The View From the Other Side

It takes guts for a critic to venture into the medium they analyze, but acclaimed film critic and blogger, Matt Zoller Seitz did just that, releasing his first feature-length film Home in 2006.

Since 1995, he has been a film critic for NYPress and a TV critic and columnist for both the The Newark Star-Ledger and Newhouse newspapers. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, IFC Rant, Scenario Magazine, Details, Sound and Vision, Forbes FYI and Dallas Observer, where he was a film critic and feature writer from 1991-1995. In 1994, while working at the Observer, Seitz was named one of two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Now, he’s the founder of film blog The House Next Door.

Being privy to the inner-workings of both filmmaking and film criticism gives Seitz a unique view of what makes a great film. The Independent‘s Vanessa Willoughby sits down with this film connoisseur and picks his brain about the film industry, blogging and the passing of the late Paul Newman.

Where did you go to college? What was your major?

I went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I went there to study filmmaking and fiction writing. A couple of years into it, I fell into journalism, writing film reviews, editorials and features for the campus paper, and had enough success at it, that I ended up taking more and more journalism classes. In the end, I got degrees in journalism and creative writing, although I had enough film production and film history credits to qualify for a minor, if they’d allowed a major and a minor in the communications school, which they didn’t.

Did you always know that you wanted to be involved with the film industry?

Yes, from a very early age. I started becoming obsessed with films and filmmaking in the mid-’70s, as a byproduct of reading books and watching TV programs about King Kong, Star Wars, Close Encounters and other blockbusters that were big at the time.

What are the advantages of posting to a blog, vs. writing for a formal publication such as a newspaper or magazine? What are the disadvantages?

The advantages are near-total freedom. You can say whatever you want, go as long as you want, revisit the same subject multiple times, and write about topics that don’t have what’s known in the journalism trade as a “news hook.” The downside is, if you are a solo blogger, or if your blog doesn’t have an editor keeping an eye on quality, you can fall into bad habits — poor structure, redundancy, bad grammar and spelling and the like. One of the reasons the blog I founded, The House Next Door, has been successful is because it has editors who read every piece before it goes up, make corrections or ask for revisions from the writers if there are problem areas, and otherwise try to bring a small degree of professionalism to the process.

How easy is it to get a job as a film critic?

It was never easy, and now, with so many print outlets struggling to cut costs and tossing their critics overboard, it’s nearly impossible. As I’ve said elsewhere, we’re fast approaching the point where criticism is becoming a pursuit or a pastime as opposed to a career choice. It’s like deciding to be a poet. It’s possible to make a living at it, but I wouldn’t bet a mortgage on it.

Why did you found The House Next Door?

My day jobs as a TV critic at the Star-Ledger and a film critic at New York Press gave me an incredible degree of freedom and a lot of space, relative to what other critics generally get. But there was still that “news hook” issue, which is to say, I had to get permission from editors to write an article about a movie or TV show that wasn’t keyed into a release date, some star coming to town to do a play, the release of a book on the subject, and what have you. I hated that. My feeling was, if the writing is good and the writer has a readership that’s interested in the writer’s opinions and interests, it really doesn’t matter what the writer is talking about. I also wanted to be able to write a bunch of articles about subjects that obsess me and not have editors roll their eyes and go, “Oh, not that again.” One big example is Terrence Malick movie The New World, which I reviewed very favorably in New York Press when it came out; the critical reception was mixed to poor, and a lot of the complaints against it seemed invalid to me, and I wanted to bang the drum for that movie, which I considered a masterpiece; as it turns out, my pieces on Malick for The House Next Door were the magnet that drew a lot of the initial readership. I got a reputation as the Malick guy, and the blog became known as the place to go to discuss the work of this great, and at the time under-appreciated, auteur.

Are you paid to blog?

Hell, no.

Some writers in the recent past, especially those who write for nationally recognized papers, have come under fire for having their own personal blogs. Have you ever been in this type of situation?

Not really. The Star-Ledger probably might have complained if I’d been there long enough after starting the blog. But the House began publishing in January, 2006, and within about 10 months, I’d quit the paper for personal reasons. My colleague there, Alan Sepinwall, didn’t really have conflicts over his personal blog, What’s Alan Watching, but he did have some discussions with editors about how the paper could make the blog content work for them, his employer. They worked out an ingenious solution where Alan cross-posts his stuff on the paper’s website and links to the paper’s stuff through his website. So it’s a win-win for everybody.

How do you think the Internet has affected the film industry, in terms of marketing and advertising?

The industry is only now beginning to figure out how to use the Internet to promote their product. Viral videos are at the heart of that, although too much of it is indistinguishable from straight-up TV advertising, the kind of 30-second spots you see during regular programming. The studios could do a much better job of cultivating the interest of bloggers, and making screeners and high-res press photos and press kit material available to anybody who wants to write about their products. The media is becoming increasingly Balkanized, and it just makes good business sense to make all the materials available to everybody without making them jump through hoops and prove they’re big enough and important enough to merit the attention of the PR department. It’s stupid and self-defeating to play gatekeeper and sit there twirling the keys and deciding who gets in and who has to stay outside. Better to just open up the place and let people come and go as they please.

On your blog, you obviously have more freedom as to what you want to write about. Where do you get the ideas for your blog posts?

Half of my ideas come from conversations with other House contributors and fellow movie and TV buffs. The other half come from pacing around my house late at night and letting my mind wander.

How is your approach different from when you review a film and a TV episode?

The format has particular qualities that need to be acknowledged — you have to think about long-term continuity of story in a TV series, which isn’t an issue in films except for certain very, very long ones. And with movies, I tend to expect more wide shots — because the screen is bigger and the information is easier for the eye to take in — and be disappointed when I don’t get them. But the grammar is the same, at least for documentaries and dramas and comedies without laugh tracks. And a bad performance or a bad piece of direction is bad no matter what the medium.

I learned that in 2002, you ventured into independent film making. Could you describe this process, from writing the script, casting the actors, directing and gathering the finances?

The movie, Home, is a romantic comedy shot in my house and cast with friends and friends of friends — some professional stage and film actors, some neighbors. It’s kind of a poverty row version of a Robert Altman movie, with overlapping dialogue and interlocking subplots and a lot of moments that are more about atmosphere and behavior than plot. I funded the first leg of shooting myself and then paid for the rest with private investments raised by my brother, Jeremy, the movie’s co-producer.

Any upcoming projects to look out for?

I’m shooting a long short film—about 15 minutes—next month, based on an incident that happened to me a couple of years ago, where I was depressed and not sleeping in my bed, and my brother and a friend decided the way to make me feel better was to take me out and get me to buy myself a new bed. It’s basically a comedy, but it has some serious things to say about the grieving process, and how you can’t really will it along—it just has to happen organically, and the signposts you try to create are basically meaningless.

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers or film critics?

Watch a lot of movies, particularly movies made before you were born. There is nothing more detrimental to cinema, from the viewing end or the production end, than an audience that doesn’t know its history, has no curiosity about the world beyond their own experience, and that thinks that if they’re experiencing something cool for the first time—a particular shot or cut or bit of production design or sound work—then the movie where they saw it must have been the first movie that ever did it. That’s just dumb.

If you could work with any actor/actress, who would it be?

Michael Shannon, Timothy Olyphant, Mark Ruffalo and Mos Def are the most interesting leading men in American films right now. They seem capable of doing almost anything. The most interesting woman is Angelina Jolie, who is so charismatic and forceful that the contemporary film industry doesn’t know what to do with her. She tends to either play put-upon martyrs or cartoon action heroines, and neither type of role exercises the fullness of her talent. She should have been born in 1920. She and Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn would have been fighting over a lot of the same roles.

What are the benefits of writing, directing and editing your own projects? What are the downsides?

The benefit is near-total control of the project. The downside is the danger of entering a mental echo chamber where it’s hard to get distance from the material and see what’s working and what needs to be re-thought.

Any thoughts concerning the passing of Paul Newman?

He was one of the most beautiful and charming men every to grace the screen. He was a bit mannered when he was young—as he himself admitted, like a lot of young stars, he desperately wanted to be Marlon Brando—but he lost his self-consciousness as he got older. Newman was always a great movie star, but I don’t think it was until the late ’60s—when he started playing more elder-statesman sort of parts, or at least more world-weary roles—that he became a great actor. The pinnacle of his craft, in my opinion, is Nobody’s Fool, which was released in 1995 when he was 70 years old. That performance contains the sum total of his art and life; it’s greater than the movie, and the movie’s quite good.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

If you’re a screenwriter, don’t be a slave to the three-act structure. And if you’re a critic, try to seek out, and evaluate on their own merits, films that don’t hew to the three-act structure. The mentality that judges all movies according to the tenets laid out in how-to-write-a-screenplay paperbacks is a big part of the reason why the modern commercial cinema is so boring and predictable. Don’t be a part of that mentality.

Check out the trailer for Seitz’s film Home here.

See Seitz’s blog The House Next Door here.

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