David Meiklejohn is the co-creator and director of the film, My Heart is an Idiot (2011), documenting the travels and relationships of Found Magazine creator Davy Rothbart. Found is dedicated to showcasing items (mostly notes and pictures) found and sent in to the magazine from around the world. In the interview David talks about My Heart is an Idiot, working and creating with Davy, and gives his own advice on love. This interview originally took place in the late summer of 2011. My Heart is an Idiot is being released on DVD this April and will screen this Thursday in Houston, Texas. For more information on the movie visit their facebook page or watch the trailer.
The 22 Magazine: So to start, can you tell me the story of how you and Davy met?
David Meiklejohn: I was working at Casco Bay Books in Portland, Maine. I worked there for a couple a years. Davy came through town and did his first show in Portland at the store. I was excited about it because I was always a faithful “finder” of things and then I found a place I could send them to. I started sending him all sorts of things. When he got there I found out he had been using stuff that I sent in, in his live show. Which was a surprise to me. So I met him when he came through town, we became friends, I would go to his shows, and we would hang out when he came through town. We would probably only see each other once a year when he was on tour.
22: How did the movie idea develop? Was it just out of an appreciation of what he did?
DM: Yeah. I was living in Austin when we started the film. He had seen some of the short films I did and he really liked them, so he wanted to bring me on tour to document the Found tour shenanigans. At the time there was no real video records of the tour life. There was a lot of footage of the shows but there were a lot of really amazing stories that went on outside of the shows that no one ever witnessed. Davy and Peter, his brother, who was on tour with him, they both wanted to capture the magic of Found tours. They would meet a lot of interesting folks. They would have strange, curious experiences. They wanted me to document that. That was the original idea, but after the first round of filming, which was about two months in 2005, I got back and started looking at the footage. It became clear that tour stuff was interesting but that the romantic storyline of Davy’s love life that happened along the way was definitely the most captivating of everything we had captured.
22: So when did you first approach him and say can I document your love life instead of your tour? What was his response?
DM: It was an ongoing conversation between Davy and myself. A collaboration. It was never me saying, “I want to do this.” When you’re on the road with somebody in a van for two months, there’s a lot of down time and travel time where you can talk about everything. We were constantly talking about what the documentary could be as we were filming the it. There were a couple of points along the way where we realized the romantic story was pretty interesting and some key things started happening with Davy’s love life, for example Sarah found the journal. A couple of months in we realized that in terms of a storyline that this was pretty powerful stuff, more powerful than a Found documentary would be. Ultimately Davy trusted me on how to crack the story in the right way. He trusts me as a filmmaker and respects my work. He gave me permission to do it as long as he was kept in the loop about it. So I kept him in the loop about it. I would edit scenes and share them with him to make sure it was not completely inaccurate.
22: It’s interesting, because the Found process is so much about the interpretation of what you gather and for the movie to turn into the actual reflection of that was kind of a great thing.
22: So, I don’t want to get to personal in asking certain questions, but it’s kind of hard not to given the nature of the film…
DM: Sure, go ahead…
22: Well, specifically there’s this really touching moment in the film where Davy interacts with his mother. Davy’s mother “channels” a Buddhist monk, and becomes this character and has this interaction with her son. Later she calls him a con artist. I somehow wondered if that character helped developed the “con artist” side of Davy? Or if you believe it is a con?
DM: That’s definitely a question that Davy would have a lot more insight into but at the same time I think he’d have a lot less insight because it’s so close to who he is. It’s easy to see the parallels, especially if you come at it from a skeptical point of view-if you believe that his mother can’t actually channel this spirit. It’s easy to see that as being really parallel to Davy’s story where he is conning other people intentionally or not. I think what’s important to remember is when Davy’s mother and later in the film when Alex calls him a “con artist”, they don’t mean it in a simple way. I think they both mean it in a complicated way. I think what they mean are his actions are not lining up with his words. What he says he wants and the actions he does to pursue what he really wants are not the same. So that’s what they are both trying to say, because they both care about him a lot, and they don’t mean it in a slight, cheap, cruel, insulting way. They mean it with a lot of respect and love for him but at the same time they are trying to call him out on some behavioral stuff that he does. We would all be lucky to have people like that in our lives; to call us out in that way. I think the way they mean it is not somebody who betrays you or pulls the wool over your eyes, what they mean is that Davy doesn’t always admit to people what he really wants. I think it’s a thing that a lot of people struggle with, really knowing how to express what you want. How to ask for what you want from the people around you. It’s something that Davy struggles with in the film too, building up, trying to muster the courage to tell Alex what he really feels. Also trying to muster the courage to tell Sarah what he really feels. I think that’s what Davy’s mom and Alex are both getting at. The longer he puts off dealing with expressing fully what he’s feeling for the people he’s involved with romantically the longer these problems are going to arise for him.
22: Were there any problems with anyone in the film regarding showing any of the footage?
DM: Davy is pretty much an open book. He is not shy about the mistakes he has made. He’s not embarrassed to show who he really is. You can see that in the articles he’s written. He’s written some articles where he hasn’t painted himself in the prettiest light and he’s endured a lot of criticism because of that. He takes a lot of risks with his own work. It was my decision to show him puking in a gutter, or to portray people in not the greatest light but he was on board with it.
22: What about the girls? How did they feel about it?
DM: At first they were kind of hesitant because they didn’t know what the footage was, or what the story would be but once they saw the film it was a lot easier for them to come on board. Alex came to the premiere in Ann Arbor and with Sarah, she and I worked on her role in the film together. We planned scenes together, brainstormed what they would be, talked about the shots. Her voice is actually an interview she did with me. The interview is just her story as she tells but the footage is something we created together based on the interview. She was a really important part of the creation of her side of the story. Both girls were definitely on board with the final product. It captured some sensitive periods for both of them, so I think for Davy, Sarah, Alex and even Brande, who in the film is dealing with his mother’s death. For all the people involved there were sensitive, tender memories, so they weren’t pumped about the film in the way they would be maybe about an action film, but they respect the film, the storytelling, and they felt they were all portrayed with dignity, in a respectful way.
22: That’s really the feeling you get from the film. It doesn’t strike a pleasure zone but it’s so intriguing, you sort of suffer along with the people as you watch it, which in the end is a great thing.
DM: That’s a good way to put it.
22: So, was it happily ever after, did Sarah and Davy stay together?
DM: What do you think?
22: I can only assume they did…but obviously there were issues.
DM: Relationships don’t end in a neat and tidy way, or at least not in the way that most films would have you believe. Films have to end, I can’t keep documenting a love life forever. Well, I could, but that’s a long film! Something I really like about the film is that it doesn’t end in the tidiest way. It’s relatively clean but it leaves a little bit open. In reality what happens after is kind of not important to the film, it’s important to audience members to know what happened. It’s important that the film is a little ambiguous because it reminds you that so much of the film is self-aware, especially in relation to Davy’s character who is constantly documenting his life in general. He has all these VHS tapes that he recorded when he was younger placed throughout the film and it shows an awareness that having any ending is a decision that is made through editing. The documentary itself ends with Sarah and Davy back together, reuniting. In the film whether they have success in their relationship…who knows? But in reality, they didn’t stay together too much longer after that, and things with Alex didn’t end up romantically either but they are all still friends.
22: So on another note the scene with Brande throwing his mother’s ashes into the ocean was really gorgeous.
DM: Yeah, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who say the scene with Brande was unnecessary…
22: Oh, I totally disagree….
DM: Yeah, I thought it was really important to show a scene or an example of love that was really healthy. Well, not “healthy”…….but….
22: It seems like acknowledging a whole different version or stage of love. It works because you see Davy’s mom too. At least I made that parallel. The letting go of love aspect is a big part of it.
22: So about the film Paper Hearts, someone in an article mentioned that it was based on of your film?
DM: No, no, that film actually came out while I was making My Heart Is An Idiot. I did have a moment of panic because I was like “they’re making my film!” but at the time, since my film wasn’t done, I wasn’t sure if they were the same or not. Honestly, I’ve never seen Paper Hearts, but I don’t think the two have much in common beyond what’s on paper. From everything I heard about it they’re miles apart. Cliche is something I wrestled with in editing, how do you make a movie about love that’s just not saturated with sentimentalism? You have to wrestle with a lot to make a film about love. You have to wrestle with a huge history of not just filmmaking but imagery, iconography, language, literature and art. Love is a huge subject to tackle. What I really focused on was not love in general but love in relation to the people who I documented. It’s a universal story in that a lot of people have gone through similar situations but it’s really about this unique set of characters: Davy, Alex, Sarah and Brande. So it doesn’t matter if it was the same sort of movie, it would still be different My Heart Is An Idiot was about very specific people.
22: Part of what I saw in your work was this desire to capture inner monologues and perhaps thoughts that we don’t share with others. What appeals to you about a “secret” look at things?
DM: Well my short film Dress Rehearsal is a really good example of this. Dress Rehearsal is about people practicing to have really delicate and intimate conversations with someone they care about. I do the same thing all the time, which is why I created that piece. I am constantly practicing difficult conversations before I have them. The way I’ll do it is, I’ll take a walk, have the conversation multiple times from start to finish, and keep changing things to try to gauge multiple reactions. I’ll say “OK, if I say this, this person could react in five possible different ways,” and then I’ll make an answer for each of the five possible ways. I’ll walk through it not necessarily to map out a conversation, because there’s no way to predict a conversation, but to become familiar with what I really want to get out of the conversation, of what my goals are. It’s hard to do, to have that introspection, especially with romance. There are so many layers, and it’s so complicated. Dealing with your own psychology, and interpersonal relationships, it’s very complex and to try to get some clarity on that is a real struggle. Dress Rehearsal was a way I could show the type of practice that people do when they are going to have a hard conversation with somebody. I think My Heart Is An Idiot works in a similar way. In Sarah’s interview she’s talking to me, the filmmaker, but essentially she’s talking to the audience about her feelings and her history. The whole film has Davy’s voice in it too but his is a more traditional narration or voiceover. Then you have everyone else with their own interactions and monologues. I’m fascinated by the different ways we can talk to each other and to other people, and how the method of all the way we talk changes based on the people we are talking to. There are so many subtle varieties to those conversations. Something about that is really fascinating.
22: Fascination with the method or the journey? The ride?
DM: Yeah, and I think that’s something that is key to Davy in the film too. He’s fascinated more by the journey than the destination. He wants everything to be in the present, he wants to have interesting experiences happen to him, and they do happen to him because that is a really important goal for him.
22: Some people call that behavior destructive and some people call it living.
DM: Yeah, and some people call it being present in every moment. There’s a lot of ways you can spin it but what I like about the film is that it doesn’t make a judgement. It really leaves that decision up to the viewer and just shows what that process can lead to, be it good or bad.
22: So, what’s going on with your current projects?
DM: Well my most recent film was Forgiveness and it’s a spy revenge thriller starring Aly Spaltro, who is a musician under the name of Lady Lamb the Beekeeper who lives in Brooklyn now but is from Portland. She plays a spy who survives an assassination attempt and comes back to take revenge on the people who tried to kill her. It was part of Damnationland, which is a Maine-made film series that has six Maine filmmakers that each make a short horror film.
22: Great. One last question?
DM: Yeah, bring it on!
22: Do you have any advice on love?
DM: That’s funny. When Davy and I went on tour with the film, we went to sixteen different cities and after every screening we also did a Q&A afterwards and talked about the film. There were some common questions but in only a couple of cities did people ever ask me for romantic advice. I sort of floundered every time. I’m not the best romantic role model for people. Like everyone else I struggle. I’ve learned some lessons and I’m going to make a lot more mistakes, I’m sure. The thing I value in a relationship is real honesty. Not saying “I believe in honesty” and then being deceptive. I’m not just talking about lying, because that’s only one form of deception. Really simple things like not admitting what you want is a type of deception. If you’re with someone and you’re saying “I entrust you with the responsibility of my romantic care,” and then don’t tell them what you need to be cared for, or what your romantic or emotional needs are then you’re doing them, and yourself, a huge disservice. There is a certain type of honesty that is required in relationships. It’s a real struggle to maintain that. It’s a lot of work, and its something I work really hard at and try to maintain that aspect of it. It’s really valuable. When you can have that kind of honesty with somebody, really trust them, it makes things so much more fun, and valuable, and intimate, even simpler in a lot of ways because you stop worrying about jealously or lying or betrayal. When you know you’re being honest with somebody and you know that they’re being honest with you, you can just start to enjoy each others company in a more meaningful way.
22: Good answer. Thank you so much for the interview David.
DM: Thank you.
My Heart Is An Idiot is a romantic documentary that spans two years and over a hundred cities. The film captures the road-tripping lifestyle of Davy Rothbart (This American Life, FOUND Magazine) who looks for love in all the right places, and in all the wrong ways. Climb in the van with Davy as he tours North America promoting his magazine FOUND, a virally popular and iconic printed collection of discarded notes and photographs. Along the way, Davy seeks advice on his tortured love life from people he meets (Zooey Deschanel, Ira Glass, Newt Gingrich, Davy’s mom, and others), and attempts to follow that advice, with comic and surprising results.
The first feature-length film project from filmmaker David Meiklejohn, My Heart Is An Idiot weaves together multiple stories to illustrate the joys and dangers of romantic pursuit.
My Heart Is An Idiot will be released on DVD this April. Watch the trailer.