I very much wanted to make a film where the art about not only his life, but about his family.
This film was seven years in the making. Was there a plan when you first started shooting your father Isaiah?
I was nineteen when I began making the movie. I had just come home from my sophomore year at college to teach film for the summer, and my mother suggested I start filming my father. I think it was less as an idea that would spawn a film and more as a way for me and my father to become closer. So I began filming him and the footage was pretty terrible, actually. It took a while for him to let his guard down.
It was while we were in West Virginia at a small house that he was working on when we began to speak very intimately, very much in a different kind of way than we usually speak. And that's really what changed everything. It was being in that isolated place with just me and him where we could talk without any of the encumbrances of his daily life and during those interviews, the film really emerged. He began to tell stories I had never heard before, or told them in ways I had never heard before. It was very emotional and very intense and we realized at that point it would be a film about the memories that create us as a human being. But it would also be a love story about him and my mother. And so we just kept filming and waiting and it was years later when the story emerged.
The way you capture your father's creative process is different than most films about artists; it's as if you take the viewer into the work itself to illuminate his inner world.
I very much wanted to make a film where the art spoke about not only his life, but about his family. My father has created a world of mosaics that are city blocks long, and in them he's memorialized not only his own history but his family's history. What I wanted to do was shoot the work in a way where it would be tangible for the viewer so that they would feel as if they were walking through it. They would feel as if they could walk right up to a wall and put their hand on it - that they could watch the drawing be created, that they could watch his process of creation and feel as if they were next to him, feel as if they were part of it. I wanted to make sure the viewer understood that the work surrounded not only him but also his wife's world and his children's world.
My father's really interesting in that he's chronicled his entire life in photographs, so we were able to take photos that he's shot over his life and animate them because he would shoot so many in a row, and that was just a wonderful thing.
One of the most powerful moments in the film is your father's revelation about his infidelity with his assistant. Was that something you were prepared to capture?
He became a human being to me, a peer. Very much a friend, and very much flawed.
I think we all sort of felt the family drifting apart for years. But there was never an inkling in my mind that he would reveal it to me on camera that day. It just sort of happened. In fact, I only had two video tapes to shoot and had planned to go get more tapes at lunch. He revealed that to me and then my mother walked by and he told it to her. And in the middle of him telling her the news, I ran out of tape and I had to run and get more tape and shoot the end.
What did you discover about your father after seven years of filming?
I discovered his basic humanity. You know, there's a scene in the movie 'Kinsey' where Kinsey interviews his father about his sexual history and in that moment Kinsey's father becomes a man to him. He no longer sees him as this oppressive human being. That's a very real moment that I think happens in lots of people's lives. I relate to it very much because not only am I creating a film, but I'm also asking my father very intimate questions about who he is as a human being. And he's answering them in a very honest way. And so our relationship changed throughout the film. He became a human being to me, a peer. Very much a friend, and very much flawed. I don't know when you want your father to become human, or if you ever want your father to become human, but in our case, it's been something that's wonderful. It's been important for me and it's something that some people never get, but it's something that I now have.
How much of his art is on display for the public to see?
Well, it's fascinating. The work is located mostly on a city block in Philadelphia on Tenth and South Street and anyone can go there and see it. It's become this epicenter of tourism in Philadelphia. Michelle Obama recently paid a visit as did the Vice President of France. It's for the public to see, and that's the beauty of it. I think when he was younger my father realized that he probably wasn't going to get into a museum quickly, so he decided to make the city of Philadelphia his museum.