‘Faire: An American Renaissance’–Doug Jacobson Talks Ren Faire, Documentary Filmmaking

As a child in Southern California, the Renaissance Faire was a grade-school field trip that, aside from the bus ride to Agoura, didn’t suck. It was odd and wonderful all the same: men and women in tights and costumes, people dancing and hawking wares on dirt roads, and admittedly delightful novelty cuisine (once you go turkey leg, there’s no going back).

Little did I know at the time that the foundation of this quaint-seeming event was its status as a place the often misunderstood or outcast could call home. And that after hours, it was a bawdy, raucous, and entertaining party unlike any seen before, with people that would come to consider each other family.

Further, who could have guessed that the original Renaissance Faire would give birth not only to a whole “Ren Faire” industry, but would largely spawn the modern craft movement (pay attention, all you etsy.com fans) and give spiritual birth to subversive festivals like Burning Man?

All of these aspects of the Renaissance Faire and more are explored through archive and interview in an extremely charming documentary called ‘Faire: An American Renaissance.’ Producer and director Doug Jacobson was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to Osmosis Online about the film, the Ren Faire itself, and some of his philosophy when it comes to documentary filmmaking.

Osmosis Online: It seriously blows my mind that two wholly modern-seeming phenomena — etsy.com and Burning Man — probably owe their existence to the Ren Faire. Did you know about the link between craft culture and the faire before you set out, and the spiritual path to burning man, or did this shake out as you engaged in the project?

Doug Jacobson: Short answer is: I didn’t. I knew that the faire was a sub culture and seemed to have a similar feeling that Burning Man does, which is total trip into a fantasy world. As I dug deeper, I realized the hand-crafted movement was re-born here. Of course, there were probably other places the hand-crafted movement was bubbling up, it just the faire is the most famous venue.

As someone who went to raves and Burning Man before I was visiting faires, I was always looking for a link of similarities.

OO: What was the genesis of the project?

Jacobson: I’m always on the lookout for new sub-cultures to investigate [ed. note: like Burning Man], and some people i know introduced me to the faire world. I started doing research on it to see if it was viable, and realized that there was a possible story there, but it was hard to get to because it had so many offshoots and mutations. I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell a 40+ year old story. I think it became a series of reactions to my two other documentaries, “Secret Lives of Adult Stars” is very talking heads and mostly hangs out on sets, but doesn’t go into the lives of the stars that much, so as a reaction, the Burning Man doc is the opposite–very little story with only characters, so this one was an attempt to combine a historical doc with characters.

OO: Of the many interesting subjects, is there interaction with one or two people that you found especially informative, gratifying, or influential? Personally, as a viewer, I thought Mark Lewis was just captivating and the thread I’d be most likely to follow up on at this point.

Jacobson: Mark Lewis in all the historical footage I saw of him looked like he was having a seriously good time. He also in some ways created a whole mythical persona of the storyteller, which was an art I had not really seen. I am a fan of spoken word, which is pretty similar. He is truly a guy you want to hang out with and listen to him talk. I also really like the guerrilla theater of J. Paul [Moore]. He wrote a book about it. The experience of having people just wandering around messing with you in the time period of the event is truly special. They aren’t trying to sell you anything, they aren’t trying to do anything but nudge you into the world.

OO: What kind of things did you have to leave on the cutting room floor that you regretted having to cut or you think deserve attention?

Jacobson: I tried to put most of them in the bonus features but there was more about what these people did for a living beyond the faire, there was more about how Billy Scudder (the Green Man) was the Charlie [Chaplin] from the early ’80s IBM PC ads. That ad campaign was huge and certainly I had seen it a lot, as my dad did buy an IBM PC, so I was loved that. It’s a bit hard for a small documentary to deal with clearance issues with IBM and their ads.

OO: Was there anything particularly surprising to you as the film-maker that you learned in the course of making it?

Jacobson: Documentaries are the most terrifying editing you can do because there really is no script, there is a notion, but you don’t know exactly what you are going to get so it’s a jumble of puzzle pieces that can be put together any number of ways. After 18 years of editing I still feel the, “oh god what is this going to be?” feeling before I tackle one. This was probably one of the most difficult I’ve had to edit only because I wanted to meet Ren Faire characters but also be historical and then there is the last third. So you have character moments, informational time moments, and then present day, “what’s happening now” moments. My guiding light was: shorter is better and less is more. My first cut was four hours, then two, then it was a battle to get it down to 90 minutes. I still wonder if I have too many characters in there. [Ed. note: not in our opinion]

OO: Speaking of the documentary as a form itself — while I’m not especially interested in attending a Ren Faire, that didn’t stop me from being wholly engaged in the film. Or, to offer another example, I frequently recommend ‘The King of Kong,’ and not just to people that spent their quarters on Donkey Kong in the 80s, but because it’s an age-old story wrapped up in the trappings of a sort of niche. So, the question: What makes documentary film such a potentially powerful medium for storytelling in your opinion? What are you cognizant of during the process to ensure that your final product turns out so informative and entertaining?

Jacobson: ‘The King of Kong’ is like a piece of candy because it deals with early ’80s video games… what male from that era doesn’t like that? Although I could see they stumbled upon this story and used some pretty heavy handed editing to chisel their story, making one guy more of a bad guy then he really was, etc. So in that way there is a bit of fiction in there. A hyper-real reality.

What the ‘King of Kong’ tells me is that it’s helpful to have an audience for your documentary before you make it. Seems clear, but there are some topics I thought of doing that were so narrow that only a few hundred people would care.

I wanted more emotion in the Faire doc because otherwise most people who had never been to Faire would discard it as “those crazy people who dress in tights.” I wanted someone who knew nothing about Faire to walk out going, “I had no idea.” I think its for those people I was always thinking of when I made the film. I was worried that I’d be making too much of a “promo” film for Faire and not getting too deep, but I think the last half helps undo that.

OO: Where can folks check out the film?

Jacobson: We are currently working with a sales agent and shopping it to distributors. We have been selling the doc exclusively to faires and festivals in the meantime. Once we decide on a distributor, we’ll have it released everywhere. We put up a special Web site for faires at therenfaire.com for them to buy from there…. of course, anyone could buy from there now.

Our main website is: fairedocumentary.com

Jacobson: We are in a weird inbetween moment where we have DVDs made and are selling them, but don’t want to do so much that a distributor thinks it’s already been played out. It’s absolutely a huge market, but needs to be focused on in a certain way.*

OO: What do you have in the pipeline right now?

Jacobson: We are starting a new offshoot, sort of a “Faire 2,” if you will. We are going to create a crowdsourced second version where people send in video and I attempt to cut something out of it. Why? Because editing stuff I actually shot wasn’t hard enough. [laughs]. The idea is that the conversation started in the documentary could spill out. The documentary has a mostly California focus and the rest of the country has a lot to say about this topic, so we are inviting them in.

As for other ideas, I’ve gone into made writing mode. I’ve got a TV show idea with some buddies, a few scripts I’m finishing and two documentary ideas I’m also writing up. You gotta have a bag full of tricks if you want to head out into the world of L.A.

*[Jacobson subsequently sent some market research that indicates the market for a Renaissance Fair movie could be quite large, based on the yearly gate at such events nationally. There are approximately 250 Ren Faires across 42 states, and Faire presence in at least seven additional countries. This does not include Ren Fair-like offshoots that capitalize on more recent phenomena, like the pirate craze, etc.]

I’d like to thank Doug Jacobson for his time in discussing ‘Faire: An American Renaissance’ and providing a review copy. While I should probably send it up to our movie guru Ken for a true review, I thought the flavor, character, and wonderful weirdness — and normalcy — revealed by the movie would be better conveyed through a short conversation with the man who created it.


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