Don’t Be Trapped By The Truth or We’re Just Arranging transcribed from an interview with Len Borruso and Joanna Dane
Cristian Andersson: Tonight, we have Len Borruso and Joanna Dane joining us. We’re super excited to have these two extremely creative individuals here. How are you two doing tonight?
Joanna Dane: We’re doing great. Thank you so much for inviting us. We feel really honored to be a part of these conversations, and I think the work that you and Katharina are doing is just wonderful for our community.
Cristian: Thank you. We appreciate that.
Len Borusso: Well, fsm. is an amazing resource. This is the current one (holds up a copy), but I know the new one is already coming out. On the back, there is a little manifesto that I wrote. People say until something codified, it’s not real. So, thank you for printing this. I can now pin it on any door that I need to. I thought I would read it, because it’s short. Neighborhoodcore—A Manifesto. What is Neighborhoodcore? Neighborhoodcore is daring filmmaking that embraces people and places that directly surround you. How do you know if a film is Neighborhoodcore? You were probably in it or know someone who was. The most necessary action to take in order to direct DIY Neighborhoodcore Cinema is to just do it. If you feel like you do not at present have the right equipment, use any gear necessary. In every case, the most important gear is the one between your ears. Reach out and find like-minded people as committed to Neighborhoodcore as you are. (I’ll pause the manifesto here. That’s where I found Joanna she’s over there.) Have as your goals to: make movies for the love of doing it. Share with your community. Making Neighborhoodcore movies should always be “Like having a picnic with friends.” –Fellini. Make sure that you are satisfied with your film since it does after all have your name--and everyone else’s—on it. Keep evolving your style and challenging yourself. Well that’s that.
Cristian: That’s the manifesto. Len what got you into making films? What sent you off on finding this style that you, that you’ve created?
Len: Being raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, I was a very street cultured person— street photography and then getting into documentaries. And then, experimental and narrative film. No matter what genre or format of film, I kept my nose to the ground. So, if I was doing documentaries, it was like about a homeless garden that was doing community supported agriculture. Or now with narrative film, it’s like who’s around us. What’s going on. So, I guess that’s the theme that I keep through all my work, no matter what format. The inspiration is seeing these mundane things and turning them into something magical. That’s what keeps me going.
Cristian: And would you say that even though you’re doing more narrative work right now, does it still kind of have a feel of a documentary?
Len: No. I think that one of my other mottos is: don’t be trapped by the truth. I went through documentaries, and Cinéma Vérité, and all that. And now I’m at a place where it’s great to have a partner in cinematic crime like Joanna. She’s like, here’s some fairy dust Len, what are you going to do with it? We’re expansive. We’re just bringing all kinds of elements in and telling our stories. We’re really inspired by Appleton--even the history of Appleton. Our most recent work is like a period piece. We’re just looking around and finding inspiring elements. Whether it’s like the amazing Dan Davies, who turns out to be our neighbor, or the fact that hydroelectric power started here. And what does all that mean? There’s a lot of mystery around us and we’re just, I think, trying to stay in tune to that.
Cristian: That’s fantastic. And your partner in crime, Joanna, the one with the fairy dust. Joanna you come with a lot of skills to all of this because you kind of have your hands in all sorts of creative endeavors. What are some things that you worked on?
Joanna: Well, one of the original ideas that I had working on with Len was a podcast. I wanted to make something sort of abstract. I was making lot of abstract music with my music partner Tad Neuhaus at the time. Loren Dempster, as well. I had written out this really inaccessible script. Tad and I wanted to read it and have some abstract music behind it. I had just met Len and said, hey, do you want to make some sort of film to go along with it? I was thinking non-narrative filmmaking. The great thing was that Len picked out the only concrete image in the whole script, and said, let’s make this into a little film. So, it went from the idea of making a podcast into making a film, which was great. I had always had this dream of working with a filmmaker and being on the set of creating a film. That was the first little experiment we did, called Tranquility and the Revolution Zeno Effect. And then there is Moondog. I could talk a little bit about the inspiration for that film. Again, it comes from music. We were really inspired by an actual musician named Moondog. If you don’t know anything about Moondog, he was rather famous homeless musician in New York City. So innovative. He got the attention of a lot of professional musicians and had a number of albums that were produced in studios with big-time musicians. And yet, they still just played on the street. He was famous, and he had this really big beard. We had this idea of what we should make a movie about Moondog. I was playing the banjo downtown at Mile of Music, not as an official act, but just in a little alleyway. This homeless man came into the alleyway, laid down on a bench, turned his back to me, and like covered his ears with his backpack so that he couldn’t hear what I was playing. I thought that was really funny. So, we decided to use that as like the basis of a movie about a street musician. My father-in-law was coming into town, and he has a big white Moondogian beard. I said Moondog’s coming into town Len, let’s make this movie. And it just was this whirlwind of activity. We filmed it in like a single day, through Len’s movie-making magic. He really made it beautiful. And Elyse made a prop for it as well.
Len: Yeah. I get an email from Joanna, like on a Wednesday or something, saying Moondog is in town and we have to film this. And I’m thinking Moondog is like a world famous musician. I had no idea it was Joanna’s father-in-law, John. And then the script arrived. I was on my porch, just hanging out with my son, and all of a sudden Tad and Joanna roll up, put on like a portable record player, start playinga record, and then hand me this thing. Which, okay, this is the actual script. It’s like one piece of butcher paper written on with marker. So, when you watch the movie, (Len holds up a long sheet of paper) this is the movie.
Cristian: I like that. Should we start off by playing that then?
Len: Moondog, yeah. Let’s watch Moondog. Three minutes of magic.
(Moondog is screened)
Cristian: It played a Wildwood, right? Do you want to quick explain what Wildwood is?
Joanna: The Wildwood Film Festival is a local film festival. They’ve been going for, I don’t know, 17, 18, 20 years...something like that. I think it is exclusively Wisconsin filmmakers. Moondog was a part of Wildwood three years ago, I suppose.
Len: I love the music for Moondog. I can listen to that all day. I found the Viking hat that Elyse made for the movie. I need to get it back to her.
Joanna: Elyse-KristaMische. She helped us make the costume.
Len: This is the Viking helmet. I don’t know how I fit on John’s head. When I was doing the artist residency at the Appleton Public Library, it was in a glass case for two months. All handmade, and it’s really nice.
Cristian: Yeah. That’s fantastic. I love Elyse’s work. It’s great that all these community people came together on this project.
Joanna: Movie making is definitely a group effort. It was just this really fun day where we were running around and filming all these scenes. We thank of course, John Fleckner, for being game for the odd assignment of being Moondog. And all the extras participated. My husband was there, shaking his head at me playing banjo. And, of course, Tad Neuhaus, who was the magic behind the music.
Cristian: Wonderful. How much of the movie changes as you were creating it, or did it stay linear to how it was written? You know, at the six-inch point on the butcher paper you are supposed to do this...did you do that or did you change things up?
Len: We stuck to the script. Which is pretty good, because I’ll take whatever Joanna dishes out, and then process it. This is what we’re doing today. We’re going to go to top spins. Then we’re going to go in Tad’s backyard. Then we’re going to go to Jacobs. Then we’re going to...et cetera. I’m just translating poetry.
Cristian: So, Joanna, you do a lot of different things. Maybe you can talk a little bit about the different art forms that you delve into, and maybe a little bit about your poetry? You had a poem featured in the first issue of fsm.
Joanna: Yeah, that was a little ekphrasis piece based on Rae Blom’s artwork, which was up at the 602 Club. I think of myself mostly as a writer, but I’ve come to think of all art forms as “arranging.” So, whether it’s music, movies, dance or writing, we’re just were arranging. This sort of came to my mind one day. I was like, Oh, we’re humans. Like we just want to arrange things. That’s what we’re always doing in our houses. Wherever we are, all day long, we’re rearranging things. I was thinking about how that’s this common denominator through all art forms—that we are just arranging sounds, colors, words. That idea sort of coalesced for me when I was teaching at Renaissance High School and teaching a wide range of different classes and different ideas. I was also working on a blog that I had for five years, called “A Terminal Case of Whimsy.” The idea behind that blog is actually based in this ancient Japanese literary tradition of Zuihitsu, which is the art of recording fragments of daily life. It’s interesting that in Japan, between 700 and 900 CE when this literary movement was at its height, that people were writing in fragmented forms, which is exactly what we’re doing today—the internet is very conducive to this fragmented form of writing. On the blog I could do sound, videos, visual art and writing. It became this platform for me where every day I would try to make a piece of creative work. Whatever it was. It didn’t matter if it connected directly to the day before or not. And I found that over time there, all of the pieces started to connect, and thefragments became really bigger wholes. And that’s when I started thinking about what the unifier of all of these different art forms is. I started thinking about how it’s about arrangement. And so, when I’m writing or collaging or making music, I am taking these elements and just arranging them—like playing in the sandbox and coming up with different arrangements. And for some reason to our human brain, it’s really interesting.
Cristian: It’s fantastic to think about how this old art form is resurfacing again online. Do you think this method of fragmented writing is as productive in Twitter as it was in 700 CE Japan?
Joanna: Well, I’m not on Twitter, so I can’t really say for sure. I was just reading this feature on the website brainpickings about the writer Zadie Smith and her new book. Zadie made a statement that you can bake banana bread or, you know, write a novel, They’re equal. It’s just something to do. And so, whether you’re living in the year 900 in Japan, or whether you’re living in 2020, and whether you’re putting stuff out on Twitter or scribing something out and hiding it under your pillow, you’re just doing something. It this human need to do. To create.
Cristian: What other ways have you been able to share some of these creative outputs with the community?
Len: I can take this one. For example, when I first moved here I had just worked on a film in Taiwan—the night market in Taipei. It made me think we really should have a night market. I ended up meeting Adrienne Palm, and she was going to do this thing called Bazaar After Dark. I was like, that’s what I’m talking about. So I got a screen and a projector and started showing films during this new night market. The person next to me at Bazaar was painting a mural—Irineo Medina. It was cool. People would watch his kinetic style of painting and then they’d come back and chill out and watch some movies with me. And so that’s one way we connected with the community. Another time, our friend Frank Anderson had his film The Life of Reilly on Blu-ray, and we had a showing of it at the 602 Club. That turned into the winter film series, which I’ve done that for the last four years. And, I’ll keep doing it...once we can get back to it.
Cristian: People may not know what the 602 Club is. Could you explain that?
Joanna: So the 602 Club is a house that’s on the corner of Pacific and Lawe street in Appleton, right across the street from Jacob’s meat market—which is kind of a hub of neighborhood activity. Let’s just say that the house had fallen into disrepair. My husband Andrew Dane, who is a really fantastic and energetic guy had this brilliant idea about opening a Creativity Center. We always joke that it was like the most uncreative name for this idea that he had. He had looked into buying a number of different buildings in places where we had lived before, I was always so thankful that we had never purchased any of those places, but suddenly this house went up for auction. I said, let’s go talk to a couple of friends of mine who I had met in yoga class, and the four of us came together and bid on the house. It took a couple of different cycles of bidding on it until we got it. The original idea actually was to make a coffee shop, but it became immediately evident that it would be way too expensive to convert it over. And so, we had to figure out what we could do with it. Matty, one of the originators of Harmony Pizza, was super instrumental in helping us clean the place up and get ready for people who wanted to see events here. Meditation classes. Pumpkin carving. We just started doing things in the space. Pretty soon it became evident that people liked to gather here. We put up a Facebook page for a really simple way to put up events on the calendar. We encourage people to become members, to help pay for the space, and it kind of snowballed from there. And it’s now five years, I think. I think that we’ve had literally hundreds of events here by so many different people...so many things happening that I have no idea what’s going on or who’s using the space. Of course, right now during Corona, the art openings and film screenings haven’t been happening. There is a church that meets here, political events, a regular card night and knitting club. It’s a space that feels like a home, but it’s nobody’s home. A lot of musicians who have performed here actually have said its kind of scary because it’s so quiet and more intimate than what they are used to, but it is turns out to be such an enjoyable spot to perform in because everybody’s sitting and listening. Really engaged in the music and what’s happening. It really has been a magical place for the neighborhood.
Cristian: That’s cool. It is the neighborhood that I grew up in. My best friend lived next door to where the 602 Club is, and his father still lives there. Angela Neitzke and her family lived in the house that’s now the 602 Club. So for me, personally, it’s really fantastic to revisit this neighborhood where I once knew very specific friends and has now become very specific other friends. I’m glad to know that the home was brought out of that disrepair and turned into something like this. So, thank you.
Joanna: Thank you, Cristian. And we look forward to having your art here after everything opens back up.
Cristian: I’d appreciate that. Kat, did you have any questions at all that you wanted to ask? Katharina Abderholden: You know, a huge reason why I moved back to this area was to find and connect with people that are integrating art into the community. Understanding that the arts are an essential part of communication and connection. I want to ask a question about being in a creative process together. How have you organized all of that together?
Joanna: Are you are you asking more about like collaborating with other people, or are you talking about sort of moving from one art form to another?
Katharina: From what I was listening to, it sounds like for you personally, Joanna, that you pull in more than one creative genre with the work you create. And I’m just wondering, in a collaborative process, what is it like to kind of bounce through those different processes or communication styles as you’re creating?
Joanna: Yeah. Sometimes it gets a little messy. We try to allow everybody to shine with the individual thing that they do. Len is so amazing at picking out the shot and making something very ordinary, really beautiful. And then, doing all that technical stuff to edit it all together. My interest lies more in the script writing and the music. There were some rough patches when we were trying to bring it alltogether, particularly when trying to figure out how to integrate the music into it. And so, we really are thankful to Tad Neuhaus and Loren Dempster for all their patience as we tried to figure that out. And then, you know, what worked for one project didn’t necessarily work for another project. There’s some negotiating, and fortunately by talking through it, we were able to continue to work together.
Len: Yeah, the ideas keep coming. So, we have to build this framework and find out what is important to each of us for the final piece. If you have the desire to work with someone, you figure it out.
Cristian: It’s not always easy for us creatives to say what we want or why we want it. I have a hard time with words sometimes. Do you feel like you’re able to put your vision into words and share it with each other, or is it a lot of fumbling around explaining it, like I would do?
Len: I’ll take this one. We don’t live that far away from each other, and sometimes it’s like, come over, like Linda Barry’s book Come Over, Come Over. We like to talk through stuff face to face. Most of the time we’re on the same page. When I met Joanna, she had already made a nine-part video series about “gardening” which is really about her relationship with Andrew. It’s on YouTube and it’s amazing. She’s a great editor, with a wonderful sense of rhythm and a great eye. Between my writing and doing the directing, cinematography, et cetera, and Joanna already being a filmmaker really in her own...that’s where we’re meeting. We’re meeting at a place where she’s doing something directing and I’m doing some writing and editing. She’ll come over and we’ll look at the cut. What do you think? No, I don’t think so. Raise the music a little bit. So, it’s definitely a partnership. And yeah, we argue and stuff, but I mean, it’s real. That’s how it works. For our last film, Anger, we did a YouTube premiere. Which was a little terrifying, not unlike this. YouTube premieres are a new world. People come together to watch a movie at a particular time, and because it’s live and there’s an opportunity to chat. We’re just constantly pushing the envelope.
Cristian: Did you want to watch a little bit of Anger?
Joanna: Yes. That’d be great. I would like to say too that we have some special condolences. We’re thinking about Dan Davies who lost his father this week. Dan is a really special guy and he just gave his time and energy to this little neighborhood movie, even though he makes movies all over the world. So, our hearts are going out to Dan tonight. We based a little bit of Anger on some stories that Dan hadtold me about his trials working through anger. That was part of it. Another part of it was hearing about a teacher we know who got so upset that he threw a chair through a window. And that image just always was so ripe for something. When I wrote the script, I left a lot of room. I am also really inspired by Larry David. The way that he wrote Curb Your Enthusiasm—he would just write out an outline and then the actors would fill in in the moment. So, we left a lot of open space here and Dan just did a really fantastic job improvising with the script.
Len: Lots of love for Dan. We can also show Life With Dan. We could do a double feature right now—roll Life With Dan and then just roll into Anger. That might be cool.
Joanna: Just one more thing about this scene that we’re showing from Anger. The classroom scene. It was filmed at Renaissance School for the Arts, which is a really amazing charter school here in Appleton. A really unique situation where the students get to have two periods in the afternoon of arts classes that are taught some by both staff and guest artists. Len and I were both very grateful to be guest artists. So, this was Len’s class, and on this day the class was to appear in this film. So that was really fun thing to do. They did a great job, being all their instructions were to be “just be really bored in school.”
Cristian: So are we going to start with, the full life with Dan and then do. yes. Classroom of anger. Yes. Got it. All right. Let me get, the computer working.
(The two films are screened at this point for online viewing in the interview)
Len: I would just say, watching that again, that character has such a great intention, but doesn’t know how to contain himself. It’s really written beautifully. And then Dan really embodied it in a great way. I’ve been around a lot of amazing, well-known actors, but Dan has got it. You know, he...it’s hard to put into words. You just see it on screen. And when I’m filming, when I’m looking through the viewfinder, it’s alive. He’s great to work with. Great actor.
Cristian: So, Kat, I’m going to ask you a question. At the end of Anger, there’s all those chairs in the classroom, empty of kids. It really reminds me of the Pina Bausch piece, Café Müller. Is there anything that you would pull between that piece and Anger?
Katharina Yes. Like Len was saying, like the artistry of the actor. The set in itself hold space, but it’s the intention of how someone operates in that space. Even the kids, they were so in their zone. It was like, there’s the magic that you can kinesthetically feel and relate to it. To me, that’s what makes Pina Bausch’s work. It is very different, but she has a process of really capturing and promoting the intuitive, processing that an artist has to come alive in the work that they’re doing and really embody it. Watching Anger, when he threw the chair, I was like, Oh, okay. Like that was that moment where it just came so organically.
Len: In the next scene, Dan hugs a tree. It doesn’t work. There’s a lot of physicality in our films for sure. That’s one other themes.
Joanna: And that scene where the kids are walking out, I think that’s my favorite part of the movie. It is like a little dance that was not choreographed, but you realize that that happens every time a bell rings in a classroom. The way the kids get up and walk out. And that idea of arrangement. How the kids are moving in the space. I like how you equated that with a dance. It feels like that. And then when the room is empty, and it just Dan standing there with the empty chairs, there’s a kind ofresonating feeling between the movement of the kids leaving and then the empty space. I like that you pointed that out, Cristian.
Cristian: I was wondering, Joanna, would you share a poem with us?
Joanna: I don’t know if I, this, this is really putting me on the spot. I don’t think I have anything really on me. Give me a second, and I’ll look through my little notebook.
Len: While Joanna looks, I’d just like to say we are working on another movie right now called The Governor. It is a historical piece. I was going to shoot in black and white at the Hearthstone, which is just amazing. If you’ve never been in there, immediately go. The craftsmanship, the colors in there, the vibe in there. So, we spoke with the executive director, George, and he’s down for us to film there. It’s going to make The Governor a wonderful, amazing movie. And of course, Dan plays the real life Mr. Rogers, who was the owner of the mills at that time, and who brought, through hydro-power on the river, the electricity to his house, the Hearthstone.
Cristian: That’s super exciting. Are you working with Frank Anderson in any way?
Len: Believe it or not, the story really came from a conversation with Frank. He was telling me about this guy who would sit in this little shack and try to regulate the power up to the big house by staring at a light bulb. The river, there’s no governor, right? There’s no regulator. So, if the river was flowing really hard, that dude would have to turn this little wheel until the light bulb got to be just right. So that’s the character of The Governor.
Joanna: I’ll give you a choice. I can either read, the poem that was in the first issue of fsm. which is about one of Rae Blom’s paintings, or I could recite my sidewalk poem. You get to pick Cristian?
Cristian: Oh, I would like to hear the piece off of Rae’s work, and a definition of the title, Ekphrasis.
Joanna: Okay. I learned that from Mike Pekarske, who was the director of Renaissance when I was there. He asked, would you teach an ekphrasis class? And I was like, I don’t know what that is. So, he explained to me that that is when you write a poem that is inspired by a piece of artwork, traditionally, it’s a visual artwork. John Keats has a rather famous example. I think, in a broader definition, any kind of inspiring work of art could inspire an ekphrasis. When Rae hung her artwork and filled the 602 club with her really beautiful paintings, I wrote this little poem that was inspired by her work. In the frame of paint and lace, a lonely man stares. An angel appears. A child swings high, a butterfly glides, while stairs lead to a room full of light. Blooming rays. Open the gates. As the cars roll by. A family searches the shore under a torn paper sky. It actually has a little song that Tad Neuhaus and I did, but that’s for another day.
View these films online:
Len Borrusco & Dan Davies Film review blog: lndreport.com
Joanna Dane’s archived blog: terminalcaseofwhimsy.blogspot.com