Independent Film Festival Boston 2015 – Day 5: ‘In Transit’ And ‘The Primary Instinct’


Day five at the 13th Annual Independent Film Festival Boston was filled with storytelling, in the classical sense. Albert Maysles’ final directorial effort (he passed away last month), In Transit, and David Chen’s The Primary Instinct went on to further the fest’s overlying theme of “Gather ‘Round,” with both films telling important stories to a community of film fans perked up and attentive.

We were sad to have missed Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence and Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room (one of our most anticipated at the fest) but Drafthouse Films is attached to release both in the coming months.

In Transit


Disappointment, crossroads, loss of hope, fear for the future, the resilience of will. On the journey we call life, we’ll encounter these events that may change our course forever. In Transit uses “The Empire Builder,” an Amtrak train that crosses through Chicago and The Pacific Northwest while carrying upwards of half a million passengers per year, as a platform to dig deep into the varied stages of life’s journey people are on when aboard the train. Unsurprisingly, Albert Maysles’ endearing attitude towards storytelling is felt through every shot here. The train may act as the connective tissue between the past and future, but Maysles’ direct cinema approach makes this an emotional swan song sung by one of the greats.

As the camera travels down the long corridors of the train, we hear people talking about what brings them aboard. It could be caused by homesickness, divorce, spontaneous decisions, or the fear of mortality. Despite the crew having to talk to every passenger to pre-filming to discuss the purpose of the film, everything here is the exact same kind of cinéma vérité style that Maysles changed the documentary landscape forever with. That also speaks lengths of the craft that the other directors on the project hold. Lynn True, Nelson Walker III, David Usui, and Benjamin Wu present a situation where many people guiding a project can achieve a cohesive vision. Especially crafting a documentary that comes off personal but not stilted by the artists’ predilections.

As “The Empire Builder” travels through the vast American landscape, we see a few people snapping photos of the beautiful countryside. Some may ask, why don’t these passengers just utilize an airline to get to their destination? The train offers up something much more intellectually rewarding. A chance to converse with someone you otherwise may not have in everyday life. With the length of the train ride, you are forced to break down every aspect of your stories and reveal the truth within them. What you may not have realized before will come to the forefront of your mind and release revelations that may strike you down to the core. In Transit is a gold mine for these truths, doling them out liberally before giving you the emotional knockout in the final shot.

Delicately crafted doesn’t even begin to shine light upon the work put into the film. Where is home? Where are you going? Why are you here? These may seem like simple questions, but In Transit utilizes them as a launch pad to discuss the human condition, whether that is fears, faults, personal philosophies, values, or even religion & spirituality. If you ever have been changed by Maysles’ work, you need to see this. Not just because it may be the last we see of his work, but in view of the fact that this work is complete and will make you not want to let go of one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers.


A couple of the co-directors and crew members arrived post-screening for a brief Q&A. Highlights included the revealing that the film was made using 400 hours of footage taken from 3 round trips on the train and having a second unit shoot exterior shots on one road trip. Albert was able to see the final cut of the film 3 days before his passing, causing the audience to slip into a kind of silent mourning, furthermore proving that his work touched so many people. On a somewhat brighter note, the producers and co-directors told a story of how one of the crew members got punched in the face on one of the rowdier sections of the train. I got to talk with Nelson Walker III, one of the producer/directors, who divulged to me that the film is currently in talks of being distributed with some help from Al Jazeera America. He went on to stress that the Maysles Documentary Center in NYC will help Albert’s legacy live on. A somber closing note indeed, but a much needed one.

The Primary Instinct


Stephen Tobolowsky, the subject of The Primary Instinct, is one of those actors you constantly see in film and television but rarely know his name. He has 236 acting credits to his name including roles in Californication, Groundhog Day, Glee, Memento, Thelma & Louise, Basic Instinct and Deadwood. The man is everywhere. What people may not know is that his outlook on life and telling stories are straight up profound and winsome. David Chen, film critic and previous Boston native, has been conducting a weekly podcast with Stephen about storytelling. Using Stephen’s life as the subject of discussion, The Tobolowsky Files was born and still charges on at SlashFilm. The Primary Instinct is the product of bringing a visual aspect to their auditory facet of storytelling.

The film starts with an opening cinematic complete with Tobolowsky introducing himself and why he’s there before moving onto a show he conducted in Seattle, Washington. Tobolowksy recounts some funny stories about getting bit roles in Hollywood films and how you could gauge the importance of a role based upon the role’s title. Then we move onto the show itself. Tobolowsky talks about how “true always trumps clever.” He employs that philosophy through every iota of every story he recounts to the audience. He believes that telling stories are a way of bringing people together while also revealing things about life that you may not have known without critical thinking through recounting stories. His persistence to draw a connective philosophical line between a set of varied stories makes the viewer more interested in what his ultimate revelation is compared to tiring the viewer out for being overly verbose.

Chen takes a sort of stance on the material he gets to film and show to the world. The Primary Instinct is a concert film at heart. There’s no behind-the-scenes insight and the opening and closing interviews with Tobolowsky are the only things that exist outside of the Seattle concert footage. With some films, that may be considered a fault. Instead, the 70 odd minutes of footage used feels like the most well-rounded look at the honesty and depth of philosophy that Tobolowsky can employ to an audience in a digestible manner. Despite putting on a show where his speaking lines are memorized, Tobolowsky always seems as candid as a dinner with family. His outlook and insight on life, love, happiness, careers, instinct, and self-preservation will resonate with you. I can’t think of a better way to present the material. Tobolowsky is a voice that could and should reverberate through the ears of listeners. So see this film, love it, and live it.


Tobolowsky and Chen stayed for a Q&A after the film. The duo talked about the challenge of handling the RED cameras (which are really loud) and the M?VI (customized stabilizer). The amount of noise caused by the cameras and the need for a cooldown process caused Toblowsky to walk around the stage so that the noise wouldn’t mess up the audio for Chen. By using Kickstarter to back the film, Chen and Tobolowsky spoke candidly about how much they thought the film would cost vs. how much it did cost. The duo seemed to be comfortable and trust each other. This kind of connection leaks through the film. Chen has a firm grip on the material and doesn’t fall into a conventional style of documentary film making. Storytelling is his strength and Chen has it in spades.

Sam Cohen

Sam Cohen is that guy you can't have a conversation with without bringing up Michael Mann. He is also incapable of separating himself from his teenage angst (looking at you, Yellowcard). Read on as he tries to formulate words about movies!
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  • Hi Sam: Just wanted to say thanks for stopping by our screening and checking out THE PRIMARY INSTINCT! Your words are most appreciated.