles Frank, who I worked with on Long Term Parking, he’s a really amazing editor and that film was much more of a collaboration than some of the ones I worked on after that.
In this film, before Dan came on, it was a lot of wandering around a room with the lights turned off. I credit Dan as being a co-author of this movie. The way we worked, eventually there came a certain point where there was one console, and Dan would be on the keyboard, and I’d be behind him, or standing next to him. For a lot of the time, because of how fast we were moving, we’d both be taking stabs at certain sequences, at different ones. When we would get tired of them, we’d hand them over to each other. Then we would keep going that way. The same goes for our assistant editors, Loulwa Khoury and David Shayne, we were just moving so quickly that it was all hands on deck. Let’s all figure out how to make this movie work. I don’t care so much about credits. In my mind, in documentaries especially, editors don’t get the justice they should. They are basically directing from behind the scenes. They’re your therapist. They’re your guiding light. They give you structure and rules, and everything else.
GARBER: It’s a joy to work on a film like this. It’s rare to have a genuinely warm, and collaborative relationship. A lot of people pay lip service to collaboration, but a lot of the time the director isn’t actually in the room that much, or isn’t giving constant input. I don’t like to work in that way. Many editors, I think, prefer to lock themselves in a room alone, and then show people things at the last possible moment. I like the push and pull, and frequent discussion that comes when you’re working in really close quarters with your collaborators. It’s the social aspect that makes me want to do it. Working with people like Lance, and our assistant editors, it’s been amazing. 

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