Not to worry! Michel Negroponte, award-winning filmmaker went through countless rejections before getting into the right film festival. The rest was history. Get inspired and learn to count on the power of perseverance while getting to know the colorful characters that shaped his work
Current Residence: NYC, NY
Areas of Focus: Documentary
Your film “Methadonia” looks at those who are caught in a limbo between heroin and sobriety that involves getting hooked on Methadone; which in some cases is more addictive than the heroin itself. What was it like following the lives of these vulnerable people?
I can easily understand why most people would call the various characters in Methadonia vulnerable, but they have many other qualities as well. For one thing, they’re survivors. Because the film looks at the plight of older drug users, most of the characters have been stuck in the world of addiction for decades. But once I got to know them well, I admired their resilience. They seemed to pull hope and inner strength out of thin air.
What was it that appealed to you about making a film of this nature?
I knew that it would be an immense challenge to make an audience feel empathy for the characters in Methadonia. It might be a bit different in England, but in America, most people think of drug users as the dregs of society. But I think we can learn a lot from outsiders. So the idea of trying to describe the characters in a complex and likable fashion appealed to me.
Did you encounter any problems while filming? If so how did you overcome them?
It wasn’t easy to film some of the most dramatic moments in the film, for instance when George discovered that his roommate had accidentally burned up their apartment and made the two of them homeless. It wasn’t easy to film Steve’s despair when he was stoned and completely out of it. Photographing that kind of material is raw and heart wrenching, and it affects me. But given the subject matter, I knew I would invariably encounter moments like that, and I was emotionally prepared. Also, I’m a seasoned filmmaker, and once I commit myself to a film project, I feel it’s my responsibility to tell the story completely and faithfully.
One of the most charismatic characters in the film was Steve; his story a source of inspiration for others trapped in liquid handcuffs. How did you feel at the end of his story?
I was deeply moved by Steve’s determination and persistence. When I started filming him, he was a homeless junkie. Three years later, he wasn’t using drugs and he was reunited with his family. That kind of complete transformation seemed essential, and I think audiences might have found the film intolerably grim without his presence. Believe me, I was pleased to the end the film on a hopeful note.
You are probably best known for your documentary “Jupiter’s Wife.” In this work you look at the life of Maggie; a woman you met in Central Park who claims to be married to the god Jupiter and the daughter of Robert Ryan. Could you tell us the story of how you met Maggie?
My first intention was to make a film about Central Park, so I was already crisscrossing the park on a regular basis with a camera in hand. I thought the film would be a personal essay about my childhood connection to the park – essentially my backyard – and my aim was to make a film with a plethora of characters. I was literally sitting on a bench near one of the boat ponds when I saw a woman with a huge back-pack and four dogs go into a public restroom. I was intrigued and waited for her. When I introduced myself, she calmly said her name was Maggie and that she had been expecting me. So I would describe it as a chance encounter, but Maggie insisted it was preordained. In any case, she gradually overwhelmed my Central Park project and became my exclusive subject.
What were your first impressions of Maggie?
I thought Maggie was wonderfully enigmatic, and I was particularly amazed by her poetic language. She was fascinating to talk to, and very knowledgeable about a range of subjects, including Greek mythology. I also found Maggie’s upbeat attitude admirable. She was homeless, but she seemed to have landed in Central Park from either another century, or another part of the universe. Maggie defied all the stereotypes of homelessness, and that appealed to me.
Did you know about Maggie Cogan’s past when you first met her?
No. From the beginning, her personal stories were a such a strange mix of fact and fiction that I didn’t know what to believe. It took me months to unravel her real past. Maggie did mention that she had been a carriage driver in Central Park, but she was vague and elusive about the subject. I think it was about a year after I met her that I felt inspired to do a random search at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC for archival material about carriage drivers in Central Park. I nearly fell out of my chair when I found that old, black and white newsreel film featuring Maggie. Later on, I made contact with a friend of Maggie’s named Lisa, the daughter of the Hollywood actor Robert Ryan. She asked if Maggie had told me about her appearance on the famous television 1960′s game show, “What’s My Line?” Maggie hadn’t mentioned a word about it. I tracked down the remarkable video clip and obviously used it in the film. So figuring out her story took a great deal of patience and detective work.
“Jupiter’s Wife” was honored with numerous awards including one received at the Sundance Film Festival, What was it like to see your film received so positively?
I was a bit surprised by the reaction. I worked on the film for years and applied for a number of grants to make it. I can’t tell you the number of rejections I got. My first approaches to television networks were also unsuccessful, so it was an immense struggle to get the film made. But these rejections were all based on rough cuts of the film. Perhaps it’s the kind of film that had to be completed for people to really get? Or maybe it was all the finishing work, like the original music, that made the film sparkle? Whatever the case, once the film was screened at Sundance, it took off. It went to countless festivals, was aired on networks all over the world, and distributed theatrically. Many years later, it’s still in active distribution. I think the moral to the story is don’t give up!
Do you have any advice for budding filmmakers trying to break into the industry?
It’s simple: Make your own films. Even if you have the proverbial “day job,” make your own work. It will keep you centered, and sane. With digital filmmaking, you can work cheaply. I shoot and edit my own work, so I encourage young filmmakers to try the solo approach. I know it’s not for everyone, but the singular approach strikes me as process oriented, and encourages filmmakers to find their own voice. Painter’s paint, writer’s write, and musicians compose; they generally work alone. So I hope the next generation of filmmakers will experiment with a similar approach. I think it will generate a more personal and creative approach to making films.
Do you have any upcoming films?
Last year, I finished a film called I’m Dangerous with Love, a sort of sequel to Methadonia. The film is an underground adventure about a former drug user who takes addicts through an experimental – and illegal – detox treatment using a psychedelic derived from an African plant called iboga. The film was shot in New York, Mexico, Canada and Gabon, Africa, where Iboga has been used as a sacrament in an old religion called Bwiti.
At present, I’m well into a new film project called The Autobiography of Michelle Maren. The subject, Michelle, ran away from an abusive home as a teenager and then spent almost a decade in the sex industry. She’s also been diagnosed with 17 different mental disorders and been on a total of 27 different psychotropic medications. But I think being involved with this film project has been healing for her. She’s shot a good deal of the footage herself. Collaborating with a subject on such an up-close and intimate portrait has been a fascinating experiment and I’m very excited about it.