Life in Black and White: Crossword Puzzles

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"If I could only do one thing my whole life … it would be to make crosswords.”

Life in Black and White is a series of four beautifully shot documentaries featuring people who work in "black and white." Andrea Carla Michaels is passionate about words, and has been constructing crossword puzzles for decades. Other films in the series feature dominos, penguins, and grand pianos; you can watch them here.

San Francisco-based filmmaker Regina Rivard talks about the making of the series in an interview below.

The Atlantic: What was the genesis of the project? Why did you pick “black and white” as a theme?

Regina Rivard: I have an incredibly curious nature, especially when it comes to people and how they decide to live their lives. I started this project because I wanted to see how people uniquely different than me came to be where they are and if they are happy. I knew that I could use video as a way to meet people that I wouldn't necessarily have run into, and be able to ask them questions that I wouldn't normally ask someone that I just met. In the end I got invited to shoot at places that I don't think I would have ever been able to go on my own. 

As far as the black and white theme, it almost came as an accident. I really wanted to interview a zebra zookeeper and I tried to think of a clever reason as to why the zoo should let me do this. That's when I had the idea and I immediately started brainstorming other interesting black and white jobs. I never did get the zebra interview, but I keep telling myself that it wouldn't have been nearly as good as the penguin interview that I did get.

How did you go about finding these characters and deciding whom to feature? Were there other “black and white” occupations you thought about documenting?

I made a list of every job that had to do with black and white and that I felt was "interesting." I started trying to get in touch with all of these people, and then I met with them before scheduling an interview to make sure it would be a good fit. You wouldn't believe how close-knit the crossword puzzle clique is. I found that really interesting.

Some jobs that never made it were mimes, referees, that guy that paints the stripes on the pavement, and newspaper printing people. 

We’re often hesitant to define people according to their jobs, but you learn so much about these people through what they do. As a documentary filmmaker, how did you tackle telling these stories?  

I think something that made these four people unique was that fact that their jobs weren't "jobs" to them. One thing you could pull from this series is that none of them could even seem to imagine doing anything else. Andrea, the crossword constructor, said, "If I could only do one thing my whole life … it would be to make crosswords.” In a way that sums up what everyone had in common. It's like they were born to do what they do and I think that's really beautiful. I think that a lot of people struggle with finding that and these four people don't even have to think about it.

The hardest part about editing this project was keeping the interview and final cuts focused on the subject matter. All of these people are living incredibly interesting lives and a lot of their history was just as intriguing. I had a hard time letting those moments go.

How awesome was it to film the penguins at the California Academy of Sciences?

I couldn't believe I got that interview! Pam is a super busy lady and we had limited time with her. I had no idea that penguins smelled so bad. They are pretty stinky.

Is this an ongoing series? What’s next for you?

It could be ongoing … I'm a freelance editor and I do a lot of corporate and commercial work.  I've also done a lot of volunteer video work for NGO's in Cambodia this year and I found it to be an amazing way to travel. I love this industry, but a lot of times I think it's all about making the best of the corporate stuff so that we can make the videos that really make us happy.

Life in Black and White: Part I is produced, directed and edited by Regina Rivard, and shot by Josh Hittleman, Rob Fitzgerald, and Bevan Bell. Audio is by Ben Morse and music is by Andy Greenwood

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.
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