I Am A Town

In his directorial debut, photographer Mischa Richter trains his lens on the year-round characters who call Provincetown, Massachusetts, their home. Here, he and his friend, actress Emily Mortimer, an East End resident and HIFF mainstay who served as one of the documentary’s producers, talk about the transporting power of film.

RAY ROGERS: The movie feels like a love letter to the community of P-town. You spent roughly five years making it. I’d love to hear from both of you about why it’s important to tell these kinds of stories.

MISCHA RICHTER: I made it because I personally felt like I wanted to express myself, about this place I grew up in and really love. I also thought about what is going on in the world today and what’s going on in America. Provincetown is the first landing place for the Pilgrims; they wrote a contract [the Mayflower Compact] that’s the root of the Constitution in our harbor right here. So I felt like a lot of what is happening here in town is rooted in those original ideas of what we were going to make this country. I felt like a lot of the rest of America was losing that, and we’ve somehow maintained that—welcoming immigrants into the community to become part of the community, successful and sustained.

EMILY MORTIMER: I’ve always felt from the moment Mischa started filming to especially now, it’s a kind of tonic, almost like medicine for this kind of crazy moment. There was something about assisting with the film; it just felt like an escape, but in the best way. It’s this incredibly poetic meditation on a place that has meant so much to Mischa. Like all the best things, when you’re able to describe your personal feelings about a place or a person, it becomes universal.

RR: It does feel very meditative, with the lingering on these seascapes and objects. The viewer has some quiet time with these people and this place.

EM: Yes, I really feel that the experience of watching the film is similar to the experience so many people have in that place. This kind of calm feeling of time slowed down, and experiencing life at a totally different pace. What’s so interesting about it is that Mischa’s always said there’s a kind of pain in the beauty of it too. The choice to be there and live that life is an active choice that also is in some way kind of a difficult one—to choose to live like that and to not be part of the rest of the rat-race world is not necessarily an easy choice to make, to live with that kind of freedom. It does feel like your heart rate slows in a way to appreciate the beauty of the place in the same way as Mischa himself can and does, and the people who live there can and do.

RR: Emily, have you spent much time in Provincetown?

EM: Yes, I have, because Dolly [Wells, Richter’s wife and Mortimer’s friend since childhood] and Mischa are there and I’ve spent lots of time over the years. Not as much as I would have liked. But my husband [Alessandro Nivola] actually proposed to me in Provincetown, when we were staying there about 18 years ago. We were at the White Horse Inn, where Mischa had told us to go stay when we came to visit. And Alessandro popped the question and whipped out the engagement ring in Provincetown. So I really feel like it’s a part of our history too. And I love the place. You feel this coming together of people, of every different walk of life. There’s a freedom to the place. You can be walking along the beach and run into a drag queen or artists there, or sort of ordinary people on their holidays. People young or old feel accepted and it does have a magic I’ve not really ever experienced somewhere else. I’m so proud of the film, and we’re so thrilled it’s coming to the Hamptons International Film Festival. 

RR:I loved what Ryan McGinley had to say in the film, about it being a place where you can be your true authentic self, and no one is going to judge you.

MR: I really wanted to find someone who had newly found Provincetown, who is gay, and felt like, ‘Wow! I can come here and it’s cool.’ I met Ryan and [his boyfriend] Marc halfway through making the film, and they just struck me. Marc makes beautiful pottery and can play this rare cello so beautifully, and Ryan is this artist, and they live in New York City, in an art world where it’s diverse and open. But even so, Ryan still had that thing, talking about “when I come to Provincetown, it’s really safe.” It was really important for me to convey that, to be able to show Ryan and Marc’s love for each other, to show that it’s important and it’s beautiful that they both can come to this beach town and feel safe. 

RR: How did your career as a photographer for Vogue and Esquire and shooting album covers like Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black prepare you for this film?

MR: What it gave to me was just being able to communicate with others and learn how to gain trust, and make people feel comfortable with camera equipment and crew. I spent years doing that as a photographer, and a lot of the work I did for those magazines was portraiture. Amy Winehouse was very smart and funny and fun. We had a lot of fun that day. I had to meet her a couple times beforehand to make sure we got on. The photo that became the cover was the last setup of the day. The late-evening light was coming through the window in my house in London. I had cupboards I painted with blackboard paint, so my kids could draw chalk on them. I put her in front of that, just for the light from a certain side. The album ended up being Back to Black, so they used that as the cover. That’s another thing that helped me in filmmaking and in the documentary film was learning to kind of accept mistakes and not be so planned and so stuck on coming to a situation with a camera and film, not trying to force it, and being open to things happening and evolving. And I think that helped me. My photography career helped me in making this film in particular.

RR: You were born in London, but essentially grew up in P-town. It’s really part of your life’s blood. What did you discover about the town in making the movie?

MR: What I discovered mostly is that I really want to be here and live free and live off the land—to live a kind of different existence than, say, in Brooklyn or anywhere else. I discovered that to really be free, a person has to kind of be lonely and alone. I really love this community and this place. I want to live here more as a year-round resident again, for the rest of my life.

RR: There are echoes of Montauk in the film—a lot of these eccentric characters and outsiders.

MR: Yeah, just that idea of Montauk being “the end,” like the end of the world, and Provincetown here is the very tip. It’s kind of removed and far out and island-like.

I Am a Town will screen at the Hamptons International Film Festival’s Amagansett Drive-In on October 11 at 7PM, and is available in the Virtual Cinema from October 9 at 10AM through October 14.