looking at our city on a daily basis the idea for filming it is usually a passing one. People don't normally look to our city to film, they look to the landscapes. And when they are in the city they dress it up to look like somewhere else. However a local filmmaker has decided to take the conventional that we're used to seeing and putting a different view on all of it.
Matt Black has taken Salt Lake City itself and put it into a new context for public viewing. Putting these films on display for Gallery Stroll events as well as his own website, slowly creating a video gallery on par with any traditional artist and making filmmakers take notice. I got the chance to chat with Matt about his career and the work he's produced as well as thoughts on our local film scene.
Gavin: Hey Matt, first off, tell us a little about yourself.
Matt: Hey Gavin. I'm a filmmaker, living downtown in Salt Lake City. I grew up here in Utah, went to both the U and BYU for undergrad and ended up graduating from BYU with a degree in screenwriting. A few years later I went to Stanford University and got a masters degree in documentary film. I lived in the San Francisco for several years and started a small production company called Group 301 with a couple of friends. We did pretty well but eventually split to pursue other things. I moved back to Salt Lake a couple of years ago to be with my girlfriend (now my wife) and am working on getting my own company, Matt Black Creative off the ground.
Gavin: How did you first take an interest in film?
Matt: I came at film from a writing direction. As a freshman English major I realized pretty quick that I had no talent for the literature classes I was taking. I was really interested in writing and those classes seemed few and far between. I realized if I majored in film I could get on a screenwriting track and fill up my schedule with screenwriting and playwriting classes and then minor in English, avoid most of the lit classes and take all the creative writing they offered. Once that was decided, I immersed myself in all this amazing cinema and found that it really spoke to me.
Gavin: For you, what were some of your favorite movies and directors that influenced you?
Matt: I think a real turning point for me was when I saw a film called “Tokyo-Ga” by Wim Wenders. It's a personal narrative documentary and I'd never seen anything like that before and it blew open the doors to all sorts of possibilities in filmmaking for me. I was getting pretty frustrated with the formulaic nature of my screenwriting classes when I saw it and here was this documentary that gave me that same feeling I got when I read a good novel, which was what I was looking for all along. I finished up my degree in screenwriting but from that point on, the stuff that really excited me was this sort of left-field documentary.
Gavin: What persuaded you to head to Stanford University for film?
Matt: At the time, Stanford was one of only two schools I could find that had a master's degree in documentary film, Temple being the other. This was right before the big explosion in U.S. documentaries about a decade ago. So I applied, almost on a whim, and got in at Stanford. It's a great program with a long history and it's very production heavy which I liked. I made four films in the two years I was there and met great people who were excited about the same kinds of films I was excited about.
Gavin: You graduated with a Masters in Documentary Film and a Bachelors in Screenwriting. What was that whole program like for you?
Matt: It's funny because when I left BYU with a screenwriting degree I basically just chucked it and went fully into documentary and then when I left Stanford, I found myself pretty burned out on docs and started working on a novel. It took me a while to let myself relax and figure out where I wanted to go. And of course, I'm still sort of figuring it out. But in 2007 a couple of things happened that were pretty important to where I am now. First, my production company split and I found myself on my own. I needed an office so I joined an arts collective in San Francisco called Root Division. It was this great place where artists had their own personal studios and then shared common space. Rent was subsidized and cheap, but in return each artist was expected to spend several hours a month working for the collective... teaching classes, putting on events or even just scrubbing toilets. It was a totally different environment than I'd ever been in. There were painters and sculptors and photographers and print makers. I was the only filmmaker there. Every month there was an event and I got asked to contribute work, so I got into doing installation work-- stuff that's designed to share wall space with other art, really. So I started doing a lot of ambient, non-narrative work and that was really the genesis for the Video Sketchbook which makes up the bulk of what you'll find on my website. At the same time, my old business partner had a novel he'd optioned and was looking around for someone to turn it into a script. So after a decade of being away from screenwriting I started adapting this novel by Chris Bachelder, Lessons In Virtual Tour Photography. I was pretty happy with the result and so now I'm basically splitting my time between those two poles of screenwriting and ambient docs.
Gavin: How did you eventually come to Utah after that?
Matt: It's a long story, but essentially I came back to Utah for a girl, who I'm happy to say is now my wife.
Gavin: In your career you do various projects for television and film. What would you say is your favorite type of project to do?
Matt: One of the funnest things I've done is develop and produce a television pilot with some friends. One of my classmates from Stanford, Adam Burgess, went on an overland expedition that drove literally around the world. He came back after fourteen months on the road with hundreds of hours of tape. I had a blast putting that show together and I learned a ton. It's a travel adventure series called “Odyssey: Drive Around The World” and it's airing all over the world now. I'd love to spend all my time developing TV shows and movies.
Gavin: What are some of your more prominent works people would be familiar with?
Matt: The television show is probably the most prominent thing I've done. It's currently running on the “Nat Geo Adventure” channel and OLN among others. The other really prominent project I've done is with Dave Egger's journal McSweeney's. My friend Dave Kneebone and I did a DVD companion for McSweeney's Issue 11 that I'm quite proud of. You can see me editing the project in my underwear on The Editing of The Making of the DVD, complete with an audio commentary track in which Sarah Vowell and John Hodgman comment on my tea making ability and the pattern of my underwear.
Where did the idea for TheMattBlack.com come from?
Matt: I was looking to do something pure, artistically. You can sort of hide in a collaborative medium like film. I was working on some interesting projects (mostly as an editor) but it had been a while since I had done anything generated from my own heart and brain. So I came up with this idea of posting 30-90 seconds of video everyday. It forced me to grab my camera and go out and shoot, which is something I rarely did, and I really got a sense of my own visual sensibility through the project.
Gavin: How does one of the short films come together for you, from start to finish?
Matt: It depends, I guess. Sometimes, I just grab my camera and head out the door. Other times I have a general idea of what I want to go shoot. Most of the work I do now is about looking around the world I inhabit on a daily basis. Our world is really surreal if you can pull yourself out of your own brain and try to actually see it. So, I go look around with my camera and then I come back and load it in the computer and try to look at it fresh again. There are always these moments where something happens. Even in the most mundane scenes of people walking away from train stations or waiting for the light to change. Something magical happens in almost every bit of mundane life, and so I try to tease it out a little. Sometimes that's as simple as picking a start and end point. Sometimes a bit of music helps direct the attention to the mood. Color correction, slow motion, fast motion, cropping, putting one shot up against another. All these techniques I've learned over the course of my career come together to tease out the moment and share what I'm seeing with the viewer. That's what I strive for.
Gavin: Is there ever a set idea of how it will look, or more spontaneous as it goes along?
Matt: No, I'm not one of those people that visualizes something in my head in a dark room and then works hard to put it exactly the way I imagined on screen. I'm much more interested in the raw materials of life. That's the documentary filmmaker in me I guess. So, it's always spontaneous as I'm working.
Gavin: What has the reaction been like to the films?
Matt: I think generally it's been really good among the people that have seen it. I haven't really done much yet to promote it, though I'm starting to submit to more festivals and I've just finished compiling a DVD of the video sketchbook and another DVD of my short films, which I'm going to start selling soon. There are a few like minded souls doing similar work out there, mostly in Scandinavia, and I've gotten some good feedback from them. One of the pieces (Pho Lunch) was included in a program at a film festival called Pixelodeon which highlighted people doing video art on the web a couple of years back.
Pho Lunch (Included in 2007 Pixelodeon Festival)
Gavin: Are there any new projects for the website on the way or are you taking a hiatus from it?
Matt: Yeah, I haven't really posted anything for a while. I've been working on a couple of screenplays and those are kind of front and center in my mind right now. I'm also holding back a couple of films from the website so I can submit them to film festivals, but they'll make it on there at some point.
Gavin: Going local, what are your thoughts on our film scene, both good and bad?
Matt: There seems to be a lot of people out there doing stuff but I don't think there's anything you could call a coherent film scene, or if there is, I'm not a part of it. You get something like a 24 hour film project and it fills up fast, but I have only ever heard of a fraction of those people. I know there are some groups out there trying to pull people together like the MPAU or the Final Cut users group. I'm a part of a group called Mixed Media that meets once in a while over at a coffee shop called the Red Espresso.
Gavin: Anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?
Matt: Sure, there are lots of things you can do. The real question is whether there's something coherent to promote. You have to pull the scene together before you go out looking for an audience for something you could call "Salt Lake Cinema." And then you have to cultivate the audience. The non-filmmaking audience would have to be half of the equation. It can't just be filmmakers talking to themselves.
Gavin: Are there any local filmmakers you believe people should be taking a look at right now?
Matt: I like Tyrone Davies' stuff a lot. He's in San Francisco right now at graduate school, but he was always out doing screenings and festivals while he was here. Tyler Measom has a feature doc on the polygamous "Lost Boys" coming out soon, I know. And Mel Halbach is working on a film about his years on a nuclear submarine that promises to be good when it's finished. Also, I've done some editing with Danny Drysdale on a feature doc about Crispin Glover's experimental filmmaking.
Gavin: What project are you currently working on, and what can we expect from you the rest of the year?
Matt: I'm working on a screenplay right now that I'm pretty excited about. It's a high school noir kind of concept. Also, I'm about to launch a new website: MattBlackCreative.com. When it's done it'll give people a lot more comprehensive look at my work, and they'll also be able to purchase DVDs and other swag.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Matt: Starting in October, I'm going to start screening stuff during Gallery Stroll again. It's something I did a lot last year and my wife and I are going to open up our Art Space studio next to Art Access and show my films and her photographs as well as other works from our artist friends. Also, I hope people will check-in with MattBlackCreative.com in the coming months and pick up a DVD or two.