Q/A: Sharon Lockhart

Los Angeles-based artist, photographer, and conceptual filmmaker Sharon Lockhart makes films as minimal as they are pensive. There’s a predilection for long takes, little edits, and a fixed, straight-ahead framing within which actions transpire. Repetitions and circularity permeate. Time is let to elapse. In Khalil, Shaun, A Woman Under the Influence (1994), Lockhart remade, with non-actors, a scene from the 1974 Cassavetes film. Confusing the line between fact and intervention, the hourlong Goshogaoka (1997) stages and choreographs a middle school girls’ basketball team through a series of fancy warm-up drills. Teatro Amazonas (1999) exercises a sustained self-reflexivity on its viewers, as they watch an audience watching a choral performance happening offscreen, in an opera house Lockhart came across through Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982). In NO (2003), two farmers collect and spread hay in perfect order. Lockhart’s films have played at Sundance, the New Films/New Directors Festival in New York, the New York Film Festival, and Rotterdam Film Festival. She is currently working outside of Los Angeles on her fifth film.

Fiona Ng: Describe your style as a filmmaker.
Sharon Lockhart: Style is dictated by how I use the variables of the camera. I use long takes, no camera movement, and a normal lens. I am not interested in distorting the image or in traditional narrative or editing techniques.

FN: What is your process like?
SL: A lot of the enjoyment I get when making work happens in the process, in my exchanges with the people I work with—both in front of the camera and behind. I do a lot of researching at the beginning of a project, and then I work with the film’s subjects so they understand my goals and in the end, the shoot is usually one or two takes on a single day. My research varies from one film to the next, depending on the project. Researching a project is also something I really enjoy nothing is on the line—it’s all about learning and discovering. I get pretty heavily into it and work pretty intuitively, letting one thing lead me to the next. For Goshogaoka, I researched ethnographic and documentary film, postmodern dance, and basketball routines and exercises. In NO, I researched farms, farmers, growing and harvest cycles in rural Japan as well as avantgarde Ikebana and landscape painting. And in Teatro Amazonas, I looked back into experimental ethnography and worked with anthropologists and ended up continuing the research by interviewing 600 people from every neighborhood in the city of Manaus, Brazil.

FN: What are you working on now?
SL: I am making a film in a small village in the mountains a few hours north of Los Angeles. It features 27 of the 43 children that live there. I’ve been filming off and on for a little over a year and a half now, which is new to me. In the past, I have always rehearsed for weeks at a time and then shot in one day. As far as my process is concerned, this film has been more like a number of very small films put together. I also have had to learn to operate a camera in order to obtain and continue an intimate relationship with the kids. I am almost to the post-production stage though—just one more shot. It’s a long film—it will be a little over two hours long with 12, 10- minute static shots. I have loved it all, but it has been really difficult without a crew for the first time.

FN: Who are your favorite filmmakers and films?
SL: I have so many favorites, but recently I have been very interested in Jean Eustache. There is really very little written on him, even in French, so it’s been hard to research him. He died way too young, it’s so sad. He was so talented. If you can see Mes Petites Amoureuses, you should. It’s really incredible and wasn’t appreciated nearly as much as it should have been when it was made. I also love [Robert] Bresson an awful lot and his writings on cinematography. Oh, and I was blown away by [Lars Von Trier’s] Dogville (2003). I really wished I had made that film. It was so ambitious and uncompromising. I also just recently saw The Time of the Wolf (2003) by Michael Haneke and thought it was one of the best films I’ve ever seen. He is uncompromising as well. He doesn’t rely on the usual tropes of filmmaking and alternates between narrative events and the nonnarrative looks.

FN: You shot a series of photographs called “Audition,” based on a first-kiss scene in Truffaut’s Small Change (1976). You also made Khalil, Shaun, A Woman Under the Influence, based on Cassavettes’s film Woman Under the Influence. What do you like about these two filmmakers?
SL: The reason I like Cassavetes and Truffaut is their relation to realism and narrative. I think both of them looked at traditional narrative film and found it to be forced and inauthentic. They both adopted a more natural style that allowed viewers to look at an interaction or activity without it being completely in the service of plot. A lot of it has to do with how they work with people, how they work with actors, how they work with non-actors. And that is very much part of my practice. It’s about creating a situation, through duration, where something can happen. It’s meant to be very familiar—it’s friends and family acting. Cassavetes was constantly searching for some kind of authenticity and he would just keep going and going until he found that thing he was looking for. Or he would create a fiction that somehow exposed people or a situation and let it play out in front of the camera.

FN: Are you a structuralist filmmaker? Or do you care to identify as working in that tradition?
SL: I don’t mind that affiliation at all. It certainly has been an influence on me. When I began making films as a graduate student at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, some of the first films that had an effect on me were those of Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Andy Warhol, and Morgan Fisher. At the same time, I think that a lot of the reasons for that label have been diluted by 40 years of practice. It was originally a very specific challenge to mainstream filmmaking,
but I think some of the ideas have been adopted by the mainstream and limiting oneself to those structural options can be claustrophobic.

FN: Your films have a transcendental, meditative aspect to them…
SL: Rarely in cinema do audiences have the opportunity to both spend time looking and listening. Because of that, they might think of watching as “transcendental” or “meditative.” However, what they are experiencing is a proactive relationship with the screen—that is, they have the time to engage through looking and listening. This is a much different experience than when one watches a traditional narrative film with information coming directly to the viewer with
little work on their part.

FN: You shoot on film and not video. Why do you prefer shooting on film?
SL: Well, I think it began with my training in photography—my first photograph was taken with a 4 x 5 camera, and that process of slowing down in order to make an image has stayed with me. I can’t imagine not having the level of concentration and attention to the frame that you have when working with a large format camera. I am also very interested in the situation that is created when setting up a shot in this way—making the moment more heightened or theatrical. With film you shoot less and work toward that moment versus shooting hours of footage. Extra attention is paid, duration is noted. It becomes more of an event in the making with the subject, more like a play. If I were to shoot video I would have a different approach and so would my subjects. It also has to do with my interest in the social experience of the cinema and the level of concentration and expectation an audience brings.

FN: What part of your films do you associate with film history, what part with video history, and what part with photography history?
SL: I’m really hesitant to locate my practice in those terms. I think there are parts of each of those histories as well as others in all my work, photographic and filmic. I am constantly looking at historical materials for inspiration and guidance. I think it is a real trap to say this or that history can’t be part of your practice. It is what makes art stale and limited. So I look outside of things that are familiar and bring in histories that are new to me, that haven’t been approached from a contemporary perspective.

About :

FIONA NG lives in Brooklyn. She’s written for The Los Angeles Times, Black Book, Bust, RES, and other publications.