Sundance 2024 Interview: Sterling Hampton on Diving Headfirst Into a Person’s Life with “Merman”

Sterling Hampton has become known for not needing a lot of time to come to know his subjects, but understanding that people have multitudes, he’s stretched out their experience in different ways. Often requiring no more than a day to film his arresting documentary portraits, the films have a habit of exploding off the screen, less inclined to parse out information than to present someone in front of you in all their complexities and let layer upon layer fall away before discovering who they are at their core. Such is the case with André Chambers, a 58-year-old emergency nurse whose medical prowess might be overlooked when he’s introduced in a black and gold thong in a nod to his personal life as a leather enthusiast. A hulking figure with a glorious salt and pepper beard and a cherubic grin that one might expect of a Greek god, Chambers has christened himself “Merman,” at home in the water after a youth spent bouncing around the Western coast where he found himself often being the only black kid in the neighborhood and was once prevented from swimming at a friend’s house when their parents thought he’d leave a dark ring in their pool.

In the short naturally titled “Merman,” Hampton follows Chambers around Palm Springs where he now resides and is prone to get a bear hug when striding down Palm Canyon Drive, as much for the people he’s helped in his day job as much as his reputation as a real character. The public acceptance is nice, but more heartening is seeing him so comfortable in his own skin given all that he’s had to endure over the years as a gay Black man. Hampton will be the first to tell you he spent a mere seven hours filming with Chambers to tell the story of his life, but spent countless more finding the perfect expression for all the emotions and memories that live inside of him, capturing his energy with a pulse-pounding score and bursts of animation in different styles to reflect the variety of people he’s had to be at any given point in his life before embracing who he is now and how in his short profiles from “Kylie,” about the 27-year-old ballerina Kylie Jefferson, to “Figs,” a loving portrait of his 81-year-old grandmother Bonnie, he has continued to push himself to articulate what mere words cannot about how something feels and the deep impression certain events have had on someone.

A favorite of the Sundance Film Festival where he’s presented new work in back-to-back years, Hampton graciously took the time out of his most recent trip to Park City to talk about “Merman,” perfecting a process he’s been developing since he was 15 to let people speak their truth in film, and how he’s carved out the space to pursue his passion for portraiture amidst a busy schedule as an in-demand music video director. Meanwhile, you can check out “Merman” right now below.

From what I understand, you’ve done these short profiles for years, but you also went on the road with artists, so what’s it like to carve out a space for this kind of work?

I started in documentary and when I was 15, my first project was about foster youth who happened to live next door to me. That was like my first step into cinema and I made a detour into musicland [where] I was directing music videos for the likes of the Black Eyed Peas and Mario and G-Eazy after undergrad. Will [I Am] kind of took me under his wing for a while, and it was cool to tour the world with the Peas and all those different artists and I think that my music video and commercial activity is what kind of informed my stylistic approach to my documentary and narrative storytelling.

And to really take it back, we made another short documentary [“Kylie”] a while back that came to Sundance in 2023 and after the success of that, we really wanted to dive right back into short doc. I went on Instagram Explore for about two hours, just scouring for interesting subjects and I saw this incredible black-and-white photograph of Andre, a.k.a. Merman, on this photographer’s account and I thought to myself, “This guy seems so incredible. I’d love to learn more about him.” After a couple of DMs and a great phone call, I asked, “Hey, can we make a short form something about you and your life?” And he agreed.

What’s the process like getting to know a subject? I understand you’ll typically only shoot for a day ultimately.

I learn so much just from just having real curious conversations, and it’s just really what is most pertinent to me and what I want to know and I think as an extension, audiences will feel the same. After our conversation over the phone, I learned so much about Andre and about myself, and about the world. Then when we went out to Palm Springs, we sat down for about an hour-and-a-half and just talked, but for my documentaries, I usually don’t like to see talking heads very much, so we didn’t even really bother to put the A camera on us while we were talking. It was just about the rawness of the dialogue [which we could use as [part of] the VoiceOver and then we just put microphones down, put cameras up and ran around Palm Springs and stole a bunch of shots and then staged some things.

Whose idea is it to walk down downtown?

It was so impulsive, just like, “This would be really interesting to show this interesting man walking across the street. Let’s run down the street and see if you see anybody you know, or if you’re recognized and let’s just rock and roll.” And it was very like, “What feels good now? We should try this.” We had the pool shot, which I shot with a fish tank with the camera in it, and I’m getting in the water myself, so it’s just loose planning with an elastic approach of what should happen next, how should we feel, what should we do at this moment?

You probably didn’t come in with too many preconceived ideas to begin with, but did anything happen that changed your ideas of what this could be?

My biggest takeaway from making this film was [realizing] bigotry and adversity is layered because I can empathize with Andre in terms of being an African American, but then you learn from his story that he’s not only dealing with that layer of bigotry, but he’s also dealing with people being bigoted towards him for being a queer man and part of the LGBTQ community, so you understand the world with a little bit more nuance and I’m happy that by extension, other people can also see that’s a thing and the layers can be crazy [when piled on top of one another].

Between this, “Kylie” and “Figs,” another short you made recently, it seems like there’s a real interest in chronicling different generations. Has that been a conscious decision?

My curiosity’s driven just through the subjects, no matter if they’re 60 years old or 20 years old or somewhere in the middle. It’s just what’s most interesting and what’s most profound. If somebody has something interesting to say, then why not ask them about it and put a camera on them? With Andre, it was like, this is an undeniable person and with “Kylie,” she’s a friend of a friend, and we shot a music video and she was dancing in it, so it was like “We should make a short film something about you and your story,” and that was wonderful. Then with “Figs,” that film’s about my grandmother and I’ve talked with her on many different occasions, but this was a great time to do it because I have a level of maturity, and I wanted to honor her and her story and her siblings, so that’s where the motivation came from there.

In your other films, a lot of the style and energy seems to be created on the day in terms of the camerawork, but with “Merman,” there must be more involved on the post-production side when you’ve got a lot of animation. How intuitive a process is it?

With the standard digital filmmaking that we did [on “Merman”] in the seven hours, it would have been really cool that way, but I think afterwards I felt that animation could enhance that experience with all the color and the vibrance. It was somewhat on brand with the story we were trying to tell — the 2D and 3D and AI animation, all mixed in with the digital filmmaking. They complement each other very well, and it’s really interesting when you take different artists’ styles too and have them create a caricature or a character of a real person and seeing like the different kinds of ways they capture it. Ray Chang did the 2D, and Aaron Weissman did the 3D animation and those two mediums were great to explore in such a cool way. The nature of short filmmaking is super cool because you can get away with so much and be more raw and more passionate with the creation without any kind of constraints. At a certain point, because I direct, produce, compose [music] and do all those things simultaneously, it’s a really crazy experience in post-production for me. That’s also a metaphor for my style because it’s always different components coming together in this kind of symphony of visuals.

While they probably take place in parallel, at what point do you start thinking about the music?

Before my first documentary, dance was my entire life, so music, dance, rhythm, all heavily inform my style, and it’s about finding sounds that take you out or interrupt patterns, not only [to be] tension grabbing and readjusting, but also sometimes [becoming] a metaphor for cognitive dissonance in someone who’s experiencing all kinds of issues and having to overcome real world events.

But I’m also just a fan of doing quirky synth sonic production and breaking some rules. If somebody doesn’t watch my film and say, “What the hell is happening right now?” for the first 10 to 30 seconds, that’s cool, I suppose, but then with that, unpacking some of the material, then everybody says, “Oh, I understand. Okay, we’re locked in,” and I think that’s really the beauty of it. I love crafting my own music in the projects, minus the beginning track [in “Merman”], “Every N*****’s a Star,” which was the most random sample I could have found — I had heard it randomly in a Kendrick Lamar song a long time ago, and I [thought], “Wow, that would be perfect,” especially with the way that Andre talks about not wanting to use the word and being called it as a child. So that was the craziest melding of situations there.

It’s interesting to hear you mention dance, because going back to “Kylie” as well, there’s a real dynamic sense of movement in them. Does it still influence how you handle the camerawork as well?

When it comes to our passion projects, Adam Shattuck, my longtime cinematographer, is amazing, especially with lighting and the setups and just how light bounces off people in a certain way, and a lot of times, I operate myself, so dancing with the subject is a real thing. It’s trying to just have that energy and connection from the visual to what’s being seen.

What’s it been like to come back to Sundance after already having a pretty celebrated festival run with this?

It’s been absolutely wonderful. After the success of “Kylie,” you ask yourself, “Well, can you do that again? Can you go tell another important story that’s useful and that has merit?” It was such a beautiful experience to have the success once again with “Merman” and telling Andre’s story. We premiered at Tribeca, and we did the Hamptons, AFI, and Urbanworld, and 14 other film festivals. and now that we’re at Sundance again, so that’s the most amazing cherry on top we could ask for. And Andre’s been having a blast. When I talk to him, he’s like, “I can’t believe this has gone this far. I don’t understand how my story has been recognized and people get it. People understand me.” And that’s probably the biggest privilege for me is making a human be understood. I think that’s the goal of any piece of artwork really is trying to produce that feeling of “I understand you. We understand each other.”

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