MC: How did you become involved with this project?
SS: Several years ago, two different production companies approached William about shooting a film. I was asked to review their proposals and, based on their prior credits, recommended one of the companies. About six months later I learned that it hadn’t gone well with one of the producers. William, who’d seen one of my prior films (Arranged), and who we’d met socially here on Maui, apparently said: “Well, why can’t that nice man up the hill with the beautiful wife make the film?”
That’s how it began. I must admit I was reluctant to take it on at first, having worked on numerous documentaries before. They can be unwieldy, underpaid beasts, and often require years of love and dedication. Of course they can also provide a filmmaker – and audience – an unrivaled opportunity for adventure, insight and growth.
MC: What interested you about the subject?
SS: I’m inspired and moved by the choices William has made, both in terms of his writing, and the way he’s chosen not to engage with “conventional” life. Above and beyond his poetry, which I was introduced to years ago in college, I was amazed to learn about his commitment to the rejuvenation of what was deemed “worthless land” (here in Maui, now The Merwin Conservancy’s lush palm forest.) He’s a great subject for a film – humorous, profound, passionate and, to some, no doubt eccentric.
MC: What is that you hope people will take from the film?
SS: I hope those who know and love William’s work gain a greater appreciation for the man behind the poems and prose. I hope those who aren’t familiar with him go out and read his poetry, and reflect on their own choices in terms of creative expression and impact on the world. I hope audiences are moved to tears, to laughter, to reflection.
MC: Any differences in the film making process between making documentaries & scripted film? How did you discover the narrative in this documentary?
SS: Narrative and docs are very different. I spend most of my time writing screenplays for films and television. There’s a purity to the writing. Even as a director, by the time you’re financed, cast and shooting, you have a pretty good sense of the film – beginning, middle and end. Not so with documentaries. Especially if your subject is a poet (as opposed to a film about, say, an underdog high school basketball team that defies all odds and makes it to the state championship!) As such, the “narrative” in this film isn’t really linear. We explore certain periods in William’s life, several of the bold choices he made, but we also attempt to explore his concepts of imagination, place, memory and how we might better live in balance with the natural world.
MC: Were there any surprises during the making of the film?
SS: Many times I was struck by the breadth and depth of William’s knowledge. It’s humbling to listen to him talk about Milton and the tradition of the blind poets, or palm taxonomy, or how the troubadour tradition can be traced down through the centuries in popular songs and culture.
As well, there are always surprises in shooting and editing – moments you thought you had and, when reviewing the material, it doesn’t match what you’d hoped for; and vice-versa, when you uncover wonderful little gems in the editing process.
SS: It’s been a gift to work on this film, to engage with poetry again, to spend time with this “national treasure”, as Paula (Merwin’s wife) calls him. The dedication he shows to his work, and the choices he’s made will always inspire me. Working on this film has made me reflect on my relationships, what kind of parent I am, on what films and writing assignments I choose to take on. Our time with William and Paula in France was particularly memorable – walking with him in the uplands, visiting ancient ruins that were meaningful to him as a young man in the 1950s, watching him tend to the land that has been so important to him (both on Maui and in France)…yeah, it’s been a gift.
MC: What does the art of filmmaking mean to you?
SS: I’ve always loved a good story – from listening to books as a young child, to acting in plays, to being transported by a good novel. At a certain point I found film to be the most powerful medium – combining the visual, the narrative, harnessing music too. But at the core, if audiences are going to care, there has to be a good story, well told.