Q&A with Carrie Haber, writer/filmmaker/editor/composer

Films

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It’s been a while since I’ve done a post for the Insider’s series. I was wondering what to cover when I happen to meet Carrie Haber over lunch last week. She was in-house cutting a trailer for one of our newest animated films and within minutes of talking to her I realized she’d be a great subject.

This is Part 1 of our interview.

Julie Matlin: Your bio says you are a writer, filmmaker, editor and composer. Can you briefly describe what each role involves?

Carrie Haber: I write fiction and creative nonfiction and I suppose filmmaking and editing are the children of these practices. All are essentially about story, so whichever form a story takes is just that – another form. It’s skin.

I’ve learned to trust my eyes and ears before my diagnostic, analytical self kicks in, but also to have patience for those things I do not see right away, and allow them time to evolve.

Technically, curiosity and the desire to experiment have been major driving forces in my approach, and each discipline requires having good systems of organization of materials. I organize visually, and while this is natural to filmmaking, I find it really useful in writing and music as well.

Music is something I’ve studied since I was five. After playing in bands, songwriting and helping others produce music as a recording engineer, I studied Electroacoustic Composition and have been scoring radio documentaries and taking on film soundtrack work. I still play guitar and bass in a ‘rock-no’ band (don’t ask).

JM: What inspired you to get into the film industry?

CH: I don’t think of it as ‘the film industry’.  I think of every project as an isolated adventure and of having its natural argument in the world, and I see my role as that of helping it towards that goal, of making it ‘true’ to itself.

I can’t think of a single moment of inspiration, because I’ve always looked at the world in a filmic way and feel inspired quite a lot, but I can remember the moment I decided to start making a film. I was living in the Czech Republic and a story started breaking about a discovery of a WWII concentration camp for Roma, but was not being picked up by mainstream media.

Having worked as a journalist, I started researching and writing it as a print story, but the more I worked on it, the more I realized it was not a print story but a moving, evolving, and more psychologically complex entity.

My whole perspective shifted when I realized it was going to be a documentary. I was inspired by the people I’d met whose dignity had been so affronted and who were also trying to understand why what had first appeared as a unique circumstance, was sadly not a unique circumstance.

JM: How long have you been working with the NFB? Have you worked with other production houses?

CH: I’ve been working with the NFB since 2004.

I work with independent producers and production companies as well, and have worked with producers in the Czech Republic and Spain. I like experiencing the differences in work cultures, but the NFB has felt most like home.

JM: Did you go to film school? What are your thoughts on film school?

CH: I have a B.A. in Communication Studies from Concordia University, part of which entailed 16mm film production, but my specialization there was in Sound. I didn’t opt for film school because I found the focus too narrow – I think backgrounds in sociology, psychology, literature and basic photography can be as useful to filmmaking as any film school.

A lot of people thrive on the study of cinema (and certainly there’s a lot to be said for the film school community), but I learned about cameras by using them, editing by doing it, and of course read manuals until my eyes practically bled.

One of my film professors had been a student of Milan Kundera’s, and I loved that crossover, that a novelist had begat a film professor. I have writer friends who don’t see it as a natural transfer all, because they are purists about their form.

I think if you’re patient with technology and have an experimental nature, you can teach yourself anything. Film is trial and error, cause and effect. Mostly trial and effect.

JM: What was your first break?

CH: There’s a 3-part answer to that question.

1. When I was eleven, I folded 500 origami doves under my desk for Reagan and another 500 for Gorbachev and sent them off in these big boxes to their respective destinations because I was so terrified of nuclear war.

I received a perfectly courteous and interesting letter back from Gorbachev (and gave up waiting for Reagan’s response by about grade eight). It wasn’t exactly a break, but it was the first time I felt a concern had been acknowledged (in whichever modest way), that the world was smaller than I thought and it possible to converse with the source of your fears.  I remember thinking, ‘You can connect any human being with another human being if you do it with origami.’

I learned that even if the message is universal, the delivery has to be special.

2. I worked as a production coordinator for IMAX/Sandde animation the summer I graduated from Concordia, where I learned a lot about production but not necessarily about filmmaking.

I learned about finding locations. About fundraising. About development and dealmaking. It gave me some perspective of one part of the industry, but it all seemed a lot to get through in order to make a film.

Hand sewing velvet curtains for a week in preparation for a stereoscopic screening made me feel that scripting, shooting and editing were about as prominent to the film industry as the three blind mice are to the farmer’s wife. But I’ve since changed my mind about this.

3. The real break came when Margaret Wong, who’s retired now, gave me the postproduction resources for my doc. She was a real champion of indie filmmakers and really cared that we were given opportunities to learn and were treated with respect.

She brought me in to the NFB on several smaller contracts as well and when my doc started getting into European festivals she organized an internal training program for me here with some brilliant old-timers who taught me their own lifelong-honed postproduction methods – the exacting art of dialogue editing, AVID and FCP chops, conforming offline projects for online, and I spent many hours in the camera store going over all the equipment with Steve Hallé, taking manuals home to read at night. I was over the top, intoxicated with knowledge transfer!

JM: How long did it take you to get to where you are now?

CH: I feel lucky in that I’ve been able to do a lot of things. I’ve toured and worked with some incredible musicians and music producers; I used to be a broadcast and web content producer, a studio engineer at a record label, and have worked in a lot of different areas in journalism, software and event production.

I never saw this trajectory as an upwardly mobile one. I work project to project, and just feel really fortunate to be able to choose the ones that are most interesting now. I’m still learning all the time, though, and know there is a lot left to discover, technically and creatively.

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On Monday, Carrie talks about her work as an editor, the workshops she gives and her tips for breaking in to the industry.