When Small Victories Shed Light on Big Issues: Andrew Cohn on ‘Night School’
Andrew Cohn is not a social issue filmmaker. But at a moment when our country feels particularly divided, his movies happen to go right to the heart of the matter.
Hailing from Michigan, the Emmy-Award-winning documentarian is currently wrapping his fourth film in two years. The first of these, Medora (co-directed with Davy Rothbart), was—on its face—a movie about a high school basketball team in rural Indiana. But a deeper dig reveals the film to be an exploration of socio-economics and the unraveling of “small-town America.”
Cohn’s latest release is Night School, currently premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. Similar to Medora, the film has layers of meaning. It follows three adults in inner-city Indianapolis who are attending night school in hopes of getting their high school diplomas. Their touching personal stories are relatable to any contemporary audience, but they also point to larger issues about race, class, and opportunity in America.
We spoke with Cohn before the film’s opening night about his process of shooting and managing 700 hours of footage, while dealing with critical circumstances like getting held up at gunpoint during production.
NFS: In looking for your Night School subjects, did you specifically look for people you felt would succeed or felt not succeed through their night school program?
Cohn: Usually, when I'm “casting,” I first want a variety of stories, people that are looking for different things in life. When I got to the school, there were over 300 students and I quickly started meeting as many people as I could and getting to know their stories.
I'm generally looking for two things: one is, are they a really interesting character? Am I engaged talking to them? Would I want to just hang out with them? Another thing is: do they have a really interesting story?
I followed a lot more people than just the three who end up in the film. There's actually a few characters that I followed all the way through. They were really compelling stories of, for example, a girl who actually had a kid while I was there, but I ended up just settling on these 3 stories because I felt like they reflected my overall experience.
NFS: It seemed like each character was in some kind of fragile position in their lives. How did you tell them about what you wanted to do and build trust with them?
Cohn: This school's in a really, really dangerous neighborhood—there was no shortage of stories and drama. Every single day there was something happening. Usually, unfortunately, bad things. I spent a lot of time with my characters off screen, just hanging out and putting in time...
NFS: With the camera on or no?
Cohn: No, without the cameras. I'm not just going to walk up to someone and just slam the camera in their face. I'm just genuinely curious about people. Even when I go out to dinner, the people I'm with will be so annoyed, like "Dude, you're talking to the waiter for like an hour!" For me, that process of getting to know people is my favorite part. That's not work. I would be doing that even if I wasn't making a film.
I'm also very transparent with them about the process.
"When you're working as a filmmaker with subjects, it is a partnership. You have to have them on board."
NFS: That's what I was asking about. What do you actually say to someone who you want to film?
Cohn: I try to just be myself and answer any questions they have and be honest with them. I also tell them about my life. Things that I've been through because, to me, when you're working as a filmmaker with subjects, it is a partnership. You have to have them on board.
That was one of the problems I had with some of the subjects that didn't end up in the film. There was really interesting stuff going on in their lives and they wouldn't include me. I’m like, I can't fight you on this. Either you're in or you're out. The people that ended up in the film were the people that opened up and committed 100%.
NFS: I imagine that trust-building was especially important in this film where you and the producer and a lot of the crew are all white and your characters are all black.
Cohn: Yeah, it's definitely something I was conscious of every single day: being a white filmmaker and trying to communicate the African American experience. It was the first and last thing I thought about when I woke up and when I went to bed throughout the entire process. I was challenged in a lot of ways when it came to race in the inner city, in ways I didn't think I would be.
The school is 92% African American. I think a lot of them never really had a white friend. A lot of times I would go to places and they'd be like, "Who's this cop?"
"It was a lot of looks and a lot of, 'What is this guy doing here? Why does he have a camera?' The good thing is that when you become close with your subjects, they got your back. "
NFS: I was wondering if anyone ever called you out.
Cohn: Oh, yeah, it was just a lot of looks and a lot of, "What is this guy doing here? Why does he have a camera?" The good thing is that when you become close with your subjects, they got your back. If you have their trust, then the people that you're around, they're like, "He's fine," or whatever.
NFS: Once you started shooting, how did you figure out when to turn the camera on and not?
Cohn: When people watch my films they're like, "How did you capture all those amazing moments?" There's a lot of really mundane, boring shit I captured, too. I shot almost 700 hours of footage for this film. Whittling that down to 2 hours takes a lot of time and a lot of energy.
There are a lot of filmmakers who look at me and they go, "Why would you go live there for 8 months?" I think most filmmakers would go there a month or 3 weeks and they'd come back to New York and edit it and make several trips. I like to really embed myself in these people's lives because you never know what you're going to miss.
At about 6 months, I almost stopped. I thought, “I've just been here too long. I think this has run its course. Maybe I'm overshooting." And then I get a call from my DP. He's like, "Greg's brother is shot. I'm at the hospital right now." That became central to his story and I would have missed it if I listened to other people’s advice
I always tell my students you can never over-commit to something. You're never going to say, "Oh man, I spent too much time with this person. I got to know him too well. I shot too much stuff."
There were certain scenes where I was like, "Nothing happened that day" and ended up being my favorite scenes. Other scenes where I thought like, "This is going to be an amazing moment" just kind of felt flat. One thing that I learned is not to judge the footage until you really get back into the edit.
NFS: What did you shoot with and how did you direct your DP, knowing how much footage you guys might eventually capture?
Cohn: We shot on a FS700. In order to be flexible in the edit, my DP (Zachary Shields) and I would try and cover these different storylines in as many ways as I could in the most organic, natural way. The two of us both shot for the first few months, until things became more focused. Zachary was amazing. To be able to get that kind of coverage with a single camera is incredible. He was as committed, if not more committed, to the film than I was.
"When you're making a film you want your subjects to be heroes and they're not all of the time. They're real people."
NFS: What were some of the challenges you faced in production?
Cohn: The biggest challenge for me was living in this neighborhood where the school was. It was really dangerous and I had never spent an extensive amount of time in an inner city like that, living for 8 months. That was an ordeal in itself.
It was real dicey being in the inner city with that much equipment and stuff like that. My house was broken into at gunpoint, while I was at the house. I came face-to-face with them. That was really scary.
But the anxiety of living in that neighborhood is everyday life for the people in the film. Nothing works and there's always something going on. Not having transportation, money issues, waves of family problems, just everything coming at you at once.
When you're making a film you want your subjects to be heroes and they're not all of the time. They're real people. It gets frustrating sometimes. But that, to me, is why the subjects of the film are heroes: being able to overcome all of these systematic problems and wake up and focus on going to school. I don't think people realize how hard it is.
I am so invested in the characters, I love them so much it was taking a toll on me. I was like, "Man, this is so bad." One of the people I was following got arrested and then it really started to wear on me. Especially towards the last couple months, I was just like, "Man, this is too much." I was really getting worn down. But I’m fully aware that I was able to come back to Brooklyn and get away from that, and they aren’t. It's just unfortunate circumstances for a lot of people.
"I don't consider myself a social issue documentary filmmaker. I hate social issue documentaries."
NFS: Did your thoughts about inner cities and race relations in the country change in making this film?
Cohn: What's interesting is that when I came up with the idea for doing the film, it had nothing to do with race or inner city or anything. It was purely on a human level: people going back to school. I thought that was so interesting and vulnerable and, to me there was clearly a movie in it. There's a goal. There's a set of characters. There's a time where you're going to be with them. They're either going to achieve this or they're not.
Same thing as [my first film] Medora. I didn't know Medora was about the death of small town America when I got there. The themes for me always emerged through the characters. I don't consider myself a social issue documentary filmmaker. I hate social issue documentaries. I really despise when people that have an idea of an issue they want to explore then find people to fit into what they want their narrative to be.
I think they do it for mostly for good reasons and with good intentions, but it just turns me off. I find the characters and the themes come out of that. I didn't go in and say "I want to find someone who's trying to get their record expunged" or "I want to find someone who works at a fast food restaurant." Those things just came out organically.
That being said, I don't want to shy away from the [race] conversation because I think it's important. I have no problem being an advocate for the issues in the film and speaking out and trying to bring some awareness of the conversation about that. It would be stupid for me to ignore it and I understand that it is a very vivid picture of what it's like to live in the inner city, but at the same time what drew me to it and why I think the movie has appealed to people is that all these universal themes.
NFS: What do you hope the audience will take away from the film?
Cohn: I just hope that they understand what it's like to live in these 3 people's shoes for 90 minutes. And I think people will relate. Everyone's had a moment in their life where they like, "I need to get my shit together." Or they feel lonely or overwhelmed or like no one's listening to them. These themes anyone can watch and take away from.
I love all types of films, but I really like movies that are about smaller victories in life. You get the sense within all my films. If one of my characters graduates or doesn't, is the world going to change? No. But to them, it's everything.
NFS: There seems to be a huge gulf between making first and second films. As you’re now finishing your fourth, do you have advice for other makers specifically about moving on to their next project?
Cohn: My advice is don't force yourself to go make movies. If there's not something I'm really, really into, I'm not be able to do it because I know how hard and how long and how much dedication it takes. I think that waiting for the right project is better than just jumping into something just to be productive.
NFS: How are you feeling about the premiere?
Cohn: I just want to enjoy it. I've been working on this film for a year and a half, and I'm ready for it to move out of the house. It's like: go off to college. But as soon as we locked picture, I woke up the next day and I was kind of depressed, like now what do I do? I guess I go shopping or something? Or maybe I should do laundry? I don't know.
NFS: Laundry is good.
Cohn: Yeah, laundry is good. I'm going to go do laundry.