Arts + Culture

Q&A with Filmmaker Dennis Scholl

A conversation between filmmaker Dennis Scholl and Grazie Sophia Christie on documenting a city not yet set in amber, artistic dignity, and how to leave room for happy surprises.


You can excuse us if we’ve forgotten what art used to be like, where it used to belong, what its context used to be, before something called the “artworld” emerged in 1960’s. Nowadays, it seems that art is for collectors, gallerists, money launderers, immersive experiences, sceney parties — it’s the backdrop of a humming economy, swarming with too-cool bees; it is not something in and of itself. Definitely it is not something you would hang on your wall, and live with, rolling up to breakfast with your face unwashed and munching cereal under a Lichtenstein. 

Except once a year in Miami, during Art Basel, when Dennis and Debra Scholl open up their flat on the Venetian Causeway, with its tasteful furniture and its terrace with the bay breeze, for a public viewing of their private collection. That’s where I meet Dennis for the first time. I step in, and it’s a real home, warm, non-overwhelming, and I get that wonderful feeling, rare in our 21st century chaos: that the world is a container with a lid on it, safe and good. There are drawings and paintings and installations, in the hallway, above the beds, over the sofa; artists being friendly; Dennis being most friendly of all. For those few hours, art became integrated with real life again.

Dennis Scholl is one of Miami’s foremost art collectors and philanthropists. He makes assemblages of historical objects, plus wine. Most relevant to the following Q&A is the fact that Dennis makes documentary films, 87 so far, including the new feature film Naked Ambition, which had its Florida premiere in April.

Dennis’ feature docs include stories about ‘60s Soul Music in Miami, a Cuban Ballerina fleeing communism, the first crowd-sourced American symphony, the greatest jazz singer of the 21st Century, America’s most famous pin-up photographer, and more. He is a member of the Producers Guild of America and the recipient of 23 regional Emmys for his work in public television. His films have appeared at over 200 film festivals, including Sundance, Doc NYC, and SXSW and received numerous awards including Best Documentary at the Miami International Film Festival, Best Documentary at the Miami Jewish Film Festival, Best Independent Feature at the OnArt Film Festival, and Best Short Documentary awards at Magnolia Film Festival, South Dakota Film Festival, Capital City Black Film Festival, and Rome Music Video Festival.

In this interview, Dennis speaks with me about his practice, Miami’s youthfulness, and the single story he tells over and over again.

GSC: I would love to begin by asking you about your turn from collecting to film-making. What prompted it?

DS: I always wanted to be a maker. But I was never brave enough. When you're a collector in the art world, you see how hard it is to make something of substance, something that matters. I was a collector. I was a patron. I was somebody who revered artists and supported them. I had a pretty good life. Then I entered my 50s and felt this need to do something creative. I had been working a little bit in a regional television station. There I met a guy named Marlon Johnson who became my longtime collaborator. We made a six-minute film called “Sunday's Best.” And it was inspiring and joyful for me. When you go to the horse races the first time, if you win your first bet, you get the bug. Well, that film won right away. It got into the Aspen Shortsfest, played 35 film festivals, and won our first Regional Emmy. I tend to be very obsessive about the things that I do. So when the film took off, I wasn't going to just make one movie. Now I’ve made 87 films in fifteen years, including seven features.

I think every maker tends to tell one kind of story. Maybe being a little older when I started allowed me to figure that out a little faster. I tell the story of artists that had a real moment, sometimes an amazing career, and then for whatever reason that career dissipated. At the end of the film, I’m always searching for a redemptive coda, a little lagniappe at the end to give you hope. When you think about artistic careers, so few of them don't have something go wrong. That struggle has dignity; I try to show that the act of making is a dignified act. Like my film Deep City; it’s about Miami soul musicians in the 1960s, right on the edge of greatness. But it doesn’t happen for them. And then they became school teachers, school administrators, and bus mechanics. In my film Queen of Thursdays, Rosario Suarez, one of the best ballerinas in the Western Hemisphere in her time, gets shoved off to the side because [Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso] decided, “I want to keep dancing, so it’s not going to happen for you.” At the end, you see her trying to battle back. That’s maybe the saddest film I ever made. I also generally try to align an artist’s story with a broader social or community narrative. I just try to make films in which I give artists their due.

GSC: Tell me about your process.

DS: I don't sit down and try to figure out my documentaries ahead of time. I do make huge outlines, pages and pages of notes. And I write a script. I use it to ask questions, as opposed to give answers. It helps me become smart about the characters. I always draw the distinction between a narrative film and a documentary. A narrative film is like going to an architect and designing a new house. When they build the house, it looks just like the plans. With a documentary, it's more like renovating an old house. You go in there, and you open up a wall, and you kind of chip away at it, until that moment of discovery: Oh, I didn't know that.

My films take a long time to make. The positive of this is as I’m making the film, the word gets out, and really cool things come out of the woodwork. With documentary storytelling in general, you're not going away to a set and shooting for 20 days and then coming back and going into the editing room. You're poking and prodding, starting and stopping, and you're opening up that wall and finding out what’s behind it. And in the act of doing that, you make the film better, give it more texture. This kind of filmmaking allows for happy surprises. A big thing in my life is always trying to leave room for happy surprises.

GSC: In your film Deep City, about soul music in South Florida, musicians and record producers like Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall are constantly recounting their local success — songs that had air-time on local radio stations, were performed and beloved at neighborhood nightclubs. Of course, I compare this to the contemporary misconception that recognition must occur on a national, if not international scale, to mean something. You travel a great deal; your scope of reference is large. Why stories about Miami, artists from here, pretty exclusively?

DS: People ask me why the Philadelphia Museum has so much great art in it and why we don’t have an equivalent. Where are our Jasper Johns? Where are our Duchamps? The answer is that Philadelphia is 250 years older than Miami. Come back in 250 years. Let's see what we have. This is a community whose history is still being written every day. And so that creates a lot of opportunity. Everybody has been telling the origin story of Boston for centuries. Everybody knows who Paul Revere is. One of the added benefits of telling stories in Miami is that you're not telling a story everybody knows and has heard over and over again. We haven't set our history in amber yet. It's not frozen in time, which is cool. Miami is also a “let’s do it” town. You don't have to be a fifth generation Brahmin to be in the arts community here. You can wake up and decide that you're going to start your own magazine; you can wake up and decide that you're going to be a visual artist; you can wake up and decide you're going to be a filmmaker. The city's youthfulness gives you license to try.

GSC: What is your team like?

DS: It takes 15 people to make a five-minute film. I like to be the storyteller but I surround myself with talented people that are better at all the other components of making a film. And you have to be confident enough in yourself to do that, and to lead the team in a way that is in service to the story, but also allows each crew member to exercise their own creativity. One thing I really love is that I've been able to make films across all parts of our community. But I’m thoughtful of the fact that to many of these communities, I’m an outsider. And so I look for co-directors who live within and understand the worlds I’m entering. It makes for a more authentic film that way. That’s an important part of my practice.

GSC: You make films about art and artists. Does that complicate your work?

DS: Well, when you make films about artists, one of the things you have to explain to the artist very quickly is that you're making a film about them. Not with them. It doesn’t mean you won’t welcome input. But I've had situations where artists thought that we were collaborating, which isn’t really the case. It has led to some vigorous discussions. And that's okay. I mean, artists want to control their own destiny. Sitting down and talking to a filmmaker is a brave thing to do, and the way I get people to sit down and talk to me is to get them to watch my films, and see that I celebrate them. I have built my reputation on that. I've interviewed hundreds and hundreds of artists, the most famous artists you can imagine, and artists you’ve never heard of. My process is to shine a light on what they do. As a collector, philanthropist, and filmmaker, I revere artists. So much so that in the last decade, I have started a practice to become a visual artist myself.

GSC: Given that you interview so many artists, do you have a favorite question you like to ask? One that you can count on for some revelatory replies?

DS: I like to ask what makes them think that they can do this. Because I always ask myself that. Where do I get off? I didn’t go to film school. I was a freaking lawyer; it's the furthest thing from being a creative you can imagine. I want to know: Where did they get the courage? I like that word when it comes to making. And the interesting thing is they almost always answer that they make art because they must, not because they want to. They feel like they are compelled to make art. I think that's an amazing answer. My path has changed over and over again; I was a lawyer, a CPA, an entrepreneur, did venture capital, ran for-profits and nonprofits. I make wine. Consistency is not my strength. The only two things I’ve consistently done are collect art and stay with my wife. And it's surprising to me how many artists said they knew they wanted to be an artist since they were seven years old. Although nowadays, I do think it's much easier to come to that conclusion, because you can learn so much from the internet. So at age 10 you can decide that you want to learn how to be a great painter, or a great jazz singer. On the internet, no one cares how old you are.

GSC: Let’s discuss changes in filmmaking. Streamers. Revolutions in tech. Documentary filmmaking is obviously facilitated by the ease of technology. But there is always going to be a tension between democratizing art and also the inherent hierarchy of art, which seeks recognition. There are changes in audiences, too; we have shorter attention spans. Do you welcome these changes or resist them?

DS: My favorite line about this issue is that it has never been easier to make a bad film. Film-making used to be so hard. You had to have a camera, and film, and you had to develop that film and then snip it with a pair of scissors, plus piece it back together with tape. But with the easing of the technical part of filmmaking, the storyteller is becoming the most important part of the process. For me, that’s great; I like telling stories. Because of the internet, we’ve gotten used to accepting less than pristine images. Think of all the cat meme videos. And in documentary films, this means you can use old footage that's significant, but might not be the best-looking, because it’s damaged, but now the audience accepts it. The proliferation of streamers has been a boon for documentary filmmaking. Now that a story doesn't have to draw a massive box-office crowd, you can tell stories to a smaller sliver of the market, which allows for the kind of niche, arthouse stories I like to tell. 


GSC: The relationship between art and money comes up repeatedly in your films. Artists work multiple jobs, hope for funding, pursue this Holy Grail which is enough cash to create indefinitely. Can you elaborate on that?

DS: I think that there's never enough money for art. In Europe, for example, there is a great deal of government-supported art funding and at the same time little intrusion. That doesn’t happen here. When political money follows art, art suffers, because art becomes limited. One thing I think about all the time, generally, but particularly in the context of artists, is income disparity. Many of us in the Miami community have worked very hard to create a welcoming environment for artists; there's a safety net here, in theory. If you're an artist, you can get a Knight grant, you can get an Oolite grant, you can get a Miami-Dade County grant, you can get a Pérez grant. For years, you could come here as a talented artist and have a studio practice. But rents in Miami-Dade have gone up 42% in two years! With housing rates increasingly untenable, I fear the fragile safety net we built as a community is going to get more fragile. Artists used to have a day job, a studio, and an apartment. Now they need two day jobs and their studio is in their apartment. One of the last things I put in place before I left Oolite Arts — we used a jury to select 14-18 residents a year, and gave them free studio space for two years — was to add an annual housing stipend. It’s simply a stop-gap measure. We've got to find a way to make our community affordable for artists. They led the way in Miami’s emergence as a world-class city and we now risk leaving them with no way to stay.

GSC: Can you tell me about your new film, Naked Ambition, and how it fits in with themes featured previously in your work?

DS: We're telling another quintessential Miami story. In the 1950s, Bunny Yeager was a pin-up model who became the world’s most famous pin-up photographer. And then pin-ups changed, and people wanted something different, more pornographic. Bunny wouldn’t do it, and her career suffered from her unwillingness to change her style. I started discussing the making of the film with Bunny when she was 83. She initially said no. When she turned 85, she finally said yes. The day I was going to interview her, her people called and said, “Look, she’s not feeling that well.” A few hours later, she went into the hospital and died. I never got to interview her. I was devastated. I put the film on the shelf. Then I took it off the shelf four and a half years later and just finished it with my co-director Kareem Tabsch.

GSC: Is there an element of Bunny’s story that adds something particularly meaningful to your body of work?

DS: Bunny’s story is close to my heart because Bunny was a striver. The original title of the film, which I still love, was The Reluctant Feminist. Because she was such a feminist icon. She got up, took care of her kids, had a career. Her husband was a cop. He didn't make much money so she had to. Miami is a striver town — you can be anything here, but it doesn’t come to you by birthright. You have to go out there and hustle. Bunny had the original Miami hustle. In my films, all my artists work hard. But Bunny willed things into place. She forced the world into submission.

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