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INTERVIEW WITH MARIA VENUTO
Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with Maria Venuto in May, 1997.
Can you talk about some of the reasons why you wanted to make this
piece? I know that it's based on a real event and that you saw an article
in the newspaper about it. But what moved you to make the tape itself?
Well, the year that the incident took place was '93. I initially heard the story on the radio. I was sitting in the car and I heard it on the radio, and it struck me because the woman was my age, and it was just very mysterious. So I was intrigued. I started thinking about it at that point and I did a little bit of research. I tried to find newspaper articles and I tried to call Port Authority. I talked to somebody there and he gave me some info, and then it didn't really go anywhere for a while. And I ended up writing a grant for it a year later and I actually got funding for the production from NYSCA [New York State Council on the Arts]. So that was a real encouragement to actually go ahead and do the project. I just started working on it at that point, and then it was another year of production, and then it was two years that I actually was working on it with the post-production as well.
What piece of evidence did you actually find and what parts did you fill in?
I found very little evidence, really. All I had to go on was the newspaper story. The local paper did a brief story and then it sort of disappeared. There wasn't much follow up. I think what happened was that the Port Authority Police or the local police handled it and then they passed it on to the German police because this woman was from Düsseldorf and the trail ended there. I guess I could have gone to Germany and tried to follow it up or something, but the evidence here was very scanty. Some of what was in the letters was in one of the newspaper articles and I had that and just general information about what she looked like, what she was wearing, what stuff she had with her when she died. So it was not very much info at all. Once I started doing the story I started filling in blanks for myself and making up things to fill in the story as I imagined it might have happened. I did know from the newspaper that she'd stayed at a shelter, but I didn't ever explore that aspect of it. There were some letters she left for her parents saying, "Stayed at a shelter. Didn't like it. Left." That's about it.
Yeah, I'm very interested in people's relationship to society and how people fit in or don't fit in and why that happens. You know, mental illness is also a component of this, although I sort of left it open-ended as to what might be the problem with this woman, because I don't really know. But it seems like that was definitely a part of what was happening and that also interests me a great deal. Also, the airport is an interesting environment in which to observe people's relationship to each other -- and the whole global thing in the airport -- with so many people from so many places, especially JFK. That environment also interested me a lot and I wanted to explore it.
Well, I did want to depict this sense of disorientation and dreamy dislocation. When I was shooting I was thinking about her point of view a lot, so I'm glad that you noticed that because that's what I was going for. And I just really enjoyed shooting this tape. I like shooting. I have hours of stuff that didn't work out so well, but there was some stuff that I was really pleased with.
Initially, I thought maybe I'd go through official channels; there was a fee that wasn't unreasonable, but I decided I wanted to do things another way. Because I chose to use a small camera, I could blend in very easily with the other people who had cameras. There were a lot of people shooting videotape there who were just passing through or shooting people arriving. So I blended in pretty well, which was nice, because when I was in the airport, I didn't really at any time ever get questioned by anybody. I think at one point a janitor noticed that I had been shooting a lot and recognized me and asked me when the tape was going to be done. He wasn't interested in bothering me. So people were just a little curious. It was nice to be able to do it that way, because I couldn't have done it if I had shot film or shot a higher format of video or something. It was just me and my camera and I'd go there with Sinje Ollen, who plays the tourist on the tape, and we would just hang out and improvise things. There was some scripted stuff. But a lot of the time we just saw a place we liked, and we would hang out, and she'd do something, and I'd shoot. So it was kind of casual in that way.
Some were and some weren't. For that particular one, I'm not even sure if it was scripted or not. I think that might have been something we just came up with on the spot, because of having the balcony and the overhang. And I did want to do little scenarios that somehow depicted there was something going on with her. Some I had thought about and I planned out really specifically, and others, I think like the ripping paper one, were more spontaneous and just happened.
Yeah, to some degree. The one thing I really wanted to do was find the spot where they'd discovered this woman's body. The whole end scene happens at that spot, and I spent a lot of time there shooting and just hanging out. There were some locations that were right on the grounds of the airport and others of the exteriors were around the area, in Flushing. One exterior is in a park that's within several miles of the airport. And another is in an abandoned airport which is also not a part of JFK, but it's very near by. Most of the locations are not far. The one at the airport was a really nice one. I woke up that morning to shoot this thing and it was snowing, which was nice. That's in a very desolate place, so it's interesting.
Yes and no. I didn't fly so much when I was little. I've flown a lot later in life, in my early adulthood. And I had a long-distance relationship at one point. So arriving at the airport, and leaving there, and the goodbyes had a certain significance for me. There were certain things that were personal, like the baggage carousel. I was always fascinated with baggage carousels, so there's a scene that ends up in the video with her just sort of zoning out on a baggage carousel. There are little things like that.
I wanted to stay true to the story as I knew it. It's weird because when it was all done, in a way I felt depressed that I made this sad tape. But it's realistic in a way. I think a lot of people do drop out and withdraw and choose not to go on. That happens every day, so it's sad, but it seems like it's part of life.
Well, nothing too outlandish. When we were shooting outside, we did a car scene where we were going back and forth a lot, and the cops stopped us at that point because the security guards in the long-term parking lot were getting really upset, thinking we might be terrorists or something. That was the one thing that happened. At the time I was shooting, there was a real terrorist scare going on at the airport, so it did change the climate of things. At certain points it became more difficult to get into certain terminals and they would check you more thoroughly and want to see ID. I was able to work around it, but that was a factor to some degree. You know, I got in a car accident . . .
I was at the airport and some van hit me on the driver's side. It was minor, but it freaked me out, I guess. Just a little discouraging. And Sinje was working with me; it was just the beginning of our working relationship, so I think she was a little wigged out by it and thought maybe I was kind of frantic or something. Little things like that happened.
Yes, that's one of the reasons I chose to work with Sinje; she's had a difficult life and she really identified with this woman. And she was from not the exact part of Germany, but was from more or less that region, and she had been there. She really had a lot to say when we first met about the story and how she felt about it, and so I think she brought a lot of her own personal stuff to the whole production. It was really good to work with somebody like that who was very interested. She was very willing to just go there with me and improvise. I couldn't pay her much money, but she was always into it, and that was really good to find somebody who was flexible and interested in the project. It was important to it.
Mostly positive. Overall, I would say that the people I show it to seem to like it, and I haven't shown it to that many people. They're mostly friends, so . . . I think I can trust them. Some people identify with it more than others. One friend had had a similar experience where he went to Germany and got stuck in a train station, so he really identified with the whole thing. Other people had other things they like about it. So I feel like I'm getting generally good feedback. I have yet to show it to a room full of people who I don't know, and I'm really interested to see how that goes.
Oh, I thought of another funny production story. Or just kind of a weird one. When we were shooting the final scene when she's at the bus stop under the footramp, we were sitting there talking about what we were going to do. And at one point, we were huddled under the crawl space and somebody dropped a pair of shoes on our heads, a brand new pair of men's shoes. And I don't know why. I don't know what the story was with that. They were very nice shoes, but I don't know if they thought they were helping us out, or they had no idea we were there, or they were trying to nail us on the head or what.
Yeah, maybe they were uncomfortable shoes. I don't know. I don't know why that came to mind . . .
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