CIFF ’15: Cook, Schnack on honing Field of Vision

Less than two weeks after announcing their visual journalism unit with Laura Poitras, Charlotte Cook (pictured, center) and AJ Schnack (right) caught up with realscreen at the Camden International Film Festival to discuss their master plan for Field of Vision.
September 21, 2015

Less than two weeks after unveiling their documentary unit with Citizenfour director Laura Poitras, Charlotte Cook and AJ Schnack caught up with realscreen at the Camden International Film Festival to discuss their plans for Field of Vision. 

Field of Vision may have come as a surprise to the vast majority of the documentary community when it was announced on September 9, but filmmaker AJ Schnack and former Hot Docs programming director Charlotte Cook – co-creators of the project, alongside Poitras – assure it wasn’t meant to be as such.

“To make an announcement in March when we started working on [Field of Vision], we knew we wouldn’t have any content until the fall, and to wait six months before you can show people what you really want to do just wasn’t appealing,” Schnack tells realscreen, sitting in a harborside restaurant in Camden, Maine.

“It was less about keeping a secret and more about being ready to tell everyone exactly what we hoped to be able to accomplish, and then be able to show people work really quickly after that,” he adds.

laura poitras

Laura Poitras

And for the Field of Vision crew, that means later this week, when some of the inaugural season’s offerings are revealed at the New York Film Festival (NYFF) on September 27, alongside Poitras’ previously announced series on Julian Assange, Asylum.

Two days later, the team will release its first film – a selection that “may or may not” have played NYFF, and is still being finalized. Then, 10 to 12 films are to be rolled out until about mid-November or early December, followed by another two seasons in the new year.

The division is backed by media organization First Look Media, which was founded in 2013 by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. The mogul later brought on Poitras, journalist Glenn Greenwald and investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill to head the company’s first project, the news site The Intercept. Field of Vision, which is published via The Intercept, is the media company’s most recent undertaking.

Poitras first discussed plans for a visual journalism project with Schnack in April 2014, but it wouldn’t be until that August when the pair started hammering out an outline for Field of Vision. Realizing they needed a third collaborator, Schnack says they began “courting” Cook in October, and by March the team was doing a site visit in New York. In May, they began commissioning projects.

Altogether, the Manhattan-based Field of Vision aims to commission and create about 40 to 50 original episodic and individual films per year, specializing in visual journalism that leverages the short form to tell reactive and timely stories with a fast turn-around.

Some of the directors with films in the first season include Michael Moore, Kirsten Johnson, and Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, as well as fiction directors, artists and photographers. Crucially, says Schnack, their work will exist well outside the news reports on a particular subject.

As for what those subjects will be? Audiences can expect from the fall season a film on the migrant crisis in Europe; the homeless population in Brazil and its relationship with pet dogs; an examination around vandalism charges in Detroit against artist Shepard Fairey; and an Arkansas town with a non-discrimination law on the books protecting its LGBT community.

What exactly will this reactive framework for Field of Vision look like?

AJ Schnack: For us it’s about, ‘Here’s a different way to do the thing that we do.’ And as a filmmaker often, you see something and you go, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting story, there’s something that can be told right now.’ But how do you do that? If you go to a funding organization and say, ‘I’m interested in this story,’ it’s like, ‘Okay, write a proposal and we’ll get back to you in three months.’ And, meanwhile, the story’s happening. And if you’re going and working with a broadcaster, it’s kind of a similar thing unless you can predict the story happening in advance.

Charlotte Cook: [We’re interested in] seeing filmmakers and artists play with ideas that maybe don’t fit a feature or the other work that they’re doing, but they’re really interested in. Every filmmaker I’ve ever spoken to has always said, ‘I’m really interested in this but it’s not something I’d do as a feature.’ And to have that kind of playground is what I hope we become.

Schnack: And we’re still building structures and scaffolding. We’re getting a new media player, we’re building all of the things in-house that will support the work that we want to do. But I hope we get to the point where we can say, ‘This thing is happening, what’s a different, interesting take on it?’ and talk to some filmmakers who are maybe local to where it’s happening and say, ‘What are you interested in doing about this?’ And we can get an artistic view of that story up on our site within a few weeks, and have it be something that’s very different from the news reports.

Cook: We’re so excited about episodic. I think that’s what’s going to be really fun: to see how that’s working in an online context, and telling a story over a certain amount of episodes is really interesting.

Schnack: That’s something that we’ll be experimenting with more and more. We have a bunch of one-offs and then a two-parter and Laura’s series that we’re starting with. But as we go, [we’re interested in] the ability to look at a story over time and also from different filmmakers’ viewpoints. We really want to do something where there’s something interesting and we send three or four different filmmakers and they each come back with a different take on it.

The New York Times’ Op-Docs is the obvious comparison here. Why do we need Field of Vision when we have Op-Docs? 

Cook: We don’t have to compare to each other. We’re in an interesting time in storytelling online where people are watching work that way, and the idea that you can’t do that because someone else is doing it, that’s crazy to me – we’re not going to be the same as others. We love what Op-Docs and AJ Plus are doing, but what we’re doing is a slightly different perspective. What we wanted to bring in was the filmmaker perspective, and a different take on things. But we’re not trying to compete in any way.

Schnack: [Jason Spingarn-Koff] did an amazing job at Op-Docs. He built something that quickly everyone understood what it was, and gave a lot of filmmakers the opportunity to contribute. And had Laura not made the [William Binney] film, there would be no Citizenfour. We’re inspired by it rather than feeling like we’re tying to replace it or duplicate it.

michael moore

Michael Moore in Where to Invade Next

How did you get someone like Michael Moore, for example, on board? 

Cook: Laura called him and said we were doing this thing and he said ‘yes’ straight away because I think he was just excited about the idea. Every filmmaker has all these stories they’re just not prepared to commit two years of their life to but are still really passionate about. He’s in the midst of doing this big film but there are obviously tangents to that story that he couldn’t fit in the film.

Schnack: We’re interested in a couple of situations. Let’s say you’re in the middle of a project you know is a four-year project, but you’ve just shot this thing that is timely and deserves to be out in the world now. Laura’s film about William Binney ended up being the reason why [Edward Snowden] contacted her, because she made that film for [The New York Times’] Op-Docs.

That’s a really good example of what I’m talking about: she made a film and she said, ‘I’m working on this bigger project, but this is something that people should see right now.’ We’ve lost the days of the DVD extra, and I think that’s something we’d be perfectly happy to consider doing. For certain films, the thing you couldn’t fit into a film but is a good scene and can stand on its own.

Will you be helping to develop the projects?

Schnack: I think it’ll be a mixture of direct commissions from us, where it’s our idea and we say we want to find a filmmaker, and it’ll be some filmmakers who come to us and say they want to do something, and then there may be some cases where filmmakers say they’ve been working on something and want to get something up.

What will the budgets for the films look like?

Schnack: It’s really a range because we are talking about episodic. It’s our goal to make sure if a filmmaker is working on it for a month, that their expenses are covered for that month.

Cook: We’re paying what they cost to make. The last thing we’d ever want is for a filmmaker to be out of pocket from working with us. The joy of us being filmmaker-driven is that both Laura and AJ have worked in ways that have been good and bad and we want to be the good guys. So it’s very much considered a conversation. And no one so far has incurred any costs we haven’t covered.

Will anyone be able to access the films on the Field of Vision site? 

Cook: Yeah, but we don’t want to hold filmmakers back if they get opportunities from other avenues. We’re really looking at different ways. Essentially: what is the best thing for the film? If that means doing a distribution deal with someone else, then we’re really open to that. Ultimately, all the films will end up on Field of Vision, but the way that they go out is dependent on the film and what’s best for it.

Schnack: We’ll definitely be working with partners. And that might be a partner that has a window before, but we’ll be working together to make sure that the film gets out. We also think that because we can move quickly, there will be opportunities for some potential distribution partners that we’ve been talking to who don’t have the same opportunity to be nimble in terms of getting money going. So we can get something started and then may find that it’s a project that can be shared or grow with the right partner.

What will you each be responsible for? 

laura poitras' asylum

Laura Poitras’ Asylum

Cook: We’re figuring it out and sharing responsibility. I’m the person based in the office. Just making sure everything’s going, and also I still very much want to keep in the pool of seeing what’s coming out there and the filmmakers, so I’ll be doing a lot of talent scouting. AJ is our ideas guy by far, so he’s been leading the charge on the subject matter.

Schnack: Laura’s been giving notes and curating the decisions we’re making.

Cook: The care she does on the editorial side is phenomenal. The work she’s done with a lot of the filmmakers and learning how to encourage them and support and push them. This is going to evolve as we all work on different films.

Could a feature-length project be a possibility later on? 

Cook: If you consider the episodic factor, a lot of those will in their duration be kind of equivalent to a feature. Asylum certainly is – it’s actually longer than a standard feature-length. But we are interested, and the parent company is interested, if the right one came along. But they will be a slightly rare occurrence – maybe one or two a year, maximum. What’s really driving us is the episodic factor and having filmmakers realize it’s a different way of telling a story.

Schnack: One thing we want people to understand is that we’re not, in making the shorts, being a development fund. It’s not like we’re talent scouting in that we’re not making something and going, ‘Okay we’ll choose two of these and develop them into features.’

What does Field of Vision mean for your other projects?

Schnack: It’s been really good timing in a couple of ways. A film my usual working partner Nathan Truesdell and I have been making for the last year and a half, we just handed over the footage to an editor, so it’s great. He can work in full selects and go for a little while as we’re launching the project. That’s a film we’ll try to have ready for 2017. Nate and I are back on the campaign trail doing some filming. That will not be for [Field of Vision], but it is something we’re really excited about and we don’t know what the form of it is.

Cook: Two thirds of us are filmmakers and there would be no way we could do the job we were doing unless they could still make their work so we’ve set it up in a way that that’s possible – in the same sense that I’m a curator and programmer at heart, and I need to still be able to do that.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.