21st Century Man
Published March 9, 2015
ABOVE: A YOUNG DAVID SAMPLINER IN MY OWN MAN. PHOTO COUTRESY OF DAVID SAMPLINER/NETFLIX.
On the brink of his 40th birthday, David Sampliner did not feel like man—or at least not in the traditional, heteronormative sense. Happily married with a baby on the way, Sampliner felt anxious about the prospect of raising a son without having mastered his own manhood. Surrounded by alpha-males—from his childhood friends to his father—Sampliner resolved to harness his own masculinity and document the process.
Titled My Own Man, Sampliner’s documentary follows him as he enrolls in voice-coaching and hunting lessons, and joins a man’s club. As the film progresses, however, it becomes clear that this is not just a story about testosterone; it’s a study of the relationship between Sampliner and his father. After a lifetime of fearing his aggressive and competitive father’s disapproval, Sampliner is finally able to identify the root of his anxieties and embark on the process of healing.
Produced by his college friend Edward Norton, this introspective film documents some of the most intimate moments of Sampliner’s life, exposing universal themes of insecurity, growth, and redemption.
Just after the film’s Netflix release on March 6, we caught up with the director David Sampliner to discuss the process of personal filmmaking.
SAVANNAH O’LEARY: What was the time frame on this film? How many years did you shoot for?
DAVID SAMPLINER: I shot for about six years and it took me over seven years to make. I started shooting when I first met my wife, and then the film follows me as we get engaged and have two children, so over quite a long period of time.
O’LEARY: What was it like to have the camera in your day-to-day life for such a long period of time?
SAMPLINER: Well, I wasn’t documenting my life day-to-day; I was picking and choosing things. It wasn’t like for seven years I was filming everything. I think a common misperception of a personal film is that, “Well then you must have had to document yourself eating breakfast everyday.” I was documenting really specific moments and some of them were more uncomfortable than others. I didn’t really have problem being filmed—I didn’t feel terribly self-conscious about it. It was more difficult when I was filming other people, especially my wife, during moments that were intimate. Some of the footage was really meant to be private and only later did I discover that it would be really useful material for the film…like when we’re coming home from the hospital with our son for the first time. I’m actually not an obsessive videographer of my family’s life at all, but in that moment I wanted to record her talking about how she felt coming home with our son. I never thought of that as something I was shooting for the film, and then later, I downloaded any kind of video I had ever taken, and I found that. In some cases, it was almost retrospectively while in the editing room when I was like, “I have this really great material, and I want to use it.” It wasn’t so easy for my wife.
O’LEARY: How did you manage to get her on board?
SAMPLINER: It was really a seven year conversation with Rachel because she is genetically a much more private person than I am. I’m the compulsive sharer in the relationship, and she has healthy boundaries in her personal life. [laughs] So there were certain things that were just completely off-limits, like I was never going to film the birth of either of our kids and that was understood. But then when it came to other conversations, I think Rachel understood the value of it. The film itself wasn’t so intrusive that it was ruining the moment. That conversation with [our son] Gabriel, when we’re telling him for the first time that he’s going to have a brother, that was just one where she felt like, “Okay, I’ve decided to marry a man making a personal film.” She actually started dating me right before I had the idea….she was, all for her credit, willing to give me slack in moments when she probably wished she didn’t have to give me slack. Then, as I said, there were moments that I think she genuinely didn’t expect would go into the film that I had to talk to her about later. But that’s kind of the tension in documentary filmmaking—at least in my experience—and in personal filmmaking. If you want to get to really raw and vulnerable places, you always, at some point, have to transgress a boundary with another person. You have to be there when it’s really uncomfortable, when the camera probably shouldn’t be there, and then you have to gauge whether it’s okay. You have to gauge the potential damage you might do by being there with a camera. Later, I really had to reckon with whether these moments compromised anyone in such a way—including our sons—that I would feel badly about later. It was a process of talking it through with my wife, who had a different set of boundaries, and deciding, “Is this okay?”
O’LEARY: What was the impetus to make the film? Was it that you were turning 40?
SAMPLINER: It started before that. I was at a point in my life where I just felt I wasn’t proud of the person I was, I wasn’t proud of the man I was. I started, as an amateur, taking voice lessons—my teacher is actually in the film—and he was the one who first said to me, “I think you’re afraid of your masculinity.” I thought it was funny he said that to me in a voice lesson, but I also took it to heart. I started to recognize, “I’m not where I want to be in my life,” and, “Is this related to the fact that I have all these issues around what it means to be a man”? I wanted to explore [those issues] and I felt that, secretly, a lot of men were like me in some way. They might not choose to make a film about it, they might not choose to admit it publically or even to the people around them, but a lot of men a lot of men are going through what I was going through. The world is so different from our parents’ universe, and there’s not a lot to guide us in moving forward through it. A lot of us are confused; a lot of us are on unsteady ground as we figure out how to be men in this very new century. So I had a sense that this very personal journey was actually something more universal.
O’LEARY: There was a very strong portrayal of gender roles in the movie. In most of the scenes where you interview your male friends and family, they are working out. In another scene, your mother is talking while ironing. Was that coincidental, or intentional?
SAMPLINER: There was an intention behind filming the members of my family working out, because I just found it to be an endearing quality of the people in my family. They all have these really committed, nearing-obsessive exercise routines and I wanted to capture the fact that all the people in my family are that way. I wasn’t thinking so much in terms of masculine stereotypes or anything like that. In fact, I also filmed my mother bench-pressing, which was a very endearing thing to watch. [laughs] She’s really strong. But that was something I felt was an essential part of the culture of my family, and I usually wanted to film somebody doing something while I was talking to them. My sister, in her scene, I think she’s knitting. My sister is many, many things—she is probably the most like my father of all the children in the family—but she does often knit, and that was the thing that she just happened to have laying around while I was filming. So part of it was accidental. But it was also an essential part of who these people are, and I wanted to film them doing that thing.
O’LEARY: In the film, you talk about how you want to become less of a risk-averse person. What are specific examples of risks you regret not taking?
SAMPLINER: I think the biggest risk that I always fear taking is the fundamental risk of failure. It’s a psychological thing—risking failure, risking being myself, risking being the person I am in public and with other people—those are the deeper levels of risk. It wasn’t so much, “If I could only jump out of an airplane, I would find my truth.” It was really about emotional risks. That was another one of the ironies of the process of making the film, I was trying to capture my masculinity at the beginning of the film, and I grew to discover that the risk-taking I was really more interested in were emotional risks—the risk of being vulnerable in all of theses ways. There’s a risk in being an artist—your ego, putting yourself out there. The risk is that people aren’t going to like you or you won’t succeed, and I’ve been afraid of that.
O’LEARY: Have you gotten the reaction you wanted from the film? I saw Edward Norton talking about it on Conan; he said that the audience cried at the Tribeca Film Festival.
SAMPLINER: The surprising thing to me is how men and women of many different generations find it so relatable. I’ve had 65-year-old women come up and say, “I identity with you in this film.” I feel like the film opens up not just masculinity, but relationships, and the desire a lot of us have to heal relationships, and ideas of what it means to forgive oneself and other people. I feel like it opens up things that men and women keep locked away and don’t really share with people. I’ve been really gratified by the fact that it reaches so many people on a deep emotional place.
O’LEARY: I thought the film was about you becoming a man, but by the time it’s over, you realize it’s really about the relationship between you and your father. At one point you mention that all you really wanted was his blessing. Do you feel like you have that now?
SAMPLINER: I think it was Ian, in the film, who really said it best: my job wasn’t so much to receive my dad’s blessing, but it was for me to ask for it. I think in that sense, that experience of reconciling with my dad in the way that I did, and reading him the letter and having that experience with him was a way of me getting that blessing for myself, and not waiting for him to give it to me. My dad is not as comfortable with every aspect of me as he is with some, but I know that one of the great gifts of this whole process really was learning the levels on which my dad did see me and did appreciate me. So I think yes, but it was really a matter of not waiting around to receive his blessing and go get it.
O’LEARY: How has he responded to the film since watching it?
SAMPLINER: I showed a rough cut to my family first, and my dad’s first response was like a movie critic. [laughs] He commented on the editing, he thought the ending could change a little bit—that it could be a lot stronger. I found it really amusing that with something extremely personal and revealing about him, he was able to respond in that way. But he also, at that same screening, was able to say to me, “This film is pretty tough on me in places, but I think it’s fair.” And that was the seal of approval I really needed to hear, that he felt I was being fair to him. There was nothing about this film—I think it’s pretty clear —where I wanted it to be an arrow pointed at my father. This was not an act of revenge or anything other than an act of love.
O’LEARY: How did Edward Norton come to produce the film?
SAMPLINER: He was the executive producer of my first film. We have a friendship of 25 years but we’ve also had a long-time professional relationship. With my first film, he saw it when it was essentially finished and liked it so much that he wanted to try and get it out to people. In this case, we’d kind of gone through life in these stages together…we both ended up in long-term relationships and having children, so our friendship had gone in similar directions, which I think kept us close. I showed him a rough cut of the film and that’s the moment where he decided he wanted to get his production company behind the film. Again, he really liked the film and thought it had potential to speak way beyond the personal story and speak universally.
MY OWN MAN IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE TO STREAM ON NETFLIX.