Acclaimed interior photographer Don Freeman has made his first professional foray into the world of cinema. To produce his new film Art House, he went coast to coast seeking the most beautiful and unique houses in the country. RIIFF had the chance to conduct an e-mail interview with Freeman, the director, producer, and editor of the film.
RIIFF: How did you choose your subjects?
Don Freeman: I was aware of a few houses, such as Manitoga (Russel Wright’s House) and Wharton Esherick’s. Over the course of about 10-15 years I have photographed homes for The World of Interiors magazine. They seemed to favor artists’ houses for me to shoot, so I developed a love and a special talent for the subject. Being an artist myself (before I was a photographer I painted), early on I felt that I might one day have a house like these, instead of the grand ones some people favor, even if I had to build it myself!
For the book and the magazine—and the film—the houses had to be built by the artist. We defined artist as furniture maker, painter, graphic arts, or even architecture if their aesthetic was “craft based.” We were open to all types of art, not just an artist living in an existing structure (like Thomas Cole or other artist’s house museums or homes in America). The homes also had to be very photogenic—have a unique style of furnishings, objects from the artist’s work or works by friends. In other words, personal; nothing from Ikea or Restoration Hardware. The film and the book became sort of an “anti” that.
My team included the author of the book Michael Gotkin, editor Andrea Danese of Abrams, and Rupert Thomas ofThe World of Interiors. We visited many houses, in person or online, and decided that the homes had to communicate a unique sense of style and taste. We picked these on that criteria. We chose to stick to America because of budget and the fact that in America we tend to ignore artists and the impact they have had on history, culture, and architecture. We tried to get houses from as many different regions as possible, but there were very few artist’s homes outside of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California, and Arizona—at least that we found—where the artist was willing to participate.
RIIFF: How would you describe your aesthetic style? Who are your major inspirations, in both still photography and film?
DF: I tend to be a dreamer, and I want my work to inspire people to see beyond the surface and find the spirit in people and places. I want my photographs—be they fashion, interiors, portraits, or fine arts—to evoke something of our past lives, creating an almost subconscious metaphor. By exploring the spirit of an object—a person or house, a piece of furniture—we go beneath its surface, and recognize in ourselves the power these people and things have over us, and why we find them beautiful. My desire is to transform us and take us to another world, one that we find peaceful and beautiful, one that calms us and changes us.
As to inspirations, I named my production company Oneiric House Productions after my love of Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space. For him the word Oneiric implies the world of dreams as represented by the home and the structures Man builds and creates believing they all contain a spirit from our memory or unconsciousness.
Bela Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Sergei Parajanov are my favorite filmmakers; but I also love Godard and Ridley Scott, David Lynch and Hiroshi Teshigahara. Still photography would be Man Ray, Imogen Cunningham, and Robert Frank, although images from film were always more inspiring to me than photography. And painting trumps photography as far as inspiration for me, especially the Symbolists like Bocklin and Redon.
RIIFF: What made you decide to move from still photography into film? Is this your first foray into filmmaking?
DF: Art House is my first feature documentary, but I have explored film early on in a work of narrative based on Andre Breton’s Nadja. It was shot on super 8, but has not been edited. I also made a short film in Paris for Vivienne Westwood for an AIDS benefit.
I loved shooting film as an extension of my still photography, but knew that half of the creation is editing, and I wanted to do that myself. I wasn’t interested in learning Avid, so I gave up making films. Almost 15 years later I learned how to edit with Final Cut Pro, bought a digital film camera, and decided to make Art House. Since then I have worked on four short videos for Sherwin-Williams that explore color in very abstract themes: “reasoned, intrinsic, diaphanous, and curiosity.” I also shot a music video for Japanese artist Tomoyo Harada. I have transfered all my super 8 footage to digital and look forward to editing Nadja on Premier—as soon as I learn that system.
RIIFF: This film has some stunning visuals that are clearly informed by your background as a photographer. Was it challenging to move from a still to a moving medium? Which do you prefer?
DF: I think when you shoot a still image you choose between a vertical or a horizontal compositions, and both are important in seeing the world in a camera, or eventually a print.  In film you have to see everything in a wide horizontal frame. So yes, it was a struggle to shoot everything as a horizontal, especially interiors or architecture, which is about verticality.
In Art House I wanted to avoid panning up and down so the viewer could understand the space. I’ve watched enough Visconti and Wong Kar-Wai to know it is possible to create verticals with negative space in film, so I use that in Art House a lot. One of my favorite parts of shooting film is we can see the object in a 3-dimensional way. With motion you can achieve what still photography can’t: a sense of time. With a soundtrack as well you can make the image come alive. So film was something I always wanted to explore.
RIIFF: Following from that last question—as most of the film is composed as images overlaid only with music, clearly you believe in the ability of an image to tell a story. How did you balance what the images say with verbal explanation, like the title cards and interviews? What can words say that images can’t, and visa-versa?
DF: In the film the interviews were important for me to include, but I only had seven minutes to show each house, so I always cut away quickly. I tried not to visually match exactly what they were saying, but to understand what they were saying and what images would evoke that feeling. So sometimes you have to think deeper into what they are saying when the images don’t match exactly.
The title cards were my way of including my black and white photography into the film without me being a subject. These are my tools to express what I am saying about film. When Alastair Gordon is narrating an abstract idea that doesn’t pertain to any one house, I decided to bring in images that didn’t relate to any of the houses in the film either—so we get an extra almost universal idea that the film, the narration, and my photography are all interconnected to one theme: making an honest life out of one’s work, and being inspired by art.
RIIFF: Do you prefer shooting in film or digital? Why?
DF: I shoot still photographs with my Pentax 6X7 [film camera], but I like to scan my negatives or prints that I make in the darkroom into Photoshop because it gives me another step in the creative process. I shot Nadja in super 8 film. I liked that my little camera could be hand-held and go almost anywhere. I had to smuggle the camera into locations—museums, even a private party at the Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte, where much of the film takes place—where cameras were not allowed. In 1991 my guerilla style of filmmaking wouldn’t have been possible.
I do feel that film has a look that is unmatched, but I couldn’t have possibly made Art House, with the budget I had, in film. So for me, and most filmmakers working on smaller budgets, digital is liberating. However, because I wanted Art House to look like 16-mm, I shot it in HD but at a lower 720 resolution, then bumped it up to 1080. This way it still looked honest to me, like it was a work of art and not a slick documentary made in Hollywood. I feel that the images take on a painterly quality, one with texture or grain, like traditional film. It’s a relaxing feeling, and a warm feeling—not a super cold high-definition hyper reality that none of us really experience in true life anyway. I wanted to retain that mystery in my film.
RIIFF: Is your home anything like these houses? Would you want to live somewhere so almost untouchably beautiful? Do you believe that art like this is “meant” to be lived in, in the same sense that most of us live in our homes?
DF: It’s not for everyone to live in an “art house.” If you are creative, however, or need somewhere to write, to paint, to create poetry, to cook or simply relax, it should be where you feel comfortable, and it should be filled with things you love, and people you love. My film explores only examples of that. Perhaps the homes in the film are exceptional or fantastic, or completely impossible to build today; but it should be
inspiring to everyone who believes that the home is direct expression of who we are, and should not be underestimated as an important element of being alive and being a human being.
My home is a work in progress. My photography hangs on the walls, books and things I’ve collected over the years fill my shelves, and people are there that I love. I need what I surround myself to create art, but I also need the forest, the city, and most of all my memories and thoughts.
RIIFF: What was your intent in making this movie? If your audience could get one thing out of this film, what would you want that to be?
DF: For me, Art House is about creating something that means you yourself are complete, that you have explored all possibilities of expression and greatness, filled your world with the things you love, people you love and found that what surrounds you is you.