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Elston Gunn Interviews Documentary Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki About HERB & DOROTHY!!

Hello. Elston Gunn here. Director Megumi Sasaki has spent most of professional life as an independent journalist for her native Japan, but founded her production company, Fine Line Media in New York City - her home for the last twenty years - to centralize her Japanese TV projects while fostering her interest in feature documentaries. Her first documentary film, HERB & DOROTHY, was made to tell the story of an ordinary couple and their extraordinary accomplishment. Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a postal clerk and librarian, respectively, managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history with their paychecks. They collected over 2,000 pieces in over thirty years, jam-packing every corner of their one-room apartment with pieces of Minimalist and Conceptual Art, never selling a piece. The film is about the power of passion, dedication and human appreciation. While there are many films about artists out there, it's fascinating to see a documentary about art collectors and how one's preconceptions that accompany the term "art collector" might be shattered thanks simply to the duo's pure love of the pieces themselves. HERB & DOROTHY, which received the Audience Award from the 2008 Silverdocs Film Festival, opened this weekend in New York. For more information including upcoming screenings, please visit the film's official website ( Megumi Sasaki took time to answer some questions for AICN.

[Elston Gunn]: So, you were working on a separate television piece about artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude when you found out who Herbert and Dorothy Vogel were. When did you decide "Okay, this should be a documentary film"? When did you find out about the high profile "60 Minutes" piece about them? [Megumi Sasaki]: It was February 2002 when I first heard about Herb and Dorothy, we were shooting the exhibition of Christo and Jeanne-Claude at the National Gallery in Washington DC. Somebody told me all the works came from the Herb and Dorothy Vogel collection and who they were. I was so struck by their story, felt almost a shock in my heart. A postal clerk and a librarian, built a world class collection, never sold a piece, and let go all the works to the museum?! Is that a true story? Are they saints? How did they do that? At the end of the shoot, I went to the museum bookstore and bought a catalog of their collection. I didn't know what to do with the story at that point. Maybe write a feature article for Japanese publications, or make a proposal for television program? I wasn't sure. The catalog stayed in my bookshelf and their story stayed in my heart for next 2 and half years. September 2004, I happened to meet Herb and Dorothy in person at the event. Their presence was so powerful although they were both small, less than 5 feet tall. I introduced myself and told them I am interested in telling their story. They invited me to their apartment one week later. Before I went to see them I did some research and found out there were quite a few media coverage about them including the 60 Minutes piece. But they all sounded the same: a rare success story of a postal worker and a librarian who turned out to be great art collectors. I thought there was much more profound message in Herb and Dorothy's story. Art happened to be a vehicle, but there should have been something beyond art. Their story is about a triumph of passion and love that can turn the impossible possible. I knew this theme was not for TV program or magazine article, but has to be explored in the form of film. That's how I started, not knowing anything about filmmaking nor art.
[EG]: I was struck by the fact his former co-worker said Herb didn't want anyone to know about his collection or rapport with other artists. I imagine this took place before they were more widely known after the "60 Minutes" piece, but were they hesitant to have a documentary made about them? [MS]: There were a number of filmmakers who approached them before me. They never said no to anybody. They all said, “Great! So we’ll come back as soon as we raise funding so that we can start shooting.” And nobody did. I had no idea there’s such thing as ‘fundraising’ needed before you star the production. I thought I would just show up with a digital camera and follow them around for a while, interview a few artists, and the small film about small beautiful people would be done. Easy! I had no idea what I was getting into. So, it was from my ignorance I could get the first access. It was not easy at the beginning. They gave me only a limited access. When I realized my savings were not enough to finish the film and need to do ‘fundraising’, I didn’t shoot as much but I spent lots of time with them without camera. That’s why it took me as long as 4 years to finish the film. Looking back, 4 years were organic, necessary length of time to develop our relationship, gain their trust and make this film. Towards the end, they totally trusted me and believed in my film. Eventually, they gave me a complete access and allowed me to shoot pretty much everything.
[EG]: They did have you turn the camera off in the middle of a deal, but you were able to coax them into giving you a peek into the pieces they were protecting from the harsh light. [MS]: It happened during their visit to the James Siena’s studio, the last young artist they added to their collection. I remember when Herb first found out James in 2005, he wouldn’t even tell me his name. Herb said “I found a great artist. I am really excited! But that’s all I can tell you.” They are very private people. As I mentioned above, they gave me only limited access. In early days taking me to the artists’ studio with camera was the last thing they would do. The scene at the James Studio was shot in summer of 2007, so it took me 2 years to convince them. Just being able to shoot that scene was a huge reward. When we shot the tour of their apartment and let me take a peek at the works covered by the clothes, they were not particularly in a good mood. It was right after they returned from the trip to San Francisco. They were still tired, recovering. It was a hot summer. Their energy level was low. They were quite reluctant to participate in the shoot. But their reluctance sort of added that scene an interesting feel.
[EG]: I think the film is interesting in that there is no forced conflict. They're just being. It's an extremely optimistic film, especially considering the economic climate right now. How did you decide to structure it? [MS]: The first big question I had when I decided to make this film was, how to make a film about the art collectors who are no longer actively collecting? I knew it was a retrospective story and usual approach was to shoot lots of interviews and cover them with archival photos and footage. But I personally don’t line that kind of film and I much prefer the film that has lots of scenes. They are such charming people and fun to watch whatever they do and wherever they go. So I tried to shoot as much scenes as possible, and figure out how to incorporate their present life with the past. I knew the National Gallery would be a key factor that tied all the pieces of their life together: it was their honeymoon destination where Herb gave Dorothy the first art lesson. Their collectors’ life started there. And it was where it ended when their collection found a permanent home there. We decided to use the museum’s viewing room scene as a spine from that all the retrospective stories come in and out. At the beginning, the audience has a vague idea what they are doing at NGA and why. I thought it’s OK to leave some mystery there. Because everything should make sense at the end.
[EG]: My favorite moments were the more verité aspects, actually seeing the Vogels in action. Herb's eyes seem to go electric when he sees the piece he informs is displayed upside down. [MS]: I bumped into my first big challenge 6 months after I started the production. We did the first on-camera interview with Herb and Dorothy, and I tried to have them elaborate their collection. “So what’s the beauty you found in Richard Tuttle’s piece?” “How about Sol LeWitt?” And only answer I could get was “Because we like them." “Because they were beautiful.” I thought, oh my god, how can I make a film about art collectors who wouldn’t articulate their collection? I thought it was a huge challenge. Then, I interviewed the artist, Lucio Pozzi, one of the Vogel’s closest friends, who told me “That’s why they are unique and special. Why do you have to verbalize visual art? They are seeing something. Specially Herb, his eyes get in tense when he looks at art.” That was such an eye opening moment. What I thought was a problem became a major theme of the film. Art doesn’t need to be explained or intellectualized. From then on, I told the cameraman to pay attention to Herb’s eyes and make sure to get a close up of his eyes every time he looks at art.
[EG]: Do you personally see a pattern in the kinds of works that interest the Vogels - something that connects them all together? [MS]: Their collection is known as its forte for Minimal and Conceptual art. That’s why film mainly covers those types of art, but their collection has much wider spectrum and depth that I was not able to introduce fully. They didn’t like multiples such as photographs or prints, it had to be a unique piece and they particularly liked drawings because of its intimate nature. As they say in the film, they had just 2 rules, it had to be affordable and small enough to fit in their apartment. Those are really the only criteria. After I finished the film I saw their exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I was so moved to finally see their collection in the museum with proper light and frames. The experience was like you finally saw the famous actor on stage under the spotlight after you follow him/her around back stage for years. I found an absolute beauty in their collection. They are all small in scale, looks humble yet there’s something indescribable serenity that has a power to tie the collection together.
[EG]: It looks like you had an embarrassment of riches in terms of photographs and you even had footage of the National Gallery moving the art out of their apartment. How did you keep from getting overwhelmed? [MS]: Photos and tapes kept coming out from their apartment. It turned out to be like an archeological dig. Particularly photos, only what we selected and archived in the data base reached over 1000, so I don’t know how many we looked through in total. Yes, it was overwhelming but I took a deep breath each time before I entered their apartment and took one step at a time. It took us several weeks to go through everything. I think it was Dorothy’s patience that kept me going. She was amazing, spending time with me explaining about every picture. As for the trucking scene to Washington, it was actually reenactment. We had a great interview with Jack Cowart, the NGA curator who initiated the plan, but we had no image of cover it. So, we called United Van Lines who put us in touch with NY agent. They were extremely helpful to arrange a truck and driver to bring them in the city for the shoot.
[EG]: Not to oversimplify any sort of theme, but the film brings to surface these concepts of elitism vs. pluralism. And maybe it goes to show that the Vogels contribute just as much to the world of art -- and art preservation -- in the last forty years than whatever works will survive the bloated art market of the '80s. That perhaps the emphasis should be put on appreciation rather than simply collecting. [MS]: The Vogels first started as artists, then became art collectors. Now they are philanthropists. They collected art for their own pleasure and satisfaction, but they ended up sharing it with the world. I think it’s amazing how two civil servants with modest means ended up not just building an amazing art collection, but becoming one of the major philanthropists of art in America. They don’t like talking about money or associating money with art, they never revealed to anybody how much they paid for works or how much they worth. But they don’t deny or criticize the money aspect of art. They understand artists and others have to survive and it’s a necessary mechanism for the art world.
[EG]: How did you shoot it? What kind of camera? It looks as though you used natural lighting when possible. [MS]: I shot with digital camera, Panasonic DVX 100A. Yes, I minimized to setup lights and used natural lighting as much as possible.
[EG]: Did it get cramped with a camera crew in their apartment? Any logistical issues during the making of the film? [MS]: I ended up working with relatively short, skinny cameramen who are sensitive and know how to work with a minimal gear in the limited space. I always warned them to be very careful not to touch any artworks. Particularly to pay attention to the orange piece hanging from the ceiling of their living room, the sculpture by Steve Keister. Most people bump their head because most of us are taller than 5 feet. It’s the initiation to enter the Vogels apartment. Once at the artist’s studio, the sculpture fell off from the platform as my cameraman walked by. He didn’t even touch it, it was not his fault at all, but we were so frightened. Fortunately it didn’t break, but Herb and Dorothy got so upset and the rest of the shoot didn’t go well. Always, our number one priority was to be extremely careful to shoot around artworks.
[EG]: What's your favorite Vogel anecdote? Do you have a favorite moment from production? [MS]: The most memorable moment was when I found Herb’s favorite exotic fish was dead and sunk at the bottom of the fish tank. Herb first didn’t believed me and he insisted it was just sleeping. It was right before we were going out to dinner, and Dorothy was telling him to pick it up and throw away immediately. But Herb was so heartbroken and upset and couldn’t do it. So I had to pick it up, reaching out to the bottom of the fish tank. It was still early on in the production and I didn’t realized until that day that filmmaking involves so much works, including picking up dead fish from the tank. Dorothy is totally in love with Mac laptop and getting more and more tech savvy. She is now into TiVo, and trying to get me into it. One of our favorite things to do together is to watch American Idol, The View, Jay Leno Show, programs all recorded by TiVo.
[EG]: I thought the score was catchy. How did you meet composer David Majzlin? [MS]: Through today’s most popular way to find people, Craig’s List. We put an ad for composer and received over 100 submissions from all over the world. We narrowed it down to 5 composers whom we interviewed and asked to make a sketch for the opening scene. And we liked David’s work the best.
[EG]: This is your first documentary film. What kind of practical things did you learn from it? What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers, documentarians? [MS]: If it’s your first film, I suggest to focus on just to finish it. My only goal was to finish this first film. Everything else that happened afterwards, winning awards, having theatrical run, are truly rewarding but I considered them extra. There are many phases you don’t even want to think about or look at the film. When it happens, just walk away, do whatever it takes to nurture your soul, regain energy and come back. Learn how to deal with egos of crews, characters, funders, potential distributors and more than anybody, yourself. Always examine where your assertion comes from. We tend to confuse ego with creativity. Ego can be extremely destructive and damaging to the project. Learn how to welcome problems, limitations, obstacles that keep popping up. They push you to the edge where you have no choice but to work harder and be more creative.
[EG]: What are you working on next for Fine Line Media? [MS]: Right now we are making a short follow up piece for HERB & DOROTHY, that features their historical gift project, Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: 50 Works for 50 States. Besides this project, we are exploring lots of ideas, from culinary story of FUGU, the deadly blow fish, to a feature story of controversial Yoga teacher, ex-convict turnout best seller writer/philanthropist, and a genius animator. We are examining which one is most realistic to start the production.

HERB & DOROTHY Trailer from Herb and Dorothy on Vimeo.

Elston Gunn

Readers Talkback
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  • June 9, 2009, 3:44 p.m. CST

    Elston Gunn! Bring back your Weekly Recap!

    by D.Vader

    Damnit, you did a MUCH better and much more through job than your poor replacement, ScriptGirl does on a weekly basis. <p> Please bring it back. Or at least provide some clarification on why you ended the column? I'm guessing real life just got in the way finally?

  • June 9, 2009, 3:53 p.m. CST


    by kbass

    Very informative. Good interview.

  • June 9, 2009, 3:53 p.m. CST

    Herb and Dorothy = sequel to Harold and Maude?

    by Dapper Swindler

    Read article. Apparently not.

  • June 9, 2009, 4:07 p.m. CST

    Who are the ad wizards...

    by wampa 1

    ...that came up with this one?

  • June 9, 2009, 4:34 p.m. CST

    Please no "Tits Out For Attention Girl" this weekend!

    by NeilF

  • June 9, 2009, 5:11 p.m. CST

    Please no "NeilF hates Scriptgirl's tits" this TB!

    by ebonic_plague

    Damn you NeilF, etc.

  • June 9, 2009, 5:13 p.m. CST

    But anyway...

    by ebonic_plague

    ...this looks like an interesting documentary, and I'm glad to find out about it before it inevitably disappears... despite the weird "babel fish" translation style of the interview. <p> Also, I second the request to bring back EG's Weekly Recap. But keep SG, too, just to piss off NeilF.

  • June 9, 2009, 5:15 p.m. CST


    by HapaPapa72

    I don't say this a lot(especially with all the DannyGloverDick-ciples running around these talkbacks) but nice screenname! And SG may be annoying, but telling a girl to cover 'em up? Downright un-american! Shame on you, Neil F. Oh yeah, who's Herb and Dorothy?

  • June 9, 2009, 5:30 p.m. CST

    HapaPapa72, I don't say this a lot, either...

    by ebonic_plague

    ...but thanks, man! <p> I agree, SG's reports are nothing worth celebrating, but neither is NeilF's ubiquitous whining about them. Given a choice between cleavage and sniveling nerd principles, cleavage wins every time.

  • June 9, 2009, 6 p.m. CST

    You people make me sick...

    by Semen Stains

    and you killed Jesus!

  • June 10, 2009, 8:08 a.m. CST

    Megumi Sasaki

    by ironic_name

    is hot.

  • June 10, 2009, 10:26 a.m. CST


    by Pancho_Villa

    Great interview. We need more coverage of docs on this site. So many good ones go unnoticed.

  • June 28, 2009, 3:22 a.m. CST

    by zenmarc

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