In Focus: John Haptas and Kris Samuelson on Barn Dance

A still from BARN DANCE

A still from BARN DANCE



John Haptas and Kris Samuelson reflect on their collaborative filmmaking career. Their newest short, Barn Dance, emerged from a new kind of collaboration with choreographer Amy Seiwart as part of the San Francico Dance Film Festival’s Co-Laboratory.

Barn Dance is played in the Shorts 1 program. It is a Cinema by the Bay film.



Film brought us together many years ago.  Kris was a grad student in Stanford’s documentary film production program.  John was in law school and wanted to raise money for a project providing legal assistance to prisoners at Soledad by showing a film on campus, but he had no idea of how to do that.  He met Kris, who did. We screened THE HARDER THEY COME to a full house, and then moved in together.  Before long we had a family, a VW van, and a fixer-upper in Berkeley.  

It was fifteen years before we finally made our first film together: WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME, a 10-minute short.  By then, Kris had moved from free-lance production work and independent filmmaking to teaching at Stanford, and John, after a spell as a carpenter, was a location sound mixer. 

WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME proved to be the template we used in subsequent films, both in terms of structure and aesthetics, and in the way we got the film done.  The film is about a young art student who was the victim of a random street killing, but it’s less about the actual shooting (though we did investigate that) than about its impact on the friends he left behind, told in their words in VO.  Our aim was a meditation on the ephemeral nature of any life, with a discursive essay structure—no narration, no talking heads, no rising and falling action in three acts. 

Jon Else and Michael Chin did the beautiful cinematography, but we pretty much did everything else ourselves.  We set up a Steenbeck editing machine in the dining room and went to work.  That can be tricky when two people take turns cutting and splicing workprint on a flatbed, and careful negotiation over revisions was required to prevent a chaotic trim bin and marital strife.  We discovered the ways our two different skill sets complemented each other, and learned to be better filmmakers together than we could ever be apart. 

In the following years we made several more short films on disparate subjects but similar in style and method.  Living in Paris for a while led to EMPIRE OF THE MOON, about the sacred and profane experience of being a tourist.  A picture in the New York Times magazine showing the dismemberment of decommissioned B-52 bombers resulted in RIDING THE TIGER, which traces the arc of the Vietnam War in 34 minutes with no narration or talking heads.  THE DAYS AND THE HOURS shows homeless people sleeping in the pews of a Tenderloin church as we hear them describe their lives before they found themselves on the street.  We had gorgeous cinematography on EMPIRE and TIGER by Else, and by Jon Shenk on DAYS AND HOURS, but, again, we did the rest ourselves.  And we stayed with an essay structure, which we felt best served the subject matter we were addressing.

All of our films had been shorts, but after a visit to Japan during a trip through Southeast Aisa, we decided to make a longer film about Tokyo, its people, its many thousands of crows, and the meaning of nature in a modern city.  We studied Japanese for over a year, and then spent six months living there making TOKYO WAKA.  We not only shot it ourselves, but it was our first feature-length doc.  For the first time we used on-screen interviews, but we didn’t have main characters or a single narrative.  We have a large varied chorus—a Buddhist priest, a homeless woman, an ornithologist—who together comprise a mosaic of a modern urban ecosystem.

The way we work has always had certain advantages.  We’ve never made films quickly; they’ve been done in the space around our day jobs and parenting responsibilities.  But Kris was able to use sabbaticals for our stints in Paris and Tokyo, and John, being a free-lancer, could always turn down work.  We’ve also been the fortunate recipients of a couple of artist fellowships that helped us, for example, manage the superb finishing of TOKYO WAKA at ZAP and Skywalker.  And, we’ve had the benefit of working together, shouldering the burdens, endlessly discussing—sometimes with a little heat—how to best make the movie before us.  There is very little in filmmaking, parenting, and life that we haven’t shared.    

TOKYO WAKA premiered at the SFIFF two years ago, but our filmmaking has been intertwined with the Film Society and the local doc community from the beginning.  From WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME onward we’ve screened at the festival, won a couple of Golden Gate Awards, served on selection and judging panels, and attended dozens of festival events.  It seems that it’s at Film Society-hosted gatherings that we are most likely to meet other filmmakers and find out what’s going on locally.  The Bay Area is the most supportive and invigorating environment for making documentary films anywhere.  This is a place where people work on each other’s productions, critique each other’s cuts, help with tech issues, or just hash out ideas.  It’s a real community.   

We’re delighted to be back this year at the SFIFF with another short film, BARN DANCE (Shorts 1 program)-- another departure for us.  We worked with Amy Seiwert, a wonderful choreographer, through the SF Dance Film Festival’s experimental Co-Laboratory, to design, direct, shoot, and edit a dance film in one week.  That compressed schedule was terrifying and liberating, and we’ve found ourselves going to dance performances regularly ever since.

There are many ways to make a film, but there’s always a way.  We now have an empty nest, Kris is approaching retirement, and John, now a documentary editor, has just finished a long project.  It’s time for another film.