MEMBER MONDAYS | Wallace Heller

MEMBER MONDAYS is a weekly interview series highlighting current members & alumni of the Austin School of Film + Austin Cinemaker Space community! Each week, we’ll be featuring one of our incredibly eclectic community members and doing a deep dive into their work. Insight into what makes them, them.

While Dr. Wallace Heller mainly works as a Psychiatrist in Oklahoma, he somehow has made the time to make the trek to Austin to take classes with us at the Austin School of Film. What started as taking a workshop here and there has led him to not only finally receive a certificate of completion of our Digital Video Certificate Program, but make some great works of art along the way! We got a chance to chat with him about his experience taking classes with us, and how his background in psychiatry shapes his artistic work as a filmmaker. 

First of all, congratulations on graduating from Digital Video Certificate Program! You’re also a full-time psychiatrist in Oklahoma, so I respect your dedication to the Austin film community here and your personal drive to immerse yourself in filmmaking. Can you tell us how you first heard about the Austin School of Film and what drew you to the Digital Video Certificate program? 

Wallace Heller: I came across ASoF while searching the web for “filmmaking” back in late spring 2016.  A few similar things came up such as Boulder Digital Arts and Downtown Community Television Center in NYC. Since I split my time between Galveston and Oklahoma, I figured Austin wasn’t too far out of the way.  In 2016 I finished two semesters of filmmaking classes at Oklahoma City Community College, but it was increasingly difficult to merge their schedule and mine. ASoF with its weekend offerings solved the problem. 

You carry a passionate vision in bringing stories that reflect the human condition. Can you go into detail on this and how your background in psychiatry fueled this drive? 

WH: I’m not here to entertain anybody.  In fact, if I’ve entertained you, I’ve failed. I’ll consider it a success if after seeing a work of mine you’re overwhelmed by the urge to wring my neck or vomit, because then I’ll know I’ve reached you.  I haven’t wasted your time.  I’m not here to sell you anything, to convince you that it’s all OK, because it isn’t OK.  None of it. Not now, not ever.  I’m trying to reach folks who’ve given up on everything but self-destruction, inspiring them to grow in ways they never imagined and change in ways they never thought they could.  I think you’ll listen if a character says something that hasn’t been said before or says it in a way that connects to something you know to be true but couldn’t find the words or courage or clarity to say.  Therapy works when in talking to me clients finally hear themselves, as painful as that is on occasion, when a crack opens up in the armor, when the complex becomes simple and the hidden becomes obvious, even if just for a moment. Change is the coalescence of those moments.

Heller (center) with Austin School of Film Directors Faiza Kracheni (left) and Carrie Cates.

Heller (center) with Austin School of Film Directors Faiza Kracheni (left) and Carrie Cates.

Being someone who has an extensive background in science and medicine, how does this contribute to your creative side when it comes to the filmmaking process?

WH: I like a technical challenge.  I like to make things work.  As much as the process might vex me at the moment, seeing it through and seeing the finished product is satisfying.  I know what I want to say and to show before I pick up the tools that make it possible.  It’s almost as if the finished product already exists in my imagination, large chunks of it at any rate.  The struggle is to extract it—to rebuild it—so that others can see what I’m seeing.  The struggle is also to remain open to new meanings and connections that present themselves while not getting mired in something so elaborate it becomes impossible. Go deeper but keep it simple. How to do that? That’s the challenge.

How did you become interested in psychiatry and how did filmmaking come into your life?

WH: Crazy parents!  Shrinks turn their childhood frustrations into a career.  Come to think of it, filmmakers do too—storytellers of all kinds.  All kidding aside, life is far too short to spend it being miserable. Though there’s no going back, there’s still time to change the road we’re on, even if it’s by degrees.  Much of what I do in the office is to facilitate the patient telling his or her own story, making sense of it, coming to terms with it, revising the script from here on out at least.  As to film, I’ve admired the art form since my teens—the intense immersion that transpires, the way if captivates.  I remember frequenting Facets Cinematheque in Chicago and the Chicago International Film Festival every year.  I couldn’t get enough of it. I remember thinking “I could do that—I would like to do that.”

A still from "Darkness. Silence. Distance.", Wallace's short made in the Avant Garde & Experimental filmmaking class

A still from "Darkness. Silence. Distance.", Wallace's short made in the Avant Garde & Experimental filmmaking class

Who are some filmmakers that inspire you and your storytelling?

WH: I’ve seen some lovely films lately.  Two that come to mind that especially impressed me are The Measure of a Man (2015) with its pseudo-documentary approach and Toni Erdmann (2016) which broke all the rules and conventions. I saw Kieslowski’s Dekalog (1989) last year over a weekend—stunning. Character driven drama at its finest.  A much more conventional film that I enjoyed was A Man Called Ove (2015). I’ve been reading lately about the Dogme95 movement.  I’m a fan of manipulating sound and I see elaborate sound design in general as indispensable, so I can’t say that their rejection of nondiegetic sound is something I agree with, though I identify with their craving for minimalism.  The Woman Who Left (2016) amazed me for its use of B&W, authentic locations, and long takes.  Finally, I love Tarkovsky’s long takes—minutes of solitude and reflection.  If you’re waiting for something to happen on the screen, you’re looking in the wrong place.  The something that is happening is inside you.

Can you describe some upcoming projects you’re working on and what you hope to achieve through them?

WH: My next project will explore the complex relationship between addicts and enablers, the climate of codependence, the moral and practical dilemmas that drive decision making, the self-defeating, self-deceiving, self-destructive world both parties inhabit. It’s called “Don’t Forget to Kiss Her Goodnight” and features contrived images that shock and voices of real people sharing their motivations and justifications.  That part shocks as well.  Enabling kills, but not enabling kills too.  I want to explore both sides of that.  I want to provoke discussion even if it’s all inside your own head.  

A still from "Darkness. Silence. Distance.", Wallace's short made in the Avant Garde & Experimental filmmaking class

A still from "Darkness. Silence. Distance.", Wallace's short made in the Avant Garde & Experimental filmmaking class

Your daughter, who’s fifteen, is also a student here at ASOF. Can you tell us some of the programs/classes she was and currently is involved in? And do you feed each other advice when it comes to filmmaking?

WH: Dulce has taken teen oriented classes and several of the adult classes.  She hopes to work her way through the certificate program as well over the coming year or two. Dulce and I talk all the time (when she’s not playing Overwatch at least) about life and art and technology and growing up and getting old and making plans and dealing with disappointments and not buying into the stupid shit the TV sells you… Wait! Is she a therapist or my daughter?  A co-conspirator?

What kind of advice would you give to someone who is currently in a full-time career and interested in getting into filmmaking? 

WH: Don’t put it off any longer.  Don’t delay.  All the reasons why and why not will still be there teasing you, torturing you, tantalizing you this time next year and in five years. Look at your priorities then chuck the one at the top—unless it’s a loved one of course.  Don’t chuck a loved one (or a Labrador or Chihuahua), but figure out how he or she can be part of your dream.  He or she already is, so a little finagling to broaden everyone’s horizons ought to be possible.  Don’t take no for an answer, at least not a final answer. Until the coffin lid slams shut, you can do (almost) anything as long as you stop telling yourself otherwise.


You can watch Dr. Wallace Heller's short experimental film Darkness. Silence. Distance. on our Vimeo page HERE!