SIFF 2019: An Interview with David Shields

During SIFF 2019, I saw a screener of the film Lynch: A History after a mutual friend put me in touch with the director/writer/producer, David Shields. Experimental films and I don’t have a good track record, so I was surprised when I enjoyed the film, which builds a narrative entirely out of already-existing media. The viewing also left me with questions, so I emailed them to David a couple days later. I received his replies the following day, but time constraints have prevented me from posting them until now. And if you missed the film during the festival, there’s some good news for you at the end of this interview.

1.) The book on which you loosely based this movie (Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season) deals with the NBA. Why did you decide to change your focus to the NFL and Marshawn Lynch in particular?

I tried various iterations of the basketball version, and it just didn’t work. The book felt dated; so, too, there wasn’t an NBA team anymore in Seattle, and my interest was in the Seahawks and Marshawn Lynch. Every issue I tried to get to in Black Planet I could get to more powerfully via Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks.

I decided to focus on Marshawn Lynch because I was drawn to his use of silence as a form of protest: 1) the source of that silence in a history of Oakland—its legacy of troublemakers who often use brilliantly symbolic means to question society; 2) the deepening of that silence in Buffalo; 3) the silence going viral in Seattle; 4) then the silence becoming politicized later in Seattle and weaponized, in the best possible sense, back in Oakland; 5) and finally that silence being passed on as legacy on to the next generation of black athletes.

I’m also very interested in Marshawn Lynch being someone who tries to be true to himself in a capitalist, racist society that he’s trying to both exploit and oppose. As Albert Camus says, “The only way to deal with an unjust world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” No one is absolutely free, but Marshawn Lynch is thrillingly close.

2.) Why did you decide to make a film using only archival material, as opposed to a documentary that mixes archival with new material?

We approached Marshawn Lynch, and he declined to participate; he also said, via his representatives, that he would not impede the film, either. A lot of my previous books use the principle of appropriation/remix/transformation/free use as a generating strategy. This approach struck me as the best MO for this film, since the last thing we wanted for this film was a standard talking heads film. We wanted the film to feel like YouTube folk art, and in that way we thought the film would feel congruent with Marshawn Lynch’s ethos. So, too, we wanted the film to feel like a zigzag touchdown run, and the 700 clips—edited to within an inch of their life—gave us that compression, concision, velocity, violence.

3.) Did you have an idea of where the narrative would go before you looked at the clips, or did the clips dictate the direction the narrative went?

Yes, the film has very definite beats, and it even has—dare I say it?—a classical narrative structure. It’s the Prodgial Son Returneth. The film starts in Oakland, where Lynch is “made,” in many ways; in Buffalo, he tries to conform, but he finds himself treated poorly by the media; in Seattle he finds a resurrection of sorts, for at least a while, before that curdles on him. Finally, back in Oakland, he seems to have found a way to continue his legacy.

See, too, my answer to the first question: the film is really about Lynch’s use of silence as a form of protest, resistance, and defiance. And that silence goes through five unmistakable phases: origin, deepening, popularizing, politicization, legacy. That is the core of the film.

4.) Who found and compiled all these clips?

I worked with several people to find the clips. Primarily, Christian Palmer, James Nugent, and I found the clips. A few other people helped as well.

5.) How many editors did it take to stitch these clips together into a cohesive narrative? What sort of guidance (if any) did you give them? How long did this process take?

James Nugent and Christian Palmer and I are the main editors. It took us four years. I worked very closely with both of them on a frame by frame and day by day basis. I can’t overemphasize enough the massive work that James Nugent did on this film. He came onto the film after about a year, and he did everything from musical production to lead editor to tech guru to everything else.

6.) Did you have any rights or permissions issues in obtaining these clips or including them in the film? Are you able to show the film outside of film festivals, or do rights issues prevent you?

See my earlier answer. My copyright attorney is Robert Clarida, who advised me every step of the way. The principle of fair use/transformation guided our every decision: taking as brief a clip as possible, being sure to make a commentary via our juxtaposition, and making that commentary legible to the “average viewer.” The film has passed through all legal vetting and will be shown widely in theaters and via a streaming service.

My thanks again to David Shields for taking the time to answer my questions.