'QUEST': How a Director Shepherded His 10-Year Production Into Theatrical Release
Jonathan Olshefski thought his film was done five years ago, but then life happened.
QUEST, which premiered at Sundance 2017 and opens today in NY and LA, doesn't fit into one box. It's both a family saga and a collection of miniature portraits. It's both a story about music and a story about the protection of interpersonal bonds against violence. It's a historical document and it's a visual timeline passing through some of the simultaneously best and most difficult times in our country's recent past. Jonathan Olshefski's debut documentary tells the story of a family in North Philadelphia and the events that happen around them and that march right through their living rooms and workplaces, all dramatic, all sharp, and all familiar—at times painfully and at times movingly so, sometimes both.
Shot lovingly and attentively over nearly 10 years, the film center Christopher "Quest" Rainey, the head of a music studio, his wife Christine'a, or "Ma Quest," a manager at a women's shelter, and their children. The facts of these people's lives--their centrality in their uneasy community, the dynamism of the hip-hop they foster, the struggles they endure to simply keep the days moving forward—have made a remarkable film that clearly engrossed and fascinated Olshefski for a substantial chunk of his life.
It's not easy to make any documentary; there are a host of potential pitfalls and complexities that hover around documentary production that don't necessarily hover around other kinds of films. These complexities, though, can be rewarding and stimulating. No Film School touched base with Olshefski to ask about his process, and he shared the elaborate, instructional, and personal answers below.
No Film School: How did you achieve the level of familiarity necessary to film some of the more intimate moments in the documentary?
Jonathan Olshefski: There was a gradual deepening of the relationship between me and the Rainey family over the years as I spent a significant amount of time with them. As we continued to build trust and I was around for more and more significant events, the moments naturally became intimate. The friendship, time spent, and a shared desire to tell this story were key. It also doesn't hurt that we enjoy each other's company and have a lot of fun together. It was also a two-way street, as our relationship expanded beyond making the documentary. We became a part of each other's lives with and without the camera.
NFS: What is it about music that unifies the community depicted here, and how did the presence of music influence your film?
Olshefski: First and foremost, the community of artists influenced and inspired me as a filmmaker. The music was the catalyst for this film. In 2006, Quest (Christopher Rainey) invited me into his home studio, Everquest Recordings, to take photos to help promote his artists and what they were doing. What drew me in on that first day was the community of the studio. I could tell that the relationships were deep and that the creativity was channeling something profound. Quest and Ma had created something really special, and the shared passion to make music was what bonded this group of men and women together.
As a filmmaker, I was influenced by the artists. Their passion motivated me to go all out. I think my passion also motivated them. I would print the photos, and eventually, they were plastered all over the studio. We pushed each other to always try and take things up a notch. Work harder. Work longer. Redo.
"I can't stop thinking about filming. The project is with me when I sleep and when I wake up."
I connected to an artist named Price really deeply. He was just super nice and really reached out to me. He eventually gave me the nickname "Peter Parker" because I was climbing all over the furniture to get interesting angles. I saw myself in him. We are both struggling artists. We want to express ourselves through our chosen media. I am not as creative as he is (his ability to express any experience or detail through his lyrics is really amazing), but we are similar, in that the wheels are always turning.
I can't stop thinking about filming. The project is with me when I sleep and when I wake up. When I don't have the camera with me, I am still framing out shots as I go about my day. Mid-discussion, friends will notice me absent-mindedly closing one eye and moving my head around to re-frame foreground and background. In some ways, it is a gift, but it also has its costs. Especially when other responsibilities demand attention, and I have a hard time tearing myself away from the creative process in order to attend to them.
NFS: How much footage would you say you shot versus the amount you kept, and how did you decide what to keep?
Olshefski: I shot about 400 hours of footage to make a movie that was 105 minutes long. Those 105 minutes were actually the only shots that were in focus, so the edit was pretty easy to just scrub through chronologically until you found a shot that is actually in focus and you could just add it to the timeline. Just kidding! Though I did make technical mistakes over the years, because I was working as a one-man-band, capturing both image and sound. Mistakes happen, and sometimes it's devastating, but you just need to persevere and trust that a lost moment, as beautiful as it is, isn't going to sink the entire film.
The vision for the film was to tell a story that was authentic to the Rainey family's lived experience. I wanted viewers to see and experience North Philly from the perspective of the people who actually lived there. Every decision was measured against this objective. After that, it was about building clarity, nuance, and beauty, and seeking shots and moments that would entice a viewer who knew nothing, and perhaps didn't care, to connect and see herself or himself in the situations that play out in the film.
Figuring this out was a collaborative effort between me and my editor Lindsay Utz and producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon. Lindsay and Sabrina brought important insights into the raw material and to the story. I was so immersed in both the community and the footage that it was important to have fresh perspectives to help identify what a viewer would need in order to really make that connection.
"Trust that a lost moment, as beautiful as it is, isn't going to sink the entire film."
NFS: What did you view as the throughline of the film when you were making it? Were there structural principles you adhered to?
Olshefski: For me, the throughline was the warmth of the family. The film is about tenderness in the face of trauma and love in the face of adversity. The film is structured chronologically, so moving forward in time over many years is a big part of the journey, but really it is about drawing attention to the small details that reveal the hearts of the people I was filming.
In terms of structure, we didn't use title cards as a device to track time, but we did include contextual clues as the news penetrates into the spaces where filming is happening (2008 election, Hurricane Sandy, 2012 election, Sandy Hook, 2016 election). These little moments allow viewers to orient themselves, assuming they have also lived through these moments. It may be a different experience for a teenager to watch the film in 20 years who only has a vague sense of these historical events. Fortunately for these future viewers, tracking history year to year is not the essence of the film, and connecting to the family's experience is not contingent upon being oriented in the timeline.
NFS: Perhaps relatedly, how did your feelings about the project, or your attitude towards it, change during the process of making the film?
Olshefski: I always felt that this story and this family was significant. This is what motivated me to keep showing up year after year, but it was about the friendship as much as it was about the project. One thing that did change as the years went on, and the moments I had access to became more intimate, was my sense of duty to honor the trust and investment of my subjects.
The Raineys invested over ten years of their lives in this process. It was not just passive engagement either. In addition to spending tons of time with me, they were also feeding me, giving me a place to crash, informing me about significant moments, chasing people down for releases, providing music tracks for the film, and the list goes on. Through all of this, they were trusting me to get it right. I took that very seriously. This sense of responsibility was not something I took lightly, and it informed every decision, from who to partner with to what shots to use to how we would go about exhibiting the film. My gratitude just continued to increase as the year passed and we all held on to that early goal: to tell a North Philly story from a North Philly point of view, and to do it together.
"After a year and a half of shooting stills, I felt like still photography wasn't the proper medium to do the job."
NFS: Can you tell a little bit about the dialogue between yourself and your subjects during the making of the film?
Olshefski: From the time, Quest invited me to come to the studio to take pictures and promote his artists, and we had been talking about what we would like to do together. He was definitely taken aback when I asked to tag along on his paper route in addition to photographing in the studio ("There isn't anything interesting about that,” he said.) but I expressed that it would be interesting for me to capture the daily routine, as there was something compelling about the balancing of the day job and the creative passion. It was something I was juggling too, as I was working construction by day and then trying to find time to make art.
In order to get up with Quest at 3 a.m. to get to work, I would sleep over at the house the night before. Through this, I got to know Quest outside of the studio persona, and I also began to get to know the rest of the family, too. I think the time we spent on the paper route, because Quest worked long days, really gave us a chance to go deeper and this led to gradually including the family in the project. We started to discuss how North Philly was typically represented versus how they experienced it themselves, and we thought that maybe we could put something out there to change the narrative.
After a year and a half of shooting stills, I felt like still photography wasn't the proper medium to do the job, so I suggested trying to make a short little documentary that would focus on the quiet moments and daily routines, to show what life was like. This was 2007, and at the end of the year, I had the first cut. We talked about it and felt like there was another level to be achieved in terms of both style and substance. We felt like there were more layers to unpack. So, into 2008 I kept going, focusing more on family moments to go along with the studio and paper route material.
This back-and forth of filming, cutting, showing the film locally to audiences, discussing cuts, discussing scenes, and just sharing life continued for years and at the end of 2012, I thought we finally had enough footage and would bookend the film with Obama's election and re-election. Then in 2013, while I was editing, the family endured a major crisis. Quest got in touch with me and asked me to come and film. He wanted to take control of the narrative, because he felt the media covering the event was not getting it right. He also felt that by sharing this chapter in their lives, they could make something good come of it, as they could look back and see what they had gone through and maybe help others as well.
The intimate and vulnerable scenes that came from this period of time were directly the result of this dialogue. Not wanting this moment of crisis to overshadow the quiet portrait we set out to create, we continued for another three years, and the resulting film is the product of this dialogue. Even after premiering at Sundance, we continued to dialogue and actually made slight edits to the theatrical version of the film, based on this discussion. The biggest change was to add a little bit of information to Quest and Ma Quest's backstory to acknowledge and honor their other children, who were grown, but were not featured in the film. This was important for them and therefore was important to include in the film The dialogue continues as we do press and travel with the film, and it was an integral part of the creative process.
The foundation of QUEST is collaboration, dialogue, and relationship. It would be a very different film if not for our mutual commitment to those values.