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The Making Of Owen Land’s Dialogues

“So, how’s that avant-garde film you’re working on going?” Hopefully, that question will be met with a fun, answer like “Oh great, it’s a really interesting project.” However, director Ben Lazarus has documented the resentful feelings of the disgruntled crew who worked on Owen Land‘s Dialogues, which was filmed in Los Angeles. In the Land of Owen, which features footage not in the original film, is a documentary of the aftermath of a film production gone haywire. Word of warning: This video is NSFW as it contains lots of nudity.

Owen Land was born as George Landow and, under that name, made several underground films from the mid-’60s to the late ’70s. According to underground film historian Fred Camper, Landow’s early work pre-dated the Structuralist film movement, but then he moved into making comedic films, many of which mocked institutional and educational filmmaking.

Then, in the late ’70s, Landow changed his name to Owen Land — which is a semi-anagram of his birth name — and retired almost entirely from filmmaking, with the exception of two short video projects and an unfinished feature, called Undesirables. I can’t find anything online that says why Land dropped out — or why he returned with Dialogues.

B&W photo of a young Owen Land with long hair

There is no actual footage of Land directing in In the Land of Owen. There are a couple of still pictures of him where he doesn’t look very well and some of the interviewees talk about him being ill and having had a stroke. But without actual footage of him directing and no direct interview with him, it’s tough to determine exactly how the production of Dialogues descended into complete chaos.

Many of the crew members and actors refer to Land as if he was a tyrannical crank on set, including being verbally abusive, but details of the abuse are not given. Some crew members are still incredibly hostile and bitter, while others kind of laugh off the flakier aspects of Land’s personality and behavior. One shocking revelation is that the first director of photography on the film has withheld over half of the footage shot of Dialogues due to non-payment.

One recurring topic of the documentary is that everyone on the crew was not only completely baffled by what Land was shooting, but that was a source of frustration. I don’t know if that’s because this was an L.A. crew or if the crew just generally wasn’t into avant-garde and underground filmmaking. The clips that were withheld from Dialogues and that appear in this documentary make it look like a fun film. And I totally don’t agree with the one actor’s assessment that making a film “irritating” is a goal of a lot of experimental filmmakers. That sounds like the reaction of somebody who just expects all films to have clear narratives.

Dialogues has had lots of screenings, including last year’s inaugural Migrating Forms festival. However, I can’t find any reviews or reactions to the finished project. If you’ve seen it and are reading this post, please leave your thoughts on the film as a comment below.

There aren’t many “making of” documentaries about avant-garde films. Hearing about the tribulations of making Dialogues in In the Land of Owen is really pretty fascinating; and it’s a very well put together and entertaining documentary by Lazarus.

Lazarus, who worked officially as a boom operator on Dialogues and performed other jobs on the film, also has some cool little short videos on his Vimeo page that are worth checking out.

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  • Ben Lazarus says:

    Thanks for writing this! Some days were fun and others were not- although the bad days became funny stories after the fact. Like the time Owen’s colostomy bag burst on set and our day came to screeching halt, or the time that half the crew got food poisoning and those who didn’t had to work twice as hard to take up the slack.


    • Thanks for posting a link to your video as a comment on my Migrating Forms post so I could find it. I don’t know if I would have come across it otherwise. Really interesting and complicated dynamic going on in it that you captured perfectly.

      I don’t know if you’ve seen any of Land’s earlier films. I’ve only seen one. It’s on the Treasures IV DVD. Really great short film. And I didn’t realize the dude was in such bad shape — a colostomy bag, really? — until watching this.

  • e.m.k. says:

    worked on the film and liked what you said. i don’t know if you saw “dialogues” but i will always believe that there is something interesting inside of it. actually some of the best footage is the stuff that nate has. personally, i don’t blame him at all because owen should have paid attention to the accounts and he was irresponsible…-in other words he probably should have found a way to cut costs or shut down until the additional grant money came in..owen is used to producing his projects in a classroom setting where all participants are aware of his work and have a lot of interest in that sort of project…i got into owen’s work but not everyone out here does…but at the end of the day he doesn’t really care.emk

    • EMK: Thanks for leaving your thoughts. Yeah, I was getting the idea watching the film that if people were expected to be paid and then they weren’t, that’s not a good scenario for Owen to have set up. It just seems sad — sitting on the outside here — that the film can’t be what it’s supposed to be because Nate kept the tapes.

  • mansky says:

    Owen died in June. Since he moved to Los Angeles, and before, he was a very sick man. He had a stroke and half his body was paralyzed. He also had a colostomy bag, and he was living independently in Hollywood, but was only marginally able to care for himself. Some people, knowledgeable of his contribution to what some people call experimental cinema, helped him with daily needs, but he had no real friends and spent much of his time alone. It was also clear that Owen had serious mental illness. He could not plan for his basic medical care, nor could he anticipate or plan for even minor challenges in his life, no less budget a film.

    Owen began work on Dialogues shortly after he moved into an apartment in Hollywood several years ago. He had, at that time, a small amount of savings, which he used entirely on his film within a few months of arriving in LA. His cast and crew, mostly hired via Craigslist, were young people expecting an income and credit on a unique film to further their careers, without taking much time to find out what they were doing, and who they were doing it with. If Owen wasn’t in LA, his cast and crew would have been non-paid interns and volunteers at a liberal arts college. Owen was incapable of making the distinction, and he had delusions that Hollywood provided him a better opportunity to make his best films.

    In the end, his cast and crew committed the sin of being naïve. The pain of naïvety is your part in it: you should have known, but didn’t; you could have acted, but can’t now. And revenge, whatever form, is often an empty gesture. Owen Land was a disabled, mentally-ill man who died destitute and alone. I can’t imagine Ben Lazarus getting much out of that.

    • ronald stark says:

      I agree almost completely with Mansky here but feel that naivety is the least of their problems. They are clearly the bottom of the barrel, craigslist bottom feeders, the worst of the LA parasite class. These entitled, middle-class careerists have no idea how pathetically they come off here as they cry about not getting credit or paid for a job that anyone can do. It is intolerable to me that a group of people could say what they have said here about a man who was clearly mentally ill, disabled and totally destitute. These poseurs have no idea what destitute means, it is written all over their zit-scarred, I-jack-off-at-least-12-times-a-day faces. If they need a new HD camera, light kit or tape stock they just call mama who takes another shift at the Wal-Mart to support her son’s pathetic, Spielbergian “dreams”. This group should be ashamed of themselves not just for being crude, uncultured, careerist bottom feeders but for treating a major artist in this way, especially after his death. Honestly, I believe that you were all pawned by Land. You were used and not in the way that you think. Your cheesy, middle-class values are what were at stake here and you completely missed the point. If you knew anything about Land, had done the most minimal of research you would know that this whole thing was, of course, a put-on. With this crew and the bottom feeder film world of LA as being it’s central pawn. THIS IS A FILM ABOUT YOU, NOT ABOUT ITS MAKER.