Lance Bangs on Not Making the Same, Boring Thing

Lance Bangs, an accomplished artist, filmmaker, documentarian, producer, and music video director, mines intimate space. He collects ephemeral, essentially impossible to capture moments and turns them into artifacts. There’s surprise there. Humor. Sadness. Weirdness, too. His eclectic body of work includes television, comedy performances, music videos for artists such as Pavement, Bjork, the Shins, Kanye West, and Arcade Fire, as well as multiple collaborations with Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze.

We spoke with Lance by telephone to learn a bit about how he makes things.

What are you working on right now?
I’m currently in a sound mix. I directed a television series called Meltdown that’s airing on Comedy Central this fall. We’re in Los Angeles finishing a 5.1 surround mix for that right now. And then I’ve executive produced a series called Loiter Squad [recently began its third season] on Adult Swim and we’ve just finished up everything on that too.

How is the weather in LA?
It’s wonderful. Beautiful!

How did you develop your eye?
Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 12.27.24 PMI started making films as a kid and then, through my teenage years, shooting on Super 8. The aspect ratio for that is more of a square. It’s more of a 4:3 type shape and sorta kinda learning how to balance or weigh things out in the composition the way that looked right to me or felt like what made sense or was the right sensibility to me. With Super 8, when you have that kind of a small, defined space with that square, you can learn how to crop other things out or avoid things that are wrong or unappealing or not what you want to be looking at or seeing. It’s a camera format that’s great for sort of close-up detailed work — you wouldn’t shoot some kind of wide, football game shot with it because you don’t have the resolution and it all falls apart detail-wise — but if you’re in a more intimate space, with something that’s like three to five feet away from you that you can focus your attention on and crop other things out, that’s where it’s strongest at.

So I learned to compose or view things in the world by getting specific about just the areas that I wanted to show or shoot and how to frame that in a square. And then deleting or erasing everything outside of what my attention was on. And then traveling around and shooting stuff through that frame and then building stories that way.

I worked alone. I wasn’t working with any people. There wasn’t no one else holding a microphone or bouncing light toward something or pitching in with ideas, so everything is fairly handheld and generally shot when other people are asleep or not paying attention or wandering around late at night. And that lone person-wandering sensibility is characteristic of most of the work I’ve done since then. Even when I’m working on a larger scale now, I tend to feel most comfortable when it’s just me with a camera in my hand and not a whole support team or crew around. Finding ways to shoot in that sensibility has been the work that I’m most of fond of or I feel that represents me the best.

For larger scale pieces where you’re directing a large concert shoot or a commercial or comedy special, crafting my choices of who I choose as camera operators and then training in what my aesthetic is and then having them try and shoot in a way that makes that alive is what I’ve been trying to do.

How did you get your Super 8 camera? Was it something you knew you wanted the moment you heard about it or was a gift you got from your cousin?
I think I picked it up through my family. I think we had an old one we weren’t using anymore. I was just curious about it and picked it up as a tool to travel around with. And from that point onwards — this was the era when they were easy to find in thrift stores or being cast aside as or de-emphasized in favor of video cameras that had sound and picture and could shoot longer takes — the forced decision making of only having a 2.5 – 3 minute long roll of film at a time, and oftentimes with no sound on it, those limitations forced me to make choices or decisions or to refine my aesthetic for filmmaking.

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Did you ever do any formal training? Did you feel like you needed to be in a program or go take a class?
No. I found the people that were drawn to that, I didn’t really relate to what they were trying to make. You’d meet other people who were in their late teens and early twenties who wanted to be a part of a film school or a troupe or a sketch comedy gang or whatever and that sort of feeling — I didn’t relate to other people at that point in my life very much. I felt kind of separated or isolated from other people and the idea of needing to rely on some goofball who has a kind of “Look at me!” attention-seeking aspect of their personality wasn’t what I wanted to do to make things. It didn’t feel like what was in my head.

And the people who had the resources or the financial backing to go to film school, it seemed like I didn’t relate to that. It wasn’t my experience. And I saw that the work they were making wasn’t stuff that really spoke to me or felt like what was in my head.

I wasn’t coming in to it like “I want to make films” — I just wanna make art and document the world that I’m flipping through. I wasn’t trying to make a Reservoir Dogs-type wacky film with some other 19 year olds. I was wanting to see what was going on in the skate park.

Do you feel like not having to rely on others gave you more room to experiment or develop?
Yeah, but there’s certain some limitations to it. I learned quicker by doing things entirely on my own, but on the few occasions where someone would try to hire me to make something that would function like a more traditional thing, like a music video, I didn’t have the sort of training about point lighting, and how to soften the lighting on someone’s eyes to hide wrinkles that you would’ve gotten at film school or by working on mayonnaise commercials or whatever. You know what I mean? These other people who would have gone through a traditional production background or film school would have learned [that]. So I’m sure there were things that were a drawback or whatever when other people viewed my work.

How do you practice? I know you do a lot of different things, so I’m not sure if your practices are different when you are doing commercial work vs. doing other, say, documentary-style work. Do you have particular work routine?
No. Shortly after that initial phase of making things entirely my own or on small gauge film, once I did start getting opportunities to work on larger formats or on a more ambitious scale, I liked the challenge of forcing myself to learn new processes. Shooting widescreen or shooting HD when that was first being invented or picking up small cameras and shooting skate footage when we were shooting all of the Jackass stuff, those sort of challenges that push you out of your past experience are what keep it interesting or fun to keep taking new projects. I wouldn’t want to be just doing music videos still in 2015 in the same way that we did in 1994 or whatever. I enjoy when I’m choosing what I’m going to work on next or what project to do, I like to find things that are outside of my past experience and that do represent an entirely new process.

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 12.26.38 PMHow do you deal with distraction or fear? Are there things you find yourself doing — writing email or watching movies — when you should be working? Do you have some kind of technique that you use to push out the outside world?
I guess my primary focus in life is making things. I don’t find myself watching TV. I generally always have a couple of projects and I’m thinking about those or giving notes on the next shoot or getting ready to go shoot something. It just feels like something I’m compelled do and I don’t really end up with gaps of time where I’ve had writer’s block or where I’ve hung out for three weeks not making anything.

Do you ever get the feeling that people won’t receive your work in the right way or it won’t get the kind of praise you think it deserves or people will think it’s derivative?
Honestly, no. I guess I just make stuff that interests me. I don’t worry too much about the reaction from the outside world. I’m perfectly content or even prefer sometimes to work on things privately for a long period of time that no one sees or catches onto for a long time. Like the Slint film that just came out [Breadcrumb Trail, a feature-length film about the influential Louisville, Kentucky band Slint that Lance had been working on, essentially in private, for the last 20 years], there’s stuff I’ve been shooting from 1991 onwards without anyone seeing or knowing it was happening. I was just building this archive and…it just kind of built up to that external, completed film. It didn’t bother me three years ago when I’d been working on it for twenty years and no one had seen it. It didn’t stress me out or make me feel like I wasted time. And having been able to screen it and show it — it’s the film that I wanted to make and it goes off on tangents of Super 8 film footage I shot because that’s what I wanted to do regardless of whether anyone else found that indulgent or boring or pretentious or whatever. I don’t worry about those things. I just make what’s interesting to me.

What’s in it for you?
I like the excitement of collaborating with other people whose minds I’m drawn to. Whether or not there was ever going to be a reissue of Spiderland, I was fascinated by Britt Walford, Brian McMahan, and David Pajo, the choices they’ve made in their own personal lives and in the music they’ve made, and the aesthetics of the visuals they’ve put into the music when they released it, and the stories you would hear about the crazy things that they did over the course of their lives. They were just really funny and fascinating to me.

So chipping away at that, whether or not it was going to be seen or screened or released — because it felt like at certain points they might not want to share these stories publicly or let the world see or know that stuff — I just want to go be there when they are working on stuff and go film things and sort of engage my aesthetic with what they are up to. And then run to New York to go film a skateboarding collective that’s built a some weird, crazy ramp and see what they’re up to that afternoon and then going to visit some motorcycle clubs in Ohio and sort of engaging in the world and going to things that catch my interest or attention and spending time with them.

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 1.04.40 AMIf people wanted to be like you or learn from you, what kinds of skills should they develop or adventures they should undertake or practices they should be involved in?
It’s weird. I learned a lot of that from Spike Jonze, who has a really sharp critical mind for rejecting the past patterns of how things are expected to be done and instead boiling things down to the thought of “well, what are we trying to convey here? What’s the most important thing?” So if someone asks to do a normal interview on something that’s like an Entertainment Tonight-type show, well, why does that need to happen? What’s the purpose of that? Who is that helping? Or why does the ten millionth sit down interview in front of a lit backdrop that’s neutral help anybody? Well, if it’s supposed to call attention to this or to articulate the thing that people didn’t pick up on or to get this idea across, then okay, how can we do that without making it the same, boring thing that you’ve seen a million times?

To work from that standpoint of not just accepting the way that things are normally done or the expectation that “everyone has to do a sit-down interview” or whatever, and be like let’s convey that information that we’re supposed to get across in a short film, where we get some markers and start doing stop-motion animation on this tabletop here or let’s go ask random people on the street what they would say and then cut that together in a funny way or let’s go find someone who knows nothing about it and figure out how we get this information across to them and what we learn by talking to them and when they finally get it, that’s the approach we should take to this thing. And, you know, just going out and finding other ways of doing things and making it interesting to yourself and to the viewer who has already seen 50 million worse, boring versions of that in the past. So don’t just make a music video where it’s flattering lighting on a narcissistic singer lip-syncing lyrics again in front of a white type wall: there’s no reason to still be making those kind of films at this point. Find out something that conveys the music or is a short film or breaks off midway through the song to become something else or is done with toy camera you found in a pawn shop or some other fun version of making it interesting where it could fall apart, or fail, or not work and then that will make it a better process for everybody.

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Eric Meltzer is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.