Laura Gabbert and Doug Pray on What Sets a Story Apart in “The Power of Film”

It was easy to get lost in Howard Suber’s legendary lectures at UCLA Film School, not in the sense that you missed the point, but in how time would pass as he spoke to story structure and how to captivate an audience, demonstrating what he was talking about as he discussed it when he could connect the enduring elements of foundational cultural mythmaking to the most popular movies of the moment.

“When you take classes from Howard, his lectures are three hours long and there’s an intermission,” said Doug Pray, who along with Laura Gabbert, had an intimidating task ahead in in adapting their former professor’s book “The Power of Film” for a six-part series airing on Thursdays from January 4th through February 8th, opening up Suber’s classroom to a far wider audience while making sure that magic of being in the room wasn’t lost in translation. “There are all these wonderful digressions that will take you off to ancient Greece for 30 minutes, and in our series, we’re there for about five seconds, so there are things that we had to really compress and make it really appeal to not a grad student, but general audiences. But that is the beauty of his teachings — it really is about the human condition, human psychology and human emotion.”

There may be no greater evidence of the lessons that Suber has imparted over the years than to know that Pray and Gabbert were once students, with both having established themselves as filmmakers of the first order and capable of making the complexities of the stories they tell in films such as Pray’s “Hype!” about the Seattle grunge scene and Gabbert’s “Food and Country,” about sustainability and supply chains, become what audiences can hold onto the most. The two have already done their hometown of Los Angeles proud in making films about local institutions such as Pray’s “Levitated Mass,” Michael Heizer’s rock sculpture at LACMA that pulled the city together in its travel to the museum, and “City of Gold,” Gabbert’s profile of the late L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold who made sense of a metropolis of contradictions through its cuisine, and in “The Power of Film,” they get their arms around another in Suber, who taught at UCLA for 50 years, as well as the creative industry he demystified.

With TCM airing 17 of the films covered in addition to the series, audiences can be swept up in movies that have stood the test of time while coming to understand why that is, transcending rigid notions of form and function to operate on a more subconscious level. Having Suber as a guide, each episode of “The Power of Film” is built around his core ideas, most specifically “The Power of Paradox,” which gives episode five its title, but could describe the animating notion of tension at the center of many of Suber’s beliefs about resonant narratives when heroes and villains can be separated by a thin margin and often closeness between characters is expressed by how they behave at a distance from one another. Gabbert and Pray cast their own spell in carefully juxtaposing clips from films throughout Hollywood history from “Casablanca” to “Whiplash” to show the elements of timeless appeal Suber has identified and highlight his own enduring wisdom.

On the eve of the labor of love which took Gabbert and Pray the better part of a decade to bring to fruition, the dynamic duo spoke about how they came to team up on “The Power of Film,” the lessons that they continue to carry with them from sitting in Suber’s class at Melnitz Hall and creating a fluid conversation about cinema using its language and letting the past speak to the present.

How did this come about?

Doug Pray: We were both [teacher’s assistants] of Howard’s, and Laura’s younger than I am, but we both were big fans of Howard’s, so we were both like, “Oh, we’re gonna be in this together!” We worked with him closely. He founded the UCLA Producers Program. Both of us went to UCLA as students in the graduate UCLA Producers Program. And Howard’s just a teacher, but he’s one of those teachers I got very close with and I consider a mentor. His teaching deeply affected me during the several decades of my career. In every realm I’ve been in, whether it’s documentaries or the commercial work or other short-form things I’ve done, his lessons have affected me as much as anything I’ve ever learned. To this day, I’ll be in a meeting, maybe working with an editor or a fellow producer or a director and there’ll be some principle [I’ll remember and think], “Well, I think this is important.” I got that from Howard.

Laura Gabbert: Same with me, and like Doug, Howard was someone whose lectures felt like things that I could actually apply to my work in a very, very tangible way, whether you’re in the editing room or on set. The biggest thing for me is this idea of the psychology of the audience. He really drilled that into us. It’s not about the psychology of the characters or the filmmaker. It’s the psychology of the audience and it’s just such a useful principle to apply as you’re making a film. A lot of people don’t do that. You’ll be in meetings, you’ll be working on something creative, and it’s always this idea of like, “Well, wait. What’s the audience feeling right now? And what do we do about that?” Because if they’re not feeling this way, they’re not going to feel the next way. So it’s this idea that you’re molding an experience, and [Howard is] so good at just seeing the principles and the patterns that have worked in great films.

It seems like it would hardly be an easy book to condense. Did you know what to focus on?

Laura Gabbert: There were a few things that were obvious to us. The episode “The Power of Paradox” was something that [I knew] that’s going to be one of our episodes for sure. But Howard, Joey Sierra, another former student, and Doug and I all spent a lot of time distilling Howard’s lectures before production, trying to hit upon six different major topics.

Doug Pray: Yeah, then it was six days of filming Howard on a soundstage. We used the Interrotron, which Errol Morris does, where you’re looking straight into the lens, and I think it was the hardest for Howard and for Joey Sierra, to break down 50 years of teaching. If I showed you all the notes I have from Howard, it would stack up to the ceiling — because he’s taught at UCLA for over 50 years, so to boil it down, that’s really hard. Even in the edit, it was extremely hard to just say, “Oh, we have to omit this whole idea,” and it might’ve been something that Laura and I [thought], “That was such a good lesson,” but you can’t have everything. It could be a 20-part series. So that was actually the most challenging part of the whole series, just trying to figure out which lectures [to film] and it’s also [when] it’s not really like an academic master class-type thing. It’s quite emotional because we’re feeling and seeing these scenes, so it’s very unique kind of piece.

Howard is a dynamic speaker, but what was it like creating that energy of seeing those clips with fresh eyes?

Doug Pray: Some years ago Howard did a couple [commentaries] for the Criterion Collection, where he did some narration for “High Noon,” “The Graduate,” and “Some Like It Hot,” and I watched it years ago and I was so entertained. I remember thinking, “This is just a mind-boggling way to watch a movie and I know there are shows out there where people talk over movies, but his timing and the way a scene would hit and he would fill in the gap by saying, “You see what this character is doing here is the same thing that they did in this other movie,” and that was the model for what we knew this could be. Then it just became three elements — there’s the film clips, there’s Howard’s voice, which is the main thing, and then we hired Garron Chang, a composer I’ve worked with a bunch, and he put this evocative, moody beautiful score underneath much of the series and I think it has a much stronger effect than one might think at first, but it actually moves you forward through numerous clips and ideas that makes this a bit more of an emotional journey.

Laura Gabbert: Also Doug was our supervising editor and a lot of it is really in the editing, and Doug and our other two editors did a great job giving it that power cutting from Howard back to the clip and the timing of that.

Doug Pray: It was a lot of work. This has been an eight-year long [process], from the moment we had the first idea and Laura and I were like, “You know what? Howard really wants to do this. Let’s figure out the right way.” We tried some different ways and other students had worked with him [as well], but he was frustrated. He was like, “I don’t know how to do this show.”

Laura Gabbert: We had some different versions earlier. A test pilot early on combined Howard in conversation with a former student, intercut with scenes from class and I remember Doug had come back from shooting a commercial and [he was] using the Interrotron] and [he] said to me, “Laura, I’ve got it!”

Doug Pray: And I’d never used [an Interrotron] and I was so impressed with the direct, straight-into-the-lens look, like Errol Morris. A lot of people do it now. It’s nothing new anymore but I remember going, “Oh my God, it works. It’s really cool.” So we simplified it. We were like, “Let’s just film you and use the clips and then it becomes really about how to cut it together. Because he’s just looking at us and he would give his lectures, but then Laura and I would interact and say, “Wait, can you clarify that?” And by that process, it took a day to get what essentially became 40 minutes.

Were there any sequences that were particularly difficult to crack in the edit?

Laura Gabbert: Whenever you edit a film, [you’re] re-editing and going back, trying different clips, and there’s a lot of dialogue editing too, figuring out how do we shorten this and make it more powerful, but “The Wizard of Oz” in episode six was one of those sections that really took a lot of going back [because] it was a film that brought together so many of Howard’s ideas. That was really rich and ripe to work with, and for me, it really ties the series up so beautifully.

Doug Pray: It was very emotional editing that final episode. We had two other editors, Avo Kambourian and Philip Owens, who worked on it for a couple of years. The other [part] that was quite challenging was in episode one, which was the hardest one for us to figure out because people don’t know Howard and you want to hook people with the first episode. It was so hard because we had a lot of business to get through, like, “Okay, this is Howard, this is how he teaches, this is what he’s interested in, and he only studies American [films], and then there’s this whole idea that he only is interested in popular and memorable films, as he says many times. It’s not okay if it’s just popular, and it can’t be just some really cool, memorable film. It’s about films that were huge and have stayed on for decades, and [we had] the difficulty of trying to predict newer films, because he didn’t want to only talk about films from the ’30s, ’40s, ‘50s. He wanted to talk about films from the ’90s and the 2000s, and at least a quarter of the clips are from films in this century, so it’s harder because he doesn’t know if they’re going to have lasting power 50 years from now, but we think they will.

As will this series, I suspect. After learning so much from Howard, what’s it like to be sharing this with the world?

Laura Gabbert: I think it’s been a really moving experience for all of us. Howard is now 86, and he retired quite a while ago, and [this series] was truly made independently. Doug and I worked on this in between other jobs and we had no budget, but it was really a gift that I got to go back to take all Howard’s classes again, and just [figuring out] how these different episodes work was an education. Doug and Howard and I had a really close collaboration, and it was just fun to work so closely with Howard again.

Doug Pray: Yeah, it has a lot of meaning. He is my mentor, and to be able to give back just feels good, but it also is a way of sharing stuff that we learned that we think is quite powerful and precious. In some ways, I almost don’t want all these special things we learned from Howard to go out, because I’m like, “No, they’re going to know all my secrets!” But the truth is, these are truisms [for] everybody who’s working in film, and if anything, my altruistic dream is [the thought] “Hey, maybe this will make films better.” People love rejecting the old, like, “Oh, forget all those old movies.” You can do that, but they’re going to be around forever, just like Shakespeare. Some of these works are going to stay on forever, and I just love that we have a professor who’s willing to look at them, bring them to life, and make them important again for those who’ve forgotten and for younger generations. Things may get outdated, but the ideas never do.

“The Power of Film” will air on TCM every Thursday from January 4th to February 8th at 8 pm EST/5 pm PST with an encore presentation at 11:15 pm EST/8:15 PST.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.