“AUTONOMY is a documentary about the future. It’s the first deep-dive documentary about self-driving cars — how they work, how they don’t work, and how they stand to change society. It will satisfy the tech nerds, to be sure, but I think we made something that will appeal to everyone. It’s about trust, control, fear, and how we relate to the things we build. So it’s really a movie about people, not machines.” Director Alex Horwitz on AUTONOMY which screens in the 2019 edition of SxSW Film
Congratulations on your film playing in at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?
My previous film, HAMILTON’S AMERICA, was shown in DC as part of South By South Lawn in 2016. But this is my first time at the festival proper, and I’m really excited. I’ll be at all three screenings.
So how did you get into this movie-making business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.
I started working in New York production with small jobs on big movies. Then, when I got tired of getting coffee, I started working big jobs on small movies. I wrote and directed a zombie love story starring Adrienne Barbeau called ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD which made some festival rounds. Then I stumbled into editing, working mostly on docs with RadicalMedia. I worked with Joe Berlinger on several projects and even got to cut a short film for my hero, Terry Gilliam. I started filming a doc on my own with the creative team of Hamilton as they started creating that show, before anyone had heard of it. That grew into Hamilton’s America, and all of a sudden I was a documentary filmmaker.
How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!
It is my good fortune that Car and Driver had already collaborated with Malcolm Gladwell for their November 2017 issue on self-driving vehicles, and then had the great idea to follow that up with a film. When I was approached, I initially wondered if I was right for the job. I’m not a “car guy.” But when I found out that Malcolm was involved, I knew we’d be making something that wasn’t only for gearheads. This is a technological revolution that concerns everyone, and there’s a lot to dig into. I was thrilled to take the reins. We started filming in December of 2018, and had a finished film 14 months later, just in time for SXSW. That’s pretty fast for a doc.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?
My last doc was almost completely based in New York City, with a couple excursions along the eastern seaboard. For Autonomy, I got to travel the world. We went to Germany, Japan, and all over the States, including some spots I’d never visited. That was a lot of fun. I never got jaded, because we were always going somewhere new.
What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
The toughest thing about AUTONOMY was that it’s a big topic, but one with no clear lead character. I had no apparent central narrative to latch onto, apart from the development of autonomous vehicle technology. So we found supporting characters and created sort of “mini docs” within the film. I’m proud of those portraits. But we also got to find Sadayuki Tsugawa and Ernst Dickmanns, retired engineers on opposite sides of the world who created the first cars that could “see” and drive themselves. Up to now, they’re usually footnotes in technical literature, but deserve to be revered as giants. I’m very happy to showcase them and their work.
I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.
We shot mostly on the Sony FS7, but this doc also incorporates a lot of found footage and archival elements from lots of sources. It was tough to weave that into a seamless film, but I think we did well. My lead DP was Johnny Ching, and we came up with a lot of fun, shoestring ways of filming moving cars. We always rented a Dodge Caravan on location because we could easily shoot out of either side of the trunk safely. I used drones whenever I could, because they offer a safe way to get wide, kinetic shots of cars moving through the world — important for a film about mobility.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?
Apart from eating BBQ, I’m excited to share this pretty nerdy movie with the coolest nerd crowd on the festival circuit. I say that with deep love and as a big nerd.
After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?
We’ll see! We’ll be talking to potential distributors and hoping for a wide release. But we’re also talking to more festivals.
If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?
I mostly grew up in DC, and the Uptown Theater is the movie palace of my heart. It’s got a giant, curved screen, and it’s filled with fond movie memories. I’d love to show something there.
What would you say to someone who was being disruptive, like talking or texting, through a movie?
What I WANT to say, I won’t say, because it’s not fit for print. I usually have pretty good results with a polite but stern, “Excuse me, would you please keep it down?”
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?
Make your own luck. You will never land every opportunity, so create new ones by reaching out and keeping relationships everywhere. And learn how to write a proper letter, for crying out lout.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen?
Please don’t make me pick one. But I could watch Tim Burton’s ED WOOD every day and never tire of it.
This is one of the many film titles playing at SxSW 2019. For more information on this and any other title playing in the festival, point your browser to http://www.sxsw.com/film!