For Mark Webber's 'Reality Cinema', Lack of Resources is its Strength
Mark Webber's 'Flesh and Blood' is a docu-fiction hybrid starring his unconventional real-life family.
The only thing that's fabricated in Mark Webber's documentary-fiction hybrid Flesh and Blood is its inciting incident: Webber, who plays himself, did not, in reality, serve prison time. The film opens as he is released into the inner-city Philadelphia streets, where he grew up impoverished and intermittently homeless, raised by his single mother, Cheri Honkala, now an activist and Green Party politician. Though Webber has resolved to return to life as a free man with practiced grace and optimism, the world around him has changed little—it's still plagued by the temptations and injustices that contributed to Webber's imprisonment in the first place.
"I wanted to use the lack of resources as my strength, not a limitation."
Everyone plays a version of themselves in this unconventional family story, which weaves together scenes of straight vérité, such as when Webber meets his heroin-addicted father for just the second time in 30 years, and loosely scripted scenes from everyday living. As a result, Flesh and Blood is as messy and unfussy as the stuff of life, and its story is riddled with much of the same disappointment and hope.
Webber sat down with No Film School after the film's premiere at SXSW 2016 to discuss his new approach to filmmaking, which he has termed #realitycinema, and why he would rather continue to make films with limited resources.
No Film School: How did you decide to employ the documentary-fiction hybrid approach?
Webber: I'm really pushing home #realitycinema. I've figured it out. This is what I'm doing: I'm making reality cinema.
I made my second movie, The End of Love, with my son Isaac when he was two. And I built up the whole production around him. I've always been obsessed with realism in film and experimenting with ways to achieve an authentic feeling. With [Flesh and Blood], I knew I wanted to make a movie about family that felt different and unique. And I know I was lucky enough to have such a different and unique upbringing. I know I wasn't delusional in thinking I would be really fascinated with watching this woman's story. And so I got them to be willing to explore our lives.
This all just happened to coincide with me wanting to heal from traumatic events in my life. I wanted to take a look at how having children has been impacted me since I didn't have a father. I love vulnerability. I love being open. I [want to be] that person who walks into a party that's totally themselves, who gives permission to everyone else to be themselves. I wanna do that with my work. I wanna put it all out there so people can relate.
"I got a little worn out with actors just acting."
NFS: That's what movies should do in general, I think. When they're not facilitating openness and vulnerability, I don't find them to be as interesting.
Webber: Yeah. Me too.
I think that I've benefited from having been an actor and working with other really great filmmakers in more of a traditional space. I got a little worn out with actors just acting. I can still appreciate really well-crafted, bigger movies. But what that has done is just really created more of a passion and fire in me to tell unique stories in a different way. I wanted to use the lack of resources as my strength, not a limitation.
I asked myself, "What are ways that I can push the genre? What are ways that I can push myself as a filmmaker?" When I made The End of Love, everyone started shooting on DSLRs and the Canon 5Ds. I took the limitations of that camera and turned it into its strengths. I wasn't trying to make it something that it couldn't be.
NFS: How did you decide which elements of your brother and your mother to bring to the screen? Did you write a script? Did you create open-ended situations?
Webber: Both! So, the cool thing was that I obviously know what's going on with my brother in his life, and I know my mom's story and what she was up against, and I was able to fold that into the script that I wrote. I had a super clear outline of this story that I wanted to tell and all the emotional beats. So I wrote scenes that were refined and had dialogue with suggestions. It's really interesting to see how many scenes play out line for line. They don't feel like it in certain moments, but then there are a lot of scenes where the setup is there.
It was great knowing that because the stakes in the story were already there—the emotions are all clear, and the set up is very clear—anything that [would happen] on set within that moment was going be a gift. It was right 'cause we'd have earned it in the story to be there.
Some things did play out in real time. For example, my brother talking to his dad, the scene with my dad in the end...we didn't repeat that. The AA meeting. Those are moments that are just kind of pure vérité. We're there, in character, in the moment, letting things unfold.
"I'm interested in making films that make people feel more connected to humanity and to the world."
So it was this nice, beautiful blend. And I think that what allows it to all be possible is me being in the film and directing at the same time. I guided us and anchored us to where we needed to be. I helped people be in the moment.
NFS: How did you help people feel relaxed? I can imagine that there's sort of a learning curve for people who aren't used to having a camera around.
Webber: There were five of us who made this movie. You know? We didn't have a real crew. And the five of us that were all working together, we all know each other really well. This is the fourth film that I've made with my same cinematographer and the third film that I've made with the same editor. We're really, truly partners. We understand what we're trying to do. Knowing each other so well, we were able to read each other's minds. We also lifted each other up, 'cause we were striving to make something different and unique.
But with my family...With my mom, I was sometimes like, "Mom. The camera's not there." We get into this little silly banter with one another, and so sometimes I just literally have to tell her exactly what to do and how to do it. We'd kind of fight about it, but then, that would make us laugh. We'd get this charge with one another, and then we would roll the camera.
I kept putting off the scene where her and I had to get into a fight, because I knew we were really gonna get into a fight, and the things that we're talking about are very real. We didn't have an AD, so our schedule was just me being like, "Alright. We're gonna go do this tomorrow 'cause that's what I'm emotionally prepared to do." So I just kept pushing the fight with my mom 'til the last minute.
NFS: You must have gone on a personal journey making this film because there were things that you discovered about yourself and your family along the way. What was the most important, or the most relevant, of those things you learned?
Webber: It was things that I already know, but [making the film] strengthened my understanding of those things. For example, love is really all there is. Forgiveness is vital. Self-love, self-acceptance. For me, filmmaking is very much part of my spiritual practice. I'm interested in making films that make people feel more connected to humanity and to the world. And so, by experimenting with making a film about family and trauma, and addiction and pain, it's ultimately a hopeful film, in my eyes, and has a soul.
Still, every time I watch [Flesh and Blood], I get a new hit from it—a new thought, a new something. Because, for me, this story is still happening. The story of my dad is still happening. Do we continue to have a relationship? It's really hard. That's still evolving. My mom is still in the neighborhood fighting for people's rights. My brother still is struggling with being a teenager and being different than other kids. It's interesting: We have this beautiful time capsule, but it's still evolving at the same time. And in a weird way, I feel like this movie's compassionate.
"You don't need a budget. You don't need a producer. You don't need a studio or a production company."
NFS: It is. Absolutely. I mean, it's the kind of movie that anybody with a judgmental bone in their body needs to sit down and watch. I think that that is the greatest power of this film.
Webber: That's cool. I love hearing that. Especially in this world today, with all the crazy, fucked-up shit that's going on. There have always been artists at the forefront who are reflecting back things that are happening in society. I've always felt this responsibility, in my mind, to make things that are hopeful and unique and different—inspiring in some way. 'Cause the movies that I've been inspired by have given me the encouragement to go and make stuff.
It was cool to hear my mom talk about the film for the first time. My mom and my brother saw it at the premiere. That was on purpose. We've done some interviews together, and to hear my mom talk about my brother's father and my father, and how there are no villains in the movie...how they were treated with dignity. At the premiere, watching the movie, was the first time my mom has seen my dad at all since I was five years old. My mom still has not seen him in person. And so, to hear her walk away with feeling like there are no villains, and these men were doing the best they could with what they had at the time, and that she's happy that she's raised two young men to understand the power of forgiveness...it's obviously really cool to walk away with.
So it's cool to see the beginning of her changing the way she relates to that narrative that she's been telling herself for so many years, surrounding my dad.
NFS: You mentioned earlier that you work within limitations. For many of our readers, that's their ethos.
Webber: I know. Totally. Which I love. That's my M.O. I joke about it all the time with my collaborators. You're like, "It'd be great to have more money." But then, we're always kind of like, "Well, would it really, though?" 'Cause I make movies like this in this way, and they wouldn't work if we had movie trailers and we went back and we sat alone, and then someone came and knocked on the door and said, "Okay, they're ready for you." We just wouldn't be able to do it. I can't make my movies in that way.
Having lived a life of being in poverty and struggle, I know that you're forced to become more inventive and to try things. That's cool to me. Sometimes, when you have too much, it can make you a little lazy. You're bogged down in all this unimportant stuff, and not focusing on the things you should be focusing on.
NFS: If you have too much, you can lose the essence—the core of the film.
Webber: Totally. 100 percent. Then it becomes style over substance. You got all the flashy stuff. But where's the soul, where's the heart of your story? That's really what people connect with.
Even in the big studio movies, the superhero movies...what people may not realize is that they're connecting with is the soul. The real moments help sell the fact that you're in a whole CGI world and people are flying around and everything looks glossy and shiny. When you have actors who can convey heart and soul, you have this emotional reaction, and that's what keeps you engaged. Not the special effects. Not the "stuff."
In this day and age, you don't have to wait to tell the stories you want to tell or to make the movies you want to make the way you want to make 'em. We can make movies on our phones now. So even if you don't have money and you're struggling, you still have a phone and you could make a movie on that. And so I just continue to encourage anyone who wants to make something, to just go do it. The only thing that's stopping you is yourself.
You don't need a budget. You don't need a producer. You don't need a studio or a production company. And you'll have an audience, 'cause I would wanna watch. I would love to watch a movie that someone made that has just a story to tell, and nothing else.