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St. Patti's Day: Steven Sebring's Portrait of the Punk Poetess

By Tom White

Editor's Note: Patti Smith: Dream of Life (Dir.: Steven Sebring; Prods.: Margaret Smilow, Scott Vogel), which premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, makes its television debut nearly two years later-this Wednesday, December 30--Patti Smith's birthday--on PBS' POV series. For more on the film, click here. And here's a recent interview with Smith that appeared in The New York Times.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Steven Sebring’s meditation on the rock ’n’ roll chanteuse/poet of New York’s underground, was an 11-year labor of love for both filmmaker and artist—as well as Sebring’s first documentary feature. Sebring’s primary métier is photography, and his film, shot in 16mm black-and-white and color, is a nonlinear excursion into Patti Smith’s life as an artist, one whose conventional narrative arc is countervailed with loops and Möbius strips, reflections and refractions.

Smith narrates the film, sharing her poetry, musings, observations and contemplations, as friends like Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsburg, Benjamin Smoke and husband Fred Smith die around her, as she journeys around the world, visiting gravestones of poets, performing with the likes of Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, Michael Stipe, Tom Verlaine and her own kids, and reaffirming her place in the firmament of rebel artists.

It’s a challenge to capture the life of an artist, since the conventions of documentary biography tend to sell short the restless seeker and expansive soul of its subject. But this film succeeds as a portrait, both human and ineffable—and earned for Sebring and Phillip Hunt the Excellence in Cinematography Award: Documentary at Sundance Film Festival.

IDA caught up with Sebring via e-mail as he was between stops on the festival circuit.


Patti Smith: Dream of Life was an 11-year collaboration. You mentioned at Sundance that going into the project in 1995, you didn’t know much about Patti Smith. How did you get together? What did she communicate to you about what she wanted from the project and why she wanted to do it?

Steven Sebring: I met Patti on a Spin photo shoot in 1995. At the time, she was recording a song with Michael Stipe, whom I had just photographed. So I went to her home outside Detroit. At the time, she was coming out of a 16-year hiatus living in Detroit with her family. I think maybe in the back of her head, she wanted someone to document her, but she hadn’t found the person whom she could trust. I became so interested in her that I convinced her to let me start filming when possible. By self-financing the film, touring and traveling with her on and off for years, the movie came to be. Twelve years later, we have Dream of Life.

She was never specific about what she wanted while I was shooting, only when she’d had enough and would ask me to stop. When you’re at her level of fame, people want so much from you. Normally, people who interview her, or producers who approach her, have pre-conceived notions. They want her to say something outrageous or spit in their face or do something crazy like crack her guitar over some guy’s head. I wasn’t looking for anything like that. I just wanted to document her. I think she could sense that.


Although you have made short films, you came to filmmaking through photography. Talk about how the two art forms converge, and how they differ for you. What from the art of photography—and particularly portraiture—served you best in this project? What was most challenging in going from photographer to filmmaker?

Although filmmaking and photography seem different, they are very similar to me. I believe that all the different experiences I have in photography have helped me a lot. While working with models, actors, actresses and musicians, you’re always looking for that one single moment to capture, and that has helped me in filmmaking. I just took that same philosophy to the moving image, which to me is very exciting and has become  very enjoyable to me.


The music documentary is a celebrated sub-genre of the documentary form. And Patti Smith references Dont Look Back in Dream of Life. Were there other music documentaries that served as touchstones or inspirations?

Patti always jokes with me about the fact that I had never seen Dont Look Back before I started filming her; she even brings it up in the movie.

I can honestly say that I have no references to any other music docs. I must say, however, that I do love the films that Kurosawa, Welles, Hitchcock and Fellini did.


You shot in black-and-white and in color 16mm film. Talk about this choice in format. Was this something you and Patti agreed on from the beginning?

I used an Arri SR-1 16mm camera and a 16mm Bolex. The reason was that I love the old school of filmmaking and I’ve always used film when shooting photography. Patti and I never had a discussion about what format I shot with or why, but I know she loved the idea that I was shooting 16mm film.


We see different Patti Smiths—rock icon/performer/poet, painter, mother, daughter and friend. There’s the public persona/icon and the private, reflective seeker/explorer. Given these different Patties, did you have different cinematographic strategies of capturing these different personae on film?

My approach to making this film was to let it happen naturally and let each aspect of her personality, talents and interests reveal themselves, and to emerge in their way and own time. The only way I was able to make all that feel organic was to have had the time to be there.

There is no way to rush a film with a subject like Patti Smith. There was no plan or strategy to shoot a tender family scene any different than an iconic rock and roll moment.


Eleven years is a long time to spend on a film—even a documentary—but was this part of the process of getting to know and understand Patti Smith as she evolved over the course of that time period? Or was it a more pragmatic, rudimentary rationale of needing to raise the funding to keep it going? How did you know or sense that you had arrived at a stopping point in the production process and that you were ready to go into the editing stage?

The process of filming has been extraordinary and, at times, extraordinarily painful.  But I would never have done it any other way. For 11 years, it was pretty much me, a camera and a mic following Patti around the globe, showing up to film her in Japan, Paris, Israel, New Zealand and anywhere and everywhere she would go. I never knew what I was getting into. At first, it was me calling her, asking when I could film. But then she would be calling me, and asking me to come film something. She is unique—an extremely private person, yet very influential. Going into this, I had total respect for and trust in her. We were just setting out to do something that felt new and positive to us.

But there were bumps along the path. After four years of filming, I ran out of money. I had run up over $100,000 in credit card debt. I just couldn’t afford to finance it. I had to shelve the film.

After 11 years of shooting, Patti and I decided to stop. We were ready. This was the time. She had great momentum. There was the new album, Twelve. And, after nine previous nominations, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.


Looking at the editing process, you mentioned at Sundance that it took a year. Her quote—“Life isn’t some vertical or horizontal line. You have your internal world, and it’s not neat”—seemed to serve as a touchstone for how you went about structuring the film. Talk about that process; how you struck a balance between realizing that internal world—the dream of life—and figuring out a cohesive narrative structure.

I wanted the film to be almost an extension of Patti’s mind. And her mind is intense. It’s abstract. Provocative. She doesn’t stop thinking for a moment.

She speaks so poetically in the narration that I think the film can almost function like you’re reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The structure of the film is very much in keeping with that quote of Patti’s that you refer to. That’s the way she thinks. It’s the way I think as well. So this is not some talking heads biopic or a standard documentary. It’s something different—which took some time to do, creating the script in the editing room.


Had you been a true fan of Patti’s prior to embarking on the project––without the benefit of innocence and discovery that you had here––how might the film have been different?

I really don’t think that the film would have been that different, quite frankly.

My approach with all actors and musicians always has seemed to be the same. I always like to know as little as I can anyway. The fact that Patti was a mystery and was very guarded interested me. I can say that we have gotten very close over the years––and even at this point, I am still learning things about her.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary and content editor of