UCLA professor William McDonald, Pamela Beere Briggs and artist Sue Mitchell at Riverside's Fairmount Park, the site of the trees that are the subject of her art.
UCLA professor and filmmaker William McDonald of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT) and Pamela Beere Briggs, his collaborator and wife, recently premiered their latest documentary, “Something Like a Sabbatical,” at the Riverside Art Museum.
Finding her muse
The film’s focus is Sue Mitchell, a 60-year-old Riverside businesswoman who, when faced with a downturn in her accounting and office staffing business, decided to transform herself into an artist — something she’d always felt herself to be, but a goal she had largely abandoned. “What she didn’t know was how difficult the process would be … and that once she started, she wouldn’t want to stop,” said McDonald, chair of the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media and a TFT alumnus with an M.F.A. in cinematography. Over the course of 52 weeks, Mitchell produced solar etchings — a type of printmaking in which a photo transparency is exposed to the sun. Her subjects: 52 giant Montezuma Bald Cypress trees that surround Lake Evans in Riverside’s Fairmount Park. The resulting body of work, along with written and visual details about her year as an artist, became the exhibition “52,” which drew more than 10,000 visitors to the Riverside Art Museum from October 2013 through January 2014. Mitchell also raised $52,000 for the museum while serving as artist-in-residence during the exhibition.
A partnership in film
McDonald and Briggs — a writer as well as a filmmaker — first collaborated as TFT graduate students on Briggs’ M.F.A. thesis film, “Out of the Rain,” a short drama. They have since produced several documentaries about writers and artists, including “Funny Ladies: A Portrait of Women Cartoonists” (1991), “Women of Mystery: Three Writers Who Forever Changed Detective Fiction” (2000) and “Mysterious California: Four Authors” (2008). Noted McDonald, “My fascination with and research into the work of creative practitioners — writers and artists — guides the way I teach cinematography, which demands artistry, craft and curiosity. It is also a discipline that is constantly changing, which requires a willingness to keep learning.”
The genesis of the documentary
Seeing Mitchell’s exhibition struck a spark. Recalled Briggs, "It was beautiful and inspiring and humorous and bold and surprising: exquisite solar etchings of the giant Montezuma Bald Cypress trees, and Sue’s day-to-day sabbatical … [described] in a swirl of calendar pages, photographs, sketches, journal entries and even trash … I wanted to make a film about this adventure. I needed to tell this story about not giving up on our dreams, no matter how afraid we are.”
How Mitchell became an artist
Thinking big, Mitchell submitted a proposal to the Riverside museum for a project that would be all-encompassing. Not only would she produce traditional framed works, but she would meticulously track her year off, serve as the museum’s resident artist, lead nature walks through the park, and give seminars and poetry readings. When the museum accepted her proposal, she recruited an advisory team of four artists and curators and created a syllabus for the year, leading to the exhibition opening on her 61st birthday.
Capturing her process
“Films are always difficult to make: complicated, costly and time-consuming,” said Briggs. She and McDonald spent 16 months on the documentary, between teaching classes, working on other projects and raising their teenage daughter. Starting in December 2013, they shot for five days over nine months, finishing up in August 2014 — while also editing the film. Then came seven busy months of post-production editing, sound design, music scoring and color correction.
The art of making art
The challenges that Mitchell went through, McDonald said, reminded him of the complexities of making a portrait documentary. "Sue chose solar etchings as her medium for the project because she thought it would be an easier form to work in. She learned quickly that making one solar etching was, in fact, fairly simple, but making 52 double-portrait solar etchings of consistent quality was shockingly difficult.”
Working as a cinematographer, McDonald said, poses its own artistic challenges. “You have to become invisible and yet still exert a certain amount of control over the process so that you are getting the footage you need to tell the story as you are experiencing it,” he said. But since McDonald and Briggs have teamed up for 30 years, he said, “we’ve developed a rhythm to the way we work that is seamless and unspoken.”
A lesson in facing your fears
In addition to their March premiere — which drew a packed house and raised $10,000 for the museum — the filmmakers screened their film in early April at Belmont Village Westwood senior living community and in a symposium for film and television majors that McDonald teaches. “We wanted to see if Sue’s story would speak to a wider audience with diverse interests and experiences,” he said. “The film seems to be speaking to the universal desire to be true to ourselves, no matter what form that takes. What's becoming clear is that the story gives people permission to acknowledge their fears and then step boldly over them, one by one.”
Said Briggs: “You realize that with Sue, it’s never too late to do the thing you've dreamed about. Sue's sabbatical, in a magical way, becomes our story.”
A primer for non-artists
On May 3, the Riverside Art Museum screened “Something Like a Sabbatical” for its launch of “The 52 Project,” a new, 52-week art journaling program designed to help burgeoning artists commit to pursuing their creative interests. Mitchell will help lead the program.
Get updates about future screenings and events at www.TwointheMiddle.com. See a film trailer on Vimeo. And read an essay Mitchell wrote about “figuring out what really mattered in my life” on the Zocalo Public Square website.