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Interview with Alan Berliner (wide awake)

During the San Francisco International Film Festival, Susan Tavernetti spoke with Alan Berliner about his intriguing new documentary, WIDE AWAKE. The first-person film offers an understanding of insomnia in cinematic terms, inventively tossing and turning through the sleepless nights and bleary days of Berliner’s world while he ruminates on the topic. Nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, the multi-layered work is a delightful collage of interviews, dream interpretation, quirky arcs of logic, found footage, and pauses for discovery and self-reflection.

Susan Tavernetti (ST): Your previous documentaries—THE FAMILY ALBUM (1988), INTIMATE STRANGER (1992), NOBODY’S BUSINESS (1996) and THE SWEETEST SOUND (2001)—intertwine issues of family and identity. WIDE AWAKE engages in a more personal exploration of those subjects with you at the center. Why did you decide to look at insomnia from a first-person point of view?

Alan Berliner (AB): I’ve been growing, cultivating, developing and evolving with a body of work over the decades that bring me to this place where that’s what I do. I tell personal stories. I work from what I know. You can use the personal to explore very broad, wide-ranging kinds of experience relating to identity. I try to make my films windows and mirrors for the experience that I’m exploring and allow people to see themselves in aspects of the film or to learn about parts of the broader types of experience I’m exploring through the film. I want to try to touch everybody with the warm and friendly shock of recognition.

Statistically, one in three people who could watch my film in America has had, will have or knows someone who has some kind of sleep problem. Sleep is rather ubiquitous. Everyone does it. Everybody brings their last night’s sleep with them the next morning, the next day. So everyone knows something about sleep. Some people do it better than others. I happen not to do it very well. But I started to see the film as a series of challenges for filmmaking. How could I represent insomnia in cinematic terms with the thoughts that go through my head? I started to come up with all these metaphors and layerings of sounds and started to look at images differently—knocking on a door, no trespassing, authorized personnel only. I try to activate the film so people will realize that as much as I’m talking about myself, and that I’ve mined my own experience, I’m trying to create connections with them.

ST: How did your view of insomnia change during the course of the film?

AB: That’s a tough one. At first, the easiest way to describe my perspective was expressed in the dream opening the film. I ask Professor Einstein, “What about someone who feels jet lagged in their own time zone?”

This is an interesting way of saying that I’m an insomniac, and I’m out of sync with the world at large. Then at the end of the film, my wife Shari tells me that I’m living in a different time zone from her and Eli, our son—I’m living in a different time zone from my family. It’s self to society and then it’s self to family. The arc, the bridge that connects those two was a bit of a revelation and changed the nature of the film, in a way, because of the realities of love and responsibility and parenthood. So the film ends for me with three dots, with an ellipsis. It wasn’t designed to end with a period. I was always in conflict with the creative part of me and the insomniac part of me. They’ve managed in this film to quietly but not so easily coexist. The experience of being a filmmaker and the experience of being an insomniac are intertwined. All that obsessive energy is what’s keeping me up at night.

ST: What came first in your creative process while making WIDE AWAKE?

AB: There’s no first. I can’t say there’s a first. There’s an interlocking set of affinities. I’m obviously looking for images and material that relate to sleep. But you can’t predict where it’s going to go. For instance, there is a scene of a deep corridor in a hotel. I happened to be in a hotel and saw that, otherwise I would never have had the idea that someone walking down a corridor would create the metaphor for falling to sleep, for drifting out into unconsciousness.

ST: Complex relationships between images—and between sound and image—characterize your work. Describe your editing process.

AB: Everyday, over and over and over and over again—there’s no shortcut. That’s what editing is. You do something and then you look at it. Does it work? Does it not work? How can it work better? So you’re continually upgrading everything. Something that’s bad, you try to make good. Something that’s good, you try to make better. Something that’s better, you try to make best. And there are opportunities, if you are open. The difficulties are that I direct the films, and shoot parts of them and I’m writing them and I’m also editing them. That’s the toughest part, because you have to be able to step back and have a distance to what you do. What that really means is that you have to be able to criticize yourself and take that criticism but come up with a solution the next day.

ST: Are funding and distribution easier to obtain for documentaries today than 10 years ago?

AB: You know, I think it’s always tough and always a struggle. I got really lucky on this film because HBO funded it. They were very generous to me, especially in regards to giving me the freedom to make the film that I wanted to make. Every film that I’ve ever made is a bit of a magic trick—a collage of sources, of money, of people who believe in you and will allow you to do what you need to do to make the film.

Clearly the landscape has changed dramatically. Cameras, tape stock, computers and software are inexpensive now. Everyone can outfit themselves with excellent tools. Anyone willful can pull it off, so that eliminates a lot of the stress and anxieties and the delays that come with fundraising. I felt across the contour of my life as a filmmaker that it’s never really gotten easier. But then I’m not a good business model. The worst part of me is the producer part of me. When you do everything yourself and they’re about your family—your father, your grandfather—they’re labors of love. But it doesn’t get any easier.

ST: You seem to have a 4-to-5 year filmmaking cycle. What’s next?

AB: Now I know my rhythm. I never know what’s next at this stage. Never. I used to be upset by that. I was interviewed at Sundance in the late eighties and again in the early nineties, and I felt really guilty because this was Sundance and they want to know what your next project is. Funders are out there.
But I never know. Now I’m comfortable with it. It doesn’t make me nervous. It’s just the rhythm. I get so wrapped up in the content and the dynamics and working on the film that I really need to come down. I need to calm the water and maybe even go to shore before I go out into the rapids again. And I’m not afraid to say that. I think that I need to remember who I am again after the end of every film. I need to sort of find myself again. In each film there’s a kind of getting lost. You start at home and then you end up really far afield. The other thing is—and I really believe this strongly—finishing a film is not the end. It’s the beginning of the end.

What’s the next film? A part of me must know, a part of me must have an inkling. A part of me will recognize it when it’s the right time. But there are other parts of me that are protecting me now, because there’s other work to be done.

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