January 23, 2014

Meet the Slamdance Filmmakers: Chris Furbee, Director, 'Huntington's Dance'

When Chris Furbee picked up a camera to document his mother's struggle with Huntington's Disease, he used it as a tool to understand not only her struggle, but his own as well. Eighteen years later, with the help of his editor, Herbert Bennett, he's crafted Huntington's Dance, the kind of naked and honest film that gives all of us insight into coping with long-term illness. He was gracious enough to take some time out to talk with us about the film.

Documentary: Your film feels very aware of and conversant with the history of documentary, yet it doesn't feel formal. At the beginning of the film, you seem to be either in film school or working at a camera house. Tell us about your film background prior to starting on this film.

Chris Furbee: I got started in film via a friend of mine who was working on a movie called The Money Tree 1989-1992. I did grip and dolly grip work. Through that movie I got a job at Adolph Gassers Inc. in San Francisco, where I worked as a rental tech for eight years in the lighting and grip department. I also ran the Chapman Leonard rental house in San Leandro for a year. I was very much into being a grip, gaffer, dolly grip and crane operator. I got out of feature film work years ago, but I kept shooting for my film.

D: Eighteen years is a long time to work on a film, yet the length of shooting and focusing on the ideas gives it a great breadth. Did you always think it would be such a long-term project?

CF: When I first started filming, I was thinking that I wanted the film to end after I did my test results in the movie. I did not think at that time that it would take me 18 years to make, but I feel the film is much stronger as a result.

D: While I appreciated the parts of the film that focused on the illness, I think the most beautiful part was the dance. Can you talk about how shooting the scenes of your mother moving through the house, and working with that footage many years later?

CF: It was extremely hard for me to shoot that footage. Obviously it was disturbing to me to see my mom that way, but I knew it had to be done so I could help educate people as to what Huntington's Disease is. It is depressing sometimes to watch it; it's like reliving my worst memory of my mom all over again. I tried to edit the film myself, but it was just too difficult. Herbert Bennett, who is an amazing editor, has been on board for most of the 18 years of filming.

D: Did the camera start to become a tool that you used not only to deal with your emotions, but also as a way to buffer them? One of the strongest moments of the film for me is the turning point; the relationship between you, the camera, and the audience is intense. It's both fraught and not fraught because of the nature of storytelling. That must have been a very difficult issue and scene to deal with in the editing, as well as the shooting.

CF: The camera was my confidant and my therapist because I could say anything to it and I didn't hold back anything. My family in West Virginia doesn't talk about Huntington's; I felt frustrated. Having the camera and being able to go out to my studio was powerful. It helped me not only through my filmmaker's eye, but also for me as a person. There were times when I had to force myself to shoot footage. I would look at it and think, Nobody's going to want to watch this. I promised myself to shoot all the time, and I thought, When I get back in six months, if I don't like it I can throw out the tapes, but I have to shoot a lot while I'm here.

D: Did that help you keep your sanity in that difficult situation?

CF: There were times when I would get so frustrated with what was going on there. I couldn't explode at my mom but I could go out to my studio with the camera and say what I wanted—scream, curse, get it out of my system and then deal with my mom in a less intense way.

D: The nature of filmmaking is such that you can't understand a situation when you're in it....

CF: Definitely. One of the things that I am thankful for is by its taking so long it gave me the opportunity to look back and think about how I might do things differently—be it my personal life or family or with friends.

I watched some of the older footage with my mom in it, and I wish I hadn't been as reactive at the time. I was reacting to her and not to the disease. I learned how not to do things. I learned how to be more compassionate. It's very helpful for my work that I do now.

When I first started shooting I didn't know what I was going to do with the footage. Back then, I got a call from my Aunt Linda, who lived across the street from my mom and checked on her all the time, but my mom got paranoid and delusional about my aunt and she locked the door and wouldn't let her in. So I got a camera and took it there with no idea what was going to happen. I set up a studio for myself in her garage and I put up the camera and I would go out to talk to it whenever I needed to. I also went around and shot stuff when my mom was aware that I was filming her and also sometimes when she wasn't aware that I was filming her. If I had to talk to my mom, I had to figure out where to put the camera. Some stuff didn't turn out well, but a lot did.

Huntington's Dance won a Jury Special Mention for Most Compelling Personal Journey at Slamdance.

Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. Their film Who Took Johnny premiered at Slamdance. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.