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Meet the Filmmakers: Michael Angus--'Salt'

By Tom White


Editor's note: Salt, from director/producerwriter Michael Angus and director Murray Fredericks, screened in DocuWeeks 2009 and won an IDA Award for Best Short Documentary. The film airs August 17 on PBS' POV.  Here's an interview with Angus that we published in conjunction with DocuWeeeks 2009..


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 Michael Angus, director/producer/writer, with Murray Fredericks, of Salt..

Synopsis: Salt is a documentary on photo-artist Murray Fredricks' extreme journeys to capture the heart of the world's most featureless landscape on Lake Eyre, South Australia. Totally isolated, he must contend with equipment failure and the environmental elements of rain, mud plains, lightning and the ever intrusive salt. His only reference point is the horizon and his only companion, his thoughts. The resulting photographs are not just sublime pictures of a remote and surreal location--they are still points that punctuate a journey of the mind and spirit.



IDA:  How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Michael Angus: I was working in theater initially as an actor, but increasingly as a director, often working with young people and non-actors on group-devised projects. Picking up a camera was an extension of that process, I guess. I started filming a young boxer who had competed in the Sydney Olympics and had turned professional. He was the youngest son of family friends and I was intrigued as to what motivated a white middle class boy to become a professional boxer, and how his close-knit family navigates the murky world of professional boxing. The Fight Game was my introduction into filmmaking: a five-year labor of love (and sometimes hate) about a professional boxer, Danny Green, and his family.

It was also during the time I was filming The Fight Game that I started and completed my second film, a commissioned hour-long project for the ABC called "Ooldea." This was a collaboration between composer Ian Graindage and the Elders of the Spinifex Country in the Great Victoria Desert. I had worked with both Iain and the Aboriginal Elders for a few months rehearsing a theater show for the Adelaide Festival some years earlier. This was a look inside an indigenous culture that I discovered I had really only a superficial understanding. I felt it was an extraordinary privilege. "Ooldea" really was an opportunity to capture something of that experience of discovery to a wider audience through Iain's journey. Salt is my third documentary project.

IDA: What inspired you to make Salt?

MA: Murray had been traveling out to Lake Eyre in the middle of the Australian Desert for a number of years. On about his eighth expedition he took a video camera with him to record some footage. When he returned from the trip, he showed me some of that footage. I was stunned. I had never seen anything like it before. This footage included the stunning opening sequence to the film. I felt very strongly that there was a documentary in what Murray was doing and felt compelled in many ways to help make it.

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

MA: There were the obvious physical challenges and obstacles to overcome. All the footage in the documentary was recorded by Murray himself, with the exception of the aerial shots. Working alone with such wide frames is difficult. Murray would often start filming, then retrace his own steps (sometimes for over a kilometer) to prevent a "false" trail appearing in the shot. If the scene wasn't quite right, he would repeat the process. This, of course, was further complicated when there was rain and the edges of the lake turned to mud. You can see an example of this on the website. Then there was also the aspect of convincing investors that a film about one man traveling out to the middle of nowhere, with nothing but the horizon in sight, sitting around for a large part of his day doing nothing, would be a compelling story for an audience. Thankfully, they understood.

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

MA: I wrote an idea for what I thought the narrative would be, before we began filming. I thought filming would be completed in six months after one more trip to the lake to get the required interviews and a few more shots. How wrong I was. It took about four more trips, each one taking three days by car to get there. One of the themes in the film is "you can't dictate to the weather or nature," but here I was requiring it do the things I needed, in order for me to make that very point on screen.

Murray has been to the lake 14 times, and he said to me early on that in his experience the lake has never been the same each time he has visited. And each time something unexpected has occurred because he has eventually gone with what the landscape has presented him. Murray's process to capturing his photos has always honored that notion. It has largely been based on one of trust and the ability to confront your own ambitions and expectations in the process of trying to discover what lies beyond them.

For the documentary to have any authenticity and to capture the essence of Murray's process meant that it had to be constructed using the same principles. So in essence the whole process was one of continual change and re-evaluation. My relationship with both the editors in the film, Lindi and Ingunn, was built on that understanding and made for a challenging but ultimately very rewarding process.

IDA: As you've screened Salt-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?

MA: The reactions so far to the screenings have been really positive. The feedback generally has been one of awe for the beauty of the landscape and night skies and also for the extent to which Murray went to capture those images. People have laughed and cried, and I'd like to think they have been moved in some personal way.

When an audience member comes up to me after a screening and shares what was clearly an emotional experience for him, it's both a satisfying and humbling experience as a filmmaker.

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

MA: It's always a difficult question because I like many different films for different reasons that don't necessarily relate, but the first ones that come to mind are Australian documentary filmmakers Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson. Their film Rats in the Rank is one of my favorite films. They allow enough space for wonderful characters to tell their story, then are able to pull that together into a narrative without getting in the way themselves. I also love the way Jim Jarmusch uses time and music, and Werner Herzog's intelligent and creative inquisition. Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful is a favorite, for its ability to create humor and pathos, leaving the viewer feeling a little bit more alive at the end of the experience.

Recent films that have moved me are The Way We Get By, by Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, and Sweet Crude, by Sandy Ciofi. Both inspiring films.

Salt will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles. The final screening is Thursday, August 6, at 5:40 p.m.

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