Brent Chesanek is a filmmaker and designer from Orlando. His short film Brethren Arise won multiple awards and his design work has featured on HBO, Sundance, and SXSW. Recently his new film, a hybrid documentary City World premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival. DocGeeks talks to Chesanek about the making of what has become an untraditional but visually stunning doc.
Shot in and around Orlando, in both swamps and suburban landscapes, everything in Chesanek’s film examplifies the difficult relation between mankind and nature. The images we see, all stunning landscapes showing no people at all, give us a sense of both fulfilment due to its beauty as well as an emptiness, a loneliness, due to its uncommon yet pure nature.
Amazing images pass us by while we listen to the story of a young boy (narrated by Sean Kaufman), who presents the history and legends of the founding of Orlando as if it occured to him. Looking forward by looking backwards he imagines an apocalyptic future full of devastating natural disasters: “Maybe the Earth was taking the land back, people first.”
Could his descriptions of these historically aggressive acts and of forces beyond the control of humankind be somehow related to growing up with a single father in a broken home?
DG: What inspired you to make City World?
BC: I’ve lived in New York for almost nine years, but I grew up in Orlando and still spend a lot of time there. Only when I moved away did I have the distance to contemplate the place I had spent my entire childhood. Recently I had been exploring the Central Florida landscape as a kind of a passenger. Just observing its various locations became increasingly interesting to me, especially as I started reading up on what little written history there is about Central Florida.
I really wanted to work with the locations of both swamps and suburbs, and with some of the themes I had in mind about the area. I wasn’t really interested in either a straight narrative or straight documentary approach, so I began something based more on a fantastical version of the city’s history and reputation.
And indeed, the documentary, for which you wrote the script, has become more of a hybrid; half doc, half feature film. Are some of the difficult things in the young boy’s life we hear about in any shape or form autobiographic?
Nothing in the film is autobiographic. The familial things the boy experiences are the only part of the film that is invented. The fantastical adventures he describes for himself are based on historical facts, myths, legends, and on the architecture and rides that tourists find in the theme parks. So while his actual journey is invented in a sense, everything he claims to encounter is based on reality.
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I would like the audience to approach the film with an open mind and let its style, atmosphere and pace absorb them. It’s a very untraditional film, and while I don’t think it’s unfriendly or abrasive to audiences at all, it does require a different form of attention, but one I think will be wholly rewarding to those who give themselves over to it.
One thing I’ve always been interested in is the distinct language of filmmaking, and I say this with full realization of how pretentious I might sound. But I do take it seriously. What can we use as filmmakers that no other artist, craftsman, poet or storyteller can use in any other medium? My films have normally wound up being categorized as experimental, and while I don’t mind that, I don’t think that gives a more general audience much of a platform for approaching the film.
What other challenges were you faced with when making this film?
I think just getting a grasp of the Orlando I wanted to present into a concise filmic form. I am drawn to realism, or perhaps I should say I try to shy away from sensationalism. However, that’s Orlando’s main attraction: to deliver an adventure full of the craziest stuff you can imagine, but to do so safe and happily. Just like a lot of fiction film. And while I try to shy away from it, there always seems to be something fantastical creeping into my work.
You’re a designer, did this influence your decision to exclude all human life from the film and purely show nature and objects as the came in their original form?
Somewhat, but the scope of that decision was really made for me. The emptiness of the spaces is largely what helped me find the form of the film, as I was shooting long before I knew exactly what the film would be. I started out shooting less wide open areas, medium shots, thinking it wouldn’t be possible to get human-less vistas, but soon it was clear that not only were these scenes possible, they were what I needed to strive for.
Mankind’s influence is all over the suburban scenes, but his physical presence is not always there. We didn’t get permits or shut down traffic or do anything to interrupt the locations as they were. We really did shoot pure documentary. We’d just be rolling and rolling, counting the minutes, waiting for someone to interrupt the frame, and it often didn’t happen. Which is what I wanted. So maybe the answer to your question is “yes?”
This is your debut feature, what can we look out for from you in the future?
I’m just now tossing some ideas around in my head, so I don’t have a definitive answer to that. Maybe some shorter form stuff first, maybe not, maybe narrative, maybe doc. I’d like to attend some labs, as I’ve never really been to a film school or collaborative workshop, and I feel like I have so much to learn still. I’ve focused on this film for a few years now, and I’m not always a very fast worker on my own projects. I really do enjoy design, so that might keep me busy for a bit. I don’t like to rush. I used to, but not anymore.