John Helde got his start in film with the New York documentary-makers Maysles Films before going on to become an accomplished film editor. He hasdirected several shorts including the award-winning “Hello”, starring Eric Stoltz. “Made In China” (2007) marked his debut as a feature documentary
director. The critically-acclaimed story of John’s search to uncover his American father’s China childhood is currently airing on the Documentary Channel. He is currently workin on a feature film, “Open Doors”,
and a new documentary, “120 Acres”.
AFF recently caught up with John about the trials of documentaries versus features and what he’s up to now.
1.Tell me about your two films that screened at the festival.
“Hello” is a twenty-minute short with Eric Stoltz, Susanna Thompson, and Kevin Tighe, about a ferry commuter who tries to change his life with unexpected results.”Made in China” is a feature documentary about a family subject – my father grew up as an American in pre-World War II China and I set out to explore that part of his life and the idea of growing up with a foot in two cultures, something that was alien to me.
2.The films “Hello” and “Made in China” couldn’t be more different – did you find that making the narrative short or documentary feature was more challenging than the other?
Both were challenging in very different ways.Like so many shorts, “Hello” was shot in a very short time frame, much of it on a moving ferry – we timed our shoot schedule to the ferry schedule.That certainly helped us not go overtime.It was always like “well, we’ve got half an hour to get this shot while the sun is at that angle and the ferry’s going this direction, and then that’s it.”But we had a lot of fun making the film, with an incredibly talented cast and crew.
It may seem strange, but I do think documentaries are more challenging in many ways – most of all in that you are finding the story as you go along, and then again in the editing room.It’s a lot of time, and trial and error; but that’s also what makes it fun because of the constant sense of discovery.I edited the film myself, which for this project was the right choice, but when you do that it’s hard to step back far enough to get perspective on the story.So in the future I do plan to work more collaboratively with an editor.
3.”Made in China” is a very personal film, you are even a character in it, but in many ways, so is “Hello” – are personal stories something you gravitate to?
I suppose the common element is people.I’m interested in the details of character, what makes people unique, why they do what they do.When I’m writing a script, I really try for original, three-dimensional characters, and this grows in the work with the actors.When I’m doing a documentary, I like to hang out with people and let their true personalities come through.Whether it’s a fictional character or a real person, I guess I tend to be observational – I like to find out what makes that person unique.What I’m feeling more and more as I go along is that there’s really less difference between documentary and narrative filmmaking that I would have thought.In either genre I find that what matters most to me is a truthful “performance”.
4.Do you have a favorite memory of your time at the festival?
Drinking margaritas on the patio of the Stephen F. Austin.But I suppose seeing “Hello” on an Imax-size screen is right up there too.
5.Did the screening of your two films have an impact on your career?
What’s really most memorable about AFF (margaritas aside) is the people I’ve met there.It’s one of the most enjoyable festivals I’ve been to. AFF has done such a good job of creating a relaxed environment where it is easy to meet and converse with people.A number of relationships formed there have continued to this day.
6. You have your own film company, Try This Films. Does the phrase “try this” have special meaning?
The name came to my wife in a dream – she saw it in the credits, as it were, right before she woke up.I loved it and looked no further.
7.How has your strong editing background shaped your directing style?
I think most of all it’s having a clear idea of the coverage I need to cut the scene together – even if that ideal edit changes later!I like to shoot a scene in one shot if I can, though.
8.What are you working on now?
Three projects at various stages:a feature film in development called “Open Doors”, about a marriage counselor who discovers his own marriage is in bad shape; a documentary that’s nearly complete called “120 Acres”, about small family farms in an era of mega-agriculture; and an as-yet-untitled hybrid feature/documentary project.