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Living a Dream

After seven years, a documentary emerges about family, art, and obsession

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Childhood friends Jeremy Yaches and Jeremiah Zagar started a film company when they were 15 years old. Both left Philadelphia to attend film school in Boston, Yaches (COM’03) at Boston University, Zagar a few miles away at Emerson College.

Still close, they continued to dream about making films together, so it’s fitting that their most successful project, started in college and seven years in the making, is titled In a Dream.

Produced by Yaches and directed by Zagar, In a Dream, which has won awards at the South by Southwest and Full Frame festivals, documents the work of Zagar’s father, Isaiah, a South Philadelphia artist who has covered more than 50,000 square feet of buildings and concrete surfaces with tile and mirror mosaics. The documentary explores the tumultuous relationship between Isaiah and his wife, Julia, as well as the disquieting connections sometimes made between inspiration and instability.

Yaches and Zagar will return to Boston tomorrow night to screen their film at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Joined by Zagar’s parents, they will be available to answer questions after the screening.

BU Today reached the filmmakers for a preview interview.

BU Today: What’s the significance of the title In a Dream?
Zagar:
My father has a piece of art that says, “Everyone hears the future in a dream.” We incorporated that idea, representing the way we view our lives, as opposed to what our lives actually mean. And I think my parents viewed their entire life together as if it were a dream. My mother at one point said, “We turn nothing into something.”

Any couple that settles down has a dream of building a world together. My parents just did it in a very extreme way. They were poor and moved into a neighborhood that had nothing. They managed to start a business, and bought buildings to cover them with glistening mosaics that were a monument to their relationship, family, and community.

How did In a Dream evolve over seven years?
Zagar:
When we were 19, Jeremy and I finished Deli Haus, a short film that was screened at SlamDance, PBS, and festivals all over the country. My mother was really proud of that film, so she asked me to create one about my father. I didn’t want to do it. But I eventually did, because I love her and trust her judgment.

So I began filming my father that summer, and I got nothing.

At the end of the summer, when my father and I went to West Virginia, he became very honest. Afterwards, I showed the footage to Jeremy, and we knew that we had something special.

But we didn’t want to make a movie that was only shot in verité style, solely on video. We wanted to make a movie that was reminiscent of the directors we love, some of whom are from Boston, like Errol Morris. We wanted it to be half lyrical and surreal, using film footage of his artwork that we knew we would shoot years later when we had the budget, and mix it with very visceral verité footage.

But we didn’t have the verité footage, because that first four months yielded nothing. So I would go back on vacations and weekends, and I would shoot him mostly. That, too, yielded nothing.

When my brother was coming out of rehab, I decided to film my parents going to pick him up. That day my father told me he was having an affair, and that’s when the story changed.

I was very distraught. I couldn’t watch that footage at first. But when I was ready, and Jeremy and I started to look at it, we realized we had something we could build a movie around.

Yaches: As you see in the film, it’s only a few months between when Isaiah admits to having an affair and Jeremiah’s parents start to work out their differences. So we knew that there was going to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

How did you develop the visual aesthetic, including the animation and artwork shot on 35-millimeter film?
Zagar:
I’m interested in the way we view the world in present day, as opposed to the way we view the world in our dream states or memory. I think when we view the world in present day we see it as this muddy, ugly, reality-TV thing, because we view the world not through the lens of our eyes but through the media we watch.

We wanted to make a movie that contrasted with how we view reality versus how we view dreams. For instance, when we imagine the 1970s, it’s very colorful. The 1930s is black-and-white, and people look a bit like Charlie Chaplin.

We wanted to create a contrast between those two ideas and a space that felt like a dream, less like memory. And the only way we could do that was by shooting in a way that was like nothing you could see in your present-day reality.

Our eyeballs view the world through 50-millimeter lenses. So we wanted to show the work on 10-millimeter and 90-millimeter lenses, extreme wide shots and extreme close-ups. We shot it in extreme clarity, so that while you were watching it, it felt like a dream. We also wanted to move through space, so the film would surround you in a different way than how you perceive reality.

How does animation function within the film?
Zagar
: My father created etchings in the 1980s, very detailed and beautiful, mostly about the relationship between him and my mother. That’s really the focus of the movie, family and love.

We used the etchings at pivotal points to illustrate that relationship, and we animated them. In the same way we were trying to create dream states with wide-angle lenses in slow motion, we were trying to create dream states with animation. We wanted to use animation to accentuate the experience, so the artwork doesn’t lie flat on the screen.

How did you make the project happen on a shoestring budget?
Yaches:
First we made Coney Island 1945, a stand-alone three-minute film that could have been a scene from In a Dream.

At the time, Jeremiah was editing DVD bonus features for the Academy Award–winning documentary Born into Brothels. He showed the short to Ross Kauffman, who produced and directed Born into Brothels, and Ross loved it. He said, “If you edit a trailer of In a Dream, I’ll show it at Sundance to the people who financed Born into Brothels.”

So we cut it into a short trailer, and Ross took it to Sundance. Pretty quickly, we got some people involved who helped us raise money.

I had been producing music videos after I graduated from Boston University and had established working relationships with vendors, especially Panavision. So I called up my contact at Panavision, and he lent us a 35-millimeter camera for free, so we could start shooting the beautiful footage we had been dreaming about.

Every time we would get a little bit of money, we would shoot more scenes; it took about a four years of editing, postproduction, and animation.

How did your college education prepare you as filmmakers?
Yaches:
Boston University has a great film school. It was there that I developed my passion for producing, where I saw amazing movies that shaped me as a filmmaker.

But the best thing Jeremiah and I got out of school was not what we learned in class; it was the other students we met. We left with a crew of friends we could call for help. These classmates collaborated with us on In a Dream. We work with them on their films too.

What can college students learn from your experience?
Yaches:
We’re hoping students from Boston University and Emerson College see the movie, because we want them to know what’s possible. Once you graduate, you just need to find talented people and work hard.

Do it for free if you have to. Eventually, if you’re good at it and you have strong relationships, it’s going to lead to something.

Was it difficult to create a documentary about someone close to you?
Zagar:
The filming process is not difficult, because the camera becomes a shield that guards against emotionality. You’re able to be with people while they experience difficult things, because you’re not experiencing it in the same way.

It’s the editing process that’s difficult. That’s when the moments resonate and become real. It’s difficult to watch my mother scream. It’s difficult to watch the fragility of my family.

Eventually that difficulty has to fade. Family members have to become characters. Because the movie is not for me, it’s not for my family. It’s for an audience.

Has this process brought your family closer together?
Zagar:
My family is really tight-knit, but that wasn’t true before the film; we’re closer now. The filmmaking process forced us to spend time together, to look at each other in a way that we hadn’t before.

My father says, “It’s easy to deceive yourself when you can’t see yourself.” When he goes to these screenings, he says, “That guy on the screen is crazy. I don’t want to be that guy.” And he sees the beauty of his relationship with my mother; he wants to be part of that.

The camera can rip people apart or bring people together. It’s the intention behind the lens that matters.

What’s next?
Zagar:
We’re making a film with In a Dream executive producers Ross Kauffman and Geralyn Dreyfous, called Wait for Me. It’s about Geralyn’s family member who vanished 20 years ago while he was traveling in India. It’s from a mother’s perspective, a meditation on grief.

And we’re working on shorts, fun films for ourselves.

Yaches: And everything can’t take seven years like In a Dream. We want to do another one of those one day, but at the same time we want to work on projects that take one or two years. And we want to learn how to make money as filmmakers.

Zagar: And we want to hire our friends.

In a Dream will screen Friday, July 3, at 8 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., followed by a discussion with the filmmakers and Isaiah and Julia Zagar. Tickets are $8 for members, seniors, and students; general admission is $10. Additional screenings are on Sunday, July 5, at 2 p.m., Thursday, July 9, at 12:30 p.m., Saturday, July 11, at noon, and Sunday, July 12, at 10:15 a.m.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on Living a Dream

  • Amy Baltzell on 07.02.2009 at 10:19 am

    I'd love to see this

    I am not in Boston to see the showing of this documentary. I would love to see it. Will it be showing again some time this fall? The son has great courage. From the 2-minute clip it seems that you share your family’s story in a rich, respectful, creative way.

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