Interview with Brian Fuller
A few words with Emmy award-winning filmmaker Brian Fuller about the making of A Shared Space: Learning from the Mustard Seed School.
October 15, 2010, Grand Rapids, MI--These days, when Emmy award-winning filmmaker Brian Fuller is not teaching film making classes at Calvin College, he's in the editing room working on his newest film, A Shared Space: Learning from the Mustard Seed School. Brian took a few minutes to give us a look into the process.
Why did you choose Mustard Seed School?
Once I choose a subject, I have to live with it, often for two or three of years: the pre-production, the shoot, the hours of editing, and maybe a year of festivals and screenings thereafter. So I have to love it. I have to feel passion for it. Or it will drive me crazy. As a teaching filmmaker and a person of faith myself, the mix of education, art, and belief is important to me. When I saw those three things coming together at Mustard Seed, I knew I'd found the subject of a film that I could embrace for the long haul.
Did you find anything that surprised you during the filming? How about in the editing process?
Maybe it's not a good time to be asking me that, since I'll be editing and tweaking right up until the premiere. But what surprises (and frustrates) me about all films in the digital age is that they're never finished. The cement never dries, right? As long as George Lucas can correct 30-year-old special effects, there will never be a definitive version of Star Wars. So, I probably could have been finished with A Shared Space two months ago. But the temptation to perfect the audio track or the color correction is just too strong. So I'm surprised by an axiom they never taught me in film school: there are two prerequisites for genius and art: a check and a deadline.
Another weird thing about the editing process. I hired 3 students as assistant editors. So far, they've put about 1800 man-hours into the edit. Now, think about that. They've spent 1800 hours looking at and listening to faculty and students. Up close. Forwards and backwards, scrubbing through the footage of all 50 interviews -- one word, one syllable, one frame at a time. They know how often Mustard Seed folks say "um" and how often they cough and where their freckles are. Honestly, we're looking at close-ups in high-definition for sometimes 14 hours a day. They may know the Hoboken family even better than the camera and sound operators I brought to the school in January. And yet the students and their teachers have never met them. That suggests to me that there may be avenues of incarnation, ways of building community that humans have only begun to explore. Is that surprising? Well, it never occurred to me when I picked up my first movie camera, that's for sure.
Education is at the forefront of the national conversation, what do you think this film has to offer?
Up front, I made it clear to the folks who funded this film that I wasn't interested in making a promotional piece. I was ready to discover whatever there was to discover at Mustard Seed -- good, bad, or indifferent. Now, me, I'm a cynic. I'm the most optimistic cynic I know, but I'm still a cynic. So I was determined to report what I found in Hoboken, and -- left to my own devices -- I was probably inclined to deliver it with a snarky slant. And then I found this thing, this rare thing in the middle of Hoboken. And it wasn't at all like the disasters that are too frequently the subject of news or political ads. I kept checking myself to make sure I hadn't become some kind of star-struck Polyanna. So what Shared Space has to offer is the backstory of clear-eyed cynic that discovered educational excellence... almost despite his own personality. And if you impress me with hope for educating this country out of its misery, then you've got a story that needs telling.
Have you seen the movie "Waiting for Superman?", which focuses on the education system in the United States? Can you talk about the differences?
Haven't seen it. Trying purposefully to avoid it until I'm finished with this. The release date of that film is a stroke of luck for us.
What was one of the most challenging things about making the film?
There was a tense moment during the shoot: a student needed some corrective discipline. I was torn, of course, between the student's need for privacy during a potentially embarrassing moment and an opportunity to discover whether the Mustard Seed School was truly unique in uncomfortable but pivotal moments. You can imagine, my crew and I had a pretty hot discussion about ethics over that one. Ultimately, we turned our cameras away from that situation. I received an e-mail from the mother of that child after we left Hoboken, singing the praises of Mustard Seed faculty, their deft handling of an incident which in the final analysis both reinforced and corrected the child. I was kicking myself because I didn't have footage of what turned out to be an important success from which other schools probably could have learned.
What are you hoping will happen with the film?
Sure, it could win awards. Sure, it'll be shown at festivals, maybe at some kind of conference for educators, Christian teachers, something like that. That's what the whole next year is about. Yeah, it would be great if it were broadcast on PBS. My previous films have been blessed with that sort of recognition. Those things beef up a resume... not just mine, but the Calvin College students' who helped to make the film. It's harder to quantify, but sometimes more satisfying is audience response. I'm not talking about applause or backslapping in the lobby. I'm talking about maybe the one or two people who watch the film and say "Huh. Whaddya know, Gladys? Turns out there are some Christians who aren't as kooky as I thought." In my opinion, simply winning a place for faith in media's marketplace of ideas would constitute the film's biggest score.