In the mainstream media, especially in a deeply polarised country like the USA, stereotypes abound regarding unhoused people living in large cities. But homelessness is often just one or two missed paychecks away; with no two people living on the streets there for the same reason. In his lyrical and poetic documentary, Christian Schultz (last seen on DN here) drops in on the lives of three unhoused people on the streets of Austin, Texas. Eschewing explicit political aims in favour of an empathetic deep dive – deploying stark black and white cinematography, poetic voiceover, a great sense of nature and beauty, intimate close-ups and flowing Steadicam shots – the final result is a touching, transformative experience that really gets us inside its subjects’ lives. We talked to Schultz alongside DOP Oscar Ignacio Jiménez about avoiding generic talking points, the benefits of monochrome and the advantages of shooting a documentary like this with minimal crew.
When did you guys start collaborating as filmmaker and DOP?
Christian Schultz: In 2020 I was in Salt Lake doing a commercial. Me and a friend of mine were watching filmmakers from Salt Lake, and he said: “Have you seen this movie called The Killing of Two Lovers?” And I was like, “No, I haven’t.” But I’d heard of it. It was going around festivals and becoming this acclaimed movie at the time. So we watched it, and it was by far one of my favourite movies of that year, if not probably in the last 5-10 years, in terms of the cinematography and the simplicity of the story. So I immediately did research on who the fuck shot this movie. Then I had this project in pre-production a little bit after that, and I was like, let’s get Oscar involved in this.
We wanted to make something not just about homelessness, but something a little bit more poetic.
Were you in Austin when you came across this story or is this something that you were interested in before you decided to go there?
CS: I’ve worked in this doc space for a couple of years. We made a film called Inherit The Earth that was about kids in Southwest Baltimore that were at risk. That started out about wanting to make something about food insecurity. It was similar with this but we wanted to make something not just about homelessness, but something a little bit more poetic.
The other big hubs that we were looking at were obviously LA and where I live in New Orleans. But Austin turned out to be somewhere we had a little bit more access to. We had some partners there that could hook us up with meeting people. There was this really lovely church called Sunrise. Every day but Saturday and Sunday, I think, they have this homeless outreach. They do social work there, they give away food and coffee, and they help people apply for housing and have psychologists there as well if people need meds or mental health support. We flew into Austin and went straight there and we just volunteered for two or three days.
It’s interesting because when we talked about Cultivating Originality, you mentioned how you would spend a few days at the location before filming. I guess it was pretty similar here?
CS: That was always my intention. At least for myself, I have to understand something before I can tell any sort of story about it. Part of the job is understanding that intention is more important than technique or execution or anything. If you have the right intention going into something, you can really feel it for some reason: it’s intangible. We wanted to be strategic and not just get a certain type of story: we wanted different stories.
A very common theme with a lot of these people is mental health issues, but some are older – some have been homeless for 40 years. Then on the other side of the spectrum, there’s Montrell, who has only been homeless for eight months. Then you have someone like Amber, right down the middle, who has been homeless for 20 years. It was important for us to hear all the angles. Let’s not try to make this a political thing. I just wanted their stories to be beautiful in some way.
With that said, did you want to tackle perceptions about unhoused people in the USA, which has become such a political issue?
CS: I want to try and remove myself as much as possible from the story as much as I can, in terms of how I feel about it. When it comes to documentaries, those are my favourite films, where I am really just engrossed in whatever is happening with these people. I don’t know, Oscar, did we have any conversations about that?
Oscar Ignacio Jiménez: It always felt from the beginning to be a piece about empathy, which really attracted me to it. It didn’t feel like it was going to be this propaganda piece; it didn’t feel attacking. Even when you pitched it to me, it felt like highlighting these three people with very unique circumstances. And also how nuanced they are. It was cool to see Scott going to the library and showing us his artwork, and Amber with her rock collection. She really connects to the earth and to nature. From the outside perspective you’re like: “Is it rough living out there.” She might say: “Yeah, but I like it. This is my home.”
It always felt from the beginning to be a piece about empathy.
And Scott’s art is this burst of colour in an otherwise black and white film. Why did you decide to shoot in monochrome?
OIJ: I liked how it took away a lot of the busyness. Over the course of three days the light did change quite a bit but you still get a lot of texture from their lives and feel more of their environment so I’m glad we went with black and white.
CS: We’re telling human stories. Even the way we would frame things is very portraiture, you know. So taking away anything that would distract from the faces didn’t fit as well. Black and white was definitely a post-sort of decision. But it went through a lot of different variations.
Walk me through the crew that you had. It must’ve been very small…
OIJ: We had an AC, we had a PA that ended up helping us and a Steadicam operator. We didn’t have a gaffer. I’m used to doing a lot of narrative and my crews tend to be extremely small so for me, I felt right at home. I think that for the nature of this shoot and the spaces we went to, it felt appropriate.
CS: Especially for documentary, the crew size is so important to me because every time you need to move, if it takes 10 minutes, you’re missing something. Also, Amber’s place is very secure. She doesn’t want people to know where she lives. There is no address. We got lost looking for it. So in that instant it made sense to have just me, a producer and a couple of PAs. If we had more things, it wouldn’t be the same.
What are you working on next?
OIJ: I just finished a movie in Montana that also took place in Japan. Since I’m pursuing the narrative route, I’ll have another film in September, shooting in Massachusetts but in between, I’ll probably just take on smaller projects. Just commercials and things to keep fine-tuning those skill sets.
CS: I’m still doing doc and commercial work, but I have my first narrative coming out in November on streaming, and then I’m starting pre-production for my next movie early 2023. So all good things, you know.