Richard Ledes is no stranger to independent filmmaking. After starting out with Super 8 as a kid, the Greek-American director/writer dipped in and out of making movies for many years. He released his first feature in 2004, “A Hole in One,” starring Academy Award winner Michelle Williams. His next film, “The Caller,” with Elliott Gould, won Best New York Narrative at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008.
Now, in “Fred Won’t Move Out,” the award-winning director teams up with Gould once again, this time to tell the story of an aging couple contending with their children over whether to stay in the home they’ve lived in for 50 years. Ledes, whose script left plenty of room for improvisation, spoke to Greek Reporter about his personal experiences that inspired the story, as well as his long journey to settle on a successful career in filmmaking.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I started making films as a kid – Super 8 films – when I was around 9 or 10 and then kind of stopped making films. After I got through with college, I moved to Paris and I was doing plays at that point. Paris is kind of the “heaven,” the “paradise” of film, and so while I was living there, I began to see many more films again; that really served as my education in film. I did a play where I incorporated a film – a 16mm film which I shot – into the play and then I began to make films again. At that point, I again kind of stopped. I moved back to New York, I did a couple of pieces of performance art, and one of them became the basis for my first feature film. For that, I had started volunteering in a psychiatric outpatient center for the severely mentally ill. The material I got from all this research became the basis for “A Hole in One.” That’s kind of a lot of wandering in there, very Odyssean.
What has been the most challenging part of that journey into directing?
It’s a collective art; it comes out of a collective process. So on the one hand, you want to stick to your guns but on the other hand, you want to be receptive. There’s never really any simple formula you can use for when one is applicable. In other words, you want to be incredibly flexible, you want to be receptive to ideas wherever it may come from – from completely oblivious to the hierarchy. A film set is a very hierarchical place and the director is at the top. The way in which to ignore that hierarchy is to receive ideas from anyone at anytime, but on the other hand you want to stick to your vision; you want to not give up on what you see as the right direction. It’s kind of a difficult balancing act to be both steadfast and at the same time very flexible. Doing that correctly is very tough.
Are there certain stories that you’re drawn to?
I’ve always been interested in the question of seeing as witnessing. We live in a world complete with images. Two generations ago, or up until the period after the second World War, you had to go into the cinema to see a moving image. You sat in a private space but it also had a public element. You sat next to strangers who you didn’t know, and there was a contract that you would be quiet and stay through the whole movie. Now when we see films, we can see them at home, we can see them on our cell phone, we can stop and eat a sandwich or we can stop and do anything. There’s this changing environment around the way films are experienced. So seeing things has become nothing extraordinary, it’s kind of very mundane for us to see…say we’re walking out of a gym and we see images of people being killed at war, for example, [and] then we just continue to work out; we’re numb to images. But then there’s the idea of witnessing where seeing becomes the ability to say to someone that you saw it, to bear witness. To me, the stories I’m interested in often have to do with this tension between seeing and witnessing.
Was your recent film, “Fred Won’t Move Out,” inspired by actual events? How did you decide to make the film?
It was a set of different things coming together at the same time. I had previously made a film with actor Elliott Gould and we talked about doing something improvisational. This interested me very much because among his most famous films have been with a great director known for his improvisational work – Robert Altman. Where the word “improvisation” came up between me and Elliott was a kind of connection to this great mentor figure, this great director with whom Elliott had worked, and that I would work with [Elliott] and also do improv was just incredible. So that was one thing that was in my mind.
I usually work from a script. Usually when you work from a script, you could describe it as an architectural blueprint; it tells you what you have to build. The idea of not working with one was kind of nerve wracking, a scary idea. But at that time, my mother had Alzheimer’s, my father was losing his ability to walk, and they were living in the house where they had lived for 50 years and they were about to move out. That meant that I had a free location and I also had a story that I was so viscerally connected to that I could, in a sense, use it as a compass to find true North, to find the truth of the story. So if I wasn’t going to have an architectural blueprint, I had at least a story whose basic elements were so close to me that I could go without a script. There was an opportunity, and there was a house where I had lived in off and on and my parents lived there for 50 years…it’s an amazing thing to work in a place where you know it so intimately.
Greeks tend to have such a strong family bond. How do you think they will relate to this film?
We had the opportunity to show it at the New York City Greek Film Festival and it was extremely well received. They found it very touching, they were very interested in it, very engaged by it. There are a few Greek stories, Greek myths, Greek characters from Ancient Greece that appear in it. There are a couple of bawdy jokes; it’s actually got a lot of humor. As I talk, [it] sounds so dark but it’s actually a fairly humorous film. They enjoyed the humor as much as anything else. The element, the dynamic of the family, the strength of the family, is something that Greek-Americans appreciate very much about the film.
Let’s talk a little bit about your heritage. Where are your parents from?
I’m Greek-American on my father’s side. My father’s parents were Pontian Greeks…my grandmother being from Istanbul, [formerly] Constantinople, and my grandfather being a Greek from Georgia. They met in Istanbul and came to the United States at the time of the exchange of populations. I think it was 1944 when Greece expelled its Turkish citizens and at the same time, Turkey expelled its Greek citizens. At that time, rather than goto Greece, they came to New York. My mother’s family dates back to the Revolutionary war and they are from England and Scotland…Yeah, quite a different group.
So now that “Fred Won’t Move Out” has been released, where can people see it?
“Fred Won’t Move Out” is playing around the country – 18 cities in the United States and 2 in Canada. Since September, it’s been traveling to various cities – Chicago, Los Angeles, of course, and then cities like Ogden, Utah and Phoenix, Arizona. The middle of January will be when it will play in the last city, and then it will be available on DVD at the end of January. We expect at that time it will also be available online…and we expect it to be available on cable TV, but that’s all still to be determined by our distributor.
Have things changed for you since your last film, “The Caller,” won Best New York Narrative at the Tribeca Film Festival?
[Things] have been largely affected by the technological changes, the availability of cameras, and the increasing quality of video, which has made it ubiquitous…many of us have phones that we can [shoot] video with. On the other hand, it’s been very much affected by the same economic changes that have affected any other industry, which is to say that there has been a lot of consolidation in the distribution of films so there are fewer buyers of independent films and at the same time, there are many more makers of independent film. This has created a situation in which it’s increasingly hard for independent films to make money back for the investors. It’s a continuing struggle to continue to make independent films; it’s become more difficult. That sounds paradoxical because any of us can make a film at any moment, so it should be much easier.
There’s a very small portion of the world of film that does very well…then there’s the rest of cinema, which has never had it harder. Post-2008, with the economic crisis, film is going through a tremendous crisis; it’s a very difficult environment to make your money back and films are being forced to be made for less and less money. It’s very tough because my colleagues have survived for many years on films that were made for between $1-5 million; those films have largely disappeared. Films are made for under $1 million or over $10 million and the ones over $10 million, the investors are trying to insure their risk, or minimize their risks, or they’re looking for safety, and things aren’t as experimental or adventurous. Otherwise, you’re squeezed to under $1 million – and even that is a huge budget – you can’t do the things you once were able to do with an independent film. Those things have really affected me. I’ve been very fortunate and things have continued to go well for me, but the larger forces at work in the world of filmmaking…I take those just like everyone else and it’s not an easy path.
What’s next for you?
Well, that’s a good question. [Laughs] I actually couldn’t get into my office because there was a crane during [Hurricane] Sandy that fell over on 57th Street and they closed off five blocks. One of those blocks was my office. I was so pissed off that I decided to go shoot a movie. So I grabbed an actor, and a director of photography happened to be in town, and we went down and I just had [the actor] walk in the darkness. We went down to a street that was totally dark, found some emergency lights that were on and I just filmed him without any sound [while he was] walking. And so I started making this film, and now I’m determined to finish it. I’m making the film, which is really crazy, in post-Sandy New York City. We’ll see how that goes.