Director Interview: Ian Cheney on THE ARC OF OBLIVION

THE ARC OF OBLIVION, a new documentary by Ian Cheney (THE MOST UNKNOWN) executive produced by Werner Herzog, Robyn Metcalfe, and Greg Boustead and Jessica Harrop of Sandbox Films (FIRE OF LOVE), is a travelogue-style film that takes the human urge to preserve—embodied by an ark—as a jumping off point. The film made its world premiere at SXSW, and its international premiere at CPH:DOX where we sat down with Cheney to discuss his thoughts on visualizing science and the collaborations that were central to the project.

Science & Film: THE ARC OF OBLIVION has a sort of handmade quality and beautiful animations, how did you come to that tone and style and how was that related to the subject of the film?

Ian Cheney: I think I've come to a place where I want the style of a film, like the animation, the way we shoot it, but increasingly also the soundscape–almost like the physical culture of the film–I want that to really emerge from the film topic. I suppose it sounds like, why wouldn't you do that? I haven't always put in that work. But I've loved when a film I've worked on has been able to respond to the subject matter with the very fabric of the film itself. So for this film, it seemed like if we were going to be cutting to archival imagery, it shouldn't just look like every other film that cuts to archival imagery–full screen. It should do so a little bit self-consciously. It can end up feeling all very film school, but I tried to give it a certain, as you suggested, a certain whimsical tone that would allow us to haul this tiny, silly little TV all around the world and put it on icebergs, and in the Sahara Desert, and so on and so forth. It was a mirthful solution to the problems of how we tell the story–how memory works and how archives works.

S&F: You have a lovely voiceover throughout, but we don't see you right away. I read the television sort of as the presence of the filmmaker.

IC: Yeah, sort of a proxy for my recall, my memories, and a little bit of a stand-in too. I reluctantly came to realize that I needed to voice this film. It was really hard to explain why an ark is going up in a field in Maine, and then all these peripatetic journeys around the world, without somebody's sensibility really driving it. Probably 10 years ago, I vowed to never do the voiceover thing again and put myself in the movie.

S&F: Why?

IC: Because I felt like I didn't really nail it [at the time], and it wasn't really me, and it felt very much like a construct and a crutch. And so, I think I came around to it with this film only because I felt like I could do it in a new way. And I think I did, whether the audience notices or cares or not, when I watch the film, I feel like I found my voice.

S&F: Yeah, it feels personal in a way.

IC: Archives are personal. I think there might have been a sort of misleading sterility to the film, if it didn't have a personal perspective. No archive is objective, so let's stop pretending that it is.

Still from THE ARC OF OBLIVION, courtesy of Sandbox Films and Wicked Delicate

S&F: I'm curious about your relationship to science and to scientists, and how you chose the path you follow in the film.

IC: I've been in a headspace these past few years of trying to really rethink how science is explored on screen. Yeah. I don't say communicated, because I think that word has become loaded or problematic in some ways. It has certain connotations that maybe are dragging us as filmmakers down a little bit. So I'm in a headspace where I'm trying to figure out: How can I share with audiences the feeling I get when I'm bombing around with scientists, which is a feeling of questioning and wonder and surprise and serendipity, and unexpected twists and turns. And those are things that I think should be part of the science film experience for the audience, even if it comes at the expense of some of the things we previously looked to science films for, like tidy explainers and delivery of encyclopedic numbers of facts, and profiles of grand discoveries, et cetera, et cetera. What I understand from many scientists I've spoken to, the allure of science is not only that hope that you'll make a great big discovery and deliver a tidy package to the world, but that everyday experience of pursuing wonder. With this film's constellation of topics, it seemed like I had an opportunity to share with audiences, what now seems very obvious, but sort of blew my mind and changed my way of seeing the world when it sunk in, which is this idea that the world around us is an archive. The universe is an archive. Not in a dusty, old, predictable sense, but in the sense of being filled with stories and mysteries.

That's one of the reasons I front-loaded in the film this idea that the natural world–tree rings and rock layers, ice cores–is an archive, because I wanted that to be the spiritual context for the movie. That's part of what science means to me. The idea that the process of science or the tools and training of science arm you with this ability to see the world in a very new way, in the same way that poetry can.

If I may, the other thing... And I haven't really figured out how to put this into words yet, but it's been coalescing over these past few projects, is I've been trying to change the way I think about depicting science on film. Part of that is not just regurgitating what I see out in the world, but it's treating the films themselves as experiments, not scientific experiments with X, Y variables, but as open-ended, wondrous journeys. That was part of the underpinning of THE MOST UNKNOWN; let's set up this thing and see what happens, and maybe that will refresh our gaze of science. I think some of the same spirit underpins The Arc of Oblivion; this idea of, I'm gonna participate in this story, and intervene and bring people interesting places, and in that way try to scratch at something a little more deeply than just illustrating some great facts that you might be able to see on Wikipedia anyway.

Still from THE ARC OF OBLIVION, courtesy of Sandbox Films and Wicked Delicate

S&F: How to make science dramatic using the moving image medium sounds like one of the things you're grappling with.

IC: The way I think about it is that there are different ways of translating science. There are filmmakers who really excel at condensing difficult ideas or visualizing un-visualizable ideas, and it's beautiful, and I love that–there's a kind of magic to that. I think this is a different type of translation. And I'm still figuring it out. I've started forcing myself to think about a text card or narration, in the beginning of the film, and [how it] just puts me in a different headspace rather than like, you know, I'm going to prove this thing that I already thought. This is an open-ended journey. I want to communicate that to the audience, but I also need to keep myself in that headspace, because there's an enormous amount of momentum going to pushing you in the other direction [when making a film].

S&F: Can you talk a little bit about who your main collaborators were, and how it was getting them on board with that experimental conceit or mindset?

IC: One of my main collaborators was my brother, who is a poet by training, but has always played music and has been dipping into music more recently, the past three or four years. I asked him if he had any sample [tracks] that I could use in a in a work sample early on where I was trying to figure out the tone of the film. And he said: I've actually been folding archival materials into the music. He didn't even know what the movie I was working on was about! There was something sort of lovely about the idea that as brothers we were both at this point in our lives where we have kids, and we're both grappling with that growing body of archives, but also, we have older parents and have been digging through their materials. So, there was this personal impetus to entangle ourselves in archival materials.

Another collaboration was with my friend Melissa McClung, who did the animations for the film. We decided to shift how we [filmmakers] usually create animations. [We suggested,] why don't you just be part of our journey? We'll let the animation experiments nudge the film in different ways. Melissa was really helpful in nudging the film's whimsy along because a lot of her ideas are sort of beautifully bananas. We tried all sorts of things. We tried to animate as the ark was being built so we would have like hard drives climbing all over the ark and it was too difficult to control the light... That process of treating the animations as an early, integral part of the film's journey was really helpful in finding the tone and style.

Our producers were beautifully imaginative in the way they would research things. The first wave of research was where we had to go through this process of imagining somebody had hired us to make a film about human memory, archives, impermanence, what does that film look like? It was interesting and fascinating, but somehow it didn't feel right. It didn't feel related to the ark, it didn't feel tonally like the film we wanted to make. So, we pushed past that to another level of trying to find slightly more unpredictable corners of the research world that could help the film maintain its spirit of surprise, which is part of what I love about archives. If you were thumbing through the archive of the planet Earth, what would you stumble upon?

S&F: It's treasure hunting.

IC: Yeah. You know, at first, I wanted to let our journeys be born out of the physical materials of the ark. After it went on though, it was like, well, the ark is still being made out of wood. What do we, talk about the nails? Eventually we had to move on from that but keep coming back to the sawdust.

S&F: Speaking of the ark, how are your parents?

IC: My dad designed the ark, he sort of moonlit as an architect while he was a photography teacher. He's retired, so he loved a quirky design project. It's not often that a client comes to you and says, I'll pay you no money, dad, and can you design me an ark? And then, can I build this in your field? But he wasn't skeptical at all, which, maybe, is just he knows me.

I think there are lingering questions about what will become of it. I wondered if it would become obvious at some point what its future purpose would be or should be. And the closest I got, which I talked about in the film, is the ark is this space for kind of tangling with memories. It's a place where we made the film, the place where we interviewed people, a place where we made all the animations–it's the set. So if we really internalize that any vessel cannot be a permanent, foolproof repository for our dreams and our records and our archives, then what is it good for? It's good for immersing ourselves in them and having what fun we can while we can. Although Greg and Jess [the executive producers] want to flip it and make it into an Airbnb.

S&F: Totally.

IC: It's probably a better way of making money from the film than as a film, let's be honest. [laughs] It's a tough marketplace out there, but dang, people love Airbnb.

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