Kartemquin Members’ Work for Hire: The Q&A

University of Chicago Professor of Cinema and Media Studies Judy Hoffman and Kartemquin Films co-founder Gordon Quinn following our April 24, 2015 screening “Kartemquin Members’ Work for Hire.”

This is the transcript of a conversation between University of Chicago Professor of Cinema and Media Studies Judy Hoffman and Kartemquin Films co-founder Gordon Quinn following our April 24, 2015 screening “Kartemquin Members’ Work for Hire,” which was part of our “The Streets and the Classrooms: Educational and Industrial Films in an Era of Massive Social Change” series. It took place at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago.

Introduction by Judy Hoffman: Industrials were sponsored films. They were films that were funded and made for a particular reason. And they existed from the early days of cinema—there’s nothing really new about them. When I talk about industrials, you have to think about what groups have made these types of films and what is their use.

They were made for a variety of reasons. One was inter-industry communication. Industries relied a lot on film because film could travel to all different parts of the country. So you had training films, how to work with a certain new piece of equipment, also how to behave with the equipment, essentially disciplining the worker. Information for sales departments on how to sell the product, corporate image films that spoke to who we are as a corporation, what kind of culture we are to try to influence their employees into thinking that they were part of a larger community. And there were industrial films made for trade shows.

So Chicago became a center for industrial films because we are in fact located in a particular area where there was a confluence of industry and people who came out of educational filmmaking—that was a very similar type of film. So we had people who could make these films, and we had the industries who wanted them.

There was a specific use and life of these films, and they’re what we would call today “orphan films.” They have no distribution, so they sit around. But I think they are very valuable cultural productions that talk about who we are, who we were, and how the political economy operates.

You’re not going to see a typical industrial tonight. What you’re going to see is Kartemquin Films move into making industrials, some of it co-producing with people like Chuck Olin, Dirk Wales, a number of different people in the commercial industrial area. Essentially, it was a way for us as people in Kartemquin Films to make a living so we could pay the rent and work on independent films that had very little funding at that moment in time. It was also a way to hone our craft, to be able to play with different kinds of equipment that we couldn’t necessarily afford, and it was incredibly beneficial because we met lots of different people who worked in the industry, and we got to work in situations that aren’t open to the public. We learned a lot from this experience that we brought back to our own filmmaking.

What we did for industrials was to provide the industrial film with a documentary style that lent a certain veracity to what they were promoting. So we in a sense tried to create certain truths that we felt as documentary filmmakers should be in these films, which ended up being appropriated in some way, good or evil, but were used. So we lent a certain amount of authenticity through a kind of different style and way of looking at situations. So know that you’re not seeing a typical industrial film, you’re seeing our take on it.

At this point we watched the films, then the Q&A started.

Michael W. Phillips Jr. [SSP director]: When watching these films, it’s tempting to look for the “Kartemquin touch” or something like that, and it’s unclear to what extent that exists. Can you talk about that?

Gordon Quinn: It varied. In the three we saw, I would say in Roadmap to Change: The Deming Approach [about a Pontiac factory that adopts a system endorsed by efficiency expert W. Edwards Deming], we didn’t have a lot of creative control. Chuck Olin, the director, was someone that we shared some values with, and we got really interested in Deming. In Strange & Beautiful [about quality control at McDonald’s], you saw some guy’s name at the end, you know, he’s the producer. I once had to keep Judy from killing him. [laughter from audience] He did absolutely nothing but get in the way—hopefully he’s not here. But we were the crew. We were the people who shot it, went on the shoots, and then Jerry Blumenthal edited it. We edited it at Kartemquin, and Jerry had a lot of influence on the editing because the director, Janna Cosby, we became friendly with and then we pried the client, McDonald’s, away from this horrible producer. And so we kept making this same film over the next five years or so. This is the first one, this is the one we shot on film.

Judy Hoffman: I remember lots of other scenes—they were trying to develop coffee for the Hispanic market in the south and California. I just remember—you don’t understand in this one who he is, but the guy who supplies all the potatoes to McDonald’s—

Gordon Quinn: He invented the frozen french fry.

Judy Hoffman: And he’s so rich and crazy. His idea at that point was to have the second floor of McDonald’s be all french fries, and you open up a chute, the potatoes drop down, get cut, and drop right into a fryer.

Gordon Quinn: And fries were going to be delivered by helicopter. So he was just ahead of his time—now Amazon has little drones.

Judy Hoffman: It’s hard to remember what we experienced in the shoot and what ended up being in the film.

Gordon Quinn: There is that problem, but the other thing is that Strange & Beautiful, ok, we had more control over that. One of the things that was our principle from the beginning when we were doing all this industrial work: we did not want to sell the job. We didn’t want to deal with the client, because we were trying to do something different. So by being the crew, we didn’t have to be really taken all that seriously. We had a lot of fun on these shoots. We didn’t have to sell the job, we’d just be hired to do it.

Judy Hoffman: Yeah, and so we could work and go home and collect the paycheck and then work on our own radical documentaries.

Gordon Quinn: Our joke used to be, there’d be the excitement of getting hired, and then getting paid at the end, and if we could just cut out the nasty work part in the middle we’d be golden. But I want to get to the difference between the different amount of control we had, because in Strange & Beautiful we had quite a bit of control because we sort of figured out what they wanted. We were working with a director like we were with Chuck Olin, who we had kind of bonded with, then we edited. Jerry was editing it. And you can see his hand in the humor that is in that cut.

Judy Hoffman: There were other films where we were hired because of our facility with documentary. In some ways our relationship with Dirk Wales, director of Anaesthesia for the Uncommon Surgical Challenge [about a liver transplant], we worked for his Rainbow Productions. You could hire us, and in particular Gordon and Jerry, who were doing camera and sound—I was somewhere else, loading magazines—they could trust us in the operating room, to go in there and shoot because we knew how to cover these kinds of situations. So in some arenas, even though we didn’t have total control, we were trusted, and in some ways there was a control there to shoot a certain situation the way we knew how to do.

Gordon Quinn: And we were interested. When we were doing medical films we’d get interested in what they were doing and the medical aspects of it. When we were in McDonald’s, we were in McDonald’s corporate—what I was saying was we were hired, and in two years they’d want a new version of Strange & Beautiful, so we did it over probably an eight-year period, I think we did more or less the same film. First we did it on film, then we did the next one on Betacam, and by the time we did the last one we were shooting on High 8. And every time the budget dropped—we started off at half a million dollars, not that we got it, it was the budget for the film, and every two years it would be half that. It kept going down.

Judy Hoffman: Part of the economics of it was that we all got paid. And Kartemquin, through other commercial work, we were able to buy equipment, buy Steenbeck editing tables, etc., so we were hired out, our equipment was rented—we were paying Kartemquin to use our equipment, and you would get a day rate. All of this was to keep Kartemquin afloat.

Gordon Quinn: Jerry had something to do with the writing on Strange & Beautiful. Janna was really the writer. We usually weren’t doing the interviews or doing the writing. That was usually left to the director. But the last film, Women Take Heart, that’s a little different, and that’s something that we still do today. So that film, about the largest study of women and heart disease ever done, until that was done, there’s this historic study, you see the guy, the Framingham study, a historic study of men, they followed them over a long period of time, it was all done on men. So all the protocols for heart disease were created for men. They didn’t necessarily apply to women. So when this hospital approached us, this doctor, about making a film, it’s like, OK, we’ll do that, even though it’s an industrial, it wasn’t for TV, it was for—this is the short version, there’s a longer version—but basically this was to explain to people the basics of what they were doing. Bill Haugse [who went on to edit Hoop Dreams for Kartemquin, among others] produced it and edited this, I shot it. We still occasionally do this. We wouldn’t use this language today, but this film fit with our mission.

Judy Hoffman: Also I’d like to point out the first film, Roadmap to Change, the Deming film, produced by Encyclopedia Britannica Films, it was like a combination of educational films and industrial films, and in fact a lot of these films have that kind of crossover. They’re not one or the other in particular, they intersect. Because the purpose of both the industrial and the educational film is to inform.

Audience Member 1: How many years after the Deming film did that plant remain open? [laughter from audience: the film is about the plant that produced Pontiac’s ill-fated Fiero]

Gordon Quinn: I don’t remember, but it wasn’t long. The Fiero was a huge flop. We followed the Fiero, we looked at them on the street. When you work on something like this a whole other aspect of things is opened up to you. It become a part of your life. My favorite story about Deming was, we were working with Chuck, and there’s supposed to be a scene with Deming on the floor, on the line, talking to the workers about what’s wrong, what are their suggestions. And every time, he wasn’t feeling well, maybe tomorrow, we never got to see him. He always had an excuse. And when we saw the finished movie, we finally understood. Of course. He didn’t want to be shown talking to workers about what was wrong with the plant because his view was that the problem was in the board room where he’s tearing those guys a new asshole. That’s where the problem is. But at the time, we wondered why he was being so difficult.

Judy Hoffman: I remember lots of behind the scenes stuff that we did that would never get into the finished film. That really you wouldn’t want to see. I’m not talking about the liver transplant film, I’m talking about McDonald’s, especially in the chicken processing plant where all the chickens are put into dumpsters. I mean, you’ll never eat that stuff again. We joke a lot about these films, but actually I find them really interesting as documents and as, I don’t know—they’re documentaries.

Peter Kuttner [in audience]: What’s kind of unspoken here is the history of documentary and how it changed, and the reason that Kartemquin got this work was the way that documentaries were made was changing because of the whole cinema verité, true cinema, what’s the correct term? Direct cinema? But Kartemquin was known for that, and when it changed—I started early enough so that I was on those old scripted documentaries where the script was written first and then they would tell the people what to do even though they did it every day. And this one quick thing, Gordon and Judy mentioned the trust that they built with the hospital so they could go in and shoot the liver. I was on a documentary where we filmed an angiogram, and the cinematographer felt that we needed more coverage and asked them to do it again.

Gordon Quinn: You’re absolutely right, because all of these interviews were handheld. We would walk into an office, we’d throw up a little quick light, and we’d hand-hold the interview.

Artemis Willis [in audience]: I was just going to pick up on that discussion of documentary and verité, and how much there is a tension. There’s a tension between your camera and your edits, and the, you know, the assignment. And if we look closely enough, particularly at process, I think we can really see your genuine interest in how things get put together, what’s this world around it. And there’s also a lot of visual pun in the edits: there’s this one thing in the Pontiac film where the headlight goes up and then the other thing goes up. But the interesting thing is that for some reason Strange & Beautiful feels like everyone drank the koolaid, whereas the Deming Pontiac film doesn’t. And I think it really is because you have a strong protagonist and storyline of how this transformation allegedly took place.

Judy Hoffman: We follow the whole process. It’s also an educational film.

Artemis Willis [in audience]: And also it’s very pro-labor. You’ve got this—whether it truly was, you do have this kind of thing. Whereas with the McDonald’s film, you kind of don’t have that arc and you don’t have that compelling character in it. It’s got all of these kind of schmoes all over the place. I guess my question is, how hard did you try to find some of those things to anchor it?

Gordon Quinn: What you said first about process… what I love about industrials, call them corporate videos or corporate industrials, I love process. So we would film everything. We would always film the process—how the soap got made, how the hamburger got made. But the major disappointment when we would see the finished film—I mean, Jerry cut this one—is all the process is gone, and that was always very frustrating to us.

Judy Hoffman: And these were very different films. Really, the McDonald’s film was really highly corporate. The topic is about the relationship between the supplier and the owner-operator, as well as quality control. So there’s not a character to follow, but there’s also not—it’s just far more corporate.

Artemis Willis [in audience]: Could you also just say a quick word about Encyclopedia Britannica Films?

Judy Hoffman: Sure, although I have to apologize to my students here, who have already heard this today. EB Films in some ways got their start through the University of Chicago. There was Encyclopedia Britannica that was in Britain, and it was purchased by the owner of Sears. And then there was this whole University of Chicago connection to Encyclopedia Britannica. And the formation of EB Films was partially for the purpose of creating films for the core curriculum here.

Peter Hartel [associate professor of Cinema Art + Science at Columbia College Chicago, in audience]: Altschul Films, there was EB, Jam Handy did all of the original training films. There was a huge history—

Judy Hoffman: Right, for industrial films. Handy did the auto stuff.

Peter Hartel [in audience]: He started out doing it for the military in World War 1. He actually almost invented the training film.

Judy Hoffman: I think you’re right. But to EB, the University of Chicago decided they wanted to be in the film business, then got out of it, then got back in, and then finally in the 1990s got out of it. EB Films, as opposed to, say, Coronet, which brought the studio into the classroom, EB Films was known for bringing the world into the classroom. A lot of people got their start doing work for them. EB Films got folded into Films Incorporated. The thing that was interesting about EB Films is that they produced and distributed. They had a kind of monopoly in some way. There’s a whole history, you know, William Benton, who was brought into the University of Chicago to smooth over—he was an ad agency dude—he was brought in to smooth over a scandal because Walgreen, of Walgreens, his daughter accused everyone at the University of Chicago of being communists, so they had to bring this ad agency guy in. It’s a phenomenal story that needs to be written. And I think Charles Benton, the son of William, commissioned someone to finally write a book about them. I have lots of archives that Benton gave me, but I don’t know if the book was ever finished.

Audience Member: Some of the things just seem so insane when you watch them in retrospect. I worked in spots for 20 years and it was the same way. Everyone seems so dead serious, it’s just freaky. But at the end of the day, all those people’s jobs are on the line, and when you’re making TV commercials or making industrial films and things like this, it’s dead serious because if they don’t succeed, they don’t feed their families, they don’t make their mortgage payments, they don’t pay for their cars. And so it seems insane—we live in this insane industrial world, but so much is hanging on this stuff. And it is important—it ends up being really important. But the insanity part of it almost neutralizes it. It’s really strange.

Judy Hoffman: Isn’t there something about—didn’t McDonald’s just today or yesterday announce the closing of like 800 stores? That’s a lot of jobs. A lot of low-paying jobs, but jobs nonetheless. And franchise owners—McDonald’s has a relationship where McDonald’s owns X amount and the franchisee owns X amount. When you think about all these jobs that people will lose, it’s junk food, but nonetheless it’s people’s lives.

Peter Kuttner: The training films that Peter mentioned that Jam Handy made, and Gordon talked about shooting the process, there were as many films on the training level as there were on the corporate level. So I remember spending all night at a McDonald’s making a film about how to mop the bathroom floor.

Judy Hoffman: Right. I mentioned in my intro that there were training films, safety films—these were really how-to instructional films, along with this industrials trend of let’s make a film about corporate culture, this corporate image kind of film, films for trade shows. There’s so many. If you walk over to the Museum of Science and Industry, which we used to call the Museum of Science and Ideology, I’m sure you’ll see films there now that are all really corporate films. I haven’t been there in years, but there used to be. It was all corporate sponsored, so there’d be a film about how to incubate chickens or something, and it’s done by Tyson. So you have to look at those things to be able to read how pervasive industrials really are.

Gordon Quinn: I think on some level we never took that part of it particularly seriously. Judy and Jerry in particular would make fun of me because when we were doing all this McDonald’s work, I was really impressed with how they managed things. The ultimate product was something you might not really want, but when they said quality, they meant something by quality, they meant something by consistency. It was really important to them that you’re getting the same sandwich in every store all over the world.

The other thing is you learn a lot by being in the belly of the beast. One of my favorite stories, I pointed the guy out to Judy. This is not in the film. We’re interviewing this guy, he’s head of international McDonald’s, and he starts going on about how “you know, we’re going into Japan. And you know, those people, we are going to change that country.” He said, “you know they have that short stature? Well, after we’re there, they’re gonna grow up to be blonde and blue-eyed and tall.” We were like, what planet are we on? I have nothing else to say. That can’t be topped.

Judy Hoffman: That’s part of their idea of quality control. It was really homogeneity. The postwar syndrome of lawns, the house in the suburbs, the car, the kids. Quality control? I wouldn’t quite call it that. Call it uniform consistency, rather than—there’s all of these corporate buzz-speak words that we learned about, quality control, quality assurance. The people’s council, I mean, wow. And now we have corporate speak, there are no more problems, there are challenges.

Michael W. Phillips Jr.: So who are these films for? Who watched them?

Judy Hoffman: We used to joke that they were used in torture rooms, to try to extract information out of people: “don’t show me that again! I’ll tell you whatever you want to know!”

Gordon Quinn: But that actually is a great question, because one of the challenges when we were making, for instance, Strange & Beautiful, for us and the director Janna: we keep doing this stuff, and they’d say oh, you gotta go talk to this guy and this other guy, and we could not figure out what’s the purpose of this film. Who is this film for? Finally, when we were in the editing phase, we sort of figured out what the film was for, and that’s why we made it like this. The film was both for McDonald’s suppliers, but even more important, for the owner-operators. Because they wanted the owner-operators to understand that strange and beautiful relationship. And so the point is, some guy comes to your back door with cheap tomatoes, you go to your supplier and ask why his are cheaper than yours, what can we do to work this out, because I want to still stay with you. Because the guy at your back door might not have tomatoes in the winter or whatever. So it was that trust and whatever buzzword they were using in there—that was what they wanted the film to do. But we really were clueless when we were shooting it.

Judy Hoffman: I think there’s another point to it, which is some kind of self-perpetuating situation where there are people in marketing who decide that something needs to be done so they could continue having their jobs in marketing. That’s what drives a lot of this type of film production. It’s a specific audience and purpose, but it’s also about the perpetuation of the corporate structure and purpose.

Audience Member: You said that the Fiero flopped. During the documentary, the managers you interviewed, the workers—I didn’t see any trace of cynicism at all. It seemed like they were pretty much invested in it. It’d be interesting to go back to see what happened after the letdown, the disillusionment, and maybe even find out whether Deming lost some faith in his own system.

Gordon Quinn: I don’t think he ever lost faith in his system, but that’s a really good point. One of the ironies when we were making these films is that we were also making films for unions. We were making some films that were our films about unions, like Taylor Chain 1 and 2 and The Last Pullman Car, but we were also making essentially industrials for unions. Organizing films for unions, films for AFSCME [American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees], films for SEIU [Service Employees International Union], films for the steelworkers, that were for them. We produced them, but they were to be used—they looked a little bit like some of these films.

Judy Hoffman: There are striking similarities. I think the term documentary, no matter what, whether it’s scripted or observational or interactive, all these terms that get argued about, there’s a lot of slippage.

Peter Hartel [in audience]: At that point, the auto industry was trying to adapt the team concept that came out of Asia actually. They were bringing it to America. I worked on the line at Detroit Diesel.

Judy Hoffman: Deming helped create that. He went to Japan for some reason [editor’s note: Deming, an expert in statistical control of processes, was brought to Japan after World War II to assist in Japan’s reconstruction, and is credited with helping to spark Japan’s “postwar economic miracle”]. What’s not in the film is the historical time period, where the American auto industry was tanking and everybody was buying Japanese cars in particular.

Peter Hartel [in audience]: But ultimately they did adopt that system and were very successful. I mean, I only buy American cars because I’m a former UAW member and I worked on the line. But it’s not just because of that. I think the American product is as good, if not better.

Judy Hoffman: There were lots of foreign carmakers relocating to the American south, in right-to-work states, that we ended up working for—Honda?

Gordon Quinn: I vaguely remember something for Honda, where I fell off the motorcycle. That was one of the high points of Jerry and Judy’s lives.

Judy Hoffman: He was tracking—he was shooting from a motorcycle and he fell off. A lot of jokes you can tell.

Peter Kuttner: It wasn’t by accident that you don’t hear any workers complaining about how it doesn’t work. I mean, part of making films is you make these choices about what to put in, and it was quite possible that were was an equal number who liked the idea, or there was even more who thought it was a bunch of bullshit.

Judy Hoffman: Exactly. We only saw in the Deming film the UAW organizing consultants. We didn’t really walk outside. In fact, there’s a kind of urban geography almost, like a situationist, where the film inscribes a certain geography. We don’t leave that area. We’re in that world, and we’re only hearing what is intended to be in the film.

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This series was made possible by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Illinois General Assembly. Further support came from The MacArthur Funds for Arts & Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation; Black Cinema House; the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, Arts + Public Life, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics & Culture, and the Film Studies Center at the University of Chicago; and Media Burn Independent Video Archive.