For more than a decade, fashion photographer Steven Sebring has been quietly filming punk’s godmother Patti Smith. The film that eventually emerged from that footage, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, garnered the award for best cinematography at this year’s Sundance Film Festival documentary competition, due in part to the unorthodox visual approach Sebring transferred from his still photography to film. The wandering, impressionistic film – which Sebring hesitates to even call a “documentary” – just had its run at the Film Forum in New York extended through September 11, and it’s scheduled to open around the country over the coming months (see DreamOfLifeTheMovie.com for details). After a recent Film Forum screening where Smith and Sebring fielded questions from a packed house, Sebring talked with American Photo about his friendship with Smith, his big ideas for the project, and the ever-fruitful relationship between music, film, and photography.
AP: Tell me a little about how you first met Patti and how the idea for the documentary came about.
SS: I photographed her for Spin magazine in ’95 and it was . . . I went out there to Detroit to photograph her. That’s how we met. And then we immediately connected. It was one of those situations where I picked up the camera very last of the day and then we started taking pictures. And I didn’t even take hardly any film either. And then she invited me in ’96 to a concert at Irving Plaza. And that’s when I saw her perform for the first time. And I was so blown away by her, and just over weeks of sort of bothering her a little bit she let me start filming her. But I had no intention for it to be any kind of documentary. I was just looking for an outlet, a film outlet. And she’s just somebody I thought was fun and inspiring. There was no documentary idea. I don’t want to make documentaries; that’s not my thing. And that’s why this movie isn’t your standard documentary style, which most people expect when they go see it. People have in their head they expect to see old footage and people talking about the person. That’s so boring. And I just wasn’t interested in doing anything like that. And that’s how it started. I just kept filming her when I could.
AP: When did it turn from that into actually becoming a feature film?
SS: Well in ’99, I took three months and edited the film to create some kind of structure. Because I was like, wow, I have so much footage, wouldn’t it be cool just to see if we can do something with it? And then after that I shelved it in 2000 because the funds were gone and I needed to go back to work, because I’m a fashion photographer and I shoot celebrities and that’s how I make money. So I did that but I kept filming her over the years and we got closer and closer; we got really close as friends. Most of the time, as I say, I never had a camera, we were just hanging out. And then I think it got to a point some people were showing interest in the film and I had money again so I took a year off and hired Angelo Corrao, who is a great old-school editor. We sat there and we cut the film and Patti got involved. And now we have it. It’s one of those things that just happened organically. I kept filming her in her bedroom while I was editing because I needed something to ground the film; there was so much footage from all over the place that a lot of it didn’t have sound, some did. I was like, what would make this film make sense, give it a thread, you know. We always spent so much time hanging out in her bedroom, that’s sort of where she works and stuff. It was like, let’s do something here. And that was it. And spending everyday working on it, creating these interesting scenes through a collage of the footage, I wanted her to tell her story in her voice. It’s a totally experimental film, is the way I look at it. I never went to film school. I just bought a movie camera and started filming her.
AP: What attracted you to film, and this project specifically.
SS: Her. I never grew up with her. I didn’t know a lot about her. Just some pictures of her in Mapplethorpe books. And her song “Because the Night.” But she knew that immediately in me too, that I didn’t know a lot about her. That’s why I think the film’s interesting, because it just comes through my point of view. Through my eye. And she is just such an incredible woman. Everybody thinks of her as this rock star; well she is. But she’s the Arthur Rimbaud of our time. She’s taken Allen Ginsburg’s helm; [William S.] Burroughs is her children’s godfather. It just keeps going on and on and on. It’s just really extraordinary.
AP: So how often were you filming her?
SS: On and off. There would be times when I would go with her to Charleville, France, and I would just spend like a week with her and film. Very casually — sometimes I didn’t even take my camera. Go off on another trip here or there, when she’s going to meet her mom and dad. She’d say, do you want to come to meet my mom and dad? Sometimes we wouldn’t do anything for a month or two. ‘Cause she’s really busy, I’m busy. And I was in no hurry to do anything. I just wanted to do the document on the right occasions. If she was doing something artistic, I would go because I was doing some artistic things, too, with her through the camera. Experimenting or shooting film differently. That’s why the film looks the way it does. It’s all shot on 16mm, one camera, and what film I had.
AP: I was going to say, obviously Patti is a photographer herself and has a very photographic sensibility. I wondered if that factored into her understanding of how you were thinking about the film or how the film came about.
SS: Maybe. She started shooting Polaroids a lot . . . I didn’t know of her doing that before. She’s dabbled in film lately, for the Cartier Foundation. And she has a total new respect for what I did now. Because it’s not easy. Especially on the fly. It’s like, you never know what you’re getting into. Sometimes she would be doing some really great things but it was so dark in the room. And I’m not turning on lights; I’m just sort of like, no, it’s too dark, oh well. So I would happen to have my sound recorder and then I’d get great sound and no visual. Or a lot of times I’d get great visual and I just didn’t have any sound. So that’s how the movie became so different. Because I had to work with what I had. But I’m sure we influenced each other. And that’s why I kept doing it, because she inspired me. She says I inspire her. So I think we work really well together.
AP: It’s obviously a really collaborative film, and I wondered if you guys consciously talked about what the film would be like.
SS: No she had total trust in me and what I did. Because in a way we think a lot alike. She knows it’s my movie, and she was there supporting me in the venture. But when it came to bringing her in on some voice-overs and stuff. There were some ideas I had, and then she would do some improvising from that and adding her thing, which was the best. That’s when it becomes the most humanistic.
AP: I thought there were a couple of really interesting moments when Patti sort of addresses her discomfort with being filmed. I wonder if that was something you were really aware of or renegotiating constantly.
SS: I was always very careful about what footage I used. And when I was filming it I was always making sure it was the best light in a situation. And I think that comes across with me being a photographer. I shoot stills, so I’m always conscious about the light. Once in a while she would be like, oh, I don’t want you to use that. But then I would say, I think it’s beautiful, I don’t know what you’re talking about. But overall she was really pleased with the movie. She’s actually really proud of the movie, which makes me really happy. You know, when I won the award at Sundance for best cinematography, it was so cool because that’s what I do, I’m a photographer and now people are awarding me for making my stills come alive in a way. And that’s why I made the book of the film. When you look at the book, it’s me; it’s the same as if I was shooting stills.
AP: Tell me a little about the book.
SS: Through technology now, my 16mm went through a D.I. scan; they scan every frame of my film. So I have every frame of my film on hard drives. We up-resed them and we made them look really special and we made a book. And nobody’s done that; Rizzoli’s never done anything like this. And we’ve actually blown up a couple of these images, and they’re gorgeous. And you’re like, wow; there’s an exhibition now. But with the book I added the installation Objects of Life, which is another thing I did with her objects; I photographed them with this large-format camera, and they’re these incredibly large photographs. And we framed them as objects, and that’s on its way to the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne. It’s going to be there for a month and a half. And then I also put Patti’s painting that she did in the movie, “Strange Messengers,” she gave that to me. It’s the largest painting she’s ever done. That’s in the show too. So you can actually experience these things in person and see large photographs, and then you can see them in the movie, and then you can walk away with a book that is kind of like and index of the film itself. For me, I like all media, I just never was just a fashion photographer. It was more like, I like everything. I don’t like pigeonholing myself in one thing. I think now with websites and stuff like that you can do all kinds of stuff with technology. It’s sort of limitless. When we did the premier in New York at the MoMA, [Patti] sang in the garden. After the movie you can talk about it with your friends and then all of a sudden there she is singing. So it’s a nice thing that a lot of people don’t really do, sadly.
AP: Tell me a little bit about your photography.
SS: I do everything. I’m still shooting fashion. I love experimenting with doing my own personal work, whether it’s nudes or landscapes. I’m thinking about doing a couple other art books. And then looking forward to doing fiction films, which sounds exciting to me. And then bringing more fashion into film, like I did with DKNY. You know it’s sort of like to mix the two. I like to shoot fashion and I shoot a lot of ad campaigns, because some of it might be really commercial but it’s a way for me to push the envelope sometimes with somebody like Coach or something like that. But the reward for photographers is you get paid well. It’s kind of crazy how much money you can make. But what I do is I put it right back into projects I love. And that was Patti and other installations and things like that.
AP: So more films on the horizon?
SS: Oh yeah, definitely. I want to do some fiction films. I don’t consider Patti as a documentary. Because I really believe that sometimes you don’t know if things are scripted in her film, and I love that idea of that play. But I’m interested in doing a modern-day silent film. Or create a whole soundtrack before I put any kind of visual story to it. Like sort of do things wrong, that’s what I kind of love. There’s a New York Times story that says we are reinventing the wheel. I thought that was kind of funny. I don’t think we’re trying to reinvent, I think I was just doing what I thought was interesting art. I don’t refer that film to any movie I’ve ever seen. Somebody came up to me and said, do you know Bruce Webber, Chet Baker, did you ever see that? Your film’s a lot like that. I said, no I haven’t seen it. Nor have I ever seen Don’t Look Back. But Angelo Corrao actually edited the Chet Baker film. And he worked on Reds. He’s really cool and he really kept me from getting too abstract. But he was good at going there, too. He would show me something and I would be like, damn Angelo, what’s going on? Because he’d find something that was a mistake but he’d make it cool.
AP: How did other people feel about being in the film, the band mates and Patti’s kids?
SS: They love it. Lenny Kaye and Tony [Shanahan], they were at the MoMa, it was their second time because they saw it at Sundance the first time. They saw it again and brought their wives and they were like, it’s better the second time. And that really made me happy. They were really, really into it. And Jackson, Patti’s son, really loves the movie. He really, really loves the movie. I did an extra for DVD that’s called “Jackson” and he’s talking about his dad. They’re so into it because it’s so different; they just think it’s so cool. And that means a lot to me. Because I was always worried; they never saw it. The first time they saw it was at Sundance.
AP: I was thinking, it’s kind of like this really cool home video.
SS: Exactly, that’s what it is. It’s a humanistic film. There’s no ugliness. It’s just positive. And I just wanted to do something inspiring for people. Sort of inspire people so they can leave the theater thinking, oh, I gotta know more about Blake or Whitman, or I want to go research Patti. I didn’t want to spell it out for people; I want people to think. I think these films now, they’re just so flat-out with everything that at the end of it you know it all. That’s so boring to me. Whereas this one has a life after. At Paris they’re playing it at the Pantheon, which is the oldest theater in Paris. And Patti, back in the ’70s, would go there and watch Godard films and stuff. Above the theater, connected to the theate