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Sam Green Pioneers the Live Documentary | The Cal journalism school grad is turning documentary filmmaking on its head.

By now the formula for making a documentary film is old hat: Edit a bunch of grainy archival footage, do some interviews, get the Frontline guy, or if he's not available, Peter Coyote, to narrate it, throw in some music featuring French horns and oboes, and viola, doc done. But what if there were another way? What if the filmmaker got up onstage during the screening and narrated it live? With live music played by real-life musicians? This fresh approach to the doc genre is being trail-blazed by Sam Green, creator of the "live" documentary. A Cal journalism school grad, Green has done live docs on R. Buckminster Fuller as well as traditional docs about the Weather Underground, the radical group that tried to overthrow the U.S. government in the late 1960s and '70s, that was nominated for an Academy award. His latest live doc project tells the story of San Francisco's groundbreaking string quartet, the Kronos Quartet. Called A Thousand Thoughts, it tells the story of how Kronos, by thinking outside the tux, reinvented the string quartet. I'm a little tight with the band, so I got in touch with Green at his Brooklyn office, where I got him on the blower to tell me more about his pioneering approach to documentary filmmaking.

Paul Kilduff: Is it at all important to you in doing live documentaries that you're not anonymous?

Sam Green: No, not at all. In fact, the opposite. I've always been much more comfortable behind the camera, the one asking the questions. I think most documentary filmmakers gravitate towards it 'cause they're kind of shy, but they are interested in the world, and it's a way to engage with the world with a camera in front of you. So wanting to be more visible is not part of the equation for me. It came out of necessity. You know, the first live piece I did was about utopia. It was a complicated piece that was sort of like an essay, and I couldn't make it work. The only way I could make it work was to sit there and explain it. So it kind of just happened in this weird way where I had to solve a problem with that film, and being up there talking was the way to do it.

PK: You seem so comfortable on stage, so calm. Do you get butterflies beforehand?

SG: Yeah. I get super nervous. I think maybe it's one of those situations where you can be roiling on the inside and appear calm on the outside. Once the show starts, I'm fine.

PK: So, you don't see yourself becoming the next Michael Moore?

SG: No. Maybe the Michael Moore of the live documentary world.

PK: How important is it in today's world of documentary film that the director has a point of view? That it's not so dry as docs can sometimes be?

SG: Yeah. If you look back at documentaries 10 or 20 years ago, there were not that many of them. And people sort of cut them a lot of slack. "It's a documentary. It's going to be kind of dry and boring, but I'll watch it cause the subject's important." These days, there's tons of films. You could go on Netflix at any point and watch 20 great documentaries. So the bar is a lot higher. Things have to be good. And it's no longer like, "Oh, it's a documentary, so it's OK that it's boring." It's got to be good and compete with all sorts of other things. So documentaries have gotten way better, and also way more compelling. Documentaries now are really plot-driven, or there's a very well-constructed narrative that keeps you engaged. Or it's like a social issue that's so heartbreaking or moving, you're in tears. So, things have got to be good. One of the ways that that happens is by not having it be dry and impersonal. People really put themselves into films now, and people respond to that. But also, just for me, I make films that I would want to see. That's ultimately all that I'm doing. And there are so many bad versions of a documentary about the Kronos Quartet that you could make. So that was a big challenge. How to make something that I would like. And that's what I ended up doing—making something that's both a personal kind of musing about them, but also uses a portrait of them to get at these bigger ideas. That was the solution of how to make a good piece about the Kronos Quartet. And one that's as good as what they do.

PK: Was it intimidating to take on that on?

SG: Oh, yeah, for a couple of reasons. One, I didn't know a ton about classical music. I still don't. Probably 20 percent of the audience knows way more about classical music than me. It took a long time just to learn enough to not be a total idiot. So, that was intimidating.

They're incredibly creative and innovative and risk-taking. So, if I made a boring, traditional, stupid PBS documentary about them, it would not befit them. So, I felt a real pressure to make something that was as formally radical and interesting and creative as what they do. So, that was inspiring. I mean, intimidating is one way of saying it, and inspiring is another, because that sort of pressure and expectation forced us to really bring our A game and make something great.

PK: Do random people suggest documentary film ideas to you?

SG: All the time. And my great regret from whenever anybody said, "I got a great idea for a documentary for you," is that I haven't said, "Hold on. Let me get a camera and film you saying it." I could make an amazing movie about all the suggestions people have given me. Seriously. And sometimes people say, "Well, you should start right now," but I will have missed 20 years of suggestions. I don't mind. The truth is nobody's ever suggested something that I've done.

PK: None have led to anything.

SG: Yeah, I remember my dad once said to me, "I got the idea for your next film." And I was like, "Dad. People always say that, and I've never ever once had somebody suggest a film that I've actually filmed." And he said, "This is different. This one is the one." And I thought to myself, "Jesus Christ. He seems really sure. Maybe he's right." And then the funny thing is the idea was so bad. I can't even remember what it was. It was something like the history of the tax code in Michigan. It's just like, "Are you kidding? That's literally the worst idea anybody's ever given me." So, anyway


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Photo courtesy Sam Green.

Sam Green Vital Stats

Age: 52


Astrological sign: Leo

Book on nightstand: Swimming Studies

Favorite Sandwich: "The Ex-Mother-in-Law" at the Court Street Grocers, Brooklyn: house- braised beef short rib, kimchi, roast broccoli, mayo on garlic bread.

Motto is a Chinese proverb:
"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best is now."