Heather Ross Talks About Her Experimental Documentary For Madmen Only – SXSW Filmmaker In Focus

The 2020 SXSW Film Festival is coming up quickly! In anticipation of y'all coming here, get to know the films in our lineup a little bit better with our Filmmaker In Focus series.

Check out our Q&A with director Heather Ross as she tells us about her film For Madmen Only, which will World Premiere in the Documentary Feature Competition.

"I would love it if people came away feeling that the creative process is an accessible thing, rather than a rarified gift for the privileged few. That we can give ourselves permission to fail in pursuit of stretching our abilities." – Director Heather Ross

In your own words, what does this film mean to you?

HR: When you make a documentary over the course of six years, you have to find a reason to keep going. When I got pregnant with twins halfway through the process, and I really had to ask myself whether there was something here that justified the grind, I realized that was exactly what the film was about.

Del Close became the seductive, stinking embodiment of the creative impulse. He promises a chance encounter with God and then leaves you hanging. He drains your patience, your bank account, your time; and yet you keep coming back like a moth to the flame. Because if you have the need to create, you’ll endure just about anything to do it. The film became an exploration of the creative process, both its joys and its costs, and an homage to those who choose to live their lives for it.

How did you find your subject?

HR: My first doc brought me to Chicago to shoot a film about teenage girls in prison. It was heavy, but to my surprise and delight, the girls were hilarious, despite the horror of incarceration. It made me start thinking about comedy as way of asserting our humanity and intelligence over impossible situations. During the same period, I read a Chicago Reader piece on Del Close and became fascinated. He had trained all of my heroes and was crazy to boot. What could be more alluring? It was the perfect time in my life to start looking at the intersection between comedy, creativity, and living on the fringe.

What motivated you to tell this story?

HR: To tell this story, I had to investigate what was behind my own rabid interest in comedy. I ended up digging into the fact that, from childhood, comedy was a sort of signal in the dark, letting me know that there were other weirdos out there who saw the ludicrous in the everyday. Lo and behold, as our interviews rolled in, I learned that my heroes felt the same way, and that Del, like comedy itself, was a kind of pied piper pulling the freaks together from the four corners of the earth.

What do you want the audience to take away?

HR: I would love it if people came away feeling that the creative process is an accessible thing, rather than a rarified gift for the privileged few. That we can give ourselves permission to fail in pursuit of stretching our abilities.

I hope the film stirs a sense of awe in the creative process and the deeper purposes of comedy, and an appreciation for the avant-garde figures like Del in every genre, who are kind of like the crest of the wave; they’re out ahead of us, and they may not have it 100% figured out, and they doing stuff before the audience is ready. And they take the brunt of the creative hardship, without getting the credit, in order to invent new modes for the rest of us to use.

What made you choose SXSW to showcase your film to the world?

HR: SXSW has a tradition of showing adventurous work, of championing new genres and ways of seeing. It’s a festival that believes in blending genres rather than keeping them apart. What better place to premiere a film that’s an interconnected web of documentary, comedy and improvisation?

Add For Madmen Only to your SXSW Schedule. Stay tuned as we share more interviews with our SXSW 2020 filmmakers!

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For Madmen Only - Photo courtesy of film

By Neha Aziz