Catching Up With Tiffany Shlain

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Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain is not only a friend of Paste, she’s also the director of one of our favorite documentaries ever at Sundance, 2011’s Connected. Before she began her career as a filmmaker, she created and ran the Webby awards. She’s also the daughter of the late Leonard Shlain, one of the most profound and provocative recent writers on the mind and art. She’s recently been pushing her work into some areas suggested by all of these links, and she recently sat down with us to tell us about it.

Paste Magazine: Start out just tell me about all the great new projects that you’re doing.
Tiffany Shlain: Well, from Connected I started doing these, as I call them, cloud films, I don’t like the word “crowd-sourced.” I like “cloud-sourced”; to me it’s more about creativity and potential. So we write a very researched script, and then we invite people to send in videos and artwork, and we edit it all together with animation and music and make a movie. We’ve done a Declaration of Inner Dependence, which Moby did the music for. We did a film called Engage, we did Brain Power from Neurons to Networks, and then we have our fourth film, which is premiering on March 20th. It’s called The Science of Character. It’s all about neuroscience and social science, about how to best develop who you are.

We’re doing our first ever global cloud film premiere, where we’re inviting schools and organizations all over the world to show the film on the same day. We have experts on a Google classroom, and we have online free curriculum and posters for schools. We are really excited about pushing the boundaries of this experiment with collaborative filmmaking and collaborative distribution; we make free customized versions of all these films. We’ve made over 500 free films for non profits in the last two years. It’s been really exciting to kind of experiment with the way we are making movies collaboratively with people on their cellphones and us.

And I was trying to solve a problem, because non profits do some of the most important work in the world and they often never have a good film for their organizations. My hunch was could I make like a white label film that everyone could agree upon, a declaration of interdependence. And just change the ending, just change the last line, add a non profit’s logo and it looks like it’s their movie. So that’s one project; that film series is called Let it Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change.

And I should also say that Connected has had a really nice run since Sundance. It was in theaters, it’s been on television and Netflix, people can watch it from our site and that’s been really great and kind of wonderful, all the people it has connected me with all over the world.

Paste: And are you still doing the classroom edition that people can access from the website?
Shlain: Yeah, yeah, and the US State Department had selected it as one of their films to represent America in the American film showcase. So they sent me to South Africa with it, and they just sent me to Israel, and I’m going to go to China this summer probably, and its been really exciting. So that’s been great, and then AOL approached me about a year ago to do an original series for them. About three months ago it premiered, The Future Starts Here, and it’s eight 3-6 minute episodes. I had a blast making that. You know, I just explored all these topics; I did one on the creative process called ideaporn, one on robots, one on tech etiquette, and one on how me and my family unplug from technology one day a week, called technology Shabbat. It was just a super fun experience.

Paste: And you know, somethings that’s really cool about all these projects that you just talked about is that they’re all such an outgrowth of what you explored in Connected.
Shlain: I think you could look at every one of my films—and I think I’ve made, like I don’t know, 16 now—and they are all talking about the same stuff. They are all exploring the same ideas through different ways. But I think I am always exploring ideas of our desire to connect and the good, the bad and the potential of that and where is it taking us, where do we want it to take us. All of my work from the Webby Awards to Connected, and the rest of my films. There’s a definite narrative through-line there. Even though they come out in different permutations, all kind of like branches from the same tree.

Paste: Lets talk a little bit about the sort of mindset that underlies collaborating with so many people across the globe. Tell me about the rush of that, really.
Shlain: It’s such a high, really. It’s like we are directing a film from our film studio with everybody all over the world, a cast of thousands. And they are shooting with their own camera crews in their own locations. It’s so wonderful ,like we put out a call for entries i— would you read this script, or will you answer this question, and we get all these responses in different languages and these beautiful different locations. It’s so exciting, it’s like, it’s opened up my whole world. And in these cloud films it’s like there’s this taste of humanity. Often they are filming themselves, not always but a lot of times, with their cell phone. There is something so raw and authentic and beautiful and magical about that.

Paste: So what’s the next level of pushing this out even further, because I know that’s what you’re all about.
Shlain: All of these cloud films. The one we just started pre-production on is called The 21st Century Brain and it’s on the evolution of the brain. They’re all becoming building blocks for my next feature, which is about what does it mean to be human in the 21st century. Its kind of fun to make a film this way instead of going into a cave and working on a film for four or five years; I am kind of releasing three to six to eight minute films every six months or so. And those are all becoming these building blocks to this new feature. It’s fun. I’m feeling very in the flow right now. I’m feeling really grateful and supported for my work. We have a great team.

You know, I was thinking this is my eleventh year at Sundance and I actually started my filmmaking career kind of late. I was doing the Webby awards until I was like 32 or something, so it’s not like I studied filmmaking and took a big detour to the Webbys, it’s not like I have been a filmmaker straight for 20 years. Its exciting to be in such a flow right now. The Future Starts Here got 20 million views in three months, and that is very exciting as a filmmaker to share with people, being received by so many people, I like that. And the immediacy of it in theaters, and holding back on the DVD, and there was so much hold back. And then to have the AOL series, we finished it and BOOM released it, immediate response, like crazy numbers and I just loved it. It really made me rethink how I would release another film. Everything is changing, and I still love a theater experience but I would do a totally different strategy.

Paste: Still doing the tech Shabbat?
Shlain: Yes, we are almost on four years now of one day a week unplugging. It’s lifechanging. Like two times a year I am traveling on a Saturday and I cant do it and I feel completely off kilter. Like I can’t wait to go back. I go back tomorrow, I miss my kids so much. And then I rush towards that tech Shabbat, that’s how I feel towards the end of my week. I feel like I am running towards unplugging, and then Saturday night I can’t wait to go back, it’s like I reappear. I’m psyched to re-appreciate it.

Paste: How can readers help with all this?
Shlain: With the new film, if any of your readers are associated with the school or a nonprofit and want to screen for free, the new 8 minute film The Science of Character, and get all sorts of free fun things too. Gather with your community and screen at and all the info is there.

“The Science of Character” Official Trailer from The Moxie Institute on Vimeo.

Be part of our Global Film Premiere March 20th from The Moxie Institute on Vimeo.

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