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Interview with Mitch Mccabe

Our artist in residence, Mitch Mccabe is an educator and an award winning-filmmaker. Her short films Playing the Part, September 5:10pm, Highway 403, Mile 39, and To Who It May Concern have screened at Sundance, New Directors/New Film and New York Film Festival. She found some time to sit down with our intern Cassie to chat about her work, old and new, feminism, and family.

My favorite part of your films is how relatable you are in them and that makes it really easy to connect to the subject you’re addressing. Was it ever difficult for you to be so personal about your private life in your films?

There are two that are really personal, Playing the Part and the last feature, Highway 403, Mile 39. Whenever I screen Playing the Part, I always preface that by saying “imagine living in a moment when there wasn’t the internet. So, pre-Facebook, pre-Google, pre-Youtube.” It was shot in film. The whole nature of personal filmmaking and personal storytelling was very different. You know, I was 22. I was in the bubble of college and the film program there, so I didn’t really know how personal I was getting. But, also it is storytelling, so essentially I am sculpting that story about those themes and those ideas. But I love having that now because a lot of those people are no longer with me. In that last film [Youth Knows No Pain], it’s personal and it’s not. I’m not talking about who I’m dating, I’m not talking about how I feel about anybody outside of that film, or my dad, or aging. You know, with that film [Youth Knows No Pain] I would have done some things differently. I wish I would have lost funding and it would have taken another year because then I would have been following people into the recession. When I screen that film I tell them this is a very pre-recession film. There’s a lot of almost predictive elements. I wish I would have disclosed that all these procedures were free and they were never preplanned in that film. So things like that are a little…[scrunches face], watching them now, because I don’t go around getting shot up, but I wasn’t performing either. It was definitely like, “Yeah sure! Why not?! I’m not paying for it, right?!” [laughs] It’s also somewhat cathartic because it was almost somewhat the last moment in my life… My problems really shifted during the recession. But it’s not always easy, but ironically, in some degree for whatever reason, that’s what’s gotten funded. I had a lot of other projects on the table but with the last one, with Youth, that’s what HBO wanted and they wanted it to be personal. My original intention with that film was not to be very personal.

I really resonated with Youth Knows No Pain because I’m 25 and I’m already worried about wrinkles. I even bought this anti-aging regimen and after seeing that was I was like, “Oh, I’m not so crazy.”

It’s so tricky sometimes with documentary, and this is something I really struggle with the work I do now, is how obvious do you have to be to make your point? I was like, well, we’re a very ageist culture and we have to work into our 70’s now. It makes sense that people are worried about these things in their 40’s and 50’s so that they aren’t placed out of the job market or they don’t have to move onto their second marriage or whatever. Life’s not built to meant to be single, I should know. Otherwise, I don’t have a problem with it. I think it’s a part of how I see things, that filmmaking is a part of the process.

You get pretty personal about your relationships with your parents, specifically you’re very honest about your mother in Playing the Part. Was it hard to be so honest about your relationship in a public platform or to share your films with her?

Yeah, this was the thing that got me into trouble. You know, getting into that kind of trouble at 22 is weird, and I guess you don’t know what you don’t know until you figure it out. There are theses kind of rules in documentary that if your going to ask a really difficult question that’s going to make you lose access, you do that the last time you film. It was weird for my first film to be shutting the door and never being able to film in that community again. There are projects I would love to do on certain things in the area but I can’t. I can’t film my mother ever again. The last film was originally called ‘My Mother’s Beauty Cream’ and I had to talk to HBO and tell them I can’t. Yeah, that was difficult for my dad at the time and twenty-something years later it’s still brought up! I think one of my favorite scenes from that film is the moment she comes into the room. That was a really tough edit because you want to keep on this balance of showing me for who I am and how I was at that time, and the relationship, without making you hate me but still being honest. And maybe some people are still going to hate me. But it’s also mirroring for the audience the many situations they’ve been in themselves with their family. Just the act of filming and how that inherently has its issues.

There is a lot of gender inequality in the film industry that people are starting to really shine a light on now. What kinds of challenges have you faced in your career in this regard?

Endless. I. Mean. Endless. I have to say, I look at so many things that are happening now, the #MeToo movement, and some of discussion about female directors and actresses. I think it was even five years ago that I was pitching a documentary to a major documentary outlet/network. It was following a lawsuit about gender and age inequality in Hollywood, a female was bringing forth a lawsuit. [The network] was like, ‘We can not get near something like that. That is so politically bad.’ I would love to be like, ‘Can I forward this email five years later?’ There were so many years of needing four recommendation letters and needing to move up the ladder. You know, you would just get…mulled [laughs]. That was the 90’s and the early 2000’s. In film school, I let myself get pushed out of the camera department when I was, out of thirty- three students, the only one with previous camera experience. I had already had a film at Sundance and I just let myself be pushed out by the boys club. So, it is different now for women and it is exciting. I am happily envious of women who are trying to go into it now. I would have liked to do more narrative work, but there were just so many men hitting on you in the way, it just takes longer to raise money as women, and it’s all just endless. I go back and forth between trying to do these bigger projects, which means raising a lot of money, and then doing smaller things which is what I’m doing here, where I’m kind of like (flashes two middle fingers and lets out a huge laugh) “FORGET YOU ALL!” So yeah, it’s been a tough hall. I was definitely a doormat 20 years ago and I’m definitely not a doormat now. I would love the opportunity to do a narrative film but if I have to deal with the boys club, I just would rather make small work.

What new projects are you working on or topics that you’re currently interested in exploring?

Maybe not in the shorter experimental work, but there’s always been a thread of being baffled by our tendency to need taxonomy and labels. That was true for Playing the Part. I mean, in a lot of ways it’s much more about class and also about an anxiety that I wasn’t going to live the life of my parents, not only in terms of sexual orientation, but financially. And I was totally right! The work that I was working on before Playing the Part to Youth, there was the thread of some personal but also there was so much centered on the riff between appearances and your interior life. Even in the answering machine film about grief, there’s so much fixation on absence and physicality. So, the film I’ve been working on since 2013, I’ve gone through too many titles and now I just call it the ‘Untitled Normal Project’. It’s a longitudinal documentary about mental health treatment in America, specifically overdiagnosis and overprescribing, but it’s evolved to not have any experts in it. I’m really following the stories as they progress, particularly with very young people. That’s kind of a new form for me. It started very research and expert heavy, and hopefully, in the end, will have a lot of animation. Hopefully, in the end, kind of this combination of exploring a social issue and an art form. I’m interested in exploring issues that are hard to predict how people feel about them. I’m not really interested in making films where we all know how we feel about them. I’ve been working on a series of shorts that I’ve wanted to do for a while. It’s pulling together footage I’ve shot over the last 20 years in a series of short films and it’s kind of a meditation on a potential future civil war. Before I screen it for people I’m like, “trigger warning!” I’m very concerned with how many people I know have never talked to someone who disagrees with them. But, as a white person who grew up in the midwest and has mostly lived in purple areas, in the last ten years, I’ve had a lot of you know, homelessness, bankruptcy, medical problems. Very American things. My focus is with those issues. Normal, but terrifying stuff that the New York Times does not seem to be too good at covering unless there’s like an opioid epidemic. So yeah, stuff hopefully people from both sides can pull from, but without hiding my politics.

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