When Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre set out to document Marina Abramović‘s 2010 performance in MoMA’s atrium, they had no idea that her piece was going to become such a seminal work, or that it would inspire such rock star-style hysteria among the masses who lined up to participate—in fact, they were plenty content just to hang around someone as fun and cool as Marina for the seven months leading up to her show. Their completed film tracks her decades-long career in a way that is both illuminating and galvanizing, resulting in a compelling portrait and a gift to anyone trying make sense of their own creative process. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present gets released theatrically this week, then premieres on HBO on July 2. We chatted with the filmmakers about the challenges they encountered, their relationship with Marina, and how their initially skeptical views of performance art have shifted.
How did you get started on the project?
Jeff: I was invited to a dinner party by a friend of mine who happened to be seated next to Marina, and she started telling me about the retrospective at MoMA. I was never a big fan of performance art, but she was so charming and I was so taken with her, and I realized that a retrospective at MoMA was very high stakes. It had the makings of a great film. Matthew and I have been working together for a number of years on a big PBS series, and we had spent that prior year following a travelling circus. It was kind of like the perfect combination.
Did you pitch the idea to her at the dinner party or later?
Jeff: I told her that night that I wanted to make a movie about her and her first response was, “I was kind of hoping David Lynch was going to make that film.” I was like, “No no no— we’re much better.”
Matthew, how did you respond when you Jeff first told you the idea?
Matthew: I told him he should totally make the film—I didn’t think I would be part of it. I wasn’t convinced it could work as a film, because I’d never seen a film about performance art. Also, there was no money and I was so tired from the circus show. I didn’t know if I could take that again. But then a few weeks later Jeff called me and said she was doing this retreat upstate where she was training a group of performance artists for her MoMA show, and we thought that was a great jumping-off point.
What were the biggest challenges in the beginning?
Matthew: Neither of us had ever taken part in any of her performances, so all we had to go on was the books written about her, the essays, and the documentation of her performances—which don’t transmit the power of witnessing it in person.
Jeff: We spent a lot of time scratching our heads.
Matthew: I spent seven months almost-living with her. I didn’t really believe that what she was about to do would be so amazing because she’s, like, constantly joking, constantly fun, constantly talking. She’s not still. In her private life and outside her performances, she has this manic energy.
What were some of the questions driving the production?
Matthew: I was wondering who the real Marina was: Is this the authentic Marina I’m witnessing now, or is it the one that sits down in the chair? What we realized afterwards was that during those six months leading up to that performance, she wasn’t actually preparing that much. She had spent her entire life preparing for that performance.
Jeff: By the time we get to MoMA in our film, you already understand this theme of pain, duration, and time. All of these ideas that she’s been grappling with her entire life are crystal clear for you. At the actual show at MoMA, sometimes people would look at her in the atrium and be like, “What’s going on here?” Then they’d visit the sixth floor and go, “Oh.”
Did she have any concerns going into it?
Jeff: She’s pretty fearless. Also, she knew Matthew and I had collaborated on a film where we went to Iraq on an aircraft carrier for six months—a kind of a long, durational performance in itself. I think she knew we were hardcore.
Matthew: The fact that I was the cameraman and the person directing, the fusion of those two things, helped a little bit. It made Marina comfortable—she’s someone who has always directed her own story.
Jeff: It helps a lot with intimacy—when the director is the cameraman. That makes a huge difference.
How did it make a difference?
Matthew: Sometimes I would ask her for an extra hour and then take, like, four hours. She actually liked that because she liked pain, she said. She’s spent a lot of time pushing herself to the limits physically. And because I was the director and the cameraman, I got to push myself farther than I would’ve let any other director push me. I was giving up everything, I wasn’t getting paid, I was spending my own money, and I had to give everything over to it. She liked that.
The stakes were high for both of you.
Matthew: It echoed what she had always put herself through.
Jeff: Whether she was going to succeed or fail at MoMA, she was willing to take this enormous risk in the art world.
Matthew: It was a risk for MoMA too because they’d never done anything like this. There’s an unpredictable quality to her work. We were terrified, because we had no idea what could happen.
What was MoMA expecting?
Jeff: Klaus Biesenbach, the curator, didn’t expect the chair to be filled the whole time; he just thought it would stand empty for hours at a time. That space is so huge and for one human being to generate this kind of energy wasn’t expected.
Were you both at the performance every single day?
Matthew: To MoMA’s credit—we’re so grateful to them—they gave us more access than they’ve ever given any filmmakers. Usually people come in for thirty minutes, document an exhibition really fast, and leave. And they gave us fifteen days. Still, I would call Jeff all the time and be like, “I need to be there every day!”
How many hours of footage did you have?
Matthew: Aside from those three cameras documenting the performance, I think I shot about 700 hours personally.