In the case of “Alice Neel,” Andrew Neel examined the considerable toll his grandmother’s painting took on her two sons while questioning whether the fabled artist’s path – one that could be both arduous and impecunious – is truly necessary in the development of an artist. In a larger perspective, the body of Neel’s work, including the grandiose “Darkon” and the upcoming “The Feature”, aims to “bridge the gap between mind and body between that which you imagine and that which is in front of you,” as the thirty-year-old filmmaker puts it.
“[That] is the exciting gap that I think creative people are always playing with.” “By capturing it [on camera],” Neel says, “it becomes real to the rest of the world. And that moment that was sacred to me, I can now show to other people, which in some real way validates my experience as a human being.”
When Neel graduated from Columbia University in 2001 with a degree in Philosophy, he wanted to continue his studies but preferred not to “sit around in a classroom and debate them with five people for the rest of my life,” he says. He wanted to expand the debate to a larger audience, something film had the potential of doing. “What drives me to make films is ideas, and discussing ideas in an interesting and aesthetically engaging way,” Neel adds.
In an industry where it usually takes five years for a filmmaker to get one project off the ground, Neel’s production company, the Brooklyn-based SeeThink productions, have produced three in the same span. This was made possible by SeeThink’s four-man team of talented filmmakers – Neel, Tom Davis, Luke Meyer, and Ethan Palmer – all of whom can shoot, edit, or handle sound. “I built a little community around myself of like-minded people who were stupid enough to dedicate the same kind of unconditional energy to doing this stuff, and really believed in what we’re trying to do,” he says. “With our first couple of films, we just decided that we’re going to do this at whatever cost and we had enough money to eat in one way or another.”
Neel debuted “Darkon”, a documentary on a community of Tolkien-esque LARPs (Live Action Roll Players) in Maryland that he co-directed with Meyer, at the 2006 South by Southwest Festival in Austin. The film would eventually win the festival’s Audience Award. Afterward, Neel would release “Alice Neel” while completing work on “The Feature,” a fictionalized biography of video artist Michael Auder. His tireless devotion to each project would eventually wear on him. “I was working 12-14 hour days for six days a week for four years,” he admits. “I almost burned myself out.” He forced himself to take a vacation away from the city for forty days because he had grown apathetic about his projects. “Maybe not everyone needs to expend that kind of energy,” he says, “but I certainly did.”
But Neel believes that – burnouts aside – such commitment should be required to successfully complete each project. “I’m always thinking about my work, twenty-four hours a day. Not many moments go by when I’m not thinking about the film I’m on or the film that I’m going to be on. I kind of keep myself three projects ahead,” he says. “I think I’m scared to pause.”