After making documentaries for 30 years, Peter Odabashian decided to take on his first solo project. “Old Friends,” which has its world premiere at DOC NYC on Nov. 14, has him bringing his camera into the homes of his friends. “You’re getting a picture of me through my friends. Each person represents a piece of me somehow,” he said.
Having grown up in the New York suburb of Larchmont, he came to Manhattan in 1974 and began working in a post-production house on mostly TV commercials. “In those days, film was still film, you cut it with a sharp knife instead of digitally,” he explained. He worked as a sound editor on such films as “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Reds” and “Carlito’s Way.” Eventually, he moved on to documentaries and has worked on 22 so far, winning an Emmy which now sits on a bookshelf in the Upper West Side apartment he shares with his wife, Esther.
How did you get started in sound editing?The business of editing was old fashioned. You started as an apprentice and then became an assistant and then became an editor. It was sort of like that for me. I worked in commercials and became an assistant editor there and then I went into feature films. “Starting Over” was my first feature. I worked as an apprentice on that. And then, this big job came along called “Reds.” They hired every person in New York; there was an editorial crew of 60. I somehow ended up being the associate sound editor and that’s how I got involved in sound.
Why did you make this film?I’ve been working cooperatively in film, like everyone who works in film, basically, you work with a lot of different people. After I stopped doing sound editing, I started editing documentaries. I became involved with Andy Kolker and Louis Alvarez and edited five different documentaries for them. And the first won one an Emmy for me. We got used to working with each other. I also cut documentaries for other people, but I would always come back to work with them because all there films had a sense of humor, and that was something I enjoyed. Because there are a lot of jobs where you work and you’ll show a first cut to somebody, and they’ll say, ‘What’s that?’ And I’ll say, ‘That was supposed to be a joke.’ Often humor gets eliminated in documentaries, especially back then. The last 10 years, I joined them as a partner and we’ve been producing and directing together. So anyway, I was always working with groups of people, so I got to the point where I really wanted to do something that was mine.
What were the challenges to working on it alone?Because I was doing it alone, it makes the film more intimate. I mean, literally, I was a one-man crew. I did all the post production myself. I would walk into one of my friends’ houses and it would just be me with a very small camera. I would use natural light, which allowed me to move the camera around, which had interesting results. In this particular case, I picked a good subject for my first film because everyone knew me. And not only were they comfortable with me, but they wanted to tell me something because I was trying to make a movie. Everyone was quite forthcoming and dealing with something that I didn’t know.
What are some things you learned about your friends’ lives as a result?One person worries that everybody thinks they’re boring. Someone else, his mother left him in an orphanage, which, just recently, was exposed in the news. Other people thinking about death, that we don’t normally talk about. Another guy who I spent a lot of time with in the 70s and we had a lot of fun, worried that maybe he should have done more with his life and that wasn’t a good period.
You’re open about your depression, and call yourself ‘the happiest depressed person in the world.’ Why do you think you’re so open about it?
I don’t know, there’s no taint on that for me. Admitting you’re depressed or you have problems with depression — I have no aspirations of being president. [Laughs] I always took a certain joy in having a certain kind of craziness and having a certain kind of craziness with my friends. Obviously I’m not talking about schizophrenia, but neuroses.
Your wife is in the film. What was it like working with her?She’s great. I love my wife. She’s really, as I say in the film, made my life not the life of a depressed person, even though I have leanings in that direction, I think she really steered me out of it. That’s how she lives every day. She brings a lot of energy to everyone around her.
The first part of the documentary takes place in upstate New York and then you switch to Manhattan. Why did you do that and was it hard to film on the subway?I think I’ve always planned to live out my days in New York City. It’s a great place to grow old in. You don’t have to drive, you don’t have to shovel the snow. It’s like a giant playground. It’s so entertaining; you could just stand on Broadway. In upstate New York, it’s a different kind of entertainment. To tape on the subway, I actually looked up the rule, you can do whatever you want on the subway, but can’t use a tripod. [Laughs] The camera I shot this with looks like a home movie camera; it’s very small. If I have my audio gear, it starts to get cumbersome. But on the subway, I just needed to shoot video really, so the little mic on the camera was just fine. So it’s really unobtrusive. You know, I’ve been working on documentaries for 30 years and in the old days, if you brought a camera on the street in New York or anywhere else, people would stare at it, give you the finger, make faces, say, ‘Hi mom.’ But now, everyone ignores it. Almost everyone knows, either from watching reality shows, they don’t look in the lens, they don’t look at you.
To learn more, visit www.oldfriendsdoc.com