Tim Watson – Ariel Montage writer, editor, & producer
New Orleans, Louisiana—some are born and raised inside the city’s levees, and some come late to the city and never leave. Tim Watson is a native of Alabama—Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Dauphin Island—and came to New Orleans as a young man. “Best thing that ever happened,” he says. Thoughtful, charming, and quiet, Tim seems to consider his way through conversation, at first serious, then sly, eventually smiling. He possesses a kind of quietude that reflects his art—inspired, far-reaching, arising from a place of calm.
Editor, writer, and producer, Tim has worked on many independent, award-winning documentary and narrative projects through his film production company, Ariel Montage, Inc., from Ruthie the Duck Girl and By Invitation Only to Bury the Hatchet and Bayou Maharajah, to name a few. Many of the films deal with the cultural heritage of New Orleans, showing a special concern for people and place, history and tradition. Tim’s studio, once a warehouse, has been re-imagined into workspaces for filmmakers, a graphic artist, and a painter. Each space opens onto a large garden, and beyond is the Ninth Ward neighborhood of New Orleans known as Bywater, bordered by the Mississippi River and the Industrial Canal, and where, since Katrina, artists and longtime residents, like Tim, honor and celebrate the city.
Garden outside Ariel Montage Studio – Bywater
Tim – 1976, Dauphin Island
From your childhood days in Alabama, what are the memories that have stayed with you and perhaps made you interested in film and story?
I imagine southern storytelling in my family has had some influence. We often told old stories and jokes, so much so that in later years they became repetitive and we created a numbering system for the stories. Not unique, but still pretty funny. Someone would yell out, “Number 37, the green motor boat!” and everyone would burst out laughing.
Summers with grandparents in Mobile, Dauphin Island, and Pensacola were terrific and helped me with self-discipline and patience. I recall a moment on Dauphin Island, having caught a fish in Mobile Bay and running up to the house to show my grandfather, who said dryly, “Well, what are you doing at the house when you know the fish are biting?” Sheepishly, I turned around and went back to the dock, knowing I had to work to keep doing better.
Also, there’s Alabama’s place in U.S. history, the strangeness of growing up and developing an awareness of the sometimes-not-great history of one’s home (think civil rights), reconciling love of family/community while despising the human rights views of older community members. Absolutely shattering as one comes of age and becomes aware. That background has made me hyper-aware, and I’ve ended up working on some films/projects involving social justice and rights.
When I started high school in 1980, working on the high school newspaper was important to me, and eventually marching band played a big role. The band of 200 was pretty well racially balanced. Alabama schools had only been integrated for about 5 years, so we were all still trying to figure it out. We spent hours everyday together: 4-hour band practice weekday afternoons and through the summer, and travel to competitions and football games. It was kind of a “throw everyone together and see what happens” deal, with credit to our band directors and band parents for great guidance.
Big Chiefs Monk Boudreaux, Victor Harris, & Alfred Doucette with Bury the Hatchet director, Aaron Walker, in the Ariel Montage Studio
Tim, you launched Ariel Montage with the mission and dream of doing indie films. Would you describe your earlier years of work—in newspaper, TV, and radio and as program director at the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC), the non-profit media arts center—as the proper foundation for owning and running an independent film production company?
I don’t think of Ariel Montage as a film production company, because I’ve never wanted to make it into a big company. I like it just being me. I know that I can be more efficient by using the great talents of at least one or two other people, so I am trying to transition to that in some ways.
At Loyola University, I went into broadcast production to be a TV producer, with no awareness of independent film whatsoever. I worked on both TV news production (the communication department’s focus) and the college paper. Not many worked in both, and I was quite dismayed then (and now) that each discipline could not see the positive outcome of working together. If there’s anything TV news could use, it’s some good writers. There were a couple of terrific writing professors at Loyola who gave me a good foundation for doc filmmaking: structuring, writing, and so on (what happens long before editing). Every project brings new challenges, and I still find writing and structuring extremely hard.
During college I worked at an AM talk radio station, which helped build some technical confidence, and interned in a local TV newsroom, where I realized how horrible working in local TV news is and that I would never do it. I witnessed unhappy people and addictions galore. I also worked as court reporter’s scopist, listening to audiotapes of deposition testifiers and correcting the court reporter’s transcript. I learned a lot about how people tell stories. I also learned how to transcribe and how to punctuate conversational speaking, which looks very interesting on the page, and the importance of accurate transcripts. I depend on good transcripts for documentary editing, so I’m grateful to have had that job.
After college I became full-time at the radio station and got really grounded in audio production. Today I find, in terms of editing, I pay attention to audio. Six months into the radio job, a friend told me of a job opening at NOVAC. I was terrified of working for a non-profit, thinking there would be times I wouldn’t be paid. I interviewed and got the job and suddenly was dropped into the worlds of indie film, cable access, and non-profit organization. The six years at NOVAC was great for learning more on the tech side, running a daily operation with budgets, and getting to know the indie film community. Best training ground ever, but also grueling. I’m ever thankful to those who helped me get there.
Ruthie the Duck Girl – Ruth Grace Moulon
Photo by Cheryl Gerber, Gambit News
Rebecca Snedeker in Mardi Gras Queen’s Gown – By Invitation Only
What is it that you love best about your profession? The people, the process, the original idea, the hours of focus, the final cut?
I love the people and everything I learn with each project. I also love often being able to communicate my views/thoughts through the storytelling of others. So when films involve New Orleans, I sometimes get to say what I think about some aspect of the city through the way a film is structured/written. It’s an intense process, working with other filmmakers day and night for a fairly long period of time, and then it’s over. Once it’s done, I often don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like with these colleagues, because I’m off to another more-than-full-time project.
I think I’m a little different than some editors, because the nature of the projects is not always full-time, while other editors may concentrate the editing into a certain amount of time. I don’t mind it at all, but usually I find that I have about three projects going at once, each 1/3 time because of the energy level—creative energy, storytelling energy, “financial energy,” tolerance level among the filmmakers. So far, this has worked for my colleagues and me. They appreciate that the job is not always focused on editing 10 hours a day, 5-6 days a week. And taking longer to edit can give you more perspective and leeway in developing a story at a slightly slower pace.
Bywater architectural detail
Tell us some things about New Orleans neighborhoods.
The city is ever-changing, and there is no “good” or “bad” neighborhood. While horrible crimes happen here, there are wonderful spontaneous events—like when a band goes down the middle of the street or a guy rides by on a bike in a tutu or dressed like the Incredible Hulk. No one blinks. Really. So many people here seem free to do whatever they want with very few constraints. And then there are the second lines and the Mardi Gras Indians, which are always terrific, though I rarely attend, as I’m usually stuck in the edit room.
Bywater—where my studio is located—is downriver from the French Quarter and the Marigny. Bywater has a long history as a working class neighborhood, on a downswing for a while, and now on the upswing. A lot of people are moving in, and some are artists. Some are carpetbaggers, so maybe it’s gentrification. Prices are up. Some people who’ve been in the neighborhood for 60 years are getting priced out. By buying a building there, I’m aware I’m participating, but I think I’m a New Orleanian now. I’d been looking for a long time for a permanent space for my office (and affordable space for filmmaker colleagues); I’m not planning to flip the property for a quick profit; and I’ve been working to improve the building from its previous rundown condition. And the people working at the studio all care deeply for the city.
New Orleans has a history of young people moving here: it’s the port, plus historically it’s been a cheap place to live, and usually open to people who may have grown up in small towns where people and views can be more constricted. To me, the influx of young people into the city after Katrina is great, and while it’s sometimes annoying to run into “hipsters” who don’t quite seem to have a direction, the city needs and has always depended on youthful energy to sustain itself, AND for change.
Bayou Maharajah - Lily Keber’s documentary of New Orleans piano legend, James Carroll Booker, III
Sun, moon, or deep blue sea?
All of the above.
Big Chief Alfred Doucette of the Flaming Arrow Warriors
Lagniappe: In the documentary Bury the Hatchet, after returning to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux is sewing his Mardi Gras Indian suit. He wears a t-shirt that reads, “There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better” – Bob Dylan. Would you agree with Bob and the Chief?
Absolutely. I had no idea Bob Dylan felt that way until I saw Monk’s T-shirt while editing.
Big Chief Victor Harris of the Fi-Yi-Yi
Lagniappe – in New Orleans, we always like to add a little bit more.
I’m in awe of the time in history I’m living in: industrial, technological and medical advances; civil rights changes; gay rights advances; environmental changes that I feel threaten the existence of my city in my lifetime; and other changes. I mean, REALLY—until now (the past 100 years), people could live their entire lives with no changes like this whatsoever. So I feel like being a part of documenting this time is crucial, both for audiences now and for those in the future, and I feel extremely lucky to play a role in that.
Tim Watson and Brad Richard outside their Uptown New Orleans home
Tim Watson is an award-winning documentary editor, writer, and producer in New Orleans. He is owner of Ariel Montage, Inc., which produces independent documentary, narrative, and experimental film and video works for national and international audiences. Tim is married to New Orleans poet, Brad Richard.
Brad Richard and Tim Watson’s Wedding
The Poppy: An Interview Series
Four to six questions begin as pods, then burst open with answers, bright lapis,
black-stamened, conspicuous—ornament, remembrance, opiate.
This interview first posted at Hothouse Magazine.