INTERVIEW WITH LEIGHTON PIERCE

WOOD

a film by Leighton Pierce

This piece seems to come from a rather personal space. Can you tell us a bit about your motivation behind Wood?

My motivation to start a video is never the motivation that can be deduced from the finished video.  I shoot because I feel like shooting and then I look around to see what is happening and engage in that event with a camera.  In this case, on several different days, my children were playing with various things in the back yard. It is in the editing that associations are made that create meaning.  At the time, I simply thought I was articulating shared cinematic space between my daughter and son.  They were not together in the same space when I shot, but in editing, I worked to create a sense of space in the yard that had a boy with sticks and fire and the girl with water.Years later, I realized this was a piece reflecting on my children in the light of a near death (temporally clinically dead) experience I had.

We see the face of a little girl in the opening shot. There is no interaction between the girl and whoever is cutting a branch with a handsaw. The last shot is the watery reflection of a swing in motion. I assume they are family members, but I am curious about their relation to one another.

See above—son and daughter. As a father, I am curious about their relationship to one another too—hence a motivation to make a video edited as it is. I am asking that question of myself as I edit.

What was the most challenging part of the shoot?

Please understand that this is not a film that was planned, written, storyboarded and then edited. It was a process of discovery from each moment. No part of the shoot was particularly more challenging than any other. I was playing with light and a lens and a sensor.  The challenge is in the editing and sound work—how to create a coherent space and time that enriches the emotional content—a coherence that is unrelated to the circumstances of shooting—a  construction.

I first saw He Likes To Chop Trees in film school, and after graduating I came across You Can Drive The Big Rigs. Both were shot on 16mm. Was Wood one of your first efforts shot on video?

I shot video (1976–)  long before I ever did 16mm film (1981—1998). Wood was shot on DV and it was one of the first pieces I shot and finished on DV

How was the transition from film to video, and now HD video, for you? Do you still shoot film at all?

See above.  The transition was not to video which was always present.  The transition was away from 16mm film to a more responsive, affordable, highly plastic in editing, good sound quality medium.  That was DV.  Now with HD, which is even better, and the deplorable state of 16mm projection and the lack of labs, I see no reason to return to shooting 16mm and absolutely no reason to finish on 16mm with such terrible sound quality.

How long did it take you to shoot it? Do you remember?

It took a while. It took 8 days. We had 14 takes per shot. It’s a bit tiresome. The kids had to count in their heads, to get the pacing right. And the camera had to be in focus in these long, moving shots. This film was extremely technical, and the kids were a bit bored towards the end. But they were very professional. And I think they liked it.

After helping establish The University of Iowa as a powerhouse school in Film and Video, you are now the Film and Video Chair at Pratt Institute. Has this change in zip code shifted your interest in the projects you now pursue?

Actually, I am now the Acting Dean of the entire School of Art and Design at Pratt Institute. I had been more or less commuting between the Iowa and the NYC zipcodes for 10 years before I finally moved to NYC. So that transition was not about a sudden shift in locale.  The place itself probably has an effect—I see and shoot different things—but more important is a shift in many other personal realms of life.  That kind of shift sometimes accompanies a geographical shift.

Did you work with someone on the sound design?

No, sound is the main thing I aim to get to do in any film project. It is my root. So I have never worked with anyone with sound design.  I have, in some pieces, worked with people to get sound sources, but sound design is where the main part of my work lies.

Sound design is such an important element in Wood. Is the picture cut to the sound, or? What was that process like?

I always edit the video mute—I throw away all of the production sound—I edit a silent movie. I then start to build all the sounds from scratch as a kind of composition built upon the armature of the picture. It is at this point that the emotional space, the physical space, and the temporal space get articulated.

After such an illustrious filmmaking career, have you solely dabbled in non-fiction?

All of these pieces are fiction as much as they are nonfiction. I cannot claim one mode over another. My Film 50 Feet of String (1995) was received in NY as an experimental film, in San Francisco as a documentary, and in LA as a fictional mystery. Perfect.

Are there any upcoming projects you can share with us?

Always many projects in the works but given how I work, it is hard to even call them projects. They are more like eddies in a single flow, out of which videos and installations emerge. It is hard to say what is coming until it has already come and gone.

Leighton Pierce, former chair of the Film & Video Department, and current acting Dean of Art and Design at NYC’s Pratt Institute, is one of America’s major avant-garde filmmakers. For over 30 years, he has explored memory and perception in a series of stunningly shot, impressionistic short films and videos that exploit cinematic space and time and expand the interplay between sound and image. His work has been exhibited in major art museums and film festivals including the Whitney Biennial and the San Francisco, New York and Rotterdam Film Festivals. He has been the subject of retrospectives at Lincoln Center in New York, the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Lisboa Bienal of Contemporary Art, among others. Pierce has received fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and The Camargo Foundation.