Meet the Filmmakers: Kristian Fraga--'Severe Clear'


Editor's Note: Severe Clear, which screened as part of the 2009 DocuWeeks Theatrical Documentary Showcase, opens Friday, March 12, in New York City and San Diego. Here's an interview with director Kristian Fraga that we published in conjunction with DocuWeeks.



Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, July 31-August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Kristian Fraga, director/producer/writer of Severe Clear..

Synopsis: Armed with the world's most lethal ordnance and his home video camera, First Lieutenant Michael T. Scotti takes us on an epic first-person journey with the
Marine Corps as they fight their way 300 miles from Kuwait to Baghdad. No Reporters...No Politics...No Censors...This is what he saw.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Kristian Fraga: I'm a total product of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; I grew up on a steady diet of classic Hollywood films, so I never thought I'd ever make a documentary. Then everything kind of changed my first year at NYU. Pulp Fiction came out and there was a seismic shift in terms of how everybody started thinking about film. Overnight it seemed like everything was about snappy dialogue, fractured narrative and pop culture references, and I remember thinking, If that's where the industry is going, I'm screwed. I was a fan of that film, for sure, but it wasn't the kind of movie I was interested in making-or, to be honest, the kind of film I thought I could make. I remember thinking, "I'm not Quentin Tarantino," nor do I want to be. He's doing his own thing and I gotta do my own thing. Then it hit me: "I'm not George Lucas or Steven Spielberg either." I'm not gonna make Star Wars, I'm not going to make ET; they've done that, that's their thing. And then it got me to thinking a pretty obvious question: What the hell is my thing? 

Now, for a 19-year-old who eats, breaths and sleeps cinema, that was a pretty heady moment to go through. I was scared for about .5 seconds, and then it felt as if a big weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I remember thinking, I may not win an Oscar by the time I'm 24 like Orson Welles (for the record, I didn't); I may not be hand-selected by Lucas to direct Episode I of Star Wars prequels (for the record, I wasn't); and Steven Spielberg may not executive-produce a feature-length version of my award-winning final student film (again, for the record, he didn't). And you know what? That was okay. Not only was it okay, but now my future was wide open. I didn't have to worry about hitting these cinematic markers that always seemed so important; instead I could focus on what stories I wanted to tell. In the end I realized it all comes down to the story. As a
filmmaker I'm not concerned with anything other than what is the best way to tell the particular story I'm passionate about. My last two feature films have been documentaries. These were stories I needed to tell, and they were best told as documentaries.

IDA: What inspired you to make Severe Clear?  

KF: I was developing a completely different project when Severe Clear literally fell on my lap. Mike Scotti, the Marine our film is about, walked into NYU with a bag full of mini-DV tapes figuring some young filmmaker might find the footage interesting. He ended up bumping into a student who happened to be interning at our production company at the time and a couple of days later we were all sitting down with Scotti watching his footage and talking about his experience. Right away I knew his was a story I wanted to tell.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them? 

KF: Right off the bat, the biggest issue we had was figuring out how to take this random footage, which was never intended to be used as a film, and put it together in some sort
of coherent manner. I thought the trick to making it all work was to focus on the narrative structure of the film and not get too caught up with the style of the footage. I knew it was going to be a challenge to take this jagged footage and cut it in a more classic kind of Hollywood way, but the fusion of these two opposing styles is what I think gives the movie its energy. Beyond actually pulling the film off in the editing room, getting the money to make it all happen was a whole other saga...

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

KF: Very early on in the project, we came up against an artistic choice that would fundamentally shift my vision for the overall film. We originally shot two days worth of sit-down interviews with Scotti and shot about one night's worth of footage following him around New York City. It just didn't "feel" right. The picture was designed to cut between Scotti's
raw footage in Iraq, sit-down interviews with him, and shot footage about what his life was like back
in the States. The structure was sound, and visually the film was pretty dynamic in terms of cutting between different styles and looks. The problem was, by cutting to interviews of Mike and showing his life in New York, we were totally robbing the impact and immediacy of the video footage Mike and the other Marines shot in Iraq. That was the story. Every time we cut away from Iraq, the picture lost itself.

I sat down with my producing partner, Marc Perez, and told him I thought the film should only be about Mike in Iraq and we should only use the footage that was shot in Iraq. We had no idea if there was enough there to make a feature film and if we could pull off a narrative without the support of interviews and new footage we were going to shoot. We also knew that making this decision would cost us all the money we had already spent on the three days of filming, and we were about to add a couple of years to this project by going in this new direction. To Marc's credit, he agreed and basically said, If that's the movie you want to make, you figure out how to pull that off and I'll figure out how to get the money to make it happen. Four years later the film is done, and once we made that major decision and figured out the right way to tell this story, my vision never wavered.

IDA:    As you've screened Severe Clear--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

KF: I've often said that Severe Clear doesn't answer questions, but hopefully it'll raise a few. Our goal with this film was not to make the "definitive" film on this subject or use it as a platform to push any political agenda. In fact, if I've done my job correctly, you shouldn't know if I was for or against this war because ultimately that's irrelevant, and audiences seem to be getting that. The reaction so far has been fantastic, and the post-screening
Q&A's have been really interesting. The goal was for our film to encourage conversation, and it certainly seems to be sticking with people well after they leave the theater. We've had Marines who were there coming up to us and saying that we got it right, which is certainly gratifying. Family members of Marines or Army soldiers who are currently over there or who have just gotten back have
thanked us for allowing them to see what their husband or child's experience was, and then we've also had some pretty open debates about whether or not we should have gone into Iraq in the first place. The Q&A's have been lively, and that's the point. The movie has been designed to be a cinematic experience and not a particularly comfortable one. At the end of the day, it's really a blue-collar film about these men getting up for work everyday and doing their job. It's about what that job represents and everything that goes with a Marine being good at what he does--which is a part of the inherent depth and complexity of Mike Scotti's story. 

IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

KF: In terms of Severe Clear, I could go on and on. Interestingly, Persona Non Grata, a doc Oliver Stone directed for HBO, was a huge influence, and
it's a shame that film hasn't gotten more attention. Certainly the usual suspects: Harlan County USA, The Fog of War, Hearts and Minds, The Anderson Platoon, In the Year of the Pig, Salesman, Crisis, Primary, Night and Fog, and a whole bunch of others.


Severe Clear will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in Los Angeles, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in Los Angeles, click here.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in New York, click here.