Whitaker-Morrow Will Wade Through a River to Create His Thesis Film
Hunter Whitaker-Morrow ’17 is a Film and Media Studies and Sociology double major in the process of creating a film for his senior thesis. I had the chance to speak with Whitaker-Morrow about his Italian Neo-Realism shaded film this week, delving into the inspiration behind the project, the creation process and final curatorial goals.
Q: What form is your thesis taking?
A: So, it’s a film and a film manifesto that’s accompanying it. The theory behind it comes from fascist Italy and some of the subsequent Nazi occupation; it’s this film movement called Italian Neo-Realism. During that time, there were a lot of escapist films being made, because the fascist regime was putting a lot of creative control onto filmmakers at the time. They had methods by which you could fund films, but only if the films weren’t expressly anti-fascist. So, it became the mission of a lot of filmmakers, especially independent filmmakers at the time, to make subtle critiques of fascism. So, even though there were these limitations for what filmmakers could and could not put in the films, they still managed to find ways to do so. And one of the main ways was by changing, sort of, the technical limitations of what they were doing.
Neo-Realism specifically focused on a lot of long takes — there were very few cuts. They use all real locations and a lot of non-professional actors. So if you have a shopkeeper in a Neo-Realist film, a lot of times that was actually a shopkeeper. And with the long focus, what that allows you to do is to see all these things happening in a sequence. So, there will be a lot of real crowd scenes and stuff like that. The narrative can be kind of hard to follow at times, because it’s not given so much direction. It’s sort of moves around, depending on where the spectator, or the person who’s watching the film, has their gaze at that point of time.
I think a lot of people compare it to a stepping stone analogy. Watching the films is like crossing a river. So, you’re starting on one side and you’re moving to the other, but what matters isn’t where you end up so much as what you step on as you go through the process. You can even make missteps and fall into the water, pick up on small details that aren’t necessarily important at all.
I’m taking that and I’m trying to make a similar style of film, but with a depiction of modern college life. So it’s going to be me filming on campus a lot of just what I’m doing most of the time. And it’s interesting because Hollywood also has the same kind of creative pressure that the fascist regime did. Things won’t be made if someone high up doesn’t want them to be made. Even though it’s for economic reasons now, it still has the same output as a lot of escapist films.
Q: So the Manifesto will impose rules?
A: Yes. One of the limitations I’m putting in the manifesto is that all of the sounds have to be diegetic. So there’s no music on top of it, and any music will be produced from within the scene.
Q: So then, I’m guessing you’re shooting with a digital video camera?
A: Yeah, but I’m not using the highest quality cameras we have. I’m trying to use things I feel like I would reasonably be able to buy in the near future. And that comes from another film manifesto called “Dogme 95.” They have a lot of similar ideas in terms of Neo-Realism, but for different reasons. But one of them that I’m taking is that you have to use equipment that is reasonably within your means.
Q: What else will be included in the Manifesto?
A: It’s first going to be a list of all these basic tenants, so no cuts within a scene, diegetic sound and things like that. And then, I’m going to explain each of those things and why they matter, because what I think I need to do in the manifesto, which “Dogme 95” doesn’t do, is link the actual technical reasons I’m doing something to the narrative reasons or what I’m hoping people get out of me doing that. I want to pass it out with small copies at the screening.
Q: How has the academic work you’ve done at Amherst led into this particular project?
A: I took an Italian Neo-Realism course while I was abroad in London, and so that’s when I first started getting into Neo-Realist film. Then when I got back last spring, I started making more film that was closer to that. I took an essay-film class with Professor Levine, and it actually had very similar pacing and things like that, so the work I made for that was pretty similar. I think my final project [for essay-film] is something I’m going to try to incorporate into my thesis actually.
Q: Is the project tying into any courses you’re taking right now?
A: I would say it’s definitely tied into courses I’m taking. I’m taking a post-World War II global cinema course, and we started out talking about Italian Neo-Realism before moving though other cinemas — so, pretty directly applicable there. It also pops up randomly, like in my environmental anthropology class the other day, when we watched this documentary about sheep that had a lot of Neo-Realist tendencies, like long takes, overt dialogue and just letting things play out, so I got to talk about that to the class.
Q: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers and what films are you watching in preparation?
A: I think a lot of of my favorite filmmakers right now are actually people that I’ve been watching for my thesis. Vittorio De Sica who did “Bicycle Thieves” is one of my favorites. I consider “Bicycle Thieves” the paramount example of a Neo-Realist film. And then, there’s this guy Ramin Bahrani, who did a film called “Man Push Cart” that is also sort of Neo-Realist. I’m trying to incorporate some French new wave cinema and some Cuban cinema, so there are some people in that category as well. Chris Marker is another one.
Q: Can you detail the filmmaking process thus far, or what you expect it to be?
A: The only thing I’ve filmed so far is one of my Smith classes where we were talking about Italian Neo-Realism, so I’m trying to incorporate some reflexivity.
The process, though, has mostly been me taking the time to sit down and think through points I want to hit or ideas that I want to reach. It hasn’t been anything too firm, but I have been being doing a lot of general story-boarding.
Q: Who else is involved in the process?
A: Most of this is going to be by myself, which is interesting. I think that it would’ve been hard for me to get this level of subjective analysis of the everyday life of a student if I had used a student actor, so I’m filming myself doing a lot of these things. I’m not used to filming myself as much, but it is interesting.
Q:What have been the greatest challenges thus far, and what can you anticipate being challenging?
A: I think the greatest challenge that I’m going to end up facing is figuring out the stepping stones in the narrative. I know where I’m starting — I have both sides of the bank, I guess — I just need to make sure that I put enough down so that you can get to the other side, if that makes sense. I know I have different types of shots that I want to film, but I need it to make sense going through all the way. So, just making sure the narrative is cohesive I guess, because it is so open-ended.
Q: Because you’re trying to stray from the confines of Hollywood film, do you think this is more of a personal project? Or do you want it to be something that’s very applicable to other college experiences?
A: I want it to be applicable to college experiences — but not on a ‘this is exactly what I’ve lived through’ kind of level, but on a ‘this is an actual human going through his everyday tasks’ level. That’s something that I saw in “Man Push Cart.” It’s about this Pakistani immigrant who moves a breakfast cart around New York City in the mornings. I don’t have any sort of experience close to that, but it makes sense, and the struggle feels really real.
Q: Are you planning on showing the work, and if so, how are you planning to curate it?
A: Yeah, I would love to show it to as many people as want to watch it. I’ll probably put it online and then have a screening on campus. I could also just leave it up playing somewhere, because it’s going to be slow enough that you could just come in and watch part of it. So hopefully I can do something like that.
Q: Do you have fears surrounding this documenting your life and thus being too personal to show?
A: Sort of, but like I said, I did something like this for my final project [in the essayist film course] and it is a little nerve-wracking watching other people watch you, but at the same time, I don’t think there’s anything in there that’s going to change your perspective of me all that much.
Q: Anything else you want you want to say?
A: This is taking up all of my life. You asked what I’d been watching in relation to this. I think at this point anything I watch, regardless of what it is, I’m constantly comparing it. Like, “what is this doing that I don’t like? Or that I do like and that I should include?’
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.