Word Is Out
Stories of working together

by Rob Epstein

from Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 9-10
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

WORD IS OUT was made by six people: Peter Adair, Veronica Selver, Andrew Brown, Lucy Massie Phenix, Nancy Adair and myself. Our collective name, which we gave ourselves mostly for the purpose of credits, was Mariposa Film Group.

First of all we always avoided the word "collective" whenever we could because we were never sure whether we really were one or not. But now that it is all over, we agree that we did indeed work collectively. I will attempt to show through my un-collective perspective how and why this group evolved and some of the reasons why I think it worked.

We each came to the project from diverse backgrounds in terms of film experience and how we identified ourselves as gay. Peter came up with the idea for the film, recognized the need for it, and designed the basic structure for the movie. This was around the idea of people telling their personal stories to the camera/interviewer/ audience, and intercutting these stories/characters into a dramatic form. Peter had 12 years experience as an independent filmmaker and producer for public television.

Nancy, who had no prior film experience (at the time she was driving a cab), joined her brother by initially doing videotape interviews with lesbians for a video compilation to be used for fundraising. At this time their relationship, loosely defined, was that of producer/ director and associate producer, respectively.

When an initial bulk of money was raised ($30,000 in the form of investments from people who believed in the idea and wanted to see the film get made) it neared time to begin production. Peter and Nancy asked Peter's longtime friend, Veronica, to work with them. They felt Veronica, who had just finished working as an editor on ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, had a political and filmic approach that would both compliment and contrast with theirs.

It was also decided to hire a production assistant. Andrew and I were both applicants for this job which was advertised in a local magazine. The ad read:

"We are looking for a non-sexist person to work on a documentary film on gay life. No experience necessary, just insane dedication and a cooperative spirit."

Neither of us had any prior film background to speak of. Andrew had worked as a school teacher and I was a recent college dropout from the east coast, beginning to take classes at San Francisco State and living on unemployment. It was decided that Andrew would be the paid assistant, and I was offered the opportunity to join the project as a volunteer.

During the first phase of production, the crew roles that were assigned remained consistent and unchanging except perhaps for Veronica's. Peter and Nancy traded off as interviewer/camera operator with Veronica, who was the soundperson, eventually becoming more actively involved as an interviewer. Andrew was the assistant. Peter, because of his experience, always supervised the technical aspects, including the lighting of every shot. I participated in the last two shoots as a gopher and began working in the editing room syncing up footage.

From the very beginning, there was never any authoritarian edge or arbitrariness to how we were working with each other, largely because of Peter's general attitude of openness and his ability to include people in a process. Also I feel because we were all gay and working on a project so close to ourselves, we shared a certain commonality from the beginning which made it difficult to assume a traditional working structure.

After the initial eight people were filmed, we screened the rushes together (some 15 to 20 hours). When we viewed the footage, each person had a written transcript of each interview, and we made notations of our responses in the margins. There wasn't much discussion as a group yet — other than to share excitement over the obvious "moments." But we each began forming our own relationship to the material and our own perceptions. The fact that we were using this transcript process was an acknowledgement that we each had something to say about the material. We knew that it was important to have more than just one person's view. A group dynamic was being developed, not in just a working relationship with each other but toward the material itself.

Based on our input, Peter cut together a three-hour assembly which we screened to predominantly gay audiences for feedback and financing, not necessarily in that order. We realized then that people were somehow seeing the film as a definitive statement on gay life. So we felt it needed to be broadened beyond the scope of the eight people we had already filmed.

The community screenings produced a flow of response. Involving an audience in this way critically shaped WORD IS OUT and the film was rapidly growing bigger in every way than Peter originally conceived. Audience involvement also influenced the way in which we would work in the future. Individually we saw different needs for the expanded film (as did the audiences). It became evident that a group, working as a unit with several different points of view, would be more likely to produce a "broader look at gay life" than several people working together under a more hierarchical set-up functioning to bring the "director's singular vision" to life. And the thrust, so necessary in forming such an alliance, was forming as a result of our work.

During the time of these screenings, as a group we began to discuss the expanded film — who/what to look for, first for the video pre-interviews, and then eventually for the film itself. Each member had their own priorities as to what "kind of persons" had to be included in order to achieve the certain balance each felt was important. We decided who would go to which part of the country to pre-interview on video tape which types of people. Andrew, Veronica, Nancy and I each went on our own search for gay United States, while Peter and Lucy remained in California raising money. (At this point Lucy had joined the group. While visiting the Bay Area, editing another film, she came to one of the screenings and afterwards approached Nancy, saying how excited she was and offering to do anything that needed to be done for the project. She started by working as the office manager and helped with the fundraising.)

The process of looking for people to interview and doing the pre-interviews gave me and the other three a new kind of involvement and ownership in the film. Until this point, although we certainly felt a part of the project, we were still somehow replaceable employees. The process of going out on our own gave us a new confidence and relation to our work. We were trusting our own intuitions, making our own discoveries, and coming to our own decisions. This made way for individual growth, It was a challenge which each of us was now ready for and which at the same time the film demanded.

After two months on our own, we all met in the East (Peter and Lucy flew in from California). All six of us went to Cape Cod for a two-week retreat where we lived and worked together screening tapes and discussing them for long hours each day. If there was a turning point when we began to think and talk in terms of working collectively, it was during this time. If there was one person who was responsible for the push and who encouraged the group to move in this direction, it was Nancy. She pointed out that each of us was now bringing something of unique value — no longer transmitted through Peter and Nancy herself. The new process and relationships were muddled at first, tangled by emotional frustrations. No one wanted to be pulling a power play or to be caught in one. But by the same token no one wanted to give up their new relationship to the project.

During this retreat I think we were at the most open point we would ever reach during the course of the two years we were to work together. There were marathon sessions talking openly about what the film should say and what it should accomplish. To quote from Lucy, as she remarked a year and a half later at the opening, "The film was never bigger than it was to us at that time in our minds."

What happened on the Cape was less of a struggle for power than an acknowledgement that we were beginning to share it. Yet for Peter this was a particularly anxious time. Prior to the Cape, while we were having the growing experience of traveling and getting the feeling of the new expanded film, he and Lucy were in California having to raise money. And if we were indeed going to be working in new ways together, how would this affect the film he originally set out to make? His confusion was felt by all of us. On the one hand he knew something very positive was happening. But he was worried that his original vision of the film, and his drive to see it finished, would be lost in the collective confusion if he had to share too much creative and managerial control. What we did on the Cape was to expand on Peter's original concept without altering its basic form. Looking back, I think it would have been incredibly more difficult for us if, during our initial experiences of working together, we had to come to an agreement on what the form of the film was to be.

By consensus we chose 16 more people to be in the film and decided who would interview each of them. When we then started production, the person doing the interview became more or less the director of that shoot and (with some basic guidelines) was responsible for the content of the interview. We usually worked in crews of threes and on different shoots assumed different roles. Peter taught those of us who had little or no technical experience the basic use of the equipment. Most of the shooting situations were simple enough to make this possible.

All of the crews successfully carried out the mandate of the group. An additional 16 portraits were now on film, and it was time to cut a movie. When we were shooting, people changed role assignments to correspond with our attempts to work collectively and to meet the requirements of the film itself, which needed different people to act as camera person/interviewer, depending upon who was being shot.

When it came time to edit the film we had to figure out new relations and roles all over again. This was not just because we had never edited a film together. The very nature of the editing process — as opposed to shooting — does not lend itself easily to group work. The primary responsibility for the day-to-day editing of the film was eventually taken by Veronica, Lucy and Peter (who simultaneously had the responsibilities of producing), and to a lesser degree myself. Nancy and Andrew, by their own choice, had little to do with the daily functions of editing. Andrew transferred sound and produced the men's music shoot. Nancy worked on the book (co-edited with her mother Casey and later published by New Glide/Delta). We had screenings for the whole group so that Andrew and Nancy could criticize various proposed cuts and suggest any changes which either of them felt important, so everyone was involved in critical decisions.

Towards the final editing stages I was beginning to feel trapped in the editing assistant role. I can remember often working over the editing bench while Lucy and Veronica were having heated creative discussions over at the flatbed on a section one of them was cutting. I would be envious and resentful that I was not included in the dialogue. In my more rational moments I realized that things shouldn't be any other way because I did not yet have the experience. Someone had to do the assistant work and it was most logically me. And if I really wanted to be an editor when I grew up, I had to pay my dues. This may not have been a problem in a regular job situation where I had no choice but to accept the hierarchical structure, but in this situation it was difficult. Perhaps it is a necessary contradiction in a collective situation — being absolutely equal in some situations (i.e., shooting and critiquing the rough cuts) and unequal in others (they were at the flatbed and I was at the rewinds).

At one point it seemed evident to me that the film needed a fourth editor. I felt that I was ready to work on some smaller scenes. (Also, Amanda Hemming, who had been working as a volunteer, took over the responsibilities of the assistant.) All of this says three things: (1) I learned to be more pushy, or to put it in current terms, assert my needs. I think this is largely because 2) there was an openness in the group which enabled us to make demands; we were able to give and take. And 3) the project itself was expansive enough to allow for and sometimes require this kind of personal growth.

We allowed a lot of time for "process." As with most meetings, people would often get frustrated with the amount of time we had to spend "discussing", but ours were structured to help to diffuse that frustration. We used a simple process at most meetings called "pass the rattle" (a method which Nancy introduced to the group borrowed from a Native American tribe). When we "passed the rattle," we would go around the circle allowing each person to talk without interruption for as long as they wished. If we were in a hurry for some reason, we would apply a time limit but usually we didn't. We used this technique in a variety of ways: 1) To evaluate and improve working methods, for instance after a shoot. 2) In dealing with interpersonal problems and tensions related to work. In this area sometimes we went around the circle criticizing each other member and in turn criticizing ourselves. Also when a person had a conflict with his/her role within the group, time was set aside to deal with this after passing the rattle. 3) Most of these sessions were devoted to "working meetings"; that is, we used this structure to talk about the film. For example, we used it in selecting interviewees, in critiquing rough cuts, in most decisions that were made.

The main rule was that no one could interrupt, except in asking for a point of clarification. The process encouraged equal participation, and it meant everyone got listened to. It was also a way to express anger and frustration within a structured process (several explosive situations were diffused). If we needed to reach a consensus and hadn't the first time around, or if points were made which an individual wanted to respond to, we always had the option of going around again.

While we were working on the film, we each got paid $100 a week, except for the office manager who got $25 a week extra for doing the dirtiest work. Also, early in post-production it was decided that the "office manager" and anyone else who worked on the project from that point on, would not be considered as part of the "core group." Although Kathy Glazer, as office manager, Amanda Hawing, as assistant editor, and Tracy Gary, as fundraiser, were very much a part of the making of WORD IS OUT, we made a conscious distinction at that point as to who made up the core collective, based on the history we already had with the project.

Twenty-six people are in the final film. There were eight before the role of "director" (Peter) evolved into the "collective process" (six of us). As six individuals we each had different methods of working and responding. This was reflected in the many different aspects of how the movie was made (i.e., in finding potential interviewees, selecting of interviewees, screening rough cuts, absorbing community reaction, etc.). Different people articulated different needs and priorities for the film. Yet always the individual was functioning as part of the unit. When someone stated their own particular idea or priority or reaction, it was then put forth before the unit to either absorb or reject.

This to me is the key breakdown of our collective process and how it shaped the larger film. The individual in a variety of situations had a certain amount of autonomy and power always with the support, encouragement, and feedback from the group. What was produced by the individual — be it as interviewer or editor or whatever — was then integrated as part of the work of the unit/group. Despite the differences in experience, age, backgrounds, we saw ourselves and each other as equally involved and committed to the unit.

Although we were consciously working collectively, we all sometimes had ambivalent feelings about the process. This ambivalence was related to the fact that we couldn't come to a practical definition of the collective process. We would never come to an ultimate definition or conclusion of how we were working together because it continually changed.

We tried to set up a structure that encouraged everyone to give their maximum. For this to be possible, our process at all critical points allowed for equal input. We were able to work as a group because we shared a similar vision of the film, the same vision that attracted each of us to the project. Only at the very lowest points of working together when under extreme tension did we ever see in each other critical differences in perspective, which for the time being overshadowed our singular goal. We were able to fight and hate and struggle and love, all the while growing and coming out stronger through the process. And we made a movie.

After the film was finished, and realizing that we needed a name, we decided to call ourselves Mariposa Film Group. Asked in a press interview, after the film was released, "When did you become a collective?" the response was, "In retrospect."


This article was originally written for a "Workstyles" workshop at the Alternative Cinema Conference at Bard College in June 1979.