We first became aware of Kevin Schreck from his documentary Persistence of Vision, the story of Richard Williams’ three-decades-long effort to make his animated masterpiece, The Thief and the Cobbler. Schreck’s documentary, which recounted Williams’ loss of control over his work, was such an impressive piece of storytelling, and it was so dramatically unlikely, it could have been a great piece of fiction. (The critics agreed; the film received the sort of sweeping acclaim more seasoned filmmakers could only dream of.) Along with The Recobbled Cut, Garrett Gilchrist’s fan reconstruction, Schreck’s work helped bring attention and acclaim to a lost masterpiece. Since then, Schreck has filmed Tangent Realms: The Worlds of C.M. Kösemen, about the artist and paleontologist (among other things), and is presently trying to fund a new film, a process that has proved more complicated and expensive than expected.
AUDERE: You’re currently raising money for your documentary about Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, a Philadelphia-based rapper. How did you come across her, and why do you think her story makes a great movie?
SCHRECK: I was actually going to see a rapper who I had known about since middle school perform in Manhattan, and saw that he had several openers before his set. I figured I’m already paying for the ticket, and might as well see as much as I could with an open mind. Most of the artists were nerdy white guys who looked like me and who embraced that identity and had a comedic angle to their sets, which was great and all. But the very first performer of the evening was this woman who went by the stage name “Sammus.” She was rapping about not seeing enough faces that looked like hers in the cartoons, movies, and video games she consumed as a child in the 1980s and 1990s. The second verse was a cappella, and she had tears streaming down her face, and was yelling at the top of her lungs. She had something to say, and EVERYBODY in the audience listened. But it wasn’t just the subject matter that was evocative; it was her very presence. Her set wasn’t a phony, performative sort of thing; this was raw, visceral, honest, and she was baring herself to all of us. She was completely sincere, and she was a real artist. We were all blown away. I told her that night that she was the best part of the evening. She was extremely humble and grateful, even a little shy, which surprised me, but was also a relief, I think. So the more I read about her, the more it turned out that she had a very compelling backstory, one that was simultaneously specific and complicated, but also had all of these very universal, relatable qualities.
Williams himself, with his obsessions, was a great dramatic character. What is it about Enongo that makes her a great character for a film?
Like most people, once you get to know them, you really can’t distill Enongo down to just a few labels. She’s a Black woman, she’s a first-generation American, a daughter of West African immigrants, she’s a musician who produces her own beats, while also a scholar striving to attain her doctorate at Cornell, and she loves video games and cartoons. She has mental health battles, financial concerns, anxieties about being herself, living as an artist, etc. Every anecdote and story that she shared, whether in a song or in an interview, I knew someone close to me who had experienced something extremely similar, and even multiple experiences that I personally related to, even though we come from different upbringings. So her story instantly connected to me, and had these tangible, universal truths. Like the ideas that eventually become projects of mine, Sammus was someone I couldn’t shake. I just became more and more fascinated the more I learned. The more I got to know Sammus the rapper, the more I began to learn about Enongo the person.
It seems that one of the big barriers to finishing your film is raising money for the animation. Why was it important to include animation in this film?
Enongo herself is a spectacular orator and storyteller. We shot over seven hours of interviews in just a few days during our first month of filming, and this became the backbone of what the story could be. But film is ultimately a visual medium, and while Enongo has all of these important, essential anecdotes about growing up as the only Black girl in school in Upstate New York or grappling with depression and anxiety or her worries about the future, we didn’t really have a visual record that illustrated those vital aspects of her narrative. With documentary filmmaking, you go in, see what pieces you have, see what’s missing, and try to arrange a sort of Frankenstein’s monster out of all of these disparate parts to make one cohesive, visual story. But we were lacking visuals for some of these really pivotal sections of her story. The opposite of the documentary filmmaking puzzle is a process in which you have complete control over the visuals, and that’s animation.
Did you have any hesitation in making your movie part-“cartoon”?
I love animation, but I was initially very hesitant to use it, partly because I knew it would make the film significantly more expensive, and partly because I have rarely seen animation used in live-action documentaries that was very effective. For me, it often feels very hokey and slapped on, like it was an after-thought added in desperation with little care applied to it. But you can do anything in animation, so there’s no reason not to try to make something special. It was very clear that we needed to include these sections about Enongo’s past and internal thoughts in the film to make it work. Even though most of the movie is live-action and follows her on the road and working on her next album and performing, we needed to know who she was and where she came from. So these ten or so minutes of animation constitute a small fraction of the film, but they are absolutely essential, and this animation allows us to get to a cinematic, emotional truth that was completely unattainable in live-action documentary footage because we now had complete control over the medium. As a result, the film is now twice as expensive as before, but ten times better. It does not work without the animation.
Why was it important to you that the animators be Black women?
My first priority when hiring anyone is always to find talent, and the talent I was after was people who could make hand-drawn, frame-by-frame animation. I didn’t want to go with any tweening or CG modeling; I wanted that authentic, handmade quality that truly felt like drawings coming to life. The second priority was whether or not those talented at that style of animation were available. I knew there were tons of immensely talented animators who could work freelance on this project, but I also knew that this had to be a passion project for everyone onboard. I didn’t want this to just be a gig to pay bills; I really needed some creative guidance and wisdom from whoever I was going to hire to help bring Enongo’s story to life in a very personal, honest way. I knew right from the start of making the film that it was important to get people who understood Enongo’s journey, and also that here was this artist who makes a big point to uplift and provide opportunities for Black women and people of color in her work and messages, and it would be hypocritical to her values and to my own values not try to walk the walk as best as we could. I had already experienced this while filming with Sammus on tour, too. When we would hire freelance camera operators, the best footage came from the cinematographers who didn’t necessarily have the fanciest gear or the longest resume, but from the cinematographers who understood the subject matter, cared about the subject matter, and did their very best to show that they were capable of making this project as good as it could be. And more often than not, those people were Black or women or people of color. They were literally the best for the job because they did the best on the job, and those were the people that I would rehire.
Therefore, I wanted to try the same when animation started to become a necessity.
Where did you find all these animation collaborators?
Just to see what I might find, as an experiment, I would casually ask friends if they knew any Black women in animation. Some didn’t, some did. But there were TONS of them. There was hardly any shortage of them to be found. I found our entire crew in about two or three nights of casual Internet searching. They’re out there, and their work is superb. And I wasn’t about to hire just anyone who was a Black woman animator; they had to fit all of our criteria: they had to be skillful at the style we were trying to achieve, they had to be available, and they had to really care about the subject matter. That last part was essential, because they weren’t just going to make drawings move as animators; they would also have to pitch their visualized story to me, draft the storyboards, design characters, props, and environments. They essentially had to make their own short animated film nestled inside of a bigger documentary project, and that kind of work isn’t just a gig, it’s a real commitment.
Do you think matters that you, the director of the movie, is neither Black nor female?
I’m just some dorky white guy from Minnesota, so while I relate to a lot of Enongo’s journey, I don’t know exactly what it was like to have the experiences she had. It’s good to be humble to that reality, but it’s also wise to collaborate with folks who know something about these experiences. These animators truly related to the material, and were kind of cast as such like actors are to a role. Each animator is working on a chapter of Enongo’s life that they personally connect with: the artists who found inspiration and refuge in video games during childhood are working on sequences about that; the artists who have dealt with mental health and trauma are bringing those sections to life; the artists who grapple with balancing academia and art and family in their lives much like Enongo are animating and boarding those scenes. They are putting themselves into the story while telling our protagonist’s story, and I needed that authenticity to make it work. It’s not just in animation on Enongo; women and people of color and especially Black women are our crew’s majority throughout the film, in cinematography, production, music, even outreach and fundraising. They have proven that they are the best for the job, and I am immensely humbled and fortunate to have this opportunity to collaborate with these talented artists and storytellers. They get it and they can do it.
Your films, so far, seem designed to give attention to otherwise obscure artists, or obscure art. While Richard Williams was not himself obscure, you chose the most obscure thing about his life – his unfinished film – rather than his many moments of triumph.
I’ve actually rarely thought of these artists as obscure. I suppose their relative obscurity is an afterthought for me. The creative process and its trials and tribulations certainly appeal to me, but my goal is always to tell a good story, and that all boils down to the human element. So whether an artist is famous or not doesn’t matter to me. Of course, the subjects I typically focus on have been artists, usually because their craft is an entry point into their narratives, and because I’m a fan of their work. But it’s what their art tries to achieve — whether through animation, painting, or music — and what it tries to say about the human condition or just their own personal dreams and desires and anxieties that matters to me.
Look at this another way – Persistence of Vision was really acclaimed, it got a lot of attention. You might have taken those accolades and approached someone already-known, and try to get some money from Amazon or Netflix for a higher profile documentary, rather than C.M. Kösemen. Did you consciously choose not to make a documentary about a more celebrated artist?
Documentaries that are just pure celebrations (basically advertisements) of somebody really bore me, and I find them insulting to the subject onscreen and to the audience watching it. I want to know that person and find out what makes them who they are, which in turn makes their art even more special. That’s where it goes beyond becoming a fawning, myopic, fanboy’s tribute to an artist and instead hopefully becomes the kind of movie that I would much rather see and therefore make: a well-rounded, accurate character portrait of a human being who is certainly remarkable, but also as complicated and complex and human as we all are.
It has seemed to many people that you and Garrett Gilchrist managed to change the way Richard Williams, already a great artist when you made your movie, will forever be viewed by cinema historians. How has that impacted your own choice of subject matter?
I don’t think it has impacted my work much at all, to be honest. Maybe it should have for financial reasons! But there are plenty of documentaries out there about the Beatles or Elvis or whatever. I don’t need to contribute to that discourse, however lucrative it might be. I want to tell a good story, and I think I’ve found that even if my subjects work in different art forms than me or grew up during different times or on different continents than me or if they look different from me, I wind up making movies about people that I relate to in some way. With Persistence of Vision, I recognized that Richard Williams was a genius of animation, but also feared becoming that obsessive over a singular project like he did. In the case of Tangent Realms, Memo was almost like my long-lost Turkish brother, who had all of these fascinations with science and nature and history and mythology, but was ultimately finding something about himself in that process, which is something I could connect with. As for Enongo, she’s like this multifaceted, complex microcosm of what it is to be a hardworking, creative millennial at this point in time in early 21st-Century America, so even though we look different and had different upbringings, we do have at least some things in common that struck me on a very tangible, personal level.
Is your life plan to make masterpieces about other geniuses, or is there a next step, in which your own voice and views will take center stage in your work?
My movies are portraits of people, first and foremost, and I guess they’re additionally usually about artists and outsiders and dreamers and people who are maybe a little self-destructive or their own biggest critic but are the person who is doing most of the work to get where they want to be. But those descriptions are not criticisms of them; they’re compliments. Who wants to watch a movie or hear a story about a boring, ordinary person who aspires to being very little, has few ambitions in life, and coasts along smoothly, and then dies? I can’t relate to that. Ultimately, I guess that means I’m sort of making films about myself, in some convoluted way. So I don’t really need to literally put myself in my movies, thank goodness. That can be a really exhausting, arrogant trope, anyway. No need to do that if your subject is already interesting.
I was a little surprised to learn that an acclaimed filmmaker like you needs to go out and get a job, rather than just making films. Why is that?! Do you think there should be more government funding for the kind of thing you do?
The Canadians really seem to have it figured out with the NFB up there, but when I was at festivals in Vancouver and Toronto, the artists would opine that it ain’t like the old days anymore. I don’t really know the politics of it to comment on that. But I can say it’s a curse of sorts that filmmaking is virtually the most expensive art form. Practically all filmmakers need to have a day job or make a bunch of work just to stay afloat, and they still beg for money regardless; they just don’t all beg on social media for money like I and others have to in addition to having a job! They keep that secret because that aspect of filmmaking is not very glamorous, but it’s essential to the process.
Is the issue filmmaking itself, or the kinds of movies you want to make?
This is part of why Martin Scorsese had these grievances about superhero movies dominating our media landscape: there’s less money and space for other, smaller, more unique projects as a result. It wasn’t merely an aesthetic argument; it was a practical argument. You gotta have a franchise, you gotta have merchandising, you gotta have a familiar property that executives will comfortably throw money at, because they don’t want to gamble on anything new or different. It’s not just Scorsese, either. For every Edward Scissorhands or Corpse Bride or Frankenweenie Tim Burton has made, he’s had to make a Batman or a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or an Alice in Wonderland to convince those with the cash to allow him to make those passion projects.
But there are filmmakers with wide audiences, who can make smaller movies on a budget, and who don’t want to make Marvel movies.
Even these “mid-budget” filmmakers like John Waters or John Carpenter — who have massive cult followings and are very economical — have basically said they can’t make the movies they want to make anymore because there’s no room or money for it, so they now pursue lives in their later years as authors or musicians, respectively — art forms that are a lot less expensive than filmmaking. I’m sure those guys could make a killing on Indiegogo with their fan bases if they wanted. Jan Svankmajer used crowdsourcing for his final film. But it’s hard. Making a documentary about an enormously-talented rapper who doesn’t have millions of followers on Instagram or Twitter and also has beautiful, original, hand-drawn animation is not easy to make, and we need people who want to see that kind of content to help make it happen.
How long can you keep working this way?
Werner Herzog once said the average lifespan of a person as a filmmaker is about 10-15 years, and then they burn out and give up and just settle on a life with an ordinary job because the money isn’t there and it’s exhausting. I’m well-past the 10-year mark, getting closer to 15 years now. I don’t think I’m going to burn out anytime soon, but if someone told me I could never make another film again, I guess a sort of unofficial trilogy of feature-length documentaries about artists is a pretty good run. It wouldn’t make me happy, though. I might evolve in another direction as a filmmaker, not out of lack of interest in these themes, but because there are so many stories to tell. Maybe make films about science or nature or more global issues, rather than just character studies or artists. But I’ve also told myself that each film would be less intense and easier to make than the last, and that turned out to be a major miscalculation.
Will you keep making documentaries?
Thankfully, documentaries are cheaper to produce than narrative features, but they’re still a lot of money (especially if you discover you need original animation halfway through production). I used to think after every film I made, even the shorts I made as a teenager, that this would be the last one, because I spent all this time and energy and these resources, and I have zero ideas following it. Now, I have more ideas than ever before. You just need to convince others that these dreams are worth fighting for. We’re all in it together.
If you wish, you may contribute to the Enongo documentary here.