Filmmaker Interview: Greg Kwedar

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February 7, 2010 by abbyo

Greg Kwedar is part of the production company One Spark Films. In 2009, Kwedar’s short film “Guest Room” won the Filmmaker’s Choice award in the Doorpost Film Project, a short film competition that helps to support and give exposure to emerging visionary filmmakers. “Guest Room” is currently being submitted to film festivals, including SXSW and Cannes. The film tells the story of a grown man on a road trip, and his relationship with a young man he meets along the way. You can find more information on “Guest Room” and see the trailer at the film’s web site, guestroomfilm.com.


Abby: What is your vision as a filmmaker? What kinds of stories are you drawn to telling and why?

Greg Kwedar: As a filmmaker, I guess I have a simple philosophy that the human experience is diverse but connected. I have a passion for telling stories that show those connections, that two strangers can be connected. That a woman in a Guatemala City garbage dump, a mother of five raising all of her kids by herself in one of the most devastating communities I’ve ever been in, shares so many characteristics with my own mother. I think there are so many people who live their whole life and never have a voice, never have a chance to tell their story. Through either narrative or documentary film, I desire to give them a voice.

A:What do you think the film medium has to offer the Christian community? In what ways can it be used (or in what ways is it being used now)?

GK: For me, my path in my faith was a long and adventurous ride. I’m not the type of filmmaker that would make a blatantly Christian film. I believe there’s a need for that, but I don’t think that was the path that I was set on. I also believe that there’s an overwhelming need to start conversations that will lead to Christianity or lead to faith and that discovery. Creating films of value that ask hard questions will hopefully set people on that journey.

(from left) Director Greg Kwedar and Director of Photography Jake Hamilton on the set of "Guest Room."

A: What is the Doorpost Film Project, and how did you come to be involved in it?

GK: The brother of one of our team members told us about it. We were on our way to Guatemala to do a documentary, and we just kind of put it in the back of our minds and thought “Well, maybe if we have time maybe we’ll do something.”

We had one weekend while we were there to take some R and R, because it was a pretty intense week, and we went to a place called Lake Atitlan. It’s a big lake that is 40 miles wide and 3,000 feet deep. It’s surrounded by volcanoes. If you were to imagine what heaven was like, this would be one of those places. I was racking my brains trying to find something that we could shoot, and trying to interpret all the things we were experiencing while we were in Guatemala in some way that we could use to tell a story. We wanted to use these epic locations in Guatemala City, and everything else that was around. One of the people we were with told us the story of this boy from Guatemala City on his first field trip out to the lake. When he saw the lake, he could not stop crying. They asked him “What’s wrong with you, why are you crying?” and he said, “I just never believed that a place like this could exist in my own country.”

That story really struck me, and I just went back to my room and furiously wrote a story about two brothers that find a feather. Their grandfather tells them to find the most beautiful thing in Guatemala, and the only thing they could find was a feather from the garbage dump, an old, beaten up, nasty feather. So we shot the story, and that got us into the finals.  It was a little four-minute film that we shot in four and a half hours around Guatemala City. They (the Doorpost project) then gave us another $30,000 to make another film on the topic of hope. That’s when we shot “Guest Room.”

A: What inspired you as a writer to come up with this specific story?

GK: The story of people on the road who go their separate ways is largely a part of my own life. I took a road trip with a bunch of my friends when we graduated college. We bought an old bus and we drove it as far south as we could. We got to Mexico. During the trip, my best friend and I, our relationship just disintegrated. There were a lot of issues that just weren’t discussed, things that we’d let divide us from the inside out. It became like cancer, and it eventually had to do with something as simple as directions. We had this huge blowout, and he ended up going back north, and I kept on going south to Guatemala.

That moment really was the seed for “Guest Room,” where something as simple as tossing bread into a cart can cause a friendship to fracture, but it was all because of what was beneath it. There’s the one man who’s left his family, and he ends up having to become like a father, which is what he ran from in the first place.

A: The film starts out with very little exposition regarding these characters. Did you start out with an idea of where these characters came from?

GK: You kind of create worlds for yourself as a writer. In the film, I wanted everything to start with the Grown Man. In real life, I’d want him to ask so many questions about the Young Man, like “Where did you come from?” “What about those scars on your back, how did that happen?” all of these questions that would answer so much about the Young Man’s character. But he’s the one reacting in the film, not me. His character is so internal, so contained. He has so much fear in even just opening up that he won’t even ask those questions.

I also like the mystery of that, because the Young Man is sort of like an angel. He just shows up in the Grown Man’s life. I see the Young Man as more of a device to unpack all the things that are inside of the Grown Man. There were times I’d get so frustrated, and I’d bang my head against the desk, and think “I want to know, but I’m so frustrated at the Grown Man, because he won’t ask you!” I don’t think it would have come off right if the Grown Man had gone there, if he’d peered into the depths of the Young Man. And really we only learn about the Grown Man through his journals, and the Young Man looking into them.

A: Why did you choose to shoot the film in Amarillo, Texas and the Rocky Mountains?

GK: I went skiing at our DP’s cabin in Colorado, and made that same drive (from Amarillo to the mountains) about a year and a half ago. There’s one point where you’re in this wheat field that goes on for miles, and then ten hours later you’re in the Rocky Mountains, and it’s this complete epic change of how you respond to nature in these settings. That can shape us as people, and in the film it shapes these characters

A: How much of you is in these characters? Is there one you identify with more than the other?

GK: If I were to paint a self-portrait, I’d want it to be like the Young Man, but I feel like if someone were to take a photo of me at that time in my life, I’d be more like the Grown Man. I was working through a lot of things that I’d kept inside for a long time. Finally, during the process of making the film I finally got the courage to kind of share with a couple of people who needed to hear what I had to say, and I was able to heal through that process.

A: What kind of message do you hope to send viewers of the film?

GK: In the film, the Young Man’s scars are obvious, because they’re on the outside. But I feel like the people with the scars that need to be healed the most are the ones we never even notice, because they keep them on the inside. Really, I just wanted to show the power of knowing that we need people in our lives to uncover truths, and there’s this need for community that is so urgent in everyday life around the world. Having the right people around you to speak that truth might be the only way you’ll see it. Sometimes we’re not strong enough to carry the burdens that we carry inside.

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