Cinematographer Justin Schein and Editor David Mehlman sat down with the Knockturnal to discuss their latest project, “Left on Purpose” and its subject Mayer Vishner.
It can’t be easy knowing that the subject you spent five year working on will never see your film. That’s the biggest bummer about suicide–it’s permanent. Unfortunately, the subject of the “Left on Purpose,” Mayer Vishner, will never see the tireless efforts of co-directors Justin Schein and David Mehlman. Both worked for years to portray Vishner as the man that so many remember him as–intelligent, kind, free-spirited, steadfast, politically active and funny.
What began as a film chronicling the life and times of a prominent Yippie, slowly but surely started shifting its focus. The thesis of the film was turning a dark corner. Soon, Schein and Mehlman were no longer concentrated on Vishner’s past. Instead, they began to look forward into the present and what would eventually be his permanently inactive future. What emerges is a ethical and moral conundrum that any documentarian and friend faces–do I intervene?
Co-directors Justin Schein and David Mehlman took the time out of their day to discuss the heart-wrenching dirge film with Knockturnal. Check the interview out below:
How did you guys get involved with the project?
Justin Schein – I met Mayer Vishner while working on this film “No Impact Man.” He has a small role in it where he was the community gardener that they went to to grow their vegetables. His role in it was this full activist that could kind of critique from the inside. We became friends and I began to learn more about his history and I was just fascinated by him and his life as a Yippie and as an activist. I was trying to understand how he got to this place where he had withdrawn from the world. I saw it as a short, interesting profile of one of these Greenwich Village characters.
Did it begin as a short documentary?
JS – Yeah, we didn’t know where it was going. I saw it as this interesting, kooky, brilliant guy. He clearly had more of an idea about where to take the film. Little by little that became apparent. Then at some point it became about our friendship as much as it was about his past.
Are you still in touch with any of his friends that you interviewed in the film or the community garden?
JS – He left his plot in the community garden to me but because I live in Brooklyn it was unrealistic. But I’ve been in touch with them about the film coming out. And I’m still in touch with Diane who was Mayer’s girlfriend and lifelong friend. So yeah, I’m still in touch with Diane and Jack. Going through a process like this is very bonding. We became very close. I feel that one of the strengths of the film is that it’s about this situation that so many people go through. How do you help a friend–a loved one? And that’s what he became in my community.
You’re known for your cinéma vérité approach to your films. I think this film incorporates that but not as much as your other films. You were forced to be more involved due to the subject matter. How did you make the decision that you needed to so involved in front of the camera?
JS – Traditionally the cinéma vérité that we grew up on was pretty much about being a fly-on-the-wall and pretending that the filmmaker doesn’t exist. But he was dragging me into the story. If I were to continue, I couldn’t pretend to just be a witness. In any documentary there are these questions of ethics and they interest me. I find them to be challenging. But the first question for me was whether making the film was going to push him to kill himself and clearly that was not something I wanted to do. I mean, Vishner had a lot to give. And also, I wasn’t sure if he was serious. Was this just his way of getting attention? And it took three years from the time he told me. And at the very end, I still wasn’t sure if he was going to go through with it.
How long did you spend on the project?
JS – Probably five years, including the editing.
David Mehlman – We probably edited for a little over a year full-time and then about six months part-time.
JS – We had this idea of getting it done for this festival and that festival but it was something that couldn’t be rushed. One of the hardest parts was the narration. Just getting the tone of it right was difficult.
DM – There was Justin as he filmed it and experienced it and then there was Justin as he processed it. As we try to put together the story, we try to figure out what was actually going on and how that fit into the story that we were trying to tell. I think that in that first year we had lots of scenes that were great, solid scenes that went together okay. But it was gaining that perspective on Justin’s experience that enabled us to make the film cohesive and to develop the through-line. I think that just takes time. Getting perspective is hard.
JS – We showed it to people we respected and cared about and asked them to ask us the tough questions. “Why am I watching this man who is about to do this? What is your role?” It was important to go through that process.
You mention a lot in this film the Heisenberg Principle which is a cyclical fashion of whether you are affecting the subject or he is affecting you and vice versa. How do you feel about the idea that maybe your involvement could have pushed him into the idea that this is his final political stage that he had or was it something that deterred him from performing that act for years?
JS – I think it’s both. It’s bizarre. Mayer called it a “Mobius strip” [laughs]. You’re extending his life and kind of guaranteeing his death. The Heisenberg Principle is always there. It’s just often in films where it does not need to be acknowledged. It’s not that essential, it’s just taken for granted. Or not, I mean filmgoers don’t necessarily think about it but clearly he has often thought about filmmakers using the subject to tell their story. But clearly, Mayer was using me as well and that’s not inherently wrong. Why shouldn’t a subject have the right to certain agency? It just needs to be acknowledged. It’s a negotiation.
It seemed that that was what his protest was all about–that he wanted agency and the right to his own life. Do you think he succeeded in his message or political act of registering his agency?
JS – Well I think he was using me to help succeed in that. I can’t tell you how many times I begged him to make the case himself to the world but it was difficult for him to do that. He was afraid he was going to be put in the mental hospital again. That clearly was not going to help him or make him better.
DM – I’ve had the experience with people who are more in line with his ideas and also people who would never ever consider suicide as an option and would feel it’s their responsibility to save a suicidal person’s life, even if that meant putting them in a mental hospital against their will. If you get one person to maybe see Mayer or anything about Mayer and this issue differently from Mayer and if you can get them to even look around the corner and have some empathy to what he is going through, then there’s something to that. That’s important.
The film really did become almost an essay about two-sides of an issue. Should you allow a person to have the right over their own life or whether you need to step in and recognize the sanctity of life? How did you translate those arguments?
JS – I think that the lack of clarity–which really was my experience–in some ways makes it a more difficult film to watch and market. I don’t think we could have forced a perspective that we didn’t believe or feel.
DM – As a filmmaker telling real stories about real lives, I think the goal of the film is to raise questions and not to give answers. To create conversations and not to make statements. That ambiguity and emptiness was real and intentional. It’s an emptiness born from a dissatisfaction perhaps with the unanswerable questions that exist and the philosophical conundrum that you’re left with. I don’t think that’s because the film was unsatisfying but that’s certainly intentional. That’s definitely why we felt pretty strong about not holding back and showing the pain that Mayer went through. In fact, there are cuts of the film where there was more of that pain in there. It was exhausting to watch but you needed to find that balance. The way that Justin got drawn into the story, we wanted the audience to experience Mayer in that intimate way and you can’t limit that.
Mayer left a very sparse suicide note and the title is derived from the suicide note. What do you think “left on purpose” meant?
DM – He was a leftie [laughs].
JS – I think it was about him taking control over his death as an act of agency, whether you want to call it political or philosophical. I think he felt proud because when I dropped him off after that trip to Texas there was a certain weight lifted that I could feel. When I watch that footage, I can see the way he’s walking and talking that he felt like he was doing what he needed to do.
How do you feel about him saying “I wish I could see this movie?”
JS – Even at that moment I thought that maybe he won’t do it. I mean strangely enough he couldn’t find his key to his door at that moment. I told him, “Mayer, I’m not going to help you find your key. If you’re locked out of your house and this doesn’t happen then that’s your deal.” So, there was always this glimmer of possibility.
DM – I think Mayer loved language. He got all those meanings. They’re meanings that will only occur to us later and I think he knew that he wanted this to be the name of the movie. I think he knew that it embraced all of the contradictions and his sense of humor and his depression. He got that.
JS – That’s funny, I remember a few months before he died asking him whether he wanted to talk about titles for this movie. And he said, “you’ll get the title, I promise you” [laughs].
DM – “That time will come” [laughs].
If you could say one thing to Mayer now, what would it be?
DM – Put on some pants [laughs].
JS – [laughs].
I have to say, there were a couple of shots that I thought–
JS – Oh, you can only imagine.
DM – Yea, trust us, we spared you.
JS – He would open the door completely naked on occasions.
DM – This is just me personally but I just wish we better understood how to help depressed people. I wish that someone or he could have intervened in his downfall a decade ago. What I would say to him is “I’m sorry that it came to this.”
JS – Absolutely. That and I would want to thank him for sharing that pain. I feel like he really donated that pain in a way.
Has it been difficult for you guys to revisit these emotions lately with this press circuit? It seems like you guys have a lot of mental fortitude to do this.
DM – It helps to have a little distance from it. Maybe a year ago it would have been hard to talk about.
JS – It’s a little different for me because after he died I was so involved with the movie that it felt like he was still there. So now when you take time off and you go back, it takes on a much more personal tenor. Even when I was at a festival in San Francisco this summer I kind of cried answering a question.
DM – I think you having been in the midst of it through the filming, the editing, it probably did take that amount of time to get any kind of distance from it.
JS – Yeah, and now with the world taking this bizarre turn, I really miss him. One of the first shoots I went to was a demonstration with him and he was talking about the Tea Party. He said, “yeah, we call them the tea baggers.” So he appreciated their independence but he never gave them a chance of succeeding. But Mayer always thought anything was possible and never counted anybody out.
Check the film out for yourself come February 10 On Demand and at the Cinema Village Theater in New York