If you are a regular Paper Tape reader, you may know David Licata as the author of a “Other Leevilles,” short story we published in January, but David is not just an accomplished fiction writer. He’s a filmmaker, as well. His films have shown on PBS stations across the country and screened at dozens of festivals all over the world including New Directors/New Films (curated by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA) and the Tribeca Film Festival.
In this interview with Paper Tape editor Kristy Harding, we talk about David’s documentary in-progress, A Life’s Work.
PT: How would you describe A Life’s Work?
DL: A Life’s Work is a documentary about people engaged with projects they most likely won’t see completed in their lifetimes, projects that could have a profound, positive global impact. That’s the elevator pitch. I’ve been rethinking the word “documentary” because it suggests certain things that A Life’s Work is not. It’s more of a film essay about legacy, time, mortality, continuity, passion, and dedication. But I’m not exactly gung ho on the term “film essay,” either, partly because when you say it people either roll their eyes and think you’re pretentious and your film will be an unwatchable mess, or they don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.
PT: What is its origin story?
DL: It’s a funny thing, I can usually pinpoint the origins of my short stories and my films. For example, I can trace the origin of the story Paper Tape published (thank you), Other Leevilles—I was at an artist residency (thank you, Playa Summer Lake), working on this story collection. One day I was in the common room and started flipping through an atlas of the U.S. Then I started looking through the index and I wondered if there were towns in other states with same name as the town I grew up in. I then remembered this was something I did a few times when I was eight or nine. Boom! The story was born. But with A Life’s Work it’s not that simple. Its origin is a collision of two events separated by more than thirty years. When I was eight or nine years old, the nuns in my school told us that some Gothic cathedrals took hundreds of years to complete, that generations of stone masons worked on them. This kind of blew my little mind. Not that I was a deep kid or apprehended time or lifespan, but the idea that these people would work their whole lives on something and not finish it just seemed crazy to me. As an adult whenever I visited a cathedral I experienced that same sense of awe as I did when I was a kid. In 2004 I was eager to make another film and I had a few ideas. Then my mother died after a long bout with cancer. I spent a year grieving, asking the big questions, thinking a lot about mortality and legacy. Sometime during that year, in that state, I remembered the cathedrals and I thought it might be interesting to talk to people who were doing these long-term projects, to hear what they had to say about these things, to see if they had answers. That was it. I can’t say anything I witnessed or did brought the idea to the fore. It just kind of percolated. I shared the idea with a few good film friends and they were very encouraging. So I proceeded.
PT: The documentary focuses on four projects that probably will (or already have) taken longer than the lifetime of their creators. How did you choose the subjects of the documentary?
DL: The main criteria was I had to be interested in what the subjects were doing, because I knew the film was going to take a while, so I had to remain engaged. I’ve been interested in astronomy since I was a kid, and I guess I first heard about the SETI Institute in the late 70s. I always thought it was a remarkable endeavor. In many ways they were the first people I had in mind, but they were kind of latent and they weren’t the first people I contacted. Once I decided to focus on the project, there were a few people at SETI I could have profiled, but I decided on Jill Tarter, who was then the director of SETI Research. She has a great backstory and I thought that would lend a lot to film.
Once I started telling people I was thinking about making this documentary they would chime in with, “Do you know about…” This was how I found out about Paolo Soleri and Arcosanti, a town being constructed in Arizona based on Soleri’s theories of urban design. A friend had just come back from visiting Arcosanti and told me all about it. Soleri was the first person on board, and I will always be grateful for that. His willingness to participate gave me confidence in the project. A good friend told me about Robert Darden after hearing him interviewed on NPR. Darden founded the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, which aims to locate, catalog, digitize, and archive every Black gospel recording made from around 1935 to 1980. I listened to the archived show and hoped he’d be interested in sharing his story with me. I love old school gospel music and I thought Robert might bring a religious element to the story that the others didn’t. He did, but mostly via the music. And I loved his accent.
I found out about the Milarchs, father and son tree farmers who clone old-growth trees for long-term reforestation projects, when I picked up a copy of Audubon Magazine at my gym. They were mentioned in a little box somewhere on a cluttered page and their work, and the fact that the family has tree framing in its blood going back five generations, captivated me.
PT: What has surprised you while working on A Life’s Work?
These people are very passionate about their work. In one interview Soleri told me his salary was double minimum wage, and that when he gets a bonus, from an outside commission say, he puts that money back into Arcosanti. “Because my interest is carrying on the project,” he said. “You have to invest not only your thinking, but everything.” That wasn’t the surprise, the surprise was that he was also very level-headed about his work. I also asked Soleri if he would share a high point and he said “By character I’m not given to great expression or great elation. But I enjoy quite a bit of what I do.” They all say this in their own ways. These people are going about their work the way most of us do. They’re not jumping up and down with joy because something good happened that day or despairing because something didn’t go their way that day. They take it as it comes. When I interviewed Jill Tarter, I asked her how the SETI Institute measures success? Most of us measure success by the end result: in SETI’s case, one might say that means whether a signal is detected or not. But she said something that I reference all the time now. Here’s the full quote:
I think if my colleagues and I got out of bed every morning and said, “Today, we’re going to get a signal.” We’d probably go to bed every night disappointed. So we get out of bed in the morning with the idea that we’re going to use what we learned yesterday to make this search better. Have a higher probability of succeeding. And so for us, there is a continual measure of success and that is, how much better we are searching than we have in the past. And so you have to enjoy the journey if you’re going to work on this project.
I guess I was expecting them to be possessed in a way, to have a kind of madness about them. But they’re not like that. They know slow and steady gets you through the work. This is something I could always relate to, since the things I do tend to take a long time. And I find her quote especially reasssuring with A Life’s Work, since it’s taking me a lot longer to finish than I expected. And yes, I will finish it in my lifetime.
PT: Where in the process are you with the film right now? What challenges are you facing?
DL: I keep saying production is over, but honestly, production of a documentary is never over, you just decide to stop. I do need to go back to each subject and do some follow-ups because since the last time I shot them, as recently as last year, big things have happened, the biggest being Soleri’s death. How to incorporate that into the film is the biggest artistic challenge at the moment.
Money is always a big challenge, it’s the thing I dislike the most about filmmaking. I’m looking for funding so I can hire an editor and a composer, and pay for all of the stuff of postproduction. Though resources are scarce, there are still people and organizations out there with money that have interests in these projects. Unfortunately, I’m not adept at approaching them. Oh sure, I can write grants, but I can’t get Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and huge supporter of the SETI Institute (he gave them $25 million for their Allen Telescope Array) on the phone and ask him for finishing funds. That’s not a skill I possess. I’m looking for someone who is good at asking for money, and that’s a challenge as well.
I’m editing now, but I’m trying to convince myself that what I’m doing is just moving the film forward until the money comes in to hire an editor with fresh eyes. But who knows, my edited version might wind up being the final version. That’s what happened with Searching for Sugar Man. The story of how that film was completed has been kind of an inspiration to just keep editing, just keep on keeping on.
PT: How can Paper Tape’s readers (now and in the future) help this film succeed?
DL: If they’ve come this far, they’re already helping, because now they know about something they didn’t know about before, and that’s huge. They can share this interview on their social networks. They can visit the blog and subscribe (I’ll never spam you). There’s a trailer and many clips of the work in progress there. They can become a part of the A Life’s Work community by liking the film’s Facebook page, where we (me and a few others) post nifty stuff about the film as well as things about astronomy and space exploration, American roots music, trees and the environment, and architecture and urban planning. It’s a pretty active space. And of course, they could make a tax-deductible donation to the film—all amounts welcome, $5 to $50,000. It’s a sponsored project of the New York Foundation for the Arts, an esteemed arts nonprofit, and they oversee the spending of donated funds, so you can be sure whatever is given is not going to be spent reupholstering my private jet, it’s going to be spent wisely on this film. They can send positive thoughts my way (New York, NY), that’s appreciated too. That’s the now.
The future–when it is finished, they can seek it out and watch it. Spread the word about it. In my fantasy world, this film inspires audiences to think more long-term, to consider what their life’s work is. If the film makes a person ask, “does my work contribute to something larger than myself?” then it has succeeded in a big way.