Brian Lindstrom is a Portland-based documentary filmmaker, whose recent film Alien Boy covers the life and death of James Chasse, a man with schizophrenia who was killed at the hands of Portland police. Lindstrom also directed and edited Finding Normal (for an impressively low $5,000), a documentary that follows long-term addicts trying to rebuild their lives; it is the only film ever to be shown to inmates in solitary confinement at Oregon State Penitentiary.
I interviewed Brian over Sykpe; we talked about documentary filmmaking, the changing landscape of film language, the ethics of telling the stories of others, and his lovely working relationship with wife Cheryl Strayed. Brian spoke with the calm ebullience of a Zen monk, and his commitment to telling the stories of those people often overlooked renewed my faith in human connection and empathy.
The Rumpus: What first drew you to the story of James Chasse?
Brian Lindstrom: I was very drawn to this story. I sensed that the terrible way that James died at the hands of the police, and the controversy surrounding the case, would provide a narrative thrust that would allow me to tell the story of James’s personal life: his early childhood, troubled adolescence, intense involvement in the Portland punk scene, first love, teenage onset of mental illness, subsequent loss of relationships, and early institutionalization. We don’t see many films in which someone with schizophrenia is the main character, and I welcomed the privilege of sharing James’s personal life with an audience. He lived with severe and persistent mental illness, yet was able to maintain his independence as an adult, avoid institutionalization, maintain meaningful relationships with his family, and build a life for himself the best he could. I felt driven to tell that story—along with producer Jason Renaud, editor Andrew Saunderson, and director of photography John Campbell.
Rumpus: Why do you think we don’t see many films with main characters who are suffering from mental illness?
Lindstrom: I think there are many reasons. Our fear of “the other” is probably the main one. And perhaps the difficulty the filmmaker faces in presenting a state of mind that is, presumably, much different than their own. In the case of Jim, we were lucky to have access to writing and drawings that eloquently expressed his state of mind.
Rumpus: Can you talk more about the “difficulty the filmmaker faces presenting a state of mind that is different from their own”? How did you go about addressing that difficulty in the case of Jim?
Lindstrom: It can be difficult to present mental illness in film without resorting to devices that, if not handled well, can seem heavy-handed or cliché. We were fortunate in this case to have access to Jim’s letters, diary entries, and drawings, so that the audience could directly understand what James was thinking and feeling during the teenage onset of his schizophrenia. I think this makes the disease aspect of mental illness—as well as James’s efforts to live a meaningful life—very palpable to the audience, thereby humanizing James.
Rumpus: Your other film, Finding Normal, focuses on people as they try to recover from addiction. What draws you to your subjects? I’m always interested in how or why people are drawn to their subject matter.
Lindstrom: When I was five years old, my grandpa took me on a train trip from our hometown of Portland, Oregon to his birthplace of Flint, Michigan. Grandpa was a kind-hearted man who never missed a chance to take me and my friends to the circus. A house painter by trade, he had a strong work ethic, a profound love of nature, and was driven by a deep sense of community. He was also an alcoholic of the most frustrating and heartbreaking variety: the binge drinker. My grandpa could go days, weeks, even months without a drink but if he took that first drink, he couldn’t stop. Once, when I was twelve, my mom and I were driving and we saw my grandpa staggering drunk down the street. I asked if we should stop and help him. My mom sadly shook her head and kept driving.
So anyway, I’m five years old on the train with grandpa, and we’re having a great time. And then somewhere near Helena, Montana, he takes that first drink. And I wake up on day three of our trip to find that grandpa has lost a crucial possession: his dentures. My grandpa solemnly takes a five dollar bill out of his wallet and tells me to round up all the kids on the train and tell them whoever finds his dentures will get a reward of five dollars. A little boy from Idaho found grandpa’s dentures in the sink of the men’s toilet closest to the bar. There was much applause and laughter as my grandpa put the dentures in his mouth and flashed a big grin to the crowd. But I noticed that the people on the train treated my grandpa and I differently after that. And I think in many ways what my films are about is that search for my grandpa’s dentures: for that humanizing narrative that bridges the gap between “us” and “them” to arrive at a “we.”
Rumpus: There’s a lot of shame around addiction. How do you deal with the issue of cultural shame and taboo when filming, both in your approach to your subject and to the audience?
Lindstrom: I knew as a young boy that addiction and alcoholism afflict people—good, loving people—in profound ways, and that some people—usually from those rare “normal” families that I longed for as a child and as an adult wonder if they even exist—didn’t understand this and sort of looked down their noses at people suffering with addiction. And I received my fair share of those scornful looks when my grandpa would occasionally go on a bender when taking care of me. I felt that if people understood the struggle of recovery, then some of the stigma of addiction might be reduced because the audience would understand in a palpable way that addiction is a disease that tells the afflicted, despite years or even decades of heartbreaking evidence to the contrary, that using will make things better.
Lindstrom: I’m often asked why is it that the people in my film Finding Normal—which follows long-time heroin and crack addicts straight out of detox or prison as they try to build a new life with the help of a recovery mentor and clean and sober housing—seem so unaware of the camera.
And I think the answer is that all the people in the film have lost a lot due to their addiction, and are now focused on their recovery—on literally a life and death struggle to find a new way of being that they didn’t really notice me; or at least, didn’t notice me as much as you’d think. As one participant told me after I asked if I might film him: “Dude, you’re the least of my worries.”
I wanted the film to be disarmingly intimate by inserting the viewer as directly into the lives of the subjects as possible. It was crucial that I be a one-person crew on this project, as adding just one more crew person to the equation would have jeopardized the intimacy between me and the subjects. Finding Normal is the only film ever to be shown to inmates in solitary confinement at Oregon State Penitentiary, and not as a form of punishment! When approaching people for permission to film them, I let them know that I felt they were involved in a heroic struggle, and I felt the audience needed to understand that, and that participating in the film would be an opportunity to give something back by, in a sense, educating the public about the need for recovery programs. Not one participant turned me down.
Rumpus: Do you feel that maybe we just don’t approach people enough in general in our culture? That we’re closed off from asking people about their lives?
Lindstrom: Yes, I think that most of us instinctively avoid people with mental illness. That is why I’m so impressed with Russell Sacco, who is interviewed in Alien Boy. He went to church with James. In what I think is a great example of faith in action, Russell looked at James and, as he says in the film, thought, “He’s just a person, and I’m just a person, so I went and talked to him.” For weeks, James wouldn’t respond when Russell asked him “how are you doing?” Finally, James did respond, and with Russell’s careful, kind, and patient urging, a relationship developed. Such relationships may constitute the only positive interactions some people with mental illness might have on a particular day.
I’ve spent years doing “participatory video projects” that put a camera in the hands of people with mental illness and newly-recovering addicts. What I’ve found is that if you approach people out of respect and kindness, they are happy to share their struggles—and their victories—with you. But I think it is important to subtly communicate that in this exchange, they are providing you with a great gift: an expanded understanding of what it means to be human, and perhaps a peek into grace.
Rumpus: I live in a city and I’ve become so isolated from reaching out to people. In fact there was a man who was singing in my doorstep for almost twenty-four hours non-stop, drinking, and not once did I think, Hey maybe this is my chance to peek into grace. I’m a pretty open person yet I’ve become inured, I think. I didn’t observe anyone else approach him all day, besides the cops. It must be such an isolating experience to have most of your interactions be with police officers. Your film highlights police brutality, but did you learn anything in making this film about what police officers go through on a daily basis in terms of the intimacy of their encounters with people?
Lindstrom: We reached out to the Portland Police repeatedly, requesting permission to film “ride alongs” in order to show the challenges police face when confronting people with mental illness. Unfortunately, the police were unresponsive. One thing Alien Boy makes quite clear, I think, is that many officers themselves are perhaps not getting their mental health needs met. Two of the officers in the film had rather shocking road rage incidents that led to suspension or termination, and another of the officers used questionable judgment in shooting a combative twelve-year-old girl with a bean bag [gun] at dangerously close range. In the same way that we want to expand mental health service for people with mental illness, we also need to make sure that our police officers are getting the mental health help they need.
Rumpus: Do you know what, if any, mental health treatments are available or required of police officers? And do you think police officers operate under the assumption that most people fear them, and that then affects the way they perceive and approach people?
Lindstrom: I asked my co-producer Jason Renaud, who is a policy expert, and he reminded me that mental health treatment is most likely available to the officers, but they may be reluctant to access it due to cultural beliefs within the force, fear of stigma, etc.
Rumpus: What was the first experience you had in school or watching a film that planted the seed for you to become the kind of filmmaker you are today?
Lindstrom: I’ve been very lucky in my life to have some great teachers. In December of 1975, my eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Greenfield, had all of us students write down everything we wanted for Christmas. He challenged us to the make our lists exhaustive, and we eagerly complied. Some students had two or three pages of toys and other things they wanted for Christmas. Then Mr. Greenfield showed us a seventeen-minute film, A Day in the Life of Bonnie Consolo. It is a documentary made by Barry Spinello, and it follows Bonnie Consolo, a housewife and mother in Florida, as she goes through a day in her life: putting on makeup and getting ready for the day, making breakfast for her family, driving her kids to school, grocery shopping. It sounds unremarkable, except for the fact that Bonnie Consolo has no arms. After the film was over, Mr. Greenfield turned on the lights and asked, “Would anyone like to share their Christmas wish list with the class?” And no one said a word. Because that film taught us that all we really needed was inside of us, and if Bonnie Consolo could access that, then so could we.
I was struck by the way the filmmaker made each one of us identify with Bonnie Consolo, and I was fascinated by the intensity of the silence that followed Mr. Greenfield’s question, because I knew that in that silence each one of us had changed and grown. I knew then that I wanted to make films like that, films the made you look at others with a little more understanding, compassion and respect—and maybe even look at yourself with that same expanded perspective.
Rumpus: What aspects do you think are unique to documentary filmmaking when it comes to telling stories?
Lindstrom: I guess the short answer is that documentary gives us real people in their own words and actions. This allows us a uniquely intimate and in-depth look into a person’s life, and that can result in an unusual degree of identification between the audience and the subject.
Rumpus: What kind of work would you do had you not gone into documentary filmmaking?
Lindstrom: If I weren’t making documentary films, I suppose I’d be teaching. I just finished a project where I worked with kids from the I Have a Dream Foundation, to make a short film about what it meant for them to be the first members of their families to go to college. It was wonderful to collaborate with them and to make a piece of art that gives them voice and honors not only the obstacles they have overcome, but also the incredible potential they are harnessing.
Rumpus: What are some things you’re working on, or what directions would you like to explore in your work that you haven’t yet?
Lindstrom: I’m in the very early stages of a documentary about the late singer/songwriter Judee Sill. A number of things draw me to this project. The power and beauty of her songs, foremost. Her lyrics and music have a spiritual force that is singular. I think that is part of the reason that thirty-plus years after her death, she is being discovered and interpreted by a new generation of musicians. She was a label mate of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, yet never achieved “stardom.” Why not? J.D. Souther says Judee Sill influenced him as a songwriter more than anybody else. Andy Partridge of XTC also sites Judee as his primary musical influence. I’m eager to explore her personal life and interview those that knew her personally and/or know her musically. She has inspired many great musicians—Fleet Foxes, Beth Orton, Ron Sexsmith, and many others—and it will be great for the film to show that.
Rumpus: Oh man, I love Judee Sill so much. I think a lot about fame and anonymity when I listen to her music, and how they wax and wane. Do you think the conditions of both fame and anonymity affect an artist’s ability to produce great work?
Lindstrom: In her late teens, Judee told a friend: “I will become famous and die before I’m forty.” She died in 1979 at the age of thirty-five. It is notable that Judee was on the Asylum label with Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, and that their level of fame and commercial success eluded her.
Rumpus: What drew you to her as a subject—was it just how awesome her music is?
Lindstrom: It was primarily the depth and beauty of her music. It kind of led me to start thinking about the discrepancy between the grace and beauty of the art and the chaos and struggle of the life that produced it.
Rumpus: I listen to her music all the time so I feel a bit ashamed to not know much about her life.
Lindstrom: That’s another element—what was it about Judee that made her music unforgettable but at the same time she never reached fame. What is that elusive quality that allows Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne to be part of the pantheon, but not Judee Sill?
Rumpus: That’s an interesting question, about the nature of fame. Sometimes I think there are aspects to fame that seem totally random. There are a lot of complex factors to it, but do you think the way her life was had a lot to do with how her music was? If she had become famous, do you think she would have stopped producing great work? There’ a glorious anonymity that most of us unknown artists enjoy.
Lindstrom: I’m not sure how she would have handled fame on a grand scale. It’s a whole other world that has a lot of baggage attached to it.
Rumpus: You mention that you often teach and help students make films. How has the landscape of filmmaking changed through technology, particularly with respect to docs?
Lindstrom: Obviously it’s made it easier for people to accumulate technical resources, which is wonderful. I guess what has been devalued a bit is the art and craft of filmmaking. It’s altered film language both for the better and worse, but it’s an exciting time. There’s no longer a barrier for most people to get their vision out there. The challenge is getting people to see what you’ve made.
Rumpus: So many documentaries have a straightforward approach to narrative and tend to be afraid of experimenting with narrative structure, and I don’t know if that’s because they’re worried of the challenges already against them and they don’t want to add to that complexity?
Lindstrom: In documentary you sometimes see the tyranny of the linear, but what I’ve noticed in the last ten years in narrative film is the tyranny of the non-linear. People think that’s the default way to approach the story, and sometimes I think that they make it way too complicated without much of a payoff. I think that every film should have its own structure, and that’s the beauty of film language—is that we get to express that deeply individualistic side of ourselves. I don’t think that there is any hard and fast rule that says that documentary has to be linear at all.
Rumpus: I’m sure as you approach a project, any idea you have about its structure going into the making of the film gets turned on its head.
Lindstrom: That goes out the window real quick. We had that trouble with Alien Boy because it’s like two films, in a sense. There’s both the tragedy and deception and procedural element of what happened that day, how the police and city responded, versus the story of Jim’s whole personal life. It was a real trial and error—how do we interweave the two?
Rumpus: What’s your ethical code when you approach filmmaking?
Lindstrom: When I was making Finding Normal, where I followed long-term addicts leaving detox and entering recovering mentor programs, my promise to myself is that I would do nothing that would jeopardize anyone’s recovery. I felt like any individual’s recovery was more important than the film I was making. And I actually felt that my presence was a form of witness that communicated to the people I was following that their lives mattered.
With Alien Boy, our main goal was to honor Jim and really to kind of restore the depth and dimension to Jim’s life. We wanted to restore his humanity and depth. When he died his whole existence was reduced to this headline, “42 Man with Schizophrenia Dies in Police Custody,” and that’s just such a desolate interpretation of his life. Actually, it’s really just an interpretation of his death not of his life. So we painstakingly researched his life, and found friends, family, his old girlfriend, his neighbors, all these people that could talk about him and give him the kind of fullness he deserved. He lived a life of hardship. He was dealt a hard hand but he played it well. He had a lot of integrity and drive. He built a meaningful life and we really wanted to show that in the film.
Rumpus: What’s the difference between making a documentary about a person who is dead versus a person who is alive? Those seem like radically different experiences as a filmmaker.
Lindstrom: Yeah, well if the subject is no longer living, the immediate question is do you have enough first-person material to really get that story across. You’d like to avoid it just being other people’s memories and interpretations. We were lucky in Jim’s case that so much of his artwork and writing survived. We were able to make that specific for the audience. With a living person you’re always burdened with this idea of fair representation, treading this fine line between honoring the person, and yet you really look at the word “honor,” it implies that you then have to address struggle and hardship and failure, and all these things that it means to be human, that you show the fullness of their life. If the person’s living, they are able to interject.
Rumpus: With Finding Normal, with the subjects being living people, did you have any anxieties about the subjects of the film seeing themselves portrayed?
Lindstrom: You know, making Finding Normal was such a magical experience for me. In retrospect, I probably should have had a lot more apprehension about how they’d see themselves. But I felt so privileged to be let into people’s struggles and I felt like the film really showed the complexity and integrity of that struggle. It gave me a lot of faith and confidence that they’d feel really okay about it and indeed they did. That was really a wonderful affirmation of the film.
Rumpus: You mentioned that you’re in the nascent stage of a documentary about mass shooters.
Lindstrom That’s really in the planning stages, and that’s based on the possibility of some access to, whatever word we are using, shooters. It’s a project that obviously has to have a lot of forethought and care behind it to avoid it being exploitive. It does seem that there must be some possibility of perspective from these people that could maybe speak to how we could prevent it from ever happening again.
Rumpus: I think so much of the time when I read stories of shooting in the news, that no one seems to be very interested in learning from the perpetrators. It seems like no one wants to fully understand the psychology of these people and how they got there.
Lindstrom: I agree—what are the steps that got them there? I don’t think it’s an event; it’s much more of a process. It’d be interesting to break that down and try to get some first-person accounts of steps along the way that maybe could have been taken. This is not to take responsibility away from what they did but an attempt to look at the full picture understand all of the elements that came into play.
Rumpus: It’s interesting because what seems to emerge as a theme is profound alienation.
Lindstrom: Right, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Rumpus: What do you think people’s misconceptions are about documentary filmmaking? For example, I have a documentary film I’d like to make and I know nothing about making a film at all, but in my mind I think I’ll just get a camera, maybe a couple thousand dollars, edit it on my laptop, and I’m done. Obviously I know that’s unlikely, but in my mind and maybe in others’ minds it’s that simple.
Lindstrom: Documentary filmmaking has all the challenges and hardships of narrative filmmaking without any of the infrastructure or support. That’s both a blessing and a curse, but one thing people often forget when making a documentary is that, in a sense, you still have to cast, find a star, and it has all of those built-in challenges. It’s wonderful when it all works out, but it’s just like anything else. We all use dishwashers every day and yet none of us would say that we’re experts on dishwashers, but somehow we all think we’re experts on movies. The difficulty of shaping a story, and then how to arrange it and all the thousand-and-one decisions you have to make. But the beautiful part is that we shouldn’t be aware of that difficulty when we start, it just should be the enthusiasm about telling a story and trusting that kind of childlike enthusiasm. If you just think about the difficulty you’ll never get anywhere.
Rumpus: I think of Stephen Elliott (our boss here at The Rumpus), who has made these films with such low budgets and challenges, but he doesn’t seem to care at all about the difficulty of it. Sometimes I think that being foolish and oblivious can be liberating.
Lindstrom: Absolutely, and especially with the chaos of making a low-budget feature film. You have to embrace and trust that somehow, from all the hardship and things not working out, a pattern will reveal itself. Looking back you’ll think it’s so great the truck didn’t show up that day because we had to shoot it in a different way and that’s what we should have done all along. You have to have this blind charge-ahead faith that it will be revealed.
Rumpus: There’s a school of thought that the more constraints you have, the more creative you have to be, and the more resources you have, the more limited you are.
Lindstrom: Just the night before last I was at Coffee Creek Prison, the women’s prison here outside of Portland. There is this great program where they do genograms. It’s kind of like a personalized symbolism/map of their lives, and they identify all these themes, have a key they draw, and then they present it to the class. What’s so compelling about it is that you see the patterns of mental illness: incarceration, addiction, abuse, gang activity, trauma, medical problems, and all these things. I was talking to the women afterwards and I said, “Of course you’re here in prison. It’s like a freight train leading you to this place.” And what’s so heroic about these women is that they’re in this program because they are moms, they have kids, they’re trying to stop this cycle. Why I mention it is because I want to make a short, probably participatory, documentary with these women about this program. You can just imagine the restrictions of shooting in a prison, but I just decided I’m going to embrace those restrictions sometimes when you don’t have many choices you can make the best choices.
Rumpus: That’s very well-put. Are there examples of docs either short or long that have been made with very low budgets or resources?
Lindstrom: Oh yeah. Well I hate to bring up my own work, but Finding Normal was like that—just me and a camera and I edited it. And that’s what allowed me to be so intimate in the filming, was that it was just me.
Rumpus: I’m interested in small crew productions, particularly one or two.
Lindstrom: It seems like that’s the way most people are working now and there’s really no reason not to. The visual quality of the cameras now is such that you can shoot with available light, and if people are willing to mount a microphone on the camera and maybe even on the subject, then you’re good to go.
Rumpus: I think it’s really exciting that the language of film is changing. The way in which films are made and which we see them will be different.
Lindstrom: I wonder if there’s any corollary, like between when Microsoft Word came out and if that had a similar impact on publishing that digital photography has had on film.
Rumpus: Well you hear complaints a lot in publishing, that the quality of books has a way wider range for better or worse. If I want to publish a novel, I can do so right now, online, whereas fifty years ago, my novel would require an outside source to publish it. Personally I think it’s great, because people are more in touch with being creative, but on the flip side is that when I tell people I’m a writer, they aren’t impressed. Everyone’s a writer now.
Lindstrom: It’s this wonderful tension between democracy and the idea of professionals. It becomes harder and harder for it to make any financial sense.
Rumpus: That’s for sure. But it’s also important for people who think of themselves as professional artists to perhaps not cling to that idea of expertise. Zen mind, beginner’s mind. As a writer who went to school for writing, I have learned some craft elements, but it turns out my mom’s as talented a writer as I am without any schooling. The idea that she could write online via a blog liberated her creativity and I think the Internet created that.
Is there anything you want to add before we end the interview?
Lindstrom: Yes, I think I want to talk about Cheryl, if that’s okay.
Rumpus: Of course, that’s just something I would normally never ask about because it’s personal.
Lindstrom: I just want to say how lucky I feel to be married to Cheryl and also to be able to share our work. She’s always the first person I show anything to and she gives me such great feedback and it’s such a gift.
Rumpus: How long have you been together?
Lindstrom: Almost eighteen years, can you believe that?
Rumpus: It’s interesting, because she’s written about you anonymously, but now that she’s out, people can connect those dots to you. Was there a period of time where sharing a creative life became challenging in any way? Or were you always willing to sacrifice in order to help her do what she needed to do? It seems like quite a personal sacrifice.
Lindstrom: Do you mean the loss of anonymity?
Rumpus: Yes, having your personal life be public and allowing her to do things with her work that asked things of you.
Lindstrom: Well when Cheryl started the Dear Sugar column, she had a burning desire to do it. And I was all for it. It seemed like a new thing she was doing and she was definitely connected to it and then the responses were overwhelming. Then our lives became this weekly rhythm. She would spend three or four days reading all the letters trying to decide which ones to answer, then would hole up for literally thirty-six straight hours answering that, then it would go public and she’d be exhausted and then the responses would come in, which would be overwhelming in its own way. But I always felt like I wanted her to write whatever she wanted to write; if it was about us and me, I felt completely fine with that. I think it would be really hypocritical of me to make the films I make, where I delve into people’s lives, to say that my life can’t be looked at or that I have to be this pristine, isolated figure. That didn’t feel right.
Rumpus: Obviously the life of an artist is extremely challenging in many ways. You’ve been together eighteen years—what has it been like to be two creative artists, as individuals and a couple? Because not every couple shares their work so intimately.
Lindstrom: Well it’s just been so inspiring and gratifying to see Cheryl’s work, and just the way it touches people has been overwhelming. Also, to see how she’s able to—I don’t know what other phrase to use—be present, as people share with her what her work means to them. I go to some events with her and no matter how many people line up to see her, there’s no diminishment of interest or energy. It’s just very touching to see that. I think what it’s meant to both of us, is just trusting your path. Everything in our society is against what we’ve been able to pull off and for that we’re incredibly grateful. I’ll never forget, shortly after our daughter Bobbi was born, we were in financial purgatory. I was offered this advertising video job, and I had no enthusiasm for it, and Cheryl just looked me in the eye and said, “Do not take that job. You’ll be miserable. Do not do it.” I trusted her, didn’t take it, and I’m so glad.
Rumpus: I think that’s something interesting about art—especially with Cheryl’s work, people feel so close to the material and thus her. I’ll never forget, I was waiting in line for a bathroom stall at AWP and I could hear women in the stalls talking to each other about catching a glimpse of Cheryl. It was like they were talking about Madonna or Michael Jackson. Meanwhile, I Facebook chatted with her and she was hiding in her hotel room. To have to connect with that many people in a genuine way must be extraordinarily taxing. When people have new fame, they often retreat, so I’m amazed at how present Cheryl can be and authentically engaged.
Lindstrom: Yeah, she never dials it in. I think being present is a spiritual practice, though I don’t know if Cheryl would articulate it that way.
Rumpus: Yes, and it requires that maybe some things will be uncomfortable, that something might be asked of you, that you might have to be vulnerable. When you’re present anything could happen.
Lindstrom: Yes, and it’s worth it.