Interview with Brent Chesanek – City World

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For this first film, Brent Chesanek went back to his birthplace, Orlando. With cool detachment, he filmed deserted streetscapes and wilderness encroaching on the city – a city best known as the home of Disneyworld – creating a superb visual exploration paired with a fictional narration by a little boy with a particularly fertile imagination. Autobiography, lyrical escapes and miscellaneous ruminations suddenly form a unique rapport with the surrounding landscape. City World is a backhanded tribute to the evocative power of Orlando and its history, and it is also an unforgettable portrait of the childhood imagination. Opening with the quasi-Proustian line “this morning, I decided to leave home,” the film captures those singular moments when our spirit nourishes the world that inspires it.

Pour son premier long métrage, Brent Chesanek est retourné à Orlando, sa ville natale. Filmant avec un doux détachement les paysages urbains désertés et la nature sauvage enveloppant cette municipalité plus connue pour être le site du célèbre parc Disneyworld, le cinéaste  superpose à une magnifique exploration visuelle la narration fictive d’un jeune garçon à l’imagination fertile. Autobiographie, évasions lyriques et ruminations diverses entretiennent soudainement un rapport inédit avec le monde environnant. City World est un hommage oblique à la puissance d’évocation d’Orlando et de son histoire. C’est également un portrait inoubliable de l’imaginaire de l’enfance. S’ouvrant sur la phrase presque proustienne « Ce matin, je décidais de sortir de chez moi », l’œuvre capte ces moments uniques où notre esprit enrichit constamment un monde qui l’inspire.

RIDM : Did you always know you’d like to make a film about Orlando?
Brent Chesanek : I always wanted to make the film about Orlando. I grew increasingly fascinated with the area once I moved away and was able to discern what was so unique about it. As I sought out more information about the area, I found there wasn’t that much written history.
RIDM: Apart from being your hometown, what interests you the most in this city? Do you think you could have done this film in another location?
BC: CITY WORLD is actually a very accurate account of what interests me about Orlando: the landscape, the swamps, the architecture, the weather, the myths, the history, and certainly the showmanship of theme parks—not the rides and roller coasters but the manmade fakeness of the parks—for instance the fake Mexico at EPCOT, the fake mountains all throughout the parks, and so on, it all creates the illusion of adventure through set design and atmosphere. Throughout all of this stuff I’ve listed, they all circle back to this notion of conquering nature to make life more palatable, setting up a place to renew life and leave the past behind.
CITY WORLD could not be about any other town and be what it is. Perhaps we could have similar projects in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dubai, and in certain Chinese towns, but then they too would be vastly different as their landscape is not like Orlando’s, meaning their history is not the same either. Everything in the film comes from the original landscape and civilizations that were conquered to make the place what it is today. The presence of Disney colors the film very strongly even though we never outright say it or show it. Even the idea of having a child narrate is heavily influenced by Disney being there.
RIDM: Was this project conceived from the start as a ‘hybrid’ film?
In a sense, yes, although I wasn’t setting out to make something to fit that mold or break any traditional documentary rules. I do know that I’m not really that into the standard documentary form and never intended to make this film as such, but again, I was more just thinking of a distinct way to best capture this place. The project felt much more narrative to me all the way into early post-production, but soon the more documentary aspects of it drew me in much more than the fictional thread I had designed. The long takes were purely observational, I wasn’t closing down roads to prevent people from driving. More and more, I felt the true nature of the images was conveyed by the film’s unscripted qualities, and we embraced being a hybrid-doc.
RIDM: How did the voice-over come about in terms of content and casting?
When I first started thinking about the film, I imagined using very dry title cards giving slices of information about the area’s history intercut with suburban houses and swamp footage. At some point very early on though, I decided to write a voice over and remove the title cards. Then it grew into something where in having a child narrate made sense due to the expectations of being in Orlando, with Disney around, having this child anticipating great adventures through what his father told him and what he knew about Disney in his own imagination.
We cast Sean fairly quickly through our casting director Zan Ludlum. Sean was such a standout in the auditions and could make both major or minor adjustments with relative ease, and he grew into the role very soon after we first started recording him.
RIDM: The multilayered and intimate voice-over used with beautiful images of nature is necessarily a bit reminiscent of Malick’s work. Was he a source of inspiration for the aesthetics of the film?
I like much of Malick’s work, but I did not set out to emulate him and I don’t think the film does that much. My photography is very rigid compared to Malick. CITY WORLD’s themes and Malick’s are not alike. The comparisons to me are really very surface level, but I get that a lot. The main point of reference for CITY WORLD was always Herzog’s LESSONS OF DARKNESS. So while above I said I wasn’t setting out to make a hybrid doc, that can only be somewhat true because I was using LESSONS OF DARKNESS as a sort of benchmark as far as having a fictional character explore a place through documentary footage. I also look to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work–—he works with modern architecture and nature very well. Towards the end of post-production, a colleague advised me to consider Malick for editing guidance.