IndieWIRE, January 12, 2008
EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling first-time feature directors who have films screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Featured in the Spectrum section at Sundance '08, "The Linguists" marks the feature debut of producing-directing team Ironbound Films, made up of Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger. Their film follows two academic, David Harrison and Greg Anderson, as they travel to places around the world in search of "endangered languages." Speaking 25 languages between them, the two men seek to discover the many disappearing languages threatended by "colonialism and economic unrest." As Sundance's Lisa Viola notes, "these humble ethnographers are in a race against time to preserve the increasingly rare words, which are intricately linked to the vanishing traditions and heritage of Indigenous populations. Well-paced and laced with humor, 'The Linguists' serves as an insightful, contemporary adventure film with a strong emphasis on cultural history."
Please introduce yourselves.
"The Linguists" was produced and directed by Ironbound Films, which consists of three filmmakers. Seth Kramer, 36, grew up in West Orange, NJ, went to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and now lives in Red Hook, NY; Daniel A. Miller, 35, grew up in Edison, NJ, went to Brown University, and now lives in Cold Spring, NY; and Jeremy Newberger, 34, grew up in Dix Hills, NY, went to SUNY Albany, and now lives in Yorktown Heights, NY. Daniel and Seth have spent the last decade producing award-winning documentaries for PBS. Jeremy has produced web content for businesses and advertisers and news packages and "Imus in the Morning" for MSNBC.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
All three of "The Linguists"' directors came upon filmmaking much as any unattractive male who came of age in the 1980s: "Dungeons and Dragons"-inspired imagination, comic book-taught storytelling, Spike Lee-stirred urgency.
How did you all learn about filmmaking?
The directors of "The Linguists" all have a background in film. Daniel A. Miller originally wanted to be a film critic, studied Art Semiotics at Brown University, and focused on documentary filmmaking and sculpture. At University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Seth Kramer made a short film called "Untitled", in which he counts grains of rice to understand the number of victims of the Holocaust. The film, which had virtually no budget, toured around the world in Jewish museums and film festivals. Jeremy's videos at SUNY Albany were more to watch while chemically altered. He found his calling the moment it became possible to stream video on the Web.
Seth and Daniel have been creating PBS documentaries together for more than a decade, including the "America Rebuilds" series, which explores engineering, business, and politics of reconstruction at the World Trade Center site; and the four-part "Great Projects" series, about the men and women who dammed, wired, bridged, and tunneled the nation together. Seth was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Programming for "Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans" (PBS, 2002). Daniel was nominated for "The Trial of Adolf Eichmann" (PBS, 1997). Jeremy produced Don Imus' television program and then became an early pioneer of internet video. He is currently co-creator, Executive Producer, and Writer of "The Fantastic Two", a serial web comedy starring William "The Refrigerator" Perry and sponsored by McDonalds and Honda.
What prompted the idea for this film and how did it evolve?
"The Linguists" director Seth Kramer was on location in Vilna, Lithuania, directing the PBS documentary "Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans" in 1999, when a local historian pointed out a public square paved entirely of Jewish tombstones. They were inscribed in Yiddish: a language Seth's grandparents spoke fluently, his parents spoke moderately, and he didn't speak.
Seth had little connection to the people memorialized by those tombstones because he couldn't read them. It made him reflect on what it means when languages are not passed between generations.
Seth came to Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger with the idea for a documentary on the subject in 2003, when they were starting a production company called Ironbound Films. Daniel and Jeremy also didn't speak Yiddish even though their grandparents did. As they began to research, they were most intrigued by those who viewed language loss not with sentimentality--as they did--but as an impending global crisis: "The Linguists."
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
The directors of "The Linguists" set out to make a film for the masses on a complicated if not head-for-the-hills topic: documenting endangered languages. Finding the most engaging characters to lead the audience through the world of linguistics was the initial challenge. The discovery of David Harrison and Greg Anderson, two young, hip, and contagiously passionate scientists, dictated the approach for the rest of the film. Their fieldwork in some of the least traveled places on the planet infused this film with danger, political unrest, and ultimately, a global hip-hop soundtrack. "The Linguists" transformed from a science documentary into a character-driven 'round-the-world adventure.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
As with almost any film, the biggest initial challenge facing "The Linguists" was raising funds. No one could imagine a film about scientists who studied languages as being entertaining.
We wanted to shoot part of the documentary to give funders a glimpse of what was possible, which is when we encountered our second challenge. The linguists we chose to follow, David Harrison and Greg Anderson, did their fieldwork in places that were barely frequented by outsiders--for a reason.
We shot first in Southwest Siberia, which was a nightmare. Even though we were told it was like Wisconsin in the summer, which is when we went, we were in no way warned about the swarms of mosquitoes and other fist-sized bugs. When we weren't stopping filming because someone's bug bite was swelling in a place that temporarily disfigured him--like a lip or eyelid--we were adjusting sound for the constant cloud of insects buzzing about the microphones.
It was incredible to watch David and Greg work despite the trying circumstances. With footage from Siberia, we were able to raise money from the National Science Foundation to finish the film.
What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?
Ironbound Films would like to get "The Linguists" in front of as large of an audience as possible at Sundance, bringing awareness to the plight of endangered languages. The three directors also each have his own celebrity at Sundance whom he'd like to meet, or at least lurk around.
What are some of your recent favorite films? Or all-time favorites, if you wish to share that?
"The Linguists" directors Daniel A. Miller, Seth Kramer, and Jeremy Newberger prefer to skip this question, as they are generally jealous of any film that has gotten more attention than theirs.
How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker going forward?
Success as a filmmaker--and perhaps in life--is elusive. Each completed film, each award, each festival is first met with elation, but then ultimately anxiety, as each accomplishment delivers a new level of objectives that require accomplishment. Ironbound Films, the directors of "The Linguists," clearly did not have parents who praised them enough, and in fact still don't. None of them are attending Sundance.
Please tell us about any upcoming projects?
Ironbound Films is hard at work on our next documentary, but to provide even the slightest detail would allow filmmakers who have better access to resources to usurp our subject matter. Again, this goes back to the "jealous of everybody" thing.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance FIlm Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.
(Photos courtesy of Ironbound Films: First photo: A scene from Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger's "The Linguist."