Leighton Pierce has an uncanny control over the images in his films, with luscious colors and warm, dissolving movement. With a static camera, he captures people and objects in a mysterious way, using focus as an impressionistic tool. While your eyes can’t fully define what you are seeing, your mind still recognizes it. His soundtracks mimics the images well, flowing and shifting, recognizable but fresh. Pierce was won over 60 awards from film and experimental festivals, numerous grants including the Rockefeller, Guggenheim and NEA, and has screened his films all over the world in museums and festivals, including the Whitney and the Cinémathèque française.
After years of 16mm projects he made the switch to video yet kept his beautiful cinematography and warped sound consistent. Lately he has made the jump into installations, with multiple screens allowing tons of his images to wash over you. Big pun intended.
CINEMAD: Were you doing shows before you went to Iowa or were you doing stuff when you were growing up?
LEIGHTON PIERCE: I never thought of myself as a filmmaker. I made a couple regular 8 movies in high school but really I thought of myself as a musician and a potter back then.
Where did you go to high school? Was there any exposure to art in that town?
Not much. I went to Fairport, which is outside Rochester, NY. That’s where I got into ceramics. I read poetry and hung out with poets and musician types. My first exposure to real film was a Bergman film and it really blew my mind. It was kind of amazing, very remote and mysterious. How could you even make this? I had no clue.
Do you remember what film it was?
Cries and Whispers – I think. It was really right after high school. I didn’t go to college right away. I remember going to my girlfriend’s college and seeing that movie and thinking this is really an experience.
Did you feel like you were on a path?
I did feel like I was on a path. A path to being a potter. That’s where I really discovered all kinds of different sources of art. That was really a life changing experience. I had kind of a limited experience growing up- I was into music- but I didn’t know too much about art. I went to the Museum School in Boston to study ceramics. It was there that I was exposed to the wider world of art and where I first made some portapak videos.
There were a few people doing film there. But even then I didn’t understand the concept of editing- no one told me- of course and I didn’t ask - I don’t know how you stick all this stuff together… But I did do a soundtrack for a guy there. I was mostly doing music by the end there. Electronic music.
Why did you end up going with the filmmaking and not just doing soundtracks?
Well I didn’t continue that direction. I didn’t finish art school. I went there for three years. Then I worked and I studied jazz composition and worked as a waiter and did stuff like that in Boston. And then saved some money and went to Europe and wandered around for six months. When I came back I wanted to finish my B.A., that’s when I went to Iowa. I had a few friends going to the Writers Workshop I followed them there. I was going to be music major. But when I got out there it felt so much like high school. Everyone was in the marching band…it was terrible. Then I decided to take a film class because it seemed to relate to my process of composition. I really liked the people. That’s how this whole trajectory started. I was like 'wow, this is kind of amazing.' As I leaned about continuity editing, my world expanded. Then it was like- ’wow, this is magic’.
Do you mean figuring out editing in more traditional narrative ways? Or did you see something that was cutting on form?
Editing that’s like classic Hollywood stuff right? It opened up this idea of how space and time be manipulated. Even in the beginning I thought this is pretty amazing. Other than narrative films, back then I had only seen some Maya Deren films, Andy Warhol films and the “left-right” panning Michael Snow film. I remember I saw that at art school and it really lingered, almost festered, in the back of my mind.
I am re-watching your early 16mm films, including He likes to Chop Down Trees (1980) – they all have a lot of sound in them. Did you like editing the sound and that would make the images?
Actually CHOP was really conceived in a musical form. It was very much an exploration of sound cutting in relationship to image cutting in a very simple way. There is one spoken line and one sound, the ax cutting. But when that all happened, when looking at the picture, I didn’t think of the sound, I thought of the character. It was kind of an integrated process of sound and image editing that allowed me to discover character.
At some point did you think this is what you were going to do…Become a filmmaker or were you still working or teaching and making films along the way?
Well, I went to grad school as a film student. I did a short stint in Iowa to finish my B.A. actually and then I went to Syracuse. I thought when I left that I would either get a job teaching or I could work in the industry. I didn’t get a teaching job right away so I came to New York. I was working recording sound, assistant editing, and I had a technical job at NYU for awhile.
I thought I was actually going to be a sound editor in the commercial industry. And then this job in Iowa popped up and I took it because I thought it would give me the most opportunity to develop as an artist.
What year was that?
Short of the biggest cities, I feel that experimental filmmakers have found the cities they live in because it gave them a way to make films.
I do have to say at Iowa, besides all the work with teaching and administration, I have a lot of freedom. No one hassles me about the kinds of films I made, they have supported me with time and money, doing what I wanted.
How did you structure your filmmaking time – were you shooting all the time or would you go out and get footage you needed and then edited?
It’s different for different periods in my life. I would shoot a lot in the summers, or get leave from teaching, or just find time to shoot. It was hard to edit. In the beginning it was very hard. I had to share facilities with students so I was never away from teaching. I didn’t like that so much.
Editing sound on 16mm mag tracks is a lost art.
Let’s hope so (laughs). Cumbersome, it worked fine and I got into it but I would never go back to that. I mean, you could see the picture and touch it. But editing sound? Cut off a small piece, and its brown, on the floor, too short to listen to, you roll over it with your chair a few times, make some obscure note on it with a sharpie… It is an experience I will tell my students about when I get old, “ Back when I was you age, well, we . . .”
YOU CAN DRIVE THE BIG RIGS
With the early films, did you get inspired by something you saw, and then built around it?
With early films like YOU CAN DRIVE THE BIG RIGS (1989), which I do think of as a documentary, they were shot like films – there was an idea, planned it out, shot it. From RED SHOVEL (1992) on that’s when I started gathering by making structures of how to shoot. Like with 50 FEET OF STRING (1995), I didn’t know what I was doing when I started making it. I just said every week I’ll shoot and see how the film would grow out of it. The laundromat film, THE MIRACLE OF CHANGE (1984), which you can see online, was also preplanned and shot according to plan, It is another venture into the realm of paranoia and voyeurism. I don’t really think that way anymore. I tend to see what presents itself. And flow with that.
Do you like gathering images better than the planning?
Its just what I….do. I like the unknown. I don’t know what I’m going to have at the end of the day, you know?
It feels more like an experience.
It is like a feeling. In the café film (You Can Drive the Big Rigs) I would go in and sit and listen. I’d hear all this gossip. Just sort of eavesdropping. I went and and interviewed the owners, and they would say, “Oh no one gossips here.’ They were giving me some part line. It was in response to that mismatch that caused that film to become more about how it feels to enter one of those cafes as an outsider rather than a film that is actually about the cafes themselves.
How much do you think Iowa informed your films?
I shoot where I am whether it is Iowa, NY, Maine, France, wherever. The actual location matters but more importantly it is the way a place feels that matters. I have had mixed feelings abut being in Iowa over the years and these are reflected in my films and videos. As I said, the University has been supportive in some senses by giving me time and equipment. But it’s a double-edged sword. Iowa is isolated from the experimental film community and especially from the art world. I have had fewer opportunities to establish those all important personal ties with a cross section of like minded people.
I heard that by having kids it changed your film form.
It was more a mode of working that changed once I had kids. It was a decision. Either I was constantly going to be frustrated or I was going to find a way to keep shooting with the kids around. So that’s why they became part of the process. That’s why I’ve worked at home. Again, it is the idea that I shoot where I am. The challenge is to develop something interesting from anything that is happening.
Do you have normal home movies of your family? Or does it all go through the “art” filter?
The problem is that it’s all on one tape—the home movies and the art stuff. And I never actually know when I might switch into “art mode” when shooting home movies. So I have a tape and it goes, and its one of the kids blowing out candles, then the next shot is something artistic… there is no clear way to even know what I’m shooting when I’m shooting it. For example, THE BACK STEPS (2001). I was just shooting, a kids Halloween party. Then when I looked at the footage I see this one amazing shot. I think I can do something with that.
Do you think your sound design has taken a different feel too?
Most of the sound is created after the edit is complete. I tend to ignore the sound that is recorded with the image. In the later films and videos, that’s the beginning of more musical sounding elements. In the last 10 years, partly because its video, there is more flow to the editing. Its no longer shot, cut, shot, cut. Now these moments flow from one to the other. So it almost not possible to create true post-sync effects anymore—something my previous films were anchored in. It’s now more like composing music from sounds.
MY PERSON IN THE WATER
Do you have a name for the blur effect? That seems to lead to a different type of sound.
No, I don’t have a name to it. Again, I would think of it as music. It’s actually much harder to do sound on the works I am doing now, because it not real space. In YOU CAN DRIVE THE BIG RIGS and 50 FEET OF STRING there were real (yet imaginary) spaces. I simulated the sound in those real spaces and created a new soundscape. Now I can’t fall back on making a sound of a space since there is no longer a real space, so it’s more of a construction.
Was there a point where you put the 16mm camera down to rest?
I noticed there was a point that I stopped shooting, but its not like I chose. GLASS (1998) was the last 16mm film I shot. But up until this summer I had film in my freezer but it thawed when my basement flooded for a month so I guess I might be finished with 16mm.
Was it economics or did you enjoy the aesthetic of video right away?
It’s a very different tool. 1998 is also when I got a digital video camera and could edit digital video in a computer with no loss of quality. Before that I was using Hi8. What really happened – I was doing video all those years since 1980. But once DV hit, I really embraced it. I like the way it looks, and most importantly I could edit picture and sound in similar ways. I could have multiple tracks of each and could see and hear them right away., That became more interesting to me. So I didn’t give up films. I got so enamored with the potential of digital video there was no reason to shoot on film. And, of course, the sound is clean and clear with wide dynamic range and in stereo—not like the noisy narrow 16mm optical sound.
Many people still shoot on film and edit on video.
I’ve thought of that but then again at this point, my camera is so small, my shooting becomes so gestural, I’m not sure I could go back to 16 and back to tripod carefully composed. In 16mm I looked through the lens and composed shots. With video, I do occasionally look through the lens to focus etc but I do much more choreographed or improvised camera movements in order to create a shot.
You have a lot of water in your films. You love it or is it just around you?
I don’t know the answer to that. I know that I shoot a lot of water. I use it because I like those shots and I am around it a lot. I used to shoot a lot of cars going by. I kept wondering, ‘why am I doing this. What does this mean that I keep using it. I’m not sure but I do think about it.
It reflects light so nicely.
Yes, sometimes a mirror, sometimes a lens.
Are you doing a lot of adjustments within the camera while you shoot?
I adjust exposure, certainly. And shutter speed, normal stuff, nothing special. Until the things I’m doing now with stills. My current technique came from the technology, just from taking a lot of stills. I could do a certain kind of motion effect within a single exposure, and then make a sort of animation. I think that most people will see it like one of my videos. Its not unlike the shutter speed effect of video, the difference is very subtle. And I’m interested in that subtle difference.
When you work on a project, how do you balance the technical discoveries with the emotions and ‘story’ you are trying to get across?
The emotion is always the main thing that matters in the end. But I’m not thinking up an idea. I just went out and shot a bunch of images, not knowing if it will work. And then it’s in the editing that it turns to emotion, working with the image and sound. I’m interested in these technical tools. Still camera, video camera, all the stuff interests me, some times that is the thing that gets me just to shoot something, to play with this tool. That alone is not enough. I have look to find some emotion resonance in the image that I can build on.
With VISCERA (2004), that title might be the most descriptive of all your films. In your other films the title is much more of an exterior (HE LIKES TO CHOP DOWN TREES, HAMMOCK (2005), THE BACK STEPS).
Wood as we know, you see the wood, ok there’s the wood. What I did was call them something fairly mundane, almost to say that’s not what the film is about. It’s not about a kid cutting wood. Some kind of musical or poetical resonance. A feeling that happens. Viscera, on the other hand ,isn’t a thing. That one is leaning more toward emotion. Titles are hard.
A PRIVATE HAPPINESS (2003) and MY PERSON IN THE WATER (2006) are in the more romantic vocabulary.
Something like that, in the past six years or so.
When you are always dealing with your life, taking your life to Iowa, kids, romance – it would be foolish if your art didn’t reflect that.
I think it does. I can line them up. I have very personal reactions to each one. I can look back and say, oh that’s when I was dealing with that. I see the heart attack that I had, the kids, something about that emotion. When I was making it I wasn’t thinking that. I look at it now and its just so obvious. That’s clearly what its about. It takes about six months to a year for me to say “oh that’s what that’s about.”
There is a film that relates to your heart attack?
WOOD (2000). It’s the feeling of the kids, the boy and girl, then the space. There’s the water, then there’s the empty swing, then the puddle that’s bubbling like a heartbeat, then it stops.
Did you start the film after the heart attack then?
Yeah. A year or so after.
Only heart attack so far?
Yes! Only one ever!
How does a film feel five year later and then 20 years later? Does that keep it interesting?
With most of the things I sent you, that’s how I selected titles. All of them do something for me still. When I show CHOP its kind of fun because its soooo ancient history. Some of the videos now I can see an indication of impending divorce. FALL (2002) and EVAPORATION (2002) are good examples of videos that express what I don’t yet understand. When I look at those now, I see them as predicting the separation. I didn’t know it at the time. That what it was really--Isolation.
The best art has so much tied up in it.
Let’s hope so. For me, it’s better than reading a journal entry with all the specifics.
We should say you have many happy films, too. How old are your kids now?
My son is 19 and my daughter is 14. Certainly my son has always been engaged in the filmmaking and watching and giving advice since he was tiny. He was always interested. We’d go for a walk and I asked him some questions and he offered me something, I wish I could remember what it was but I cant. But it was actually really useful. He is generous. He interested, I showed him the recent stuff and he has had stuff to say, we talk about music too. My daughter and I have a very different relationship that I also enjoy. She reflects less but seems to be proud to be a part of my process. Although, when she was younger I have many shots where she is saying something like, “Daddy look with your eyes! Not your camera.”
You have two films that are explicitly political, showing the flag anyway. Have you wanted to make more overtly political works, or is it the nature of the content that strays from that?
VEILED RED (2002) was a shot that I had. Actually I was in France at the time, right after 9-11. It is a month later, there is all this talk of war coming from the States. In France it’s a little more complicated. You hear the States saying let’s go get them. So I used that shot. But for me it was an understated meditation on war and especially impending war.
With RED SHOVEL it is political because it’s the flag and I’m thinking, what could this mean. Flying the flag on the 4th of July, but its also very beautiful. More like contemplation than nationalism. I do have a general fear of nationalism so perhaps I am trying to strip away some of the symbolic power of the flag in these pieces.
Have the installations been recent work or were there some in the past?
The first one was 2004. I’d been thinking about installations for quite a while. Most of my films are short. You make a film in which something happens to the viewer when they watch it. But in festivals that feeling in the viewer can be totally erased by programming. Making a short is really like making a shot in someone else’s movie (the film program). So going to installations involves space and the viewers’ movement through a room. People come and go but that room is always the same. I like that. It is like creating emotional eddies in a physical space.
Do you like the opportunity to use more content in an installation?
Yes but its not exactly that, though. WARM OCCLUSION (2006) had 13 projections. It’s not that it has more content, I like giving up the absolute control of the experience the audience has. When you watch a film, you sit down, start watching it, and at the end if they haven’t left, its over. It’s all very orchestrated and controlled. In WARM OCCLUSION it’s not possible to see all the projections at once. It might be more content but you don’t really know. You have to move to another position to see something else. There is also the realm of repetition. There is a lot of repetition of images. It’s a very different experience. With installation you give up a lot of the control.
Your images must seem different to you as well in the installation, its such a different form. Even with multiple editing monitors its not the same.
WARM OCCLUSION was amazing. I had been working on it on 22-inch screens. Then in this huge 5500 sq. ft. room, I was surprised, it was way better than I even imagined. It was big and all around and the glow on the floor. When a film is shown it’s big and it’s with a crowd (hopefully) and that’s nice. I want to do more with the films. Deciding to do an installation, you still have to get the space. That’s tougher. I’m learning about that.
Have you thought about online distribution?
I haven’t, I don’t know.
For being an avant-garde consumer, I would love to go to a site and see something I have always heard about, or a filmmaker that’s almost lost. But its small, its only half the experience.
I agree with you, oh that’s the piece I couldn’t find and it would cost tons of money to rent. But its kind of like looking at artwork. Oh ok, that’s what Rothko looks like. And you do get a sense, the shape and the color. But you don’t really get it. Sometimes that’s what you want, its research. Not an experience. I’m not opposed, and a number of films and videos on my website with more coming soon.
Leighton's short VISCERA is available on the Cinemad Almanac 2009 DVD.