A highly respected, if not widely known, filmmaker, Rogers was also a film teacher at Harvard and SUNY, directed projects for PBS and the BBC, and once traveled to Hollywood to direct a network TV drama. He passed away in 2001 after a struggle with cancer, leaving behind his widow, photographer Susan Meiselas, and more than two decades of footage. At her request, Alexander Olch took over the project, combining Rogers' original images and words with new footage and narratives written by Olch in Rogers' voice.
The Windmill Movie paints a vivid, unorthodox autobiographical portrait of Rogers, documenting his childhood in the idyllic beach town of Wainscott, NY, his relationships with his mother and other women in his life, his background of privilege, his dogged attempts to document his own life, and his battle with cancer. Rogers' friend, actor and writer Wallace Shawn, joins in the process, as the film investigates the differences between documentary and fiction, telling the bittersweet story of Rogers' frustrated yet fulfilled life.
In the telling opening scene - recreated by Shawn at the end of the film under Olch's direction - Rogers films himself in front of a mirror. "This shot is a cliché; it's the filmmaker confronting himself in the mirror," he says. "The question is always whether there's anything to say, whether any of this means anything."
However deft behind the camera, Rogers was never convinced his personal footage had validity, as either fact or fiction. Yet he continued his quest in quixotic fashion. No doubt the image of Wainscott's iconic windmill, which had been moved from Montauk by his grandfather, appealed to Rogers' ironic sensibility.
Accumulating autobiographical footage over two decades, Rogers never figured out how to edit it into a film that wasn't "self-indulgent." His ambivalence about his role as the film's central character even led him to hire an actor to play himself. "Why is it hard to make the film?" Rogers asks. "Because I probably had to face myself, and I don't want to."
When Olch runs out of Rogers' narration, he turns to the director's diary and is inspired by a note he reads there: "How does not being me help tell a story about me?" Olch spent five years surrounding himself with Rogers' old diaries, sifting through his dusty boxes of film, and using his own editing equipment as a way to become Rogers, taking on his identity and creating an original film in his memory. Through footage, photos, personal effects and interviews with Rogers' loved ones, Olch writes a script in Rogers' voice, helping his former professor finally find his voice on film
Alexander Olch's original screenplay for The Windmill Movie was nominated for the Writers Guild Best Documentary Screenplay Award at AFI Silverdocs.
The Windmill Movie was written, edited and directed by Alexander Olch; inspired by the unfinished work of Richard P. Rogers; produced by Susan Meiselas, David Grubin; co-producer, Andrew Fierberg; cinematographer, Richard P. Rogers; film archivist, Karin Schneider; music by Michael Montes, Robert Humphreville; music supervisor, Joseph Rudge; creative consultant, Corey Shaff.