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The River Wild: An Interview With Laurie and David Shapiro

by Rich Rosell

The brother and sister documentary team of David and Laurie Shapiro are responsible for creating Keep The River On Your Right, a truly remarkable film that chronicles Tobias Schneebaum. Schneebaum, a New York artist/anthropologist, disappeared into the Amazon in 1955 with no guide, no map, and with only the vaguest of instructions: "Keep the river on your right." His nearly year-long adventure amongst a tribe of cannibals, which Schneebaum documented in a book of the same name in the early 1960s, was the impetus for the Shapiros to take him back to the Amazon 45 years after his original adventure. Their film, though, is much more than a travelogue; it is a spiritual, moving experience that is equally surreal as it is touching.

dOc had the opportunity to chat with David and Laurie Shapiro, to find out about their long, strange journey on what eventually would become Keep The River On Your Right

dOc: Keep The River On Your Right was a joint project between you two. How did you individually decide to become documentarians?

DS: We were looking to make a film together. We were actually looking to work on a feature film together, and we came to this story (Keep The River On Your Right), which is a whole other story in itself. We found the book in the street, among a box of lost books, and we decided that this was an incredible story. We didn't think he was alive, or we didn't think the book was still in print, but with a little bit of detective work we decided where else could he possible live but New York. We looked him up in the phone book. When we met him, he was so not who we thought he was going to be. We pictured a much more machismo guy; we didn't even pick up the fact that he was gay, at first, until we met. We realized that this guy has an amazing, amazing story, and we realized that it would make a fantastic documentary.

LS: I think the other thing was that we had some documentary experience, so it wasn't such an overwhelming thought. David has worked as an editor on several films, and I had worked as a producer on two films about the McCourt family that were on HBO. We had other skills—David is an artist, I'm a writer—we decided that everything we had could work together, and we thought as brother and sister, how long could this take? About a year maybe?

dOc: I'm guessing that was a little off the mark.

LS: We thought we could work together for a year. How hard could it be? Well, six years later we found the film finished, and in some ways it was quite a ride because we were siblings. The one good about being siblings is that you can a hearty disagreement, shall we say, and at the same time you know you're going to talk to each other the next day. You're not going to fire each other.

dOc: That was one of things I was wondering about. You were both essentially directors on the project, correct? How did that go?

LS: Yes, we just split everything down the middle.

DS: It was a tremendously ambitious, probably silly, undertaking for a first feature documentary. But, because there were two of us, we were able to spread it out. If one of us were down, because of the many obstacles...

LS: We lost our funding once, and had to refinance.......

DS: The stock market crashed. KTROYR was shot in the two most remote regions of the world, which wreaked havoc on our equipment. It was just an insane project all across the board. But, because there were two of us, and we always pooled our resources and energy, that's how it happened.

LS: The only time it got a little bit heavy between us was in the editing room, because that's when you really start to put things together. I would say that every second that's in the movie has been argued over at least five minutes. I think the sum of two brains was better than one. The only time it got really bad was when we had to have our mother do a quick bit of brokering for us...

dOc: Hey, it's a family affair.

LS: For the most part, I'd have to say we had a blast filming it. We couldn't believe how lucky we were; we felt that even if the film never got released, the fact that we got to travel to both and New Guinea and the Amazon with Tobias Schneebaum, who really served as a diplomat for us. Because he was with us, we were able to see and do things that I don't think typical travelers would be able to see or do. It was just incredible. To actually find ourselves in New Guinea, we just started laughing and almost crying the day we realized we had begun, and that it was no longer a piece of paper. Tobias was very pleasant to us up until then, but when he saw us on the boat in New Guinea I think he went into mild shock. It was like, "Oh my god, these kids are getting their sh** together."

dOc: Was Tobias initially a little apprehensive about the project?

LS: He was all rosy until we started. I don't think he thought it was going to manifest, to tell you the truth.

DS: All that bit about him not wanting to go back to Peru, that was pretty genuine. He had his memories of it; in fact, he had nightmares for 45 years.

LS: We actually started his nightmares again. That was one thing we chose not to put in the film. As we were filming in New Guinea, all of these issues were coming up. He realized we wanted him to go to the Amazon, and he started screaming at night, just harrowing screams, in his sleep. We decided to have it just mentioned, but to not put those nightmares in the movie because in that sense it was going too far.

dOc: Is that one of the same reasons the DVD has a deleted scene where Tobias talks about having suicidal tendencies?

DS: We tried to keep re-honing the film to Tobias' story and to the situation at hand, which was two filmmakers asking him to go to Peru again. He wouldn't have gone on his own, so we were in effect creating a situation. He, of course, didn't want to go, in one sense. In another, he really did, he wanted a sense of closure. We were kind of acknowledging our responsibility in creating that situation; of course, as a documentary, you never know what you're going to find, or what's going to happen. We were just thrilled that we actually did find the people he lived with, slept and ate with.

LS: We came to the conclusion that this wasn't going to be a National Geographic Special. To the Asmat tribe in New Guinea, this was a film about Tobias. That was what guided us in the editing room. Is this part of his odyssey? And then in a sense, his reverse odyssey.

DS: You get a sense, without having to really say it, What kind of lunatic, sort of naïve and wonderful, would walk into the Amazon jungle with a penknife and a pair of sneakers?

dOc: That was the thought I had. Let alone go back.

DS: Yeah, let alone go back. There's a lot of information in the film, so that once you mull over it, people will realize the full extent of his courage, and maybe a little bit of his insanity and naïveté. If he were any other person, he would have been killed.

LS: Since the film has come out, Tobias has really settled into a peace with himself. I think he was amazed that when the film came out, and won all sorts of accolades, that he wasn't being treated like a freak anymore. When his book came out (in the early 1960s) and he went on the publicity tour, people were treating him like a freak show. This time, people were coming up to him at screenings and saying, "You inspired me". He received several standing ovations, and it wasn't always for the film, but for Tobias and a life well lived. I think he's happy. He's at one with himself, and he even said to us that maybe he was angry at the time, but perhaps going back to Peru has helped that.

dOc: You get a real sense of that in your film.

LS: He's starting to come to terms with himself.

dOc: When the book came out, it was definitely a more close-minded time, at least for the subject matter. When it came time for the two of you to make the film, what was the pitch like when you said we want to take an elderly guy to the Amazon?

DS: You also have to add in "gay, ex-cannibal."

dOc: Yeah, if you really wanted to make the pitch difficult.

LS: We had a very hard time getting money for this. You think it would be easy, even with all of the so-called juicy issues involved, pardon the pun. People were very taken with the fact that this is an elderly man—who's going to care? That actually helped us reshape our pitch. That's when we realized that we had to go on location, and make this an active story and have him face his fears. We had to go to New Guinea and the Amazon, and then we had to go back to our funders, and they just said "You're crazy." Finally, we found some wonderful risk-takers and private investors, and then we found a couple of foreign broadcast outlets that were willing to put up some seed money; just enough to shoot the New Guinea footage. We brought that back, and we were able to get the rest of our funding. Eventually we won the finishing fund, which allowed us to blow it up to a 35mm print, which was the most important moment. This allowed us to show it at festivals.

dOc: Keep The River On Your Right was very well received on the festival circuit, was it not?

LS: We've won a number of awards.

DS: It's done very well. We won the Independent Spirit Award, for Best New Documentary directors. We won the Hamptons and L.A. Film Festivals. We were the first American film to win in Amsterdam in over a dozen years.

dOc: I haven't really read any bad reviews of the film. That's pretty remarkable.

DS: What we really tried to do, the way we wanted to shape it, was to be as accessible as possible. Tobias is a very controversial figure, with his sexual politics and his attitudes toward anthropology. We could have made a very different film, but we tried to open it up, and treat the fact that he's gay as very matter-of-fact. We just wanted to tell his story. We've had audiences who we think probably might not have responded to it so much if it had been tooled a little differently. It's just done fantastically well, and we are really happy that we chose to shape it the way we did.

dOc: Did you have any difficulty assembling the crew to go with you? This wasn't like you were filming down the street. "Oh by the way, we're going to New Guinea and the Amazon...."

LS: Our crew kept getting malaria. We had the two of us, and Jonathan Kovel, who is a wonderful cinematographer, and John Murphy, who did our sound. They really went above and beyond. At one point, we turned around and Jon Kovel was waist deep in mud getting the right shot; of course, he got a terrible case of malaria. David had a touch of malaria, as well. We also were on a drug to prevent malaria, which obviously didn't work, but it makes you paranoid. So you had four New Yorkers paranoid in the jungle.

dOc: That's a whole other documentary: Paranoid New Yorkers in the Jungle.

LS: Tobias wouldn't take the drug. The rest of us were on every preventative drug you could possibly be, and Tobias would take nothing. We all came back sick as dogs, and Tobias came out completely unscathed. It was like walking with a god.

dOc: He looked like he belonged there.

LS: I don't think we've ever said this before, but when we went to New Guinea, we saw him smiling. As beautiful as Asmat [New Guinea] is, it's a swamp; I don't think there's any stones in the entire Asmat region. There's mosquitoes like you wouldn't believe, and he was just beaming from ear to ear. We realized that this was his other world. We were fascinated, but we couldn't wait to get out of there.

DS: We were looking at it like we were following him to work. It's quite an office.

dOc: In watching some of the scenes where Tobias is walking through the jungle, and he is watching his step so he doesn't fall, I was a nervous wreck. What kind of emergency plans did you have in place? If someone his age were to fall, it could have been deadly.

DS: That was actually one of the critical things in the film for us. We decided to include that line where he says "I'm mad at the filmmakers. they're making me do things I don't want to do." We included that because it was kind of like hanging our dirty laundry and taking our responsibility for what we were doing. Our father is Tobias' exact age, and is handicapped, so we have this experience of dealing with an older man who says that he doesn't really want to do something, but learning to be able to read between the lines, knowing that maybe he needs a little bit of a push and a safety net. Believe me, we had our hearts in our hands the whole time. Half of our budget went into making sure he was ok.

dOc:There are a lot of really beautiful moments in the film, one of which is when he is reunited with his former companion, Aipit. That had to be one of those unexpected moments, and I take it you were surprised how it came about.

LS: When we prepared the film, we wrote a two or three page script of what we wanted to happen. One of the joys of a documentary is that if you have the camera going you can catch moments you didn't plan. We were about to go for a week to look for Aipit, and then he happened to be right there, where this inter-tribal auction happens once a year. All of a sudden we turned around and there he was, we just couldn't believe it. We had to change course, and rather than spend half the documentary looking for Aipit, we decided to take Aipit with us. This added a whole new dimension. Their emotions were very raw.

DS: We were all crying when they said goodbye.

dOc:It was a very touching scene, and has to be one of those magic, needle-in-a-haystack kind of a things. You couldn't know for sure that you would even be able to find Aipit once you were down there. It almost seemed too perfect.

LS:We heard from the Bishop of the Asmat region that since the film has come out, Aipit has died. So in one way, it really was a last goodbye.

DS: That's ultimately why we love documentaries. You live for a moment like that, and we were fortunate to have a few of them in the film. We weren't prepared for it, but you never can be.

dOc:What are your thoughts on the DVD?

LS: We're so excited that the DVD has come out. There's a thrill you get when you see a movie in a movie theater, but there's another thrill when you see it on DVD or video because you know that somebody, two years from now, could pick up the story.

dOc:There's a permanence to it, too.

DS: Yes, it has sort a "for the ages" quality to it now. We hope that somebody will hear about this film in 25 years from now and think it was pretty cool.

dOc:The DVD also has some of Tobias' original illustrations, which really adds a dimension the whole story.

LS: His childrens book, which we understand is such an obscure book, came out on Panthenon in 1958. It was a shocking book for kids, with it's veiled references to cannibalism.

DS: Not to mention the homo-erotic Indians in it.

dOc:What's the next project for the two of you?

LS: We've started out trying to make a feature film about Tobias, and it's really come full circle. The interest that the documentary has generated has now propelled the feature film. There's a whole audience that doesn't go to see documentaries, and that's the audience we hope to tap into for the feature version.

DS: It's not official yet, but we have a terrific director and actor, who everyone would know. We're in deep development on the feature version that a great writer/director is going to do with an amazing actor, about Tobias.