Ohio Interviews: Shaun Irons, director and cinematographer of the film “Standing By: Gatz Backstage”

Interview by Mariam Nasrullah

An image from "Standing By: Gatz Backstage," directed by Shaun Irons
An image from “Standing By: Gatz Backstage,” directed by Shaun Irons

“Standing By: Gatz Backstage” will premiere at Anthology Film Archives May 14-17

Watch the trailer here!

How was the idea for Standing By: Gatz Backstage conceived?

I was inspired to make Standing By: Gatz Backstage after many years of involvement with NYC’s downtown theater world. Although mostly known for being a hybrid artist working in media and installation, I spent many years as a performer, most indelibly with The Wooster Group, and I have continually been fascinated by the vibrant world behind the scenes – the daily routines and rhythms, the camaraderie, preparation, tension and energy. When I initially encountered ERS’s Gatz in its early days back in 2005, I was aware of the various layers of time passing, in the novel and in the theater itself (for both the audience and the performers). Because of the unusually long duration of the show, I became intrigued by how performers navigated downtime, how they maintained physical and mental concentration during prolonged periods offstage.

Over the years, I have maintained a close relationship with the performing arts world. I completed a feature-length documentary about The Wooster Group’s Hamlet called Is Anyone Not Ready? and was commissioned by theater legend Richard Foreman to make a film version of his play Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland. Standing By is a unique addition to this series of projects born out of an ongoing curiosity about the lives and inner-workings of contemporary theater companies.

For Standing By I was interested in framing performers with an elegant simplicity, referencing the intimacy of portrait painting, capturing dynamic moments of heightened energy contrasted with inertia, boredom and exhaustion. Not relying on interviews or talking heads, the film is ultimately an intimate meditation on life in the theater – communicating more through image, mood and sound rather than explicit narrative, revealing performers in transitional states – somewhere between themselves and the characters they inhabit onstage.

What were some challenges that were faced while filming?

One of the biggest challenges was how little light there was. I was interested in filming performers in the ghostly backstage half-light – beautiful to the naked eye but very challenging for the camera. I was determined to capture this unaltered backstage realm – lit with only a smattering of clip lights – in as natural a way as possible, so I had to quickly test the camera during the first day of shooting, using a variety of settings to find out what was filmable and what wasn’t – and how far I could push it. I should add that this was also a brand new camera, so this made the challenge even more difficult.

But, in the end, I was pleased with the glowing spectral quality of the images. There were some intense pockets of light backstage – focused on prop tables and costume racks and it was especially exciting when a performer lingered in these areas, creating a painterly chiaroscuro.

Another issue was the sheer physical demands of the shoot. The performance of Gatz – where the entirety of The Great Gatsby is voiced and enacted onstage – unfolds over the course of nearly eight hours. Standing By is presented as a composite day but was shot over the course of five days. I would arrive early at the West End theater before the cast and crew to shoot the empty set, seats lobby etc. and the performers arriving and warming up. During the shooting day I very rarely took any breaks (even filming throughout intervals in the show) so it became a kind of endurance test that left me on my feet and in motion for over nine straight hours a day. My editor, Lauren Petty, was in London also, and helped to keep me going by continuously charging batteries, backing up memory cards, reviewing the material, and occasionally running me a sandwich.

There also was the challenge of learning the backstage choreography in terms of entrances, exits and behind the scenes movements (which were sometimes very fast) so that I could capture performers in various states of action and not be in their way or knock them down in the near dark. It was my goal to be ever present, to be everywhere and yet invisible. Often, while filming one thing, I would take note of something else interesting occurring, some detail or interaction and have to remind myself to locate it in place and time to shoot the next day.

What do you think audiences of Standing By will gain by watching the documentary opposed to just seeing Gatz performed live?

The film is a completely different experience than watching a performance of Gatz, it’s the flip side, an intimate view of the behind the scenes world the audience never sees. The play is a backdrop to the film, marking time as the story of The Great Gatsby unfolds, we hear it happening and sometimes see it, but it is only experienced in glimpses, from the point of view of a performer waiting in the wings. Standing By does not attempt to be a document of the performance, but follows an alternative narrative, condensing a 10-hour day into an 80-minute film.

During preview screenings of Standing By, many comments were made about how the film is a shadowy and engaging reflection of Gatz, framing this renowned production, but ultimately a unique work of art on its own.

In general, where do you draw inspiration from?

For over a decade now (often in collaboration with Lauren Petty), I have been creating multidisciplinary performances, multimedia installations, single-channel films, documentaries and interactive video scores for live performance.  As an artist, I don’t make distinctions between these formats, but see them as deeply interconnected and all equally part of my ongoing creative output.

As I work across genres I find inspiration and ideas from many sources – including avant-garde theater, dance, music, literature, painting and cinema. I’m constantly looking and searching through culture both high and low. Particularly of late I’m finding great inspiration and connection with ideas and themes related to liminal states, of characters in a situation of being in-between, drifting, waiting, mutating. These ideas are taking shape in my live theater work as well, and are clearly present in this documentary revealing a backstage world of shadows and whispers.

What are some other documentaries that you are enjoying right now?

Although I very much enjoy documentaries of all sorts – from the personal to the political, I think of myself as a multiplatform artist, leaning more towards experimental film and the visual and performing arts worlds. Even though I sometimes work in the documentary form, I don’t approach it journalistically – it is always about finding a balance between my interests as an artist and creating a work based on a real situation – and about making something that can’t just be explained (or listened to) but has to be seen to be understood.

That said, I do really love some of the more verité, poetic documentaries made by artists such as Agnès Varda, particularly Daguerreotypes her beautiful portrait of her street in Paris, and the Maysles work – I am very looking forward to seeing Albert Maysles’ new film Iris. I’ve always admired Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil – which sits with the Stones in the studio as they create that one song, and Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated – a kind of symphony of moving trains and graffiti in early 80’s NY pulsing with the music of Charles Mingus. I was also influenced by Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweet Grass – a spare film which follows herders on a final sheep drive though the Montana mountains – occasionally there is a snippet of passing dialogue but no interviews – we gather information by watching and listening… I’m sure there are many more. I also loved Jonas Mekas’ Outtakes From the Life of a Happy Man – pure poetry of memory, image and time. I’m also intrigued by films that combine narrative and documentary forms, such as such as Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, a kind of love story set in an ancient Chinese village, which was actually being destroyed to make way for the construction of a dam. Houses and buildings collapse around the characters. Oh and I did enjoy the film about Nick Cave called 20,000 Days on Earth, which took a different approach to documentary form. Though based on a real person’s life, scenes were constructed and “performed” creating more of a fictional narrative surrounding the truth.