An Interview with Robert Greene about Procession
By Erik Luers
Emphasizing and dissecting the performative elements of nonfiction storytelling, director Robert Greene has made a name for himself crafting documentaries that question cinema’s inherent artifice. Whether in Actress, his portrait of television star Brandy Burre; Kate Plays Christine, his haunting study of the late television broadcaster Christine Chubbuck and lead Kate Lyn Sheil’s attempts to portray her; or Bisbee ’17, a small Arizona town’s coming to terms with the sins of their horrific past, Greene’s films actively engage with their subjects while questioning the notion of authentic representation. As much about craft as they are his subjects’ pathos, Greene’s films interrogate the subjective act of viewing.
In his latest film, Procession, Greene’s interest in performance reaches its logical apex. Following six adult men who were sexually assaulted in their youth by members of the Catholic church, the documentary plays like a perfect fusion of the filmmaker’s most coveted themes and its subjects’ endless desire to heal. With the help of the director and an eager drama therapist, these six men (Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano) are tasked with creating short films that will recreate their personal trauma. Painful though it is, as each of the victims dig deep into their past to engage with suppressed memories they fear remembering, Procession makes a compelling case for filmmaking as a conduit to confronting trauma. By providing his subjects with agency to tell their stories their way, Procession is Greene’s most selfless film yet.
In anticipaton of Procession's opening in select theaters (today, and on Netflix November 19), I spoke with Greene about his career in nonfiction filmmaking, how he’s grown as a willing collaborator, hiring a drama therapist for production, and more.
Reverse Shot: You’ve spoken of how hiring a drama therapist to work with the subjects of Procession was inspired by a question you received following a screening of Bisbee ’17. An audience member asked if you had brought a therapist aboard to work with your subjects on that film and, to paraphrase, your answer was that you hadn’t really thought to. Now you have, but I wanted to ask, with over a decade of feature films under your belt, when does the filmmaker’s relationship with their subject officially conclude? That is assuming it ever does...
Robert Greene: While I’m certainly not close friends with every single person I've ever filmed, I would say that there's more to those [relationships] than most people would understand. Take Brandy Burre from Actress. Brandy and I just had dinner a few nights ago while Procession was screening nearby in Upstate New York, and she even attended a screening of Procession we recently held at the Metrograph. And then there’s Kati [from Kati with an I], who is my sister, and Chris Solar [from Fake It So Real], who is my cousin, and Kate Lyn Sheil [from Kate Plays Christine], who has been my friend for many years. There’s this idea that the process of making a nonfiction film never really stops, you know? The film might be finished but the relationships that you formed on it continue.
For me, the real question is always: what is the point of these films? When I started out, I thought you pointed a camera, captured footage, and then went home and made something out of that footage. Slowly over the years, I realized that it’s a very tricky process fraught with ethical and emotional questions, questions of agency, power, and exploitation. You can’t escape these questions no matter what you do. If I’m not advancing as a human being from film to film and growing as a person and as a filmmaker, then I’m not trying to figure out the discoveries I make along the way. One such discovery would be like, how does the camera affect people? How does being off-camera affect people? One thing Brandy told me after the filming process had concluded on Actress was that post-filming was a very difficult time for her, emotionally. She had been extremely honest and vulnerable on camera, and she taught me that you have to balance these things. If you're going to bring a camera into someone’s life, it better be worth it for them and for you. That’s the belief we started with on Procession, that it had to be worth doing. I’m not going to film someone ever again if it’s not as worth it for them as it is for me.
RS: Procession opens with archival footage of a 2018 press conference in Kansas City, Missouri, where attorney Rebecca Randles presents the sexual abuse cases of three men who will ultimately participate in your film. As you’re based in the state, working as filmmaker-in-chief at the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri, did the local proximity of this story also entice you? An opportunity to work on your next feature while retaining your “day job?”
RG: Totally, and I appreciate that question so much. To be honest, part of the reason why I stumbled upon that press conference is because I was looking for a Missouri story to tell. I don't really consider teaching a “day job” and filmmaking my “night gig” though. A lot of the crew for Bisbee ’17 were actually recent graduates of the Murray Center, and I found myself editing Kate Plays Christine while I was teaching my very first semester at the school. I’ve found that the lessons I’ve learned from filmmaking and the lessons I’m learning from teaching are always in conversation with one another. The lessons I gain as a teacher help me grow as a person, and hopefully I’m learning as much from my students as they are from me.
I really became inspired by this idea of drama therapy on Procession. We’re not engaging in drama therapy in the film exactly, but we’re inspired and influenced by the tenets of drama therapy and the discoveries that are made possible by engaging with it. I was inspired by those possibilities, but I wondered, how can I make this film without abandoning my family? As much as my family is a part of everything I do, there was a moment where my son was having a really awful time. He was going through a really bad night while I was away in New York editing Alex Ross Perry’s film, Her Smell, and he called me, saying, “This is bad for me, man. Why are you not here, at home?" That’s when I knew that I didn't like myself as a person who couldn’t physically be there for his family. It was hurting them, and I couldn't live like that. That’s why finding a story based in Missouri was important and was partly what led me to discover that press conference and get the whole project going.
RS: It’s extremely difficult for survivors to discuss their traumatic experiences in private amongst loved ones, let alone recounting it for strangers in a public setting. While the film features their initial meeting, as a group, as they gather in a circle with the drama therapist to introduce themselves, what was it like reaching out to each of them individually and informing them of your plans for the film?
RG: The group meeting that you’re referring to was from March 2019, but our first meetings off-camera were a bit earlier, in January. Although the initial press conference was taped in August of 2018, I didn’t see it until a few months later and from there the process began. The key part of that process was Rebecca Randles, as her setting up that press conference allowed us to reach out. Rather than contact survivors directly, we went through her. Once that line of communication opened, we were able to build upon the trust that Rebecca had established with these men over many years. It was Rebecca who chose the six men who participated in the film. I really wanted to work with the three (Michael, Mike, and Tom) who were present at the press conference, but Rebecca selected the rest. She picked people based on who she thought could go through the process and benefit from it and, in her words, who had their voices taken away from them. There was skepticism and a few potential concerns, of course, but these men wouldn’t have shown up to that first meeting in January 2019 if they weren’t itching to do something. They knew that they had only achieved various levels of success (or lack of success) within the court system and through personal therapy, and they wouldn’t have been in that room together if they weren’t looking for something more.
That initial group meeting shows that these men are still questioning whether they should participate in the film or not. Even throughout that day of filming, we were still deciding if we should move forward. But then there were moments where Ed was like, “Well, it’s showtime, folks,” and Mike began discussing his experiences with the Independent Review Board and how much that issue really matters to him and, as we talked through these things, I think we took some sensitive steps forward. The key thing to understand about the film is that the doubt, skepticism, anxiety, and fear is just as important to their process as the belief and confidence in it is. The film is about brotherhood and coming together, yes, but it's just as much about having fears and doubts about that process. There was the sense that every time we all came together, this could be it, this could be the last time we would shoot, and that was the approach we took every single time.
RS: Were you also in communication with members of their immediate family? I think Ed noted at a recent Q&A that his wife was concerned about the effect the production was having on him. As a filmmaker, are you able to think about how the work affects those these men come home to on a nightly basis?
RG: Always. Look, there’s no way to make this film without their family members being supportive, and I told Sekeena (Ed’s wife), “Your doubt and your concern are justified. Don’t back down from that. If we can't prove to you that this production is meaningful and helpful, then we shouldn't do it.” Filmmakers often approach these things like, “I need to do this because it's about me, the filmmaker,” and by this point in my career, that’s not the way for me to approach any film, much less a film this tricky and emotionally fraught. It’s a kind of lovely privilege I’ve experienced having made my other films that have gotten me to a place in my life where I’m now not looking for success. I didn’t realize that when we started this project, but I wanted it to be a positive experience for everyone, and I would have absolutely pulled the plug the minute it didn’t feel helpful. We're not doing therapy in the film, but we're certainly doing therapeutic work, and that’s just how it is.
RS: I’ve found that your style always complements and expands the story you’re telling, and often in surprising ways. Parts of Bisbee ’17 are like a western, a telenovela, and there’s even a sequence that calls to mind Technicolor musicals. Procession opens with a credits sequence reliant on genre elements, almost as if we’re watching a disorienting giallo horror film. Have you found your filmmaking becoming more refined as you tell these stories or, in the case of Procession, these nightmares?
RG: Yes, and Robert Kolodny (who shot the film) and I had a ton of visual ideas about how to communicate this. That opening sequence ended up being inspired by horror films only because Michael said, “I want to make mine a horror film,” you know? But we were thinking of Robert Bresson and each of Paul Schrader’s filmmakers cited in Transcendental Style in Film. Those visual references were entry points for us. Ultimately, I think we collectively share an idea of “visual language,” and these scenes are not just about memory but also fantasy and nightmare. They’re also about control, like how much does the image control you and how much do you control the image? Implementing elements of genre as filmmaking inspiration is very useful in getting at the heart of the way we use movies to understand each other. It’s that simple. I think those elements are more refined in Procession, most likely due to, over the years, my not really being interested in finding the so-called thin line between documentary and fiction. I don't give a shit about that. What I care about is what tools are we using to express things that can’t be expressed otherwise?
I’m always listening, and I’m listening to Rob, who shot the film, probably more than anyone else. I’m also listening to the six men who shared their ideas for their films [in Procession]. For Ed’s film, when we quickly cut to the white room and then, end scene, that was Ed’s idea. That's not my visual idea, that’s his, and that’s the nature of collaboration and the reason I love making documentaries. I now know the limitations of my own ideas. As I get older, I no longer need that ego validation that comes with youth. If the movies are getting better, it's simply because I'm listening better.
RS: I wanted to ask about your experience directing Terrick Trobough, who plays the younger version of each man in their respective films. Was that a different experience for you, in terms of adjusting your vocabulary to convey the severity and weight of the material while also protecting this young actor? He seems very wise, but you still have to protect him to some degree due to the subject matter.
RG: We were careful in making sure that nothing explicit was ever discussed around Terrick. We built an entire system for him with our drama therapist, Monica Phinney. Terrick always had either his parents or his grandparents [on set], and the guys were always checking in on him. There are certainly some moments where he overheard some things, but the truth is that Terrick really was cast by Dan. We all had input on the casting, but Dan saw some inner strengths in Terrick that he was very sure about. Frankly, he could have been wrong, but his confidence as a father and a survivor was very reassuring for us just to start the process by casting Terrick, who was 12 years old for the majority of the shoot.
While a lot of this abuse happened to children younger than Terrick, we knew that casting a younger child was just not going to happen. I’m currently a parent of a 12 year old, and I more or less know what they can take and what they can’t. I know how savvy and intelligent Terrick is, and I knew that he had heard stories of priest abuse [before].
More importantly, Terrick was not Catholic, and that was one of the most important factors in making sure that he felt safe and wasn’t going to be triggered by the symbols and rituals present in what we were filming. A confessional booth meant as little to him as it did to me (neither of us were raised Catholic). We were both just doing our jobs while the guys were handling so many other levels of meaning and awfulness. Traumatization comes from taking power away, and we did anything and everything to make sure that the guys were empowered and had agency to make choices and walk out of any room they needed to walk out of. We gave Terrick that same agency and he responded by going up to Ed and saying, “I tried my best to tell your story.” No one scripted that for him. That's just a young man who knew he was helping.
RS: Did this experience solidify the need for drama therapists on your sets moving forward? Will you continue to offer drama therapists on your sets moving forward? You’ve spoken of how the production impacted you personally, including your being in therapy for the first time.
RG: While I don’t know what I’m doing next, yes, I am in therapy for the first time in my life, and I’m in therapy not due to how hard or traumatizing this film was, but due to how much I’ve learned about what therapy can do. I honestly should have been in therapy 20 years ago. I would’ve made a thousand times less mistakes than I’ve made in my life, but being in therapy is a huge step, and it’s thanks to what the guys in the film have shown me.
I have a lot of ideas about what I want to make next, but I also know that I’m dedicated to this film and allowing myself to live in the moment right now. But I know that I believe every documentary filmmaker (and probably every filmmaker, in general) should have a therapist onboard their production and possibly even, more specifically, a drama therapist. Drama therapy is the intentional use of role play and theatrical devices to reach therapeutic goals, so why would you not have one on the set of a fiction film where actors are taking on roles of such intensity and risk being traumatized? Why would you not have a drama therapist aboard a documentary where you’re putting a camera in someone’s face and asking them to open up and tell their story? I would like this film to be inspiring to other filmmakers to try to use some of those methods.