Interview by Donna Talarico
The remaking of Great Expectations. That was one independent filmmaker’s first project.
When he was in ninth grade, Alexander—but you can call him Al—Monelli’s parents bought him a video camera. When his English teacher assigned a book report on the Dickens’ novel, he asked if he could produce a movie instead. The teacher agreed, and the result was a comedy-slash-musical retelling of the classic tale. Even though Monelli admits the video he and a classmate made was “terrible” he recalls that, even then, he knew the elements of telling a story through film: characters, shots, and the like.
In 2015, Monelli released, one at a time, a series of short documentary films about artists in a mid-size Pennsylvania city. The Lancaster Trilogy includes “Juggle,” about juggler and clown duo Cissy and the Man; “Man with Puppet,” which follows puppeteer Robert Brock of Lancaster Marionette Theater (then called Hole in the Wall Puppet Theater); and “One Hoops,” which features hoop performer Jennifer Hill.
As I watched these shorts—and as I do with any documentary—I find elements similar to those in the literary world. After all, storytelling is storytelling, no matter what the medium. I sat down with Monelli at the Prince Street Café in Lancaster, Pa., to talk about his background and process, his day job producing videos in higher education, creative work-life balance, and, of course, storytelling through film.
Donna: How did you get started with documentaries? Did you go to school for it or did you fall into it….?
Al Monelli: [My interest in] filmmaking was more just growing up in a household where my parents were very lenient with what I was able to watch, so I was watching movies as a seven-year- or eight-year-old that you wouldn’t normally watch, and I think that actually did me good—I mean, I’m not advocating for every family to do that; everyone’s different. Some children might not be able to handle that. It just introduced me to a mature side of films and that sort of got me into it… but I also love Back to the Future; that’s been my favorite movie since I was five. I love movies like that and the Wizard of Oz, and movies like Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas. So there’s that spectrum of childlike films to the mature, adult material. And then, yeah, in high school I started making my own films, so much so that my parents had to … for my birthday they got me a video recorder—a cheap one—the kind you put VHS tapes into….
[and then he shares the high school project story, which I used in my intro, so we’ll skip ahead…]
And then I went to film school in Long Island, and that’s where I was introduced to a whole new world of movies.
Did you originally go into this wanting to make documentaries? Or did you want to do feature films?
No, I wanted to be Steven Spielberg in high school, and then when I went to film school I wanted to be Stanley Kubrick or Wes Anderson—like every film student. When I started working at [Franklin & Marshall College] I started producing short documentaries about alums, and I remember one in particular that I did about this one young woman who works with—she’s a physical therapist and I went to film her in Philadelphia for two days. She had patients come in and they agreed to let me film their sessions. The one patient was a 19- or 20-year-old kid who is now paralyzed. So she had to teach him things, like basic things, like getting out of bed. I remember being like, wow, this is intense, this is real life. This kid can no longer walk. I was filming them and I caught a moment where he got himself out of bed by himself, so they had been building up to that…
Wow. I just got goosebumps.
I remember looking back at the footage in my hotel room that night and thinking, this can’t be something like college marketing film with the ‘doot, doot-do-dooo’ music in the back. It’s not gonna work.
The only way this is gonna work if this is shown—if it’s like a documentary. I had made a few short documentaries in the past in college and a previous job, but never really put a lot of thought into it. So that the moment I knew. I made it, and it got a big reaction from coworkers and the F&M community, and it ended up winning a CUPPIE [from CURPAP, a higher education marketing and communications organization] award…
I liked [this project] because it gave me a lot of control, a lot of freedom. The one thing that drove me nuts about making movies was relying on other people to show up. OK, I need a crew of people and these actors, and all these people need to be here at the same time….
And with documentaries and the way I shoot them, it became almost like a one-man-band. I’m shooting it; I don’t need to rely on really anyone except the subject, but I’m just following what they do, and they’re going to be doing that anyway. So it just became—I don’t want to say easy, but it felt right. It was a revelatory in a way.
So with the trilogy you just did, there are three—actually four—creative subjects. How did you find them? Was it the juggler and clown first, or did you always know it was going to be a trilogy?
No, it wasn’t always going to be a trilogy. I kept talking myself out of doing a trilogy. The first one—it’s just funny to think. I literally went to Google and typed in “Lancaster jugglers”.
So you knew you wanted to look at jugglers.
Yes. And I saw a few, but what we really intrigued me about Cissy and The Man is that they were husband and wife. And I just thought that was interesting. They always say you should never work with a family member; I’ve always heard ‘don’t hire your children; don’t hire your wife’ because if could cause strains on things. So just to see them draw on each other in a creative way—and, through that [film], that’s how I met Jenny; she friended me on Facebook after seeing it. She knew the Horsts, and we were both new to the area, so it was kind of a networking thing—but we never spoke, she never messaged me.
So you saw what each other did [for a living]?
Yeah. Then I just got hooked on her posts; I would see them and think, this is quirky. When I see people post online, I’m wondering what they’re really thinking. What’s going on behind the posts. I don’t believe most of what I see online; it’s obviously a created snapshot of what you want people to see. So [seeing her posts] intrigued me, and I thought, I want to get to know HER. But I kept talking myself out of it because I was working on “Man with Puppet,” which was the second one, with Robert Brock. And then I just kept seeing her posts and kept telling myself, no, I want to do something totally different [next], some ‘more adult’ thing. And I don’t know—her posts just kept showing up and intriguing me more, so I sent her an email in November 2014 and we met, actually here [Prince St. Café], and we talked… it ended up turning into 11 months of production.
Oh my goodness. So when did you start the Cissy and the Man [“Juggler”]?
April 2014. I shot and edited all in that month. So that was a quick one. “Man with Puppet” was about four months. And Jenny’s film was 11 months of just constant work—we shot from January to June, and the last thing I ever caught was the shot of her in her empty apartment. That was pretty cool. The last shot.
And that’s interesting too because, here, you’re looking at people from Lancaster, and her life was changing throughout this period. She didn’t know she was going to move that far ahead [of time], so…
So, your process, it’s dynamic…
You’re filming, and her life is changing.
Yeah, it was my twist ending. It’s funny, I was thinking a lot about “The Sixth Sense” as I was editing. Originally my conception for the film was that it was going to end with a big performance in Philly in May, but she wasn’t able to make that performance, and in the next couple of days she emailed me very casually that she was moving. And…
And you were like, “Oh no! Don’t you know about my ending?”
Yeah, exactly! I don’t have an ending. And then I sat there for a moment and thought, the movie’s about Lancaster—well not exactly about Lancaster, but things that take place in Lancaster—and ends with a person leaving Lancaster: that’s perfect. So I asked her if I could film when they were moving, and she said yes. And I know I was a nuisance that day. Imagine you’re moving out of your home and you have someone with a video camera not helping in any way; people are carrying boxes and it’s the summer and it’s hot….
With making movies you try to tell things visually, and my most proud shot is when you see a close-up of this grid of boxes and you don’t know what you’re looking at, and then they start to back away from the camera. And then she starts talking about how they have to leave, and you instantly realize, they’re moving…. and the boxes are moving… It was luck, and it’s rare [in documentaries] that you get a chance to set things up in a way where you get an actual composed, cinematic shot because you’re just reacting to what’s going on, so I was happy that happened; I feel like that’s a shot that could be in a narrative film…to help tell that story. So… I don’t remember what the question was…
I was going to ask about storytelling, and I think I know the answer to this just knowing how Jenny’s [film] ended up, but do you go into this with a plan or outline, or do you let it happen organically? How do you find that narrative arc?
You go in with a plan. Even with the F&M documentaries that I do, you go in with a theme or possible structure, knowing you might want to start it this way… It always changes. It never—in a documentary at least—goes the way you think. You get other things that are better than what you thought, and things that you thought would be super interesting just fall flat. So you have to be ready to change things on the fly. I originally envisioned that shot of Jenny alone in her apartment being the last in the film, but I started to really like when she starts talking about how a movie can’t show everything. That was sort of a meta comment, so I decided to transition into that.
Yeah. When we were watching it, my husband picked up on that. He said, ‘Of all the three films, this is the only one that mentions that she’s in a film.’ So how do you make a decision like that, to be aware of the audience?
It’s just what interests me. There’s a deleted scene from Man with Puppet where he’s on the phone with someone and says, ‘there’s a filmmaker here making a documentary about me’ and I was going to put it in but I couldn’t make it fit. It just was too much—it didn’t fit nicely in any spot. I put a deleted scenes video; it’s like a montage.
Of all three?
Just of Robert Brock. But I want to do one of Jenny because 15 minutes—Jenny’s is the longest at 15 minutes, but there’s so much more. I could have made a feature out of Jenny. I had so much more.
Wow. 11 months. I can’t imagine! That leads me to… well, you’re working with short films, so you don’t have a lot of time to tell a story, but you still linger on certain things. Like, I love the part where she was driving in her car and you lingered a little bit on the stuff she had by her steering wheel—like she had chopsticks in there. It just shows you what a neat individual she is. Like there’s chopsticks in a cup on her steering column. What makes you… how do you make those decisions to STAY? How do you want the audience to feel in those moments?
I, and this is probably something I got from watching Scorsese movies growing up… He does this a lot. His movies, first of all, aren’t traditional movies. They’re not plot-heavy; you’re just getting to know people and seeing situations that they get into. So I kind of liken his movies to documentaries. He would always do these things; there’s this shot in Goodfella’s where the guy is slicing an onion and the way he’s doing it is so precise, and it’s a specific detail and the voice-over even enhances it by mentioning the way he does it. And the close-up is so fascinating and those are the details I really like.
Showing that little holder next to her steering wheel, where you see the chopsticks and a pencil and a pen or something. It reveals things about her. My favorite shot in the movie is her backstage before the kids before the kids’ performance at the elementary school and she’s balancing a feather…
D: Yes. I love those feathers.
That one shot encapsulates her more than anything in the movie because it’s quirky, yeah, but you can see her legitimately coming through, smiling and keeping it balanced, so it’s not… I don’t think she knew I was filming at first because I wasn’t. She had her back to me and she was practicing, and I had the camera down because we were just waiting, but I thought, well that’s interesting, so I just started filming… It shows her discipline, it shows her childlike nature, it shows her happiness, it shows just a lot of –well, you can find metaphors of balance and all that kind of stuff. If I could pick one shot out of the movie that I think encapsulates here, that would be it. I like those little specific details. You get so tired of hearing someone talk. That’s another thing; I tried to put spaces and spots of the movie where there’s no dialogue.
Yeah it gives the reader—viewer—a break.
Yeah, with 15 minutes, you don’t want constant voice over.
So what about your day job? Your day job is very similar to what you do with your own filmmaking. That was one of the things I experienced when I, like you, worked in higher ed in a creative position—that you have to be so creative, and I would get so burned out with my day job that I couldn’t create on my own. So how do you balance that? Because a lot of creative people have a ‘survival job’ where they don’t really have to think, but then other people have to be creative around the clock. How do you balance that?
It’s tough. You’re right. I’m constantly having to—I just get fatigued sometimes. I feel like I’m creatively done, like I’m spent. I just do things for me. I have a morning routine, I work out. I try to cleanse the mind, so to speak. As stupid or silly or cliché as that may sound. I also get obsessive with the things I’m working on. Probably too much, but it’s when I take those breaks that you just recharge. But it’s harder when you’re doing that at your day job as well. It’s constant, but at F&M, we set things up in advance so I know that I’m gonna have to do this video in six months and that one in eight months and this one next week, so it kind of helps having my year on a white board—which is scary but also good. That’s the benefit.
So the structure and process at F&M allows you to be a little freer… Nice. So what’s next for you on the personal side?
I’m trying to come up with a feature-length documentary, and I want to do it in the same way, where I shoot everything myself, edit myself because I just like that. I found my mode of working. It’s what I like, it’s fun. The camera I use, I know the buttons inside out, and that’s key because documentaries – things happen. I shoot weddings too.
Oh? You do?
Yeah, and that really trained me for documentaries. In a way that nothing else can. Because you get one shot to get the first kiss, one shot to get the bride walking down the aisle.
Oh yeah. I never thought about it like that.
You can’t screw it up.
Because you have to deal with a bride [laughs]…
So that really has sharpened my skills. I’ve noticed an improvement in my documentary shooting from doing weddings. Any documentary filmmakers out there, I always tell them to shoot weddings. Even if you hate weddings. You can be creative and shoot them your way; it’s amazing practice.
And it’s telling a story. Of that day. So what about when you’re not behind the camera. Do you have time for any hobbies?
My fiancé would tell you I’m too obsessed with what I do… we go to the movies a lot. We watch movies a lot. Non-movie-related, I love to go running. It’s probably my favorite thing to do outside of movies. Every morning my fiancé and I get up at 5, and I’ll go running outside if it’s nice out. Or if it’s 10 degrees out like it is out now, I’ll go to a gym and run. It’s kind of what keeps that balance, it’s where I do a lot of my thinking. I come up with a lot of ideas. I highly recommend working out to anyone who has writer’s block. Take an energy drink and go work out.
Do you read any nonfiction? Or do you get all of your cues from film?
Biographies are all I read. I don’t read any fiction whatsoever—or rarely. Not that I don’t like it, I’ve just always been attracted to biographies and real-life stories. It’s funny. I should’ve gotten into documentary filmmaking much sooner than I did. I read the Steve Jobs one which was fantastic.
That’s still on my to-read pile. Actually shelf. I have a to-read shelf.
It’s great. I loved it. There’s one called Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull who is one of the co-founders of Pixar, and he wrote a book all about—it’s weird. It’s a biography, it’s the history of Pixar, and you learn how they problem-solve, so it’s kind of like learning his life story, the evolution of Pixar and how they deal with creative conflicts.
Well that’s interesting that there’s that connection there…
Yeah, definitely my favorite type of book to read. And it’s why I love podcasts. I like ones where a person comes on and they talk about their life story, what they do, as opposed to other types of podcasts.
Anything else that you’d like people to know?
I’m getting married this summer.
Who are you gonna trust to film your wedding?
Well I have a friend who is going to do some filming. But I’m also going to do some filming on the day of…
Oh wow. You’re doing double duty.
Yeah. And then maybe at the reception I’ll get my Go-Pro out.
That’s actually cool because you don’t normally see [a wedding] from that groom’s point of view. So you’ll get to add a different element…. Well, thank you for spending some of your morning with me.
I always enjoy coffee and film and storytelling.