October 25, 2018
In Theaters

How a Filmmaker Turned the Camera on Artists and Opulence in 'The Price of Everything'

Nathaniel Kahn knows that artists have various demons, none more tormenting than money.

In his first documentary, the Academy-Award nominated My Architect, Kahn tackled the subject of the memory of his father, world-renowned architect Louis Kahn, who in 1974, died $450,000 in debt.

“I think that every artist struggles with the demon of money,” Nathaniel Kahn told No Film School. There are others Kahn points out, such as demons of jealousy, competitiveness, insecurity, hypochondria, procrastination, distraction, fear, drink, and drugs. You have to know them well if you’re going to survive as an artist.

“But I think that the demon of money is tricky, because when you don't have it, you need it,” he explained. “Your biggest excuse is, I can't be doing my art because I have to have a job to make money so I don't have time. That's a famous one. But then there's the one which is, I'm making lots of money, let me keep doing the art that's making the money.”

Kahn’s latest film wrestles with the machinations driving one of the most exorbitant markets there is, that of the contemporary art world, and the answer is The Price of Everything.

Nathaniel Kahn first sat down with No Film School to talk about the making of his new documentary at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The film opened in theaters last week.

No Film School: The Price of Everything features a very wide range of characters, from famous artists to elite collectors. How did you choose who would be right for the story?

Nathaniel Kahn: Good characters are key, but you don't really know who's going to be great until you try. With documentaries, as you know, you tend to film a lot more people than you can use. You do go fishing, if you will, but you tend to know where the fish might be. It helps, certainly, to have guidance from people saying, “That's a good spot to look in over there.” One of the producers is very knowledgeable about the art world, and she was particularly helpful in being able to identify people who would be great to talk to.

I don't do pre-interviews. You only have one chance to meet somebody, and certain things happen then that will never happen again. Many times, I don't even like to talk to people on the phone before I interview them.

But going in with Bob Richman as cameraman, he is somebody who listens. He's very light on his feet. He's not particularly tall, but he's very strong and he is very quiet. He moves like a cat. He dances when he shoots. It's a very slow dance, but it's sort of like Tai Chi. So when we arrive and we meet someone, many times, we're rolling, not necessarily when we walk in the door and meeting and greeting and saying hi...that's not very interesting. But then you get to talking and then the camera comes up, I don't ask, "Okay, now we're gonna roll, roll.” It just kind of happens. You know pretty quickly if this is going to be a character who you think can go somewhere in the film.

But you need to do quite a bit of that, and bring that to the editing room and then you start to say, "Okay what's interacting with what? There are some that are like vinegar and baking soda, something exciting happens." That happens in the editing process where you're juxtaposing these things.

NFS: And when you know if that character is going to go somewhere?

Nathaniel Kahn: I can give you a specific example, like with Larry Poons. When we met Larry, we drove up, and he came out and started talking. Bob just knew to move the camera and start filming. When we arrived at Larry's house, of course I wanted to see his paintings, but he just started talking and we started rolling. I thought, I could say, “Can we go in the studio?" But the more interesting thing is to put aside my expectations. We only have one day. What if a light goes down? What if it's dark in his studio?

All of those problems that are in your head as a filmmaker...just put them aside and go with the moment. I just thought, "Okay, let's see where he leads me and he led me into the woods. We started talking about light and he just started walking through the field towards the woods. Bob and Eddy and I were trailing behind him and we put a lavalier on him. If somebody starts talking, don't worry about the lavalier mic, just deal with the fact that you've got a boom mic. When we we stopped, we put a lav on him. Just don't formalize the process. Allow it to start, however it starts, because you'll never recreate that.

Filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn speaking to artist Larry Poons with Bob Richman on camera and Eddie O'Connor on sound while filming 'The Price of Everything.'Credit: HBO

Kahn: In the woods, we had this great conversation about light and Beethoven, all this stuff you don’t know if it’s going to mean anything in the film. Only very late in the day, when we stopped again, did I say, “Oh Larry, can I just get some shots of you in the field?" And you get those things which are disgustingly called B Roll. There's nothing B Roll about them. They're A Roll. They're as A Roll as anything you will possibly ever shoot. You need people being people in the world, so him walking through the field with a coffee cup and the bees buzzing.

Only after we'd done all of those things did he ask, “Well, would you like to see the studio?” And I said, “Oh yeah, sure," but casually, not like “Oh yeah, that's why we're here!”  And then there's that marvelous moment where he doesn't even really want to lead us in the studio. He's shy about it. 

He says to follow Paula, his wife. We go following her, and we see this incredible thing. It was only because I had done all of that work outside that the revelation of that incredible room of color and beauty felt like you were in Plato's Cave before, and now you've emerged into the light of the world. As it turns out in the film, we preserved that process because I think it prepares also the audience for the surprise of seeing his work.

"And you get those things which are disgustingly called B Roll...They're as A Roll as anything you will possibly ever shoot."

NFS: Was getting access a challenge, to be able to show up on these people's doorsteps?

Kahn: One can sort of fetishize access. Access is important, but ultimately, access is only part of it. I like to think that pretty much everybody has a wonderful story. If you spend enough time with them, the camera sees things in people that you miss, and if you film it right. If you don’t, anybody can be boring. Stephen Hawking would be boring, but he's not. He's incredibly exciting.

If you film things right, most people are fascinating. I think that access, getting in the door, is part of it. But then part of it is going with an open heart. Not having some sort of agenda from somebody, but really trying to listen. Insisting upon listening, and allowing the silences to fall.

One of the first things that Bob Richman taught me when we were working together on My Architect was that I cut in too much. Somebody would say something, and I would sort of go on to the next thing. What he taught me was...he said, “Just be silent.” I think he learned that from David and Albert Maysles. Because he worked for them, he was Albert's first assistant cameraperson. He would say that Albert and David taught him most of the things he knows about filmmaking,

You see that in Grey Gardens. They will be talking to the people, the Beales, and there will be a pause. You can easily fill that pause with a question, like “Why'd you buy this house?” or something that would intellectually come to your mind. Like, let's make a good conversation. But the much more interesting thing is to let the silence fall and see how the person fills that gap. What is it that they say, what's going through their mind? What is it that this thing that has just been said that connects for them, not of you? So I guess the point is, yes, access.

Getting in the door at Grey Gardens is genius, of course it is, but in the hands of lesser filmmakers, it would have been a couple of interviews. The access is just the beginning and then it's the listening, and then it's really, for lack of a better way to put it, the loving, the loving of your people, your subjects, your characters. You have to love them. If you don't love them, how will anybody else love them? How will the audience love them?

Artist Larry Poons walking through a field for some self-described 'A-Roll' in Nathaniel Kahn's documentary, 'The Price of Everything.'Credit: HBO

Kahn: Loving them really means respecting them and letting whatever it is they have to communicate come out. Let it come out and go back again. You can't expect to get everything the first time. We live in such an impatient world. You hear these stories of people who made a movie in a weekend and oh it's amazing, it won this huge competition and oh my god it's so genius and once in a while that does happen. There have been movies that have been made in a weekend that are amazing. Most of them are not. For documentaries, many of the ones that move me the most are ones that evolve over time and have the element of time. You're getting to know somebody, and through the process even of the filmmaker, getting to know more about the person. The layers upon layers of them as a human being comes out.

"If you spend enough time with them, the camera sees things in people that you miss."

NFS: You mention on My Architect learning about letting silence fall. A big part of that film, that I also saw in The Price of Everything, is your interaction with the people you are talking to. The audience can hear your question, there’s no censoring of yourself, and that becomes a valuable part of the way you tell the story. What are your rules when it comes to talking to people?

Kahn: I certainly like to know about the subject as much as I can. I read up on them if I can, and I talk to people who know them a little bit. I do make a list of questions for myself, but then I routinely lose it during the interview because I don't really think of what I do as interviewing; I think of it as playing a scene together (or playing music together, though its unscripted, so it's like jazz maybe). It does help to have a sense of where this person might fit in a larger narrative. If you have a sense for that, then you think of some questions that might elicit or tend to push things in that direction.

Usually, what I'll do is I'll write down a lot of questions and then try to organize them a little bit. I'll say, "I have too many questions. This is not good." I really find if you have to go onto two pages, for somebody, it's too much. It means you're not thinking carefully about what it is you really want. You usually see you ask the same question about eight different ways, and better that you really try to say, what is it that you're interested in?  

Part of a storied art collection in this still from 'The Price of Everything' directed by Nathaniel Kahn. Credit: HBO

Kahn: I prepare that way. I think it's very important to get sleep, and try to be rested, and try to be calm and loose. If you go in, you're tight, and you think, oh I need these things from this person, that's the most you're going to get. You won't get anything extraordinary. I guess the key is to remember that the very best thing that can happen is something you didn't think of. That’s a wonderful thing, and you have to be open to that and prepared for it.

I see them as encounters. I kind of shy away from the idea of the interview. It seems I like interviews but I don't think of what I'm as interested in as being interviews. I think of them as being encounters with people, with the witness of the camera and the sound person.

"It's the experience, the human experience for moving through time, that you somehow want to capture."

NFS: Based on what you’ve learned thus far in your career, what would be your advice to other filmmakers?

Kahn: As a documentary filmmaker, I think as any kind of filmmaker, it's the experience, the human experience for moving through time, that you somehow want to capture. Always keep that in mind. An audience is on a linear journey and you can't just hand it to them. You have to prepare them too for being ready for something like seeing Larry Poons's studio. If we just cut to the inside of Larry's studio, it would have been nothing. You have to be aware of all those things. If you trust the people you are working with and let them be your guide, you will find those things.

That brings us sort of full circle which is to my Dad's work. He would often say, when he was drawing, that he drew things to find out what he really thought about them. He would talk about the idea that he knew an idea would come, but it doesn't have to be now. It's that trusting that you almost don't want it to happen yet, but that you want to be prepared. Because you know that only by preparing and taking the time will something really worthy show up. I think filmmaking is very much like that.     

Featured header image of artist Jeff Koons in "The Price of Everything" directed by Nathaniel Kahn courtesy HBO.

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