Two Conversations with Christopher Munch 

by Caveh Zahedi and Rebecca Bird 
 

I’ve known Chris Munch since 1991 when I met him at the Toronto Film Festival.  He was there premiering The Hours and Times, his critically acclaimed film about the much-rumored-about weekend that John Lennon and Brian Epstein spent together in Spain.  We became friends, and when he was writing his follow-up script, The Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, he hired me as a script consultant.  We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and the last time I saw him was at Sundance in 2004, where his latest film, Harry and Max, premiered. For this interview, we met at an all-night diner in Los Angeles.  


 

Caveh:

So what's happening with Harry and Max?

 

Munch:

Harry and Max opens in February in New York with more theatrical dates to follow.  TLA will put out a DVD later in the year. TLA is very strong in the video department, so I think that they are the right distributor for this particular movie.

 

Caveh:

And who is distributing the DVD release of The Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day?

 

Munch:

A label called New Video/Docurama. IFC, which owns the film, releases a number of their titles through Docurama.  They have a really interesting catalogue and I like the people there a lot.

 

Caveh:

I noticed that you didn't do a DVD commentary.  I was wondering why.

 

Munch:

Most of the principal participants wouldn't have been available to do the commentary.  So, rather than having me do a boring commentary all by myself, we decided not to do one.  Also, the documentary covers some of the same ground that would have been covered in a commentary.

 

Caveh:

But are you against DVD commentaries in general?

 

Munch:

No, not at all.  In fact, I heard a really good one recently - Paul Schrader talking about his film Mishima.  It was just him alone talking and it was fascinating.

 

Caveh:

Are any of the other films out on DVD?

 

Munch:

Yes, they all are except for Harry and Max at this point.

 

Caveh:

And do the other ones have DVD commentaries?

 

Munch:

Yes, but the commentary on The Hours and Times isn't that good because they put me in a room alone with a microphone and unfortunately I didn't rise to the level of Paul Schrader.

 

Caveh:

And who does the commentary on The Sleepy Time Gal?

 

Munch:

Jacqueline Bisset and I.

 

Caveh:

Can you talk a little about the short film that you made which is included as an extra on the DVD of Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day?

 

Munch:

Because the film uses actual history as a point of departure, I felt it would be nice to include a short that gives some historical background on the actual railroad.  So, I spent a weekend with Jack Burgess who is one of the foremost living authorities on the Yosemite Valley Railroad, during his annual symposium, which we videotaped.  Then the cameraman and I traveled with the other participants of the symposium on a river-boating trip to look at some of the remains of the railroad. We then visited West Swift, who in 1995 purchased the railroad’s old observation car, which had been rotting and falling apart. He has been restoring it ever since. A highlight of the weekend for us -- these enthusiasts come from all walks of life and different parts of the world -- was meeting Bob Lunoe, who was a 17-year-old brakeman on the Yosemite Valley Railroad in the 1940s.

 

Caveh:

So you made this short specifically for the DVD?

 

Munch:

Yes.  It’s about how, though it was scrapped in 1945, the railroad lives on in many people’s hearts.  It's just 12 or 13 minutes long.

 

Caveh:

So what are you doing next?

 

Munch:

For a long time I’ve been preparing a film about a 20th century English artist-craftsman, Eric Gill, called Lessons in Lettercarving.  It attempts to tell his biography by interweaving it with that of a contemporary letter carver who is practicing an almost extinct craft, and explores the webs of interconnection between the two men.

 

Caveh:

Last time I saw you, you were feeling kind of depressed about the landscape of filmmaking and the possibility of making a living at it.  I was wondering how you're feeling about that now and how you're doing in the wake of your last film?

 

Munch:

Well, it is certainly a daunting landscape, but on the other hand, you and I are both proof that it is possible to make films and make a living at it, and do original work that is not really compromised by the exigencies of the marketplace. My feeling now is that the explosion of work that's happened in recent years is a good thing, even though the glut of product has made it tough for some films to rise above the din. At this point theoretically I am opposed to the idea of making a film without having a very definite plan for its distribution or without having certain key territories pre-sold.  While that’s only common sense, sometimes it’s simply not possible. And, you know, the films that I have made so far would have been impossible had I adhered to that dictum rigidly. It’s a tough call, but I think it's important for filmmakers to persevere, and hopefully the people who are not serious about what they are doing will fall by the wayside, and in the meantime the serious filmmakers who have something to say will reach an audience in one way or another.

 

Caveh:

So did you pre-sell territories for the last film?

 

Munch:

No.  Harry and Max was done speculatively.

 

Caveh:

But isn't the whole problem with presales just the same problem as getting a film sold once it's made?  If anything, making a presale seems even harder unless you are making something that is very, very recognizable.  If you are doing anything at all innovative, it seems like presales are an almost impossible thing to pull off.

 

Munch:

I agree.  But somehow we have to put ourselves in a position of having an outlet for the work, not necessarily theatrical distribution, which as we know in the United States is extremely problematic for a specialty film unless it hits.  But some commercial outlet for the work needs to be present. Otherwise, it's too much of a risk. Even getting a worthwhile film shown these days at festivals -- which is necessary in building its reputation -- can be extremely difficult for an emerging filmmaker.  And that should not be the case.

 

Caveh:

So, you're saying that you should try to figure out how much money a film is likely to make before you go ahead and make it?  And to come up with a budget according to that knowledge, instead of just making something and putting it out there?

 

Munch:

Right. I've never been somebody to advocate curtailing a script on the basis of cost.  It's important to write a script that realizes your intentions as fully as possible. Then you have to solve the problem of how to make it within a certain budget.  Once your intentions are clear, the resources will become apparent. In my case this usually hasn’t been in the form of people writing checks. But that hasn’t stopped me from making ambitious films -- Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day is a good example of a complicated period production realized on a minuscule budget.  It’s important for filmmakers to think outside convention when it comes to how they make a picture.  By only trying to finance a film in a conventional way, it ensures that formulaic, mediocre films continue to dominate the marketplace.

 

Caveh:

But given the marketplace, which, as you know, is not great for innovative independent films, isn't the solution to just make really cheap films?

 

Munch:

That’s one solution.  And occasionally, you know, one of those "cheap" films becomes a breakout film.

 

Caveh:

What's the other solution?

 

Munch:

Another solution is to spend more money and make a film that is less idiosyncratic.

 

Caveh:

And how do you go about doing that?

 

Munch:

If you have a voice that lends itself to that approach, then by all means make a ripple in the popular culture landscape.  If you don't, you still need to be true to what you do well, and find a way for it to be economically feasible.

 

(At this point, our food arrived and we turned off the tape recorder.  We didn’t turn it on again until after we finished eating.)

 

Munch:

So, how do you feel about delivery of content by way of Internet subscription rental services?

 

Caveh:

I like it.  I don't really like having to go out of my apartment.

 

Munch:

Yeah, it's really convenient; I like it too.

 

Caveh:

Do you subscribe to a DVD rental service?

 

Munch:

I...um...I...I have a...

 

Caveh:

Tell the truth.

 

Munch:

Really?  

 

Caveh:

Yeah.

 

Munch:

I had a free subscription to Netflix, so I subscribed to that.

 

Caveh:

It's a free subscription?

 

Munch:

Yeah, it was a free subscription.

 

Caveh:

How did you get that?

 

Munch:

It came in a gift bag.

 

Caveh:

Oh wow, that's good.  Green Cine should do that.

 

Munch:

Well, I'll definitely subscribe to them, though.

 

Caveh:

When it runs out you mean?

 

Munch:

Yeah, because they have more of the titles that I want.