While making ALMOST THERE was a life-altering experience for co-director Dan Rybicky, our team’s first encounter with the Chicago based filmmaker could very well be described with the same term. Seldom have I seen a similar expression of joy and gratitude as when first meeting and shaking hands with Dan at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest. Hence, I am happy that we have the opportunity to feature ALMOST THERE, a documentary brought to us by a brilliant, congenial team of filmmakers who try to brighten the future of an amazing artist buried in the past. ALMOST THERE might be Dan’s first full-length feature but he is no stranger to the film industry. With an MFA from New York’s Tisch School of Arts under his belt, he got involved in various production capacities for filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, John Sayles and John Leguizamo. In his current position as Associate Professor in Cinema Art + Science at Columbia College Chicago he is at least as cherished by his students as he was by me throughout the interview, so let’s have a closer look at the first of the two creative minds behind our December doc.
What is it that draws you to documentary film?
I love how passionate, purposeful and humane documentary films and filmmakers are, and I’m challenged in a wonderful way by the inherent tensions and complexities contained within John Grierson’s early definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality.” Best of all, I’m grateful for the discoveries I’ve made and lessons I’ve learned during the process of shining a literal and metaphorical light on the always fascinating, unpredictable, and inspiring lives of the real people I’ve met – and those I look forward to meeting soon.
What is your history? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career as a documentary filmmaker and in other pursuits?
For better or worse, I’m a person who has always picked the scab and scratched the itch, even when I was told not to. As a kid, my family called me “the shit disturber” because I spoke out about the lies and injustices I saw to those close to me who preferred, and even demanded, silence. I’m sure I was really annoying (and probably still am), but this early quest for truth (which has evolved into more of a meditation on what truth is and isn’t) – combined with my endless curiosity about people and why and how their stories are told – first led me to pursuing a career as a playwright and screenwriter. And while I do still enjoy putting my words into other people’s mouths, I’ve become increasingly more interested in listening to non-actors speak their own words and seeing how the narrative structures and character arcs I’ve employed in my fiction apply – or don’t – to the complicated lives and surprising stories of real people. Ultimately, it is my deep love for these real (and really great) characters – especially those who are at a turning point in their lives and deeply desire something – that has made me become a documentary filmmaker.
So, you came across Peter Anton at a Pierogi Festival – probably one of the most fun stories a filmmaker can tell about how they found inspiration for a new project. What sparked your interest? At what point did you decide to start working on Almost There?
It’s true that my friend and co-director Aaron Wickenden and I first met Peter Anton during the summer of 2006 at Pierogi Fest in Northwest Indiana, having initially gone there because the festival was trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records by unveiling “The World’s Largest Pierogi.” We brought our cameras with us because we thought that buttery mountain of dough would be a sight to behold. Little did we know we would encounter someone who would change the course of our lives for the next decade.
Peter was sitting at a rickety table off of the main festival path dressed like a disheveled dandy persuading passersby to let him draw their portraits. We were charmed by his corny jokes and mesmerized by how much the kids he was drawing loved him. And then from under his table, Peter pulled out one of his twelve gigantic and totally handmade scrapbooks. It vibrated with color, glitter and text, and we were immediately drawn in.
We wrote letters back and forth for two years before finally visiting Peter at his house in 2008 so he could show us more of his art. When we got there, we were deeply saddened yet intrigued to learn that Peter was a hoarder living in extreme squalor, surrounded by artistic gems buried in rubble and mold. We were excited to discover this body of artwork but majorly concerned for Peter’s well being. What shocked us the most was how determined Peter was to stay living in such life-threatening conditions. After offering Peter information about social service organizations that could help him secure better housing, we were finally forced to accept Peter’s wishes. But because we remained interested in this tension between the past and present that exists in Peter’s art and life, we began documenting him, his house, and his art before everything was damaged beyond recognition.
Almost There is a very personal film, focusing not only on Peter but also on you as you become a subject of the documentary and share your personal history. When did you realize that you would become a part of the story, and what was that experience like for you?
Aaron and I did not begin this film wanting or expecting to become supporting characters in it, but while reviewing our footage, we realized some of the most dramatic exchanges that brought the deepest conflicts of Peter’s life and story immediately to the surface were between him and us. This is not so surprising in retrospect, considering Peter lived in almost total isolation and we were two of the only people he would see or talk to for weeks at a time.
But only during our fourth year of our collaboration was I able to more deeply explore my own motivation for telling Peter’s story when, soon after the art exhibition in Chicago we had helped Peter set up, a journalist discovered a disturbing secret from Peter’s past – something he had kept from us. My friends saw how upset Aaron and I were about it and started to ask me why I was still documenting this man’s life now that he’d lied to us. Why did I feel the need to continue helping Peter so much even though he actively refused to help himself?
During a visit to my hometown, I began to look more closely at the parallels between Peter’s story and the story of my family and quickly realized how much my desire to help Peter in the present was related to my not being able to help my own mentally ill brother in the past – a brother who, like Peter years ago, was an artist still living in the house he grew up in with his (and my) mother.
I’ve always been wary of the ‘God-eye’ in documentary anyway and often wish more directors revealed on screen the ethically complicated and hard-to-define relationships that have developed between them and their subjects over the course of filming. Although this is usually the stuff they edit out, these “behind-the-scenes” negotiations and power dynamics contain stories I find as interesting, if not more interesting, than the ones the directors have chosen to tell. Based on this, and based on my determination to hold myself up to the same scrutiny I give to a subject, Aaron and I decided that developing my character and showing my motivations would add an additional layer of depth and context to our story and pull the veil back even further on the process of documentary making itself.
Comparing his situation to van Gogh’s Peter says: “Only the art matters, not the mess.” Having been a regular at Peter’s, what is your opinion?
As Victor E. Frankel wrote in one of my favorite books Man’s Search for Meaning, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Peter definitely confirmed my belief in the truthfulness of something because it was only through his passion for art making – combined with the deeper sense of purposefulness he derived from creating work based on the story of his life and those in his community – that he was able to survive and even thrive in conditions I’m sure would have killed anybody else.
Based on this, I would agree with Peter that art does definitely matter more than the mess. That said, and considering how much the mess threatened to destroy both Peter’s life and his art, I think both are important.
Often after watching documentaries, people feel moved to take action or get involved in some way. What were and are you hoping for in terms of your film’s impact?
I didn’t think about what impact I wanted our film to have while we were making it. All I wanted during that time was for Peter to not die alone with all of his art buried in the decrepit house he was “living” in. Only upon completing the film have I been able to see the impact it has on others – not just on various art communities but also on anyone who is confronting issues involving poverty, the elderly, the disabled, and those with mental illness. Peter’s story may be extreme, but it is ultimately universal: most everyone has a friend, relative or neighbor who mirrors some of Peter’s eccentricities, and sooner or later, everyone copes with end-of-life issues with a parent or grandparent. And we can all relate to the difficulty of letting go, as well as the fear of making long-term changes, even when those changes may be for the better.
While our film also explores the how’s and why’s of compassion, as well as the limits of altruism, it more specifically provides a portrait of what aging is like for many people in America who have no family members left and currently live at or below the poverty level. Several people have approached us after screenings to tell us how much they hope every elderly person – and every person taking care of someone who is elderly – will see what we’ve made.
What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of?
My list of doc favorites would be way too long to share in its entirety here, so I’ll instead highlight some of my favorites that were particular inspirations during the making of Almost There. Three are from our amazing production collective Kartemquin Films: Stevie, Home For Life, and Golub: Late Works are the Catastrophes. Other fantastic films I thought about a lot while making our film include: Grey Gardens, Marwencol, Crumb, American Movie, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Mr. Dial Has Something to Say, and last but not least, The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
ALMOST THERE is Influence Film Club’s featured film for December. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together. Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to Influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.
Interview by: Julia Bier