About Tamar Halpern
Tamar Halpern is a writer and director with 9 feature films behind her — all low-budget and produced for less than $1.2 million. She graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts with an MFA in 1998, the same year she started filming what would become Llyn Foulkes One Man Band, a documentary about artist and musician Llyn Foulkes.
Lunacy Productions: Let’s talk about Llyn Foulkes One Man Band. How did you meet your subject?
Tamar Halpern: Back in the 90s, I was living at this big arts colony called The Brewery in downtown Los Angeles. Llyn was one of my neighbors. Most artists at The Brewery hadn’t had much traction, so when Llyn moved in, he quickly became the star. Llyn had a history. It was all really exciting, and I cast him in my third film. He pretty much played a fictional version of himself.
My sound man, who had worked on my first three features with me, had never met an artist before. He was so excited to meet Llyn, and told me to make a documentary about him. I wasn’t sure if he’d be open to that, but I asked. And Llyn was like, “Oh yeah, I have so much I need to say.” So I had access.
LP: How did you get Llyn to be such a cooperative and open subject?
TH: Llyn doesn’t really have boundaries. He’ll just share his whole world, which is a blessing when you’re making a documentary. Though it comes with challenges too.
On the first day we filmed him, he opened the doors and just started talking, and we hadn’t even put a mic on him yet. We only had the on-camera mic, and he went on this wild diatribe about the art world, about how he hadn’t been included. He sort of lost his way at one point, and just looked at us and said, “Cut.” And that was it.
LP: What were some unexpected challenges you faced during production?
TH: Making a documentary, it’s easy. You just need a camera and good sound, and you set your own hours. We took our time, but then all of a sudden this guy we’d been following part-time for seven years was back on the map. The Wall Street Journal and the LA Times were doing articles on him, and we had to hustle to finish our film.
We got into the LA Film Festival and they were asking for a DCP. That was in 2013. We’re like, “A DCP? What’s that? How much does it cost? Oh my god.” Suddenly, things got real when you were talking about deliverables.
We found out that a piece of music Llyn performed wasn’t actually his own. It was an old song from the 30s that wasn’t in the public domain. If you know any music supervisors, stay friendly with them, because they can be your advocate depending on who they know. But my music supervisor could not get us this one — she tried her best but they wanted like $25,000. So we cut it out. We didn’t spend $25,000, but it was not a happy moment.
All these things that we were doing for fun became work, but in a good way. It was exciting, because people cared about Llyn and about the film.
LP: How much creative input does your subject have in the final product?
TH: In the 60s, Llyn described Robert Irwin’s work as decorative and mediocre. It got back to Irwin, a huge light and space artist at the Getty, and Llyn believes that’s why he was kicked out of the Ferus Gallery. When we finished the film, Llyn asked us not to include that story in the movie. “You’ve been walking around for 40 years telling people this story,” I told him. He responded “I don’t want to talk bad about Robert Irwin. I turned over a new leaf. I don’t talk bad about people anymore. So take it out.”
I talked to my partner about it. Llyn didn’t own the film. He didn’t invest in it. We didn’t have to do what he said, but when you’ve spent that kind of time with somebody, there is this respect.
Around that same time, a newspaper article came out and he had dissed a bunch of people in there. I was like, “Llyn, you haven’t turned over a new leaf at all, we’re not changing the film. You are you, and we’re embracing you, words and all.”
LP: What is your experience with life rights and releases?
TH: Everybody signed a release before we filmed. I don’t think I did a life rights agreement with Llyn until we realized that there were distributors who wanted the film. Then things got serious.
LP: How do you prepare for and conduct interviews?
TH: The idea is that you stay out of the way as much as possible. There are basic rules, such as not asking yes-no questions, and pausing once the subject is done responding. A lot of times people will feel the need to fill that pause, so they may restate the answer more concisely, or add more information.
While they’re talking, show them that you’re really listening. You may have a list of five or six questions, but put those aside and just listen, because a lot of times they’ll say something that you didn’t know, and you will want to explore it more.
LP: In terms of directing, how are documentary and narrative filmmaking different?
TH: In narrative filmmaking, the script is the most important thing. Everything else comes after. A lot of us rush toward finishing the script, because writing can be such hard work and we just want to get to production. Some directors prefer to seek out scripts already in a good shape — that’s okay too. Don’t feel like you have to be an auteur.
In documentary filmmaking, most of the directing takes place in the edit bay. We can go and interview people, but then cut them if we don’t feel like they’re adding to the story we’re shaping. It’s all in the editing, because you can just shoot, and shoot, and shoot, but ultimately, you’ve got to tell a story.
LP: Is there some kind of frame, like a treatment or a script that you structure a main idea around?
TH: For structure, I basically mimicked my own experience with Llyn, and I wrote it out as a spine. We called it our spine, as everything had to come from that. We also had paper cuts. They’re transcriptions of the interviews. Not fun, but so valuable. It helps you find audio easily, and it is a godsend when you have a hundred hours of footage.
You could make a paper cut of your documentary before you ever edit. It might make you less crazy, but because you shoot, and then you edit, and then you shoot and you edit, you’re editing as you go. But it was very helpful to me to have those transcriptions.
LP: If documentary is so malleable, how did you find your focus?
TH: We look for two things: a great subject and a story. With Llyn, we had a perfect subject — this amazing artist, totally forgotten. We thought we were making a short about him finishing this huge, three-dimensional painting that he had been working on for eight years and was finally going to be exhibited in New York. Then I went to New York and realized his story was so much bigger. I wanted to go backwards in time and show the audience everything that happened in his career, up to this point.
The short eventually became part of his art show in New York, and that was supposed to be the end of it. We weren’t going to do a feature. And then I went to New York to film the big opening. “Oh, there’s going to be thousands of people there,” I was thinking, “Llyn will be mobbed.” But then nobody showed up.
LP: That is when you had an idea for the feature.
TH: Yes. That is when I knew I had a new story. I had an essential question. Was Llyn forgotten? Has he alienated people? This person sold to museums in his 20s, so why is nobody coming to his shows? It’s the art world, it’s New York, it doesn’t make sense. We never answered that question, but we thought we were going to, and that’s what took us into the next six years. That’s why I reached out to artists like Dennis Hopper, because I wanted to find out: is Llyn paranoid? Is that just how it goes with artists?
The thing is, every person I asked gave me a different answer. And we couldn’t figure out what the truth was, but the journey of trying to find it was fascinating. Because while we were doing that, we discovered another painting in his studio that Llyn had been working on for 16 years, and we were like, “Oh boy.” Now the story’s expanded, maybe he is the problem, you know? So we took it from there.