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Meet the Filmmakers: Stephen Higgins and Nina Gilden Seavey--'The Matador'

By Tom White

Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 8-14 in New York City and August 22-28 in 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 are Stephen Higgins and Nina Gilden Seavey, directors/producers of The Matador.

Synopsis: The Matador is the epic tale of David Fandila's quest to become the world's top-ranked bullfighter. Heart-wrenching setbacks and thrilling successes dramatize El Fandi's three-year journey across Spain and Latin America and into the pages of bullfighting history. As David struggles to achieve his place in the pantheon of Spain's greatest bullfighters, he is confronted by those who question the place of this ancient and brutal ritual in the modern world.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Stephen Higgins: Filmmaking provided an answer to the question, "How can I share this experience with people who aren't here?" Filmmakers have the chance to overcome barriers of time and place to bring heartfelt, sensory experiences to others. The first step to becoming a filmmaker was committing to do this first film, for real, and to see it all the way through. For first-time filmmakers, that means finding experienced people, inspiring them and empowering them to do their best work.

Nina Gilden Seavey: I have been a filmmaker for nearly 25 years. In addition to making films, I am the founder and director of The Documentary Center at George Washington University and am the Founding Director of SILVERDOCS: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival. Some of my past independent films are A Short History of Sweet Potato Pie and How It Became A Flying Saucer (2006), The Open Road (2005), The Ballad of Bering Strait (2003) and A Paralyzing Fear (1998). So being a filmmaker is, and has been, my life's work.

IDA: What inspired you to make The Matador?

SH: It was a provocation. To see a bullfight is to be provoked to do something. Like it or not, one cannot remain unmoved by it. It astonished me that this could be happening and we outside of the Spanish-speaking world knew so little about it. This begged to be seen for what is, and understood by a larger audience.

NGS: Stephen brought the bulk of the footage to me and I saw in the material a film potentially of great passion, beauty and cultural depth. Quite honestly, I had never been interested in the bullfight at all. But my father, who was a well-known civil rights attorney in the 1960s and '70s, had been a great fan of the corrida. In his courtroom work, I think he saw himself as "The Matador," fighting alone against the forces of society that he saw represented in the bull, and against death itself. He died a number of years ago, and when I saw this footage I realized that I found a way to come to understand some essence of my father that had eluded me all these years. So I came on board with Stephen to make the film.

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

SH: The biggest challenge was getting the people, time and financial resources to make it happen. In partnership with others-including cinematographers Christopher Jenkins and James Morton-Haworth, as well as experienced filmmaker and co-director Nina Gilden Seavey-that was possible.

A secondary challenge was earning the trust of the Fandilas and the bullfighting world, who are rightly suspicious of letting outsiders in. This problem was solved by spending time with the Fandilas and letting them see that we were not out to "get them," but to tell an honest story. Indispensable was the relationship of trust we had with Jose Antonio del Moral, a well-respected bullfight writer in Spain and a consultant to the film.

Finally, the Spanish language presented a challenge for me, as I was a beginning Spanish speaker when shooting started. Sheer necessity and the will of people wanting to be understood made this problem less vexing than I'd ever thought possible.

NGS: For me, the challenges in making the film were purely story driven. People outside of the world of the bullfight have an immediate judgment about it-the idea of the ritualized killing of an animal in an arena is at once visceral and negative for those who have not been raised in a culture that understands the corrida.

Therefore, the challenge in this film was to shift the terms away from a polemic about the rightness or wrongness of the bullfight in the modern world, to an understanding of the meaning of this iconic cultural tradition and David's place within it. In watching the film the audience needed to be immediately enveloped in an experience that forced their previous predilections, preconceived notions and biases to fall away; the film needed to surprise the audience out of its complacent judgments. I believe we were able to do this quite successfully, and it is a rare goal to achieve in documentary, which frequently tends to preach to the converted.

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

SH: David's injuries and mishaps made it clear early on that we would have limited control over how the story played out in this film.

So after the second shoot, it was evident we'd need to do extensive interviews with David himself before and after bullfights, to understand ourselves what was happening and to enable him to tell his own story.

This film was always going to be largely visual...and the cinematographers didn't disappoint on that score. They took full advantage of the light and shadow that are the key visual motifs of The Matador. What happened next is that John Califra wrote a brilliant score, which became so much a part of what makes the film work, thanks to the deft editing of Ian Rummer.

NGS: For me the film did not change, as I was involved in the editorial and post-production phases of the film and the story itself was a pretty simple one: a man in his quest to become the number-one ranked bullfighter in the world. Instead, what changed for me was the way in which the story needed to be told-i.e. how to use the story and the techniques of filmmaking to deepen the beautiful images that had been shot over the three years of production.

After a series of rough cuts, we brought on John Califra, the brilliant composer, who created a large, orchestral score that he recorded live with the Sophia Metropolitan Orchestra in Bulgaria. It was within John's score that the film found its heart.

We brought the project to Ian Rummer, a senior editor at Team Sound and Vision in Washington, DC with whom I have worked on a number of projects, and he cut the film to the sound track-almost more of a music video than a traditional documentary film. Ian is a very intuitive editor who has chops in both long-form documentary and advertising, so he edits with a visual eye and an intuitive sense of "What feels right...What do we want the audience to feel?", not "What do we need to know?" (the bane of most documentary). Ian also did the color correction on the film, which was particularly important in this project as the bullfight starts at 5:00 in the afternoon, a time when light and shadows shift and play a critical part of the "mood" for the fight itself-and therefore light and shadow play a big part in this film.

So the film emerged from being a solid, traditional documentary of a man on a quest to one that intensely embraces the passion, the spectacle and the luminescence of the bullfight itself.

IDA: As you've screened The Matador-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?

SH: The reaction is usually strong, because this film is so visceral, so emotional.

Most surprising is that people who love bullfighting and people who hate bullfighting- both camps-love the movie. That is so heartening. We set out to tell a story, in a spectacular way, without telling people what to think.

NGS: People who say they think that the bullfight is barbaric-and who believe it should be abolished-absolutely love this film. How amazingly surprising is that?!?!?

We are especially excited to see the response of broad audiences when the film is released theatrically on October 10 by City Lights Pictures. We expect that the film will be seen more as a spectacle and less as a documentary, taking both the general public and the press by surprise.

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

SH : For me, the most powerful documentaries are visually strong. There's no movie more inspiring than When We Were Kings.

NGS: Over my nearly quarter-century of filmmaking, there have been many people who have mentored me, and those are the individuals who have inspired me. Chief among those are Charles Guggenheim and Paul Wagner, both documentarians who have won Academy Awards (four and one, respectively). I was also mentored by Fritz Roland, owner of Roland House, who taught me everything I know about post-production, a very underappreciated art in documentary filmmaking.

The Matador will be screening at the Village East Cinema in New York and the Arclight Theater in Hollywood.

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