ALWAYS IN THE PRESENT TENSE
KEVIN JEROME EVERSON with Benjamin Schultz‑Figueroa
Kevin Jerome Everson is averse to having his films called documentaries, and considering all the work that goes into their construction—the multiple takes, the creation of props and costumes, the scripting and planning—it’s easy to see why. He asks his subjects to perform specific tasks, positions them within the frame of his camera, and will often have them repeat their performance over multiple takes. His editing is selective and associative, building “conceptual bridges,” to use his term, between spatially and temporally disparate shots. To call these films documentaries, as if they simply and easily opened a window onto the real, would flatten them out, removing the carefully constructed framework with which he constructs his naturalistic images. Few documentaries achieve the immersive proximity with their subjects that Everson’s work does, and it’s a proximity of a different nature than the supposed transparency offered by so many documentaries. No backstory or insight is offered. Instead, the audience is brought to the job site and, like many apprentices, told to watch carefully or risk falling behind. The audience sits with actions as they are repeated, varied, and followed through to completion. If these films document anything, they are a document of the immanent passage of time. In the end, Everson is probably right that his work has little to gain by being considered within a documentary tradition, but that same tradition has a lot to gain through a consideration of his films.
I spoke with Everson over the phone in between meetings. He is incredibly prolific, having made over 100 films, which also means he is generally short on time. We discussed two new films screening at Anthology Film Archives, The Island of St. Matthews (2013), and Ten Five in the Grass (2012). The former features the citizens of Westport, Mississippi—here repurposed as an island—as they remember the 1973 flood of the Tombigbee River. The latter follows several groups of black rodeo performers as they hone their talents through practice.
Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa (Rail): Can we begin by setting up how you came across the subject matter of The Island of St. Matthews and Ten Five in the Grass: how did you decide to focus on these specific groups of people?
Kevin Jerome Everson: I’ll start chronologically. Ten Five is a rodeo film. I wanted to make some cowboy films. In a lot of my work I film people doing a specific kind of craft or art form. I like when they’re doing calf roping. I like the fact that the people onscreen are smarter than the audience. I try to make this kind of interior discipline, so to speak. Calf roping is a discipline, people practice it, they know the language of it, and they know how to do it.
There are about three or four black rodeos. I went to the Real Cowboy Association. They said they were having a rodeo in Lafayette, Louisiana, so I just drove myself out there. Then, once I got there, I met this great family of people from Natchez, Mississippi. The stuff outside the rodeo we shot at Fred Mayberry’s house. And everybody came by there. They get off work and they practice calf roping.
I usually make films up as I’m looking through the viewfinder. In 2010 – 11 I had a couple of features that were single takes, eight minutes long, like Erie and Quality Control. But in a couple of the scenes in Ten Five in the Grass, they kind of last as long as the event. In The Island of St. Matthews, everything would last as long as the event lasts. As soon as the gate opens and the dam fills up, then that is how long the scene lasts.
Rail: That was a really interesting aspect of both films, because they don’t feel quite as locked-down compositionally as Erie or Quality Control. The editing is also more rhythmic.
Everson: Yeah, those are more edited. The timing and pacing is a little bit different. This year I’m shooting three feature films. I think those films are going to be in 10-minute takes. We’ll see. Probably 10-minute takes, because I’m making an eight-hour movie.
Rail: Wait, wait [laughs], you’re making a what?
Everson: An eight-hour film, yeah.
Rail: Wow. Okay, do you have the content down?
Everson: Yeah, I mean, I’m just making a shift of work. I’m just doing a full shift of work in a factory. I’m shooting in Mechanicsville, Virginia here, about 77 miles away from me. I’m going to make an eight-hour version, an 80-minute one, and then shoot something on 16 millimeter.
Rail: Wow. The eight-hour version, what is that being shot on?
Everson: Black Magic camera, and the new Digital Bolex.
Rail: You haven’t worked that frequently with digital in the past. It’s usually always film, right?
Everson: Well, I’ve got two features where it’s mostly MiniDV. Spicebush (2005) is mostly MiniDV. But there’s some 16mm and found footage in that. And The Golden Age of Fish (2008)has a lot of MiniDV. I had a one-chip camera; I loved that thing, boy. When that thing died, boy, I was in tears.
Rail: I was just wondering because of the durational aspects of your shooting. It seems like it would really change if you didn’t have a roll of film in the camera.
Everson: Well I’m a trained artist. My degrees are in photography, sculpture, and art history. And I like shooting. I’m a street shooter. My professors come from the old Yale School of photography. The MiniDV, the one-chip cameras, shoot the whole time. With cameras like the pocket Black Magic, I can do that. I can just go out all the time, and shoot all the time. I like that. I have a couple of films I shot in the last year or two, called Stone (2013), where this guy’s playing a shell game, and I got one called Charlie’s Proof (2013), where this old moonshine guy is talking to me. I just pulled out the old 7D and started shooting. I like that way of making things as well. But it’s harder with 16mm. With 16mm you’ve got to plan it.
Rail: Can we return to the story of how you filmed The Island of St. Matthews?
Everson: I drove down to Mississippi, because my folks are from there. Years ago, when I was doing photo projects, I wanted some old pictures from my mom’s side of the family. My mom said, “Oh we lost them in the flood of ’73.” I was going make a film about the flood. A lot of people lost heirlooms, family photos, stuff like that.
I made the bell for the film. I went there in January of 2012, scouted it out. They couldn’t get the bell on the church to ring, so I just made one in the sculpture department here, out of bronze. I knew I was going to use this bell. My grandfather started that church. I wanted the tolling of the bell, my aunt to say something, and to have some kind of water skiing.
About four years ago, the Rotterdam Film Festival sent 12 filmmakers to Africa, to make a film. I was one of them. I went to Brazzaville and had somebody water ski, or try to water ski the Congo River. I wanted a way to mark the landscape. I like that there’s a figure-ground relationship. There’s a figure, but the figure’s not the subject, the landscape is the subject. You can go back and forth between the landscape and the figure. So with The Island of St. Matthews it was like: “Oh, there’s definitely going to be a water skier.”
Rail: I was wondering about the different kinds of work you portray. It seems like the work in both The Island of St. Matthews and Ten Five in the Grass is pretty different from the work in Erie and Quality Control. It’s much more unpredictable, and sort of flexible. Water skiing or working with temperamental horses seems very different than the industrial, mechanized dry cleaning business.
Everson: For Quality Control I was in Mobile, Alabama, and my friend said his uncle ran this dry cleaners. And I said, “I can shoot there,” and as soon as I got there I said, “Fuck, I’m shooting a feature.” It kind of reminded me of when I used to work in a Westinghouse factory during the summer in college. We made big-ticket items. We made driers on my floor. I liked the fact that these shirts were going around at the dry cleaners, it reminded me of an assembly line where all the parts would come around. Plus, I like the fact that people don’t see or think about these kinds of jobs. People think that magically your clothes are going to come out clean. You drop them off, and you don’t see anything. In fact, with dry cleaning the architecture of the building is a small façade, you just go in and drop your clothes off and it’s a small counter and a couple of hangers. The place goes on forever in the back. I wanted to show things that people take for granted.
I’ve been meaning to shoot an eight-hour film for years. Since I’ve seen Lav Diaz’s films. He makes those nine-hour movies. I always wanted to do a Lav film and then I figured the way that I could do it is to shoot a shift of work. I remembered working at Westinghouse and thought I could make it active by framing it up so as to have all these parts move in and out. That’s why I’m worried about an 8-hour film, because it’s not an assembly line place. I’m gonna have to do more slick camera work to make it look interesting.
Rail: The Island of St. Matthews originated with your desire for these photographs and documents from your family history. I know you don’t consider your work to be documentary, but does this film have a special relationship to documenting or capturing the real in any way? Did it change your thinking about documenting or documentary at all?
Everson: No, it’s not a document. I just see it as making it up, like street photography. But I need the relationship, not of the everyday, but of stuff that’s around. I need that mise-en-scene. I need that location, or landscape, or interior. And sometimes, if it’s not right, I’ll add things to it. It depends on what the subject matter is.
Rail: Can you talk a little bit about characters in your work? They often tell their stories or relay their narratives in some way. But we don’t ever get it in full.
Everson: No, no. Because the whole thing is not about them, it’s about what they say in relationship to the entire film. I approached people like: “Hey, I’m going to use you as a subject for this art object, but it ain’t going to be about you.” You know, it’s always about me. It’s always going to be about me. If you’re doing a portrait, it has nothing to do with the sitter; it’s all about the person who’s painting. Even in the found footage films, I viewed the footage as audition tapes. Some people had a better face, had more interesting gestures, stuff like that. That’s how I looked at that footage. What was better for art? What was the best image that looked like art to me? And so when I’m out there filming folks, it’s like, how can I use them to look like art. But you know I’m sensitive to them. Folks are always like, “Aren’t you using them or exploiting them?” And I say, “Well I’m trying to, but I can’t cause I was raised right!”
Everson: And everybody’s always saying: “Oh, Kevin. What do they think about your films?” And it’s like, they don’t even look at them! I mean you know Fred Mayberry is in Ten Five. I called him up maybe a year or two after I shot the film when there was a flood in Natchez and he didn’t know who I was. I’m not the most important thing that happened to him that day. You know what I’m saying? I ain’t that self-centered where I’m like, “Oh, I changed their lives.” Shit, I was in the way! You know? They go to work and have a family. They don’t have time for my ass. I appreciate that. I go to them thinking that. I know I’m not the most important thing to do now, but I walk up to them and say: “I really like what you do. I think you’re really good at your craft. Can I film it?” And they usually say, “Yeah, it’s cool.” You know, I don’t ask them to do anything that they don’t know how to do. I can get actors for that, which I’ve done before. I keep it to what they do, and then take those pieces as parts to make an art project out of. I mean Fred knew who I was, but it took a minute. It was like: “It’s Kevin, I just wanted to see how you and the family were doing.” “Who?” “The guy who filmed y’all!” “Oh yeah!” They had forgotten all about me.
Rail: In previous interviews you’ve talked about how each year you take a set of formal issues and you try to shape your films around those. Were there certain formal issues in particular that you were trying to work out in The Island of St. Matthews or Ten Five in the Grass?
Everson: Yeah, I think with The Island of St. Matthews I wanted the take to last as long as the scene. When they were done, that’s when I was done. There is no cross-cutting in that film at all.
Rail: Are you considering for this eight-hour film a certain set of—I mean it already seems pretty formally rigorous what with it being eight hours—but are there are other things that jump out?
Everson: No. Not really. I don’t know. I think it may change when I get there, but not right now. This eight-hour thing is cool, but it’s kind of clunky because it’s in the way of what I need to be exercising for myself right now. But maybe once I get there it’ll be fine. Right now the way I’m doing it is similar to things I’ve done before. I’m going to have to do some formal things to make it a little bit different, so I can stomach it. It could look like Quality Control. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, but I think I’m going to do something to make it not look like that. The camera will be more fluid. I even brought a steadicam, which is rare. I’ve never had anything like that. I just want to try something different. The camera will have something to do with it. I’m shooting on an Arri with 100-foot spools. All my professors from Iowa in the ’70s made artwork that was about materials, process, and procedure. That goes into all my films. Like what will I shoot them on? What kind of film stock? What kind of lenses? It’s all part of making it.
Rail: Have you gotten a chance to think about the sort of materiality of the H.D. video? I’ve heard some people railing against how it looks.
Everson: Yeah, yeah. I tried some H.D. stuff. I mean for me at its core, film is exposing, and video is recording. So I just make sure that when I do video I’m more recording. Like with the take. It could be 20-minute takes. I even thought about 35 minutes, because the S.D. card takes 35 – 37 minutes. I thought it could be like those Andy Warhol films where he walks in with that camera and shoots 33-minute takes. It could be like that. I am thinking about how I can make this not like film.
Rail: It seems like the long take has had some sort of resurgence recently, over the last 10 years. Do you position yourself within a group of people who are working with the long take?
Everson: Yeah, I mean I haven’t done it enough. I only have two features, and this third one coming out. You know, Sharon Lockhart, James Benning, Wang Bing, Ben Russell, and my man Lav Diaz. I don’t know if there’s a resurgence. I don’t know if people can stomach them. I know who my audience is when I do that kind of stuff. It’s a different case for some.
Rail: Although Gravity (2013) did have an 18-minute shot. That’s maybe a little different.
Everson: Oh, it did? And the Internet was all abuzz a couple weeks ago because that HBO show True Detective had a six-minute shot in the last scene in an episode. It was amazing. I guess that’s an option. Actors like it. Steven Soderbergh says he uses two cameras. He lets his actors move around. He doesn’t block them; he just lets them move and has the camera find them. He shoots them himself. I like that way of just letting the camera find the information. That’s why I shoot my own stuff.
Rail: What is the influence of mainstream cinema or Hollywood on your work?
Everson: I’m really looking mainly at art objects. Just looking at paintings and sculptures. I like these Richard Serra sculptures because you get to walk around them in that duration. There’s not one spot to look at them, and in that way you can be involved. And then I like some of those Caravaggio paintings where there’s a subject, but there’s also always people watching the action. Lately I’ve been thinking about the witness. People who’ve seen or think they’ve seen.
Rail: I was wondering about The Island of St. Matthews and how much of the events seemed to take place in the past.
Everson: No, it’s all present. People talk about the past, but everything is in the present tense. I mean in some ways everything’s about the past. That’s where the references come from. But everything’s in the present tense. And then, for me, it’s not about memory but oral tradition, which I think is historic. I don’t think it’s like: “Oh, it’s memory.” No. Nobody wrote this shit down. This is the documentation, you know? It’s never about memory; it’s about history. It’s a thesis when somebody’s telling me a story. That’s what that is. I’m not trying to remember something. I’m telling you what’s going on. I’m trying to translate it. I never see it as memory.
The Island of St. Matthews and Ten Five in the Grass screened at Anthology Film Archives from March 6 – 12.
BENJAMIN SCHULTZ-FIGEROA is a Ph.D. candidate in Film and Digital Media at The University of California, Santa Cruz. His work focuses on the history of film’s use to study animals in laboratory settings.