The film essay is a form which has been embraced by many of the greatest filmmakers over the years – Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, to name a few. When filmmaker Adam E. Stone lost his father, he wanted to pay homage to and explore writings and unsolved mysteries left behind. Adam, a great believer in pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, followed a strong desire to ask his audience to step out of their comfort zones and explore film in different and more engaging ways, namely a rule-breaking alternative to more traditional forms.
‘Atmospheric Marginalia’ takes us through dreamy, almost surreal, natural landscapes and flashes of sky, all painstakingly filmed on an iPhone 8 with no additional equipment, and deftly juxtaposes harsh man-made structures with the flow and ever-changing beauty of nature. It is a stunning piece of work which asks the viewer to use all of their senses to take in the ebb and flow of the narration and the images, which complement Adam’s own soothing tones. ‘Atmospheric Marginalia’ is a prime example of a piece of work which didn’t require a hefty budget or massive resources to produce, but instead relies on a story which asked to be told and a patient, driven attitude towards the craft.
I knew I wanted the film to be both experimental and lyrical, because, other than the occasional conventional documentary, that is really the only kind of film I am interested in making.
What inspired you to make this film?
The initial impetus to make Atmospheric Marginalia was the death of my father in 2005. It is always hard to lose a parent, but I think I was especially devastated because I knew my father was not ready to go yet. He left behind unfinished writings and unsolved mysteries. I often refer to this film as being “equal parts poetic essay film and family folklore,” and the latter part of that comes from the fact that at the time of his death, my father was still trying to figure out the greatest mystery of his own life, and was still grieving the loss of the love of his life, a woman he met and had a relationship with long before he met my mother. Exploring, through my father’s unfinished writings, these star-crossed lovers and their relationship across several decades, including after her death, led me to the continuing bonds theory of grief, and to both practical and philosophical questions about the existence of an afterlife. It was also pivotal to resolving my protracted grief following my father’s death.
How did you decide on how to put all of this into cinematic form?
I knew I wanted the film to be both experimental and lyrical, because, other than the occasional conventional documentary, that is really the only kind of film I am interested in making. I also knew the film, delving into such timeless, and yet ephemeral subjects as loss, grief, and life after death, had to have an abstract and dreamy feel, and an unconventional almost subversive storytelling method. That is what led me to play around with and eventually dive deeply into the free-flowing cycles of imagery that permeate the film. I was fascinated by the idea of these strange, recurring palettes of unpeopled skyscapes and waterscapes, and the idea that you could connect and disconnect them in ways that allowed you to tell a deeply human story without ever showing a human face on screen. In many ways, and on many levels, ‘Atmospheric Marginalia’ is a ghost story, so focusing on unpeopled imagery and yet juxtaposing that imagery with some of the human-made objects that have invaded these wild, natural spaces seemed to me like an appropriate way to bring out the otherworldly elements of the story.
Likewise with the direct exposition of the narrative voice-over. I suspect both may be jarring to anyone expecting a mainstream Hollywood film, but a story should always be told on its own terms, even if that means conventions go out the window. Just as people grow when they step out of their comfort zones, art forms grow when artists push the boundaries and encourage people to view new works with open minds, shedding dogma and orthodoxies. I think most mainstream cinema including much mainstream indie cinema resists that, but when you think about it, the idea that art should be restricted by formulaic conventions is quite antithetical to the concept of art as freedom, exploration, and ultimately a search for meaning.
Why are you, as a filmmaker, drawn to the medium of the film essay?
I am sure some filmmakers, or at least some critics and film scholars, would disagree with me, but in my view, there aren’t really any rules for essay films.
Well, for one thing, it is a very up-close and intimate way to make and share a film, and I think we need more of that in this fractured and increasingly impersonal and desensitised world. I also think that essay films are great for experimental filmmakers who want freedom, but still want to make films that have a narrative. I am sure some filmmakers, or at least some critics and film scholars, would disagree with me, but in my view, there aren’t really any rules for essay films. Or maybe, to the extent there are rules, they are much less formulaic and ingrained than the rules of more mainstream narrative films, especially Hollywood films that are created to be safe, easily digestible producers of revenue. In addition to this feature film, I have made a variety of short essay films, dance films with music, a completely silent dance film, and poem films with audio narration, as well as a poem film with text-only narration and the theme that unifies them is experimentation. To me, it is not about breaking the rules just for the sake of breaking them, it is about breaking the rules with the hope that by doing so you will discover something new and magical that you can share with viewers.
How did you go about writing the incredible, almost epic, narration?
The writing took a long time. I had so much material to go through, both in terms of my father’s unfinished writings, some of which he had spent a lot of time on and nearly finished, and some of which consisted of handwritten notes on scraps of paper, or marginalia on earlier drafts he had nearly finished, or other little pieces here and there that needed to be fused into a more complete and coherent narrative and terms of my own writing, which also ran the gamut between the nearly finished and the quite raw, as I tried to make sense of this story’s impact on him, and of course on me as well.
Can you tell me more about the recording process to garner that soothing feeling of ebb and flow over a long runtime?
Yes, with me being the only speaker in the film, that was something of a balancing act. When I finished writing the script, my final edit was very holistic and comprehensive, so ideally, for smoothness and consistency, I would have liked to have recorded the entire voice-over in one 75-minute take to mirror that. Maybe there are some voice actors who could pull that off, but I knew my voice, not to mention my brain, would become fatigued before I ever got there, and that the quality of the voice-over would start to diminish pretty rapidly once that fatigue began to hit. Plus, even in the best studio you are going to have little distractions, or technical glitches, over a 75-minute span of time, which is going to make it almost impossible to pull that off. So, I split the narrative into 3 parts, each of which turned out to be approximately 25 minutes long, and recorded it in 3 different sessions, each a week apart. That also allowed me, in terms of rehearsing, to focus on each recording session separately, rather than the entire script as a whole, and it allowed me to rest my voice between sessions, so I could try to keep that intimate, at times whispered, quality of the voice-over consistent throughout the full 75 minutes. It also helped with the enunciation of each line, each syllable really, which was much more manageable over three sessions than it would have been in one marathon session. It was a lot of work, and took a lot of self-discipline, but I ended up very happy with the voice-over. In fact, I wouldn’t change a single enunciation, which is something I can rarely say about a voice-over.
What did you use for the filming and how long did it take you to put the whole film together?
I felt that embracing the tradition of raw, no-budget guerrilla filmmaking was the best way to capture the abstract and otherworldly wonder of everyday life that was so important to the underlying themes of the film.
‘Atmospheric Marginalia’ was filmed entirely by hand on an unmodified iPhone 8 without the use of tripods, external lenses, lighting aids, stabilizers, or any other equipment. It was just me, my phone, and the gracious people who drove me around, my partner and my youngest son, wandering around Carbondale, Illinois, and Huntsville, Alabama, looking for hidden gems in the free spaces around me. That was a very intentional choice on my part. For one thing, I did not have the money for anything more fancy. For another, I felt that embracing the tradition of raw, no-budget guerrilla filmmaking was the best way to capture the abstract and otherworldly wonder of everyday life that was so important to the underlying themes of the film.
In terms of how long it took, I guess honestly I have been struggling with how to tell this story, and make sense of my grief, since the day I lost my father in 2005. In early 2016, I began to feel a stronger sense of urgency that I had to find a way to tell this story, which I think was driven in part by the sense that I had to make peace with my protracted grief, which in many ways still haunted me and disrupted my life as much as it had in 2005. It took a few more years for everything to come together, but in early 2020, as I was finishing a couple of shorter films, I began poring over old writing, reworking and honing down various earlier attempts at telling the story, and I began filming at around the same time. I finished filming in late 2021, just days before I finished the editing.
You were working on the film, in one way or another, for a very long time. Do you think that benefited the final piece?
Sometimes an entire short film develops over months, or even years from a little phrase or note to myself, jotted down on a scrap of paper.
Yes. I am not always the most patient person, but over time I have learned that, at least for me and my creative process, it is a really bad idea to rush things. At the same time, it can be hard to slow down and let things develop at their own pace. I have to consciously give myself permission to do that, because sometimes I will have a very clear idea of how I want a film to turn out, which can lead to the urge to push forward at full speed, because I want to capture everything before I lose that sense of clarity and inspiration. But as I have made more films, I have learned to trust the process. Sometimes an entire short film develops over months, or even years from a little phrase or note to myself, jotted down on a scrap of paper. Most of the titles of my creative works have come to me in that way too. I have learned that if an idea that is important to me really resonates with me I will come back to it and keep trying to figure it out, no matter how long that takes, and no matter how many mistakes I make–or dead ends I pursue–along the way. So, that knowledge helps me slow down and let things go at their own pace, in their own way, which I think results in a finished film with a more fully developed structural and thematic integrity.
Your imagery flows so smoothly with the narration with that juxtaposition you mentioned. How much footage did you capture and how did you then match that to the narration?
I could sense that certain visual themes that I was capturing would go nicely with certain audio narrative elements, so I began to very roughly match things in my mind, which helped me figure out if I needed more footage for certain themes, or variations on the footage I already had for that theme, or new footage entirely, for a new theme or themes
When I started filming, I had only a general idea of what kind of imagery I wanted, which was basically unpeopled skyscapes and waterscapes. From there, I just did a lot of experimenting. I shot a ton of raw footage, and kept somewhere between 800 and 900 clips, each of which was anywhere from maybe 10 seconds long for the shortest clips, to maybe 2 minutes long for the longest ones. I realized certain themes were emerging, so I started analyzing and organizing the clips, placing the best ones in folders I named based on themes, getting rid of anything that was out of focus, shaky, poorly lit, or that inadvertently captured things like people or houses that would be distracting or disruptive to the rhythm of the film. As I was doing this, I was still working on honing down the narrative and figuring out what the final voice-over would be like. Still, I could sense that certain visual themes that I was capturing would go nicely with certain audio narrative elements, so I began to very roughly match things in my mind, which helped me figure out if I needed more footage for certain themes, or variations on the footage I already had for that theme, or new footage entirely, for a new theme or themes.
Once I finished writing and recording the voice-over, I knew the film would be approximately 75 minutes long, and I knew where the audio narrative shifts would be, like chapters in a book, so then I could really start planning which cycles of imagery would fit best with which parts of the audio narrative. That said, it wasn’t always a smooth and precise process. Sometimes I would have what I thought was a great plan for certain footage to accompany a certain part of the audio, only to find that when I put the two together they did not mesh as smoothly as I had hoped, or one was distracting from the other, rather than harmonious with it, or they just didn’t flow with the pieces that came before or after them. That’s one of the reasons I continued shooting new footage even after the voice-over was finished and I had begun to piece the visual and audio elements together: I could see there were gaps, or the need for more smooth transitions, so I had no choice but to go out and shoot more footage. Usually, at that point, I had a pretty strong sense of what I wanted to use to fill those gaps, so it became a matter of trying to think of places to go to capture that sort of footage, and of course getting lucky enough to be in the right places at the right times as far as capturing magical natural light, shadows, and other consistencies and contrasts with the earlier clips.
What do you hope for your film?
I firmly believe that every story is important and deserves to be told, and that every person who wants to should be able to participate in the world of filmmaking.
In terms of the film’s content, my hope is that it will resonate with people who have experienced similar protracted grief, and that it can be a source of comfort for them as they make their way through that journey of darkness, and at times hopelessness. To me, that is the purpose of all art: to connect people, to help us help each other process and understand this experience called life. I also hope it will resonate with people who have experienced more “normal” grief (whatever that means!), as well as with professionals who study grief and all of its effects, or who work as practitioners counseling those who experience grief.
In terms of the film’s artistic vision, or aesthetic technique, my hope is that it will remind people that you really can be the master of your own story, including your own storytelling method, and that you do not have to have a ton of money or fancy equipment to be true to yourself and the story you want to tell. I firmly believe that every story is important and deserves to be told, and that every person who wants to should be able to participate in the world of filmmaking. I also hope the film serves as a gentle reminder, in this world that often seems to be overly materialistic and status-seeking, that all the wonder of the world, and all the mysteries of time, space, memory, connection, and the rest of the human experience, are right here among us at every moment and in every place, if we focus ourselves and choose to perceive and embrace them. All the magic of life literally is right here, right now – hidden in plain sight.