Imagine you are an aspiring filmmaker, still learning your craft and wondering what the future might bring. Imagine also that one day and pretty much out of nowhere you are confronted with the fact that your great-grandfather invented the most iconic camera of motion picture history, paving the way for today’s independent filmmaking. Too much of a fairy tale for your taste? You might be surprised to hear that this is exactly what happened to Alyssa Bolsey, great-granddaughter of the man who developed the first camera to turn everyone into a potential filmmaker – the Bolex. It was in 2004 that she found out to what a profound extent cinematic history was rooted in her family and decided that this was a story to be told. And so Jacques Bolsey became the unknown protagonist of her first feature documentary which she is in the midst of putting together right now. Despite her tight schedule, Alyssa took the time for a little conversation and talked to us about the project, the circumstances of her discovery, dual citizenship, Steve Jobs, „Hugo“ and working 18 hours a day.
screen/read: Lucky us, we finally succeeded in matching our schedules. It’s easy to see how busy you are with this project and how much work there is to be done. Since when are you working on it in general, especially as intensely as now?
Alyssa Bolsey: I’ve been working on it for years off and on, but it’s been about this active for, let’s say, eight months.
screen/read: But you found out about the whole issue about six years ago, is that right?
Alyssa Bolsey: Let’s see, that would be more than six years ago. It’s been 2004 that I discovered all of this while I was in filmschool. I didn’t learn about it there, but that was the time period that I found out.
screen/read: That’s quite some time now. You must have done a lot of research since then.
Alyssa Bolsey: Oh yes, I’ve done so much research, and no matter how much research I do, I feel like there’s always a heap more coming my direction. The story is just so big and so complex and a lot of it has been lost or I’m still trying to find out who I can find that will be able to answer my questions. It’s very difficult right now.
screen/read: How did you come across the whole story in the first place? Did you find it in the attic or what?
Alyssa Bolsey: Well, what happened was, in 2004 my grandfather, Jacques Bolsey’s son, passed away. And following that the family went through the basement which was his work zone where nobody was allowed in for decades. They found that he had kept all of his father’s belongings, probably ten to twenty boxes filled with everything from 1895 through his death in 1962. They found cameras, prototypes, plans, drawings, pictures, even his first loan certificate from 1915. You name it, they found it. When I went to the memorial, they knew that I was in filmschool and that I might be interested in the story behind my great-grandfather who no-one for whatever reason had really mentioned to me in the past. And so I started to go through all of these boxes and came across his paper work about the Bolex, mentioning that he invented it.
screen/read: It must have felt like a major coincidence for you as a filmmaker to find out how filmmaking has been running in your family for ages and you had no idea.
Alyssa Bolsey: Yes, I had no idea. I was running around with video cameras since I was eight years old, making movies with my friends and in filmschool, and no-one had mentioned it. I left school for this memorial, and when I came back I told a few professors, „hey, guess what!” It was a really surreal time.
screen/read: So the fact that your great-grandfather had invented such an important tool in cinema history, a predecessor of the modern digital camera actually, was that the trigger that made you decide to turn the whole story into a documentary? Or what was the motivation behind it?
Alyssa Bolsey: It was a little bit of everything. I think mostly I just was looking into it out of curiousity because I’m a naturally curious person. And once I started looking into it, I realized that there really isn’t much information, but a lot of interest. I didn’t know that I could google his name and find pages about him. But then I found out that many of them conflicted with each other, dates were different, information was different, there was confusion. People on message boards were interested in who invented the camera, asking questions about him but the answers were wrong or different. And I realized that this was a subject that needed to be told, yet nobody could tell it because all the information had been in our basement for that many years. And the other thing was, the story thus far had been very one-sided. All the information about the Bolex had been distributed through the company that manufactured it. And from what I hear now there was some bad blood between them and my great-grandfather. So I wanted to research and understand really what that relationship was. I wanted to see the complete picture basically. Now the Bolex is a huge important camera. It is still used in filmschools today. Actually it’s been used since he invented it in1924. In my childhood I was using cameras that were the equivalent of it. And I knew it was very important. But when I started looking into it, I realized that there was so much more than just the Bolex and from there on I really wanted to tell his whole story.
screen/read: Right now is a time where documentaries are more popular and probably a little easier to be sold than, say, ten years ago. But with this being your first feature, were documentaries something you always wanted to do or did it happen more or less coincidentally?
Alyssa Bolsey: I’ve always been more interested in fictional features, yet I find myself making documentaries. I had made short documentaries before this. Something has always drawn me to them but it was never a thought or an intention. It just happened. I get thrown into them [laughs]. So I’m not surprised that I’m making this documentary and I wouldn’t be surprised by making more in the future. Like I said, I’m a curious person and documentaries are perfect for channeling that.
screen/read: The project has an interesting concept. Part of it is of course the story of your great-grandfather, but then it is also about your research and has you as a character in it. Was that the initial idea or did you originally want to go for a straight documentary approach and things shifted during the process?
Alyssa Bolsey: Originally I was thinking of a straight documentary approach. His story is just so big, I didn’t feel like I needed myself in it. But after speaking with a lot of people I realized there is something very intriguing about a filmmaker having found out that her great-grandfather was this man who set the stage for the world she’s living in. I realized that me and the process had to be part of it. And I followed that path and I think it’s improving the story.
screen/read: Pretty much. The film will have some sort of narration that is close to a fictional feature and that makes it an interesting concept. It is something that keeps appearing here and there for a couple of years now. Do you think that in the future documentaries will be more narrationally structured?
Alyssa Bolsey: I could see that happen. People like to connect with someone on screen, they don’t really necessarily want to see a history documentary without having a protagonist or character to connect with. So I feel that’s why a lot documentaries these days have the documentarian within them leading the story. I’m really happy that documentaries are becoming so popular. One thing that I feel is missing right now is, there aren’t as many historical documentaries anymore. I love social issue documentaries, but at the same time I feel historical documentaries are important too. And right now I feel like in the US we’re in a social documentary world and it’s very very difficult to get a historical project like mine off the ground. Because a lot of the grants out there and fundings specify social documentary only. So I feel like in a way historical films are maybe not the rage at the moment. But I hope that they make more of a comeback [laughs].
screen/read: Now you’re co-producing with a Swiss company. How did that come about? Of course, your great-grandfather worked in Switzerland but still, it’s an unusual approach.
Alyssa Bolsey: Yeah, well, I’m Swiss myself, I’m a dual citizen. My grandparents are Swiss. The funny thing is, my great-grandfather, who did so much in Switzerland, never received citizenship. But well, how did I get involved with our Swiss partner? I really wanted this to be a co-production between the US and Switzerland. He spent a lot of his time in Switzerland, he made his most important invention there, the Bolex, and so I started looking for production companies. At some point we came across respected producer Werner Schweizer of Dschoint Ventschr and he was interested in co-producing. It turned out that he would be in Missouri a couple of months later. So my L.A. producer Camilo Lara and myself flew there for a 24-hour trip to meet with him and after having done so we decided that yes, we do want to work together. And immediately we flew from Missouri right to Kingston, Massachusetts, to shoot the development teaser that we have online now. It was just myself and Camilo shooting that entire teaser on our own. He was the cameraman. It was a process [laughs].
screen/read: So with an international production at hand, distribution will probably be much different. Is that something you’re already thinking about?
Alyssa Bolsey: We have a little bit worked out, but we need to work out more. Producers will be responsible for territories prorated according to the funds they raise. As of now, Dschoint Ventschr will handle German-speaking countries and most of worldwide while my US producer will handle the US and Canada and various other countries. We’ll do the festival routes and we have interest from Shoreline Entertainment, a company that has distributed and coordinated film sales for films that have won awards at top notch film festivals such as Sundance. We have a letter of interest from them, so we’re considering that. Other than that we’re still really figuring out where we want to take this, how best to sell it. We just won IndieWire’s project of the week, and the prize was digital distribution consultation from SnagFilms. So we’ll be speaking with them soon and getting their take on how they feel we should distribute this.
screen/read: You mentioned funding before, which is a very difficult thing these days for every indie filmmaker. What is your approach there?
Alyssa Bolsey: There are many approaches that we’re taking at the moment. Of course grants. Whatever grants there are we’re going for that. We’re doing IndieGoGo right now where we have a campaign running and there is only a few days left for people to contribute to our campaign and becomes involved. Also our co-producer in Switzerland is working on funding. Then there’s fiscal sponsorships in the US, which means that anyone in the US or Canada who donates to our documentary can get a tax write-off on that. So we’re hoping than some donations can come in. It’s a battle but we’re working on it [laughs].
screen/read: So it’s constantly researching, shooting and funding at the same time. A parallel process.
Alyssa Bolsey: Yes, that’s the thing. It’s a documentary about discovery, about the process, so we have to be shooting while we’re in development basically. And we’re shooting in pre-production, we’re shooting in production and we’ll probably be shooting in post-production. In general we’ll be shooting a lot [laughs].
screen/read: Let’s talk a little bit about the different steps and stations you’ve been through so far. Where did you start your journey, where did it lead you?
Alyssa Bolsey: Oh man, where did I start? Well, like I mentioned, I started the moment I found out about this in 2004. I was still in filmschool at the time that I decided to just jump right in. So for the next year and a half year or so I was working on it, I even went to Switzerland, I interviewed a lot of historians and people at museums and just got a basic idea of what information was out there. And then I came back and did a lot of research, actually as much as I could by reaching out to people around the world who were interested in contributing. I put up a website so people could find me because I knew it was something people would google. At some point I put the documentary aside for, let’s see, about four years. But when I did so, I knew I would return to it one day when I was ready. So when I picked it up again about a year and a half ago, I was working in the corporate entertainment world as an assistant at a talent agency in Los Angeles. I just didn’t feel complete without having a project and creativity in my life anymore. So I jumped right back in and I immediately just started reconnecting with all my past contacts, looking for new contacts and trying to find a team. Because I realized there was way too much information and way too much work for me to do all by myself. It’s a passion project and no one’s getting paid right now and it takes a lot of time, so it’s really difficult to find people that can do that. And pretty much no-one can, but after going through several producers I found a really good team now and we’re working around all the difficulties. And there’s always just so much to do for this project every day. It’s so broad, there’s so much information, you could make several documentaries on him. He was a Russian immigrant who wanted to study medicine and so he went to Switzerland and then studied art at the same time and then ended up inventing, and then – his life was just so convoluted. So I made a timeline, starting from his birth to his death and I’m constantly updating it. Anytime I have new information, a new film he made, a new invention I didn’t know about, anything to do with his personal life, I update this timeline. This thing has been able to help me keep track of his life in a way that I wasn’t able to before as the amount of information is just overwhelming.
screen/read: It’s interesting that right now there are quite a few movies around exploring the infancy of filmmaking, thinking of „The Artist“ of course and „Hugo“ to only name the most popular examples, while the latter even shares a few remarkable similarities with the story of your great-grandfather. Do you think it’s some sort of zeitgeist phenomenon and will you probably discuss it in your film?
Alyssa Bolsey: I actually hadn’t thought about it but that’s a great idea. I may just do that. I mean, I wasn’t expecting this at all. I hadn’t read the book „Hugo“, I just found out like everyone else did when the movie came out and I was told I should see it. And people started tweeting me, saying „Wow, your documentary is just like Hugo“. Of course I went to see it and I got chills. There are so many parallels. And then I read about „The Artist“, so I had to go see that obviously as well. And it just is another sign that the timing is perfect for this documentary. Since digital and HD is taking over and film is not going to be the main format anymore, people are interested in the history of it. And this documentary is going to be exactly that, it is going to be near origins to present day and seeing how the amateur everyday filmmakers were able to get a camera in their hands and shoot. Because before my great-grandfather invented the Bolex, it was really a medium for professionals and today everybody has a camera on their phone or in their purse or in their pocket. Everybody can make movies, everyone can take pictures. His story is a real inspiring one as well, and I think this is the perfect time for inspiration.
screen/read: The existence of the amateur camera is also a tool for filming history like we experience every day through clips from regions that wouldn’t even allow official video journalism. The Bolex was part of that development as well.
Alyssa Bolsey: Exactly. Being self-powered as it was you could take the camera anywhere and you could document anything and that’s actually something that I’m looking for. I’m looking for footage people have taken on that camera, recording important historical events ever since the camera’s creation, 20’s through now. I’m interested in anyone who’s taken footage on the Bolex. I would love to see it, especially if there’s some historical references within it. Because that camera probably tells our history in the last 90 years just through its footage.
screen/read: Did you get a lot of material from people that you didn’t know before?
Alyssa Bolsey: Not too much footage yet. But I’m only starting to really publicize this project now to the extent where I think that footage is going to be coming in. But we have reels and reels of Jacques Bolsey’s personal footage from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s. He was basically doing back then what we do now, documenting his everyday life. We have footage of him and his friends, snowball fights, ice-skating, dinner parties in the 20’s and early 30’s. He already had that idea of how important it was to turn the camera on yourself. I find that ahead of his time. Generally speaking, I think there should be a worldwide clean-out-your-basement-and-attic day once a year, so people could find what’s there [laughs]. So much of our history is probably in everybody’s basement.
screen/read: Looking a little bit into the future, how long do you think it will possibly take you to finish this project or screen it as a work-in-progress version?
Alyssa Bolsey: My goal would be early 2013 but we’ll see. It’s pretty close, I kind of shoot high. It might be a little later though.
screen/read: It’s pretty likely that when the documentary is out and gets noticed widely, someone might get interested in a feature version of this story as there is a lot in it that makes for a great biopic, especially with the current interest in cinematic history as mentioned before. Let’s pretend that will happen, who would you want to direct that movie, and who should play the lead?
Alyssa Bolsey: Oh man, wow, that would be great. Well, hopefully I’ll direct it [laughs]. I don’t know who would play him, I don’t completely know him yet. I’m still learning about him. I’ll have to get back to you on that but it would have to be someone who could play a very charismatic person. He wasn’t the eccentric inventor type. He was the everyone-stops-what-they’re-doing-and-look-at-him-when-he-enters-the-room type. Steve Jobs basically is the closest personality. He was very demanding, but he was also able to work people into his vision and to package ideas and to create new technology that would be interesting to the mass market. So I’m not quite sure who would play him but I’m going to start thinking about that now. I gotta be prepared!
screen/read: There’s another interesting inventor who was overlooked for ages and got rediscovered only recently, which is Nikola Tesla. It’s pretty remarkable that people like him and your great-grandfather are appearing on the radar of a broader audience for pretty much the first time now, which is both welcome and more than well-deserved. Do you think that’s a sign for a certain desire to get a clearer idea of our roots in this modern culture of technology?
Alyssa Bolsey: Definitely. It’s probably just because technology has moved so quickly that we didn’t have time to think about it. And I’m not quite sure why, but for some reason right now we’re examinating it in our past. That’s very interesting. I like that.
screen/read: Inventors might just be the adventurers of our time. They’re not travelling the world to meet the unexpected and face their challenges but explore their own minds and brains. Now you are making a documentary dealing with this type of adventurer while being one yourself who again is travelling the world to follow the traces and steps of this special person.
Alyssa Bolsey: Right, well, I have to travel because he went through so much in order to do what he did and he lived in a time where he couldn’t stay where he was for various political reasons. So because of that he experienced many places. But every place that he lived, he made it his home. He wanted to change the way that society worked there. He was a utopianist, he wanted to shape the world to his own ideas. And so no matter where he lived, he was just shaping.
screen/read: And his love for filmmaking obviously was part of your heritage. Can you say what it actually was that drew you to the movies and what it is that drives you today?
Alyssa Bolsey: Hmm. I’ve always just liked telling stories, writing scripts, whatnot. I’ve always had this fascination with underdogs. All of my favorite films, like „Forrest Gump“, „Edward Scissorhands“, they’re always about an underdog and their journey. I think in many ways my documentary fits into that quite nicely actually. I’m not sure why I’m so interested in underdogs but I guess I just like to see someone succeeding against all odds with something that can bring anyone together. So that’s basically really what drives me at this point in time.
screen/read: In an ideal world, where would you see yourself in 10 or 20 years as a filmmaker?
Alyssa Bolsey: [laughs] In an ideal world! Well, I would just love to be making a documentary every few years and then switching to a narrative fictional film, and just going back and forth. As far as documentaries are concerned, I’m really into politics which I won’t get into now, but I could see myself doing a political documentary at some point. And for fictional films I see myself making medium to low budget Indie dramas and comedies. But more than anything I would just want to tell stories and be able to support myself that way which is the dream for most. And to find a balance, so that I don’t have to be working 18 hours a day, that would be nice too.
screen/read: That’s very difficult I’d say.
Alyssa Bolsey: I know! So I probably shouldn’t expect that to change ever.
[Images courtesy of Alyssa Bolsey]
Recommended LINKS for further reading:
- Beyond the Bolex: Official Homepage
- Beyond the Bolex @IndieGogo
- Beyond the Bolex @Facebook
- Beyond the Bolex @Twitter
- Beyond the Bolex @Vimeo
- Beyond the Bolex @Dschoint Ventschr