“How Do You Measure a Year?” is a familiar lyric from a song in the Broadway show “Rent”; it’s also the title of a fascinating and experimental short documentary from Jay Rosenblatt (“When We Were Bullies”). Each year on his daughter Ella’s birthday, Rosenblatt filmed himself asking her a similar series of questions, including:
“How would you say we get along?”
“What are your hopes for the future?”
The end result is a thirty-minute travelogue through two decades as Ella evolves from distracted toddler to young woman about to head off into the world. (Father and daughter hug shortly before the end credits.)
Rosenblatt nabbed his second Oscar nomination for “How Do You Measure a Year?”, which was picked up by HBO and is now available on MAX. He spoke with us via telephone to discuss the documentary short form, how his daughter/subject is doing after the film ends and, yes, the “Up” series. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
When you first started filming Ella as a toddler, did you have any inclination this project would continue for as long as it did?
That’s a good question. It’s a long time ago, over 20 years. I did plan to set up [the camera] each year and talk to her. But I didn’t know it would end up being a film until I looked at all the footage. And I didn’t look at all the footage until covid.
So at the very least I knew it would be an archive for her to have. But I always hoped it could be more than that because I made four films with her before this one. So we have like a little bit of a history of doing projects together.
I noticed that you asked her “How is our relationship?” every year. Why that specific question?
Well, this is always going to be a film about a girl growing up, but it was also a father-and-daughter story. And in a way the filming on her birthday provided this opportunity just to check in with her about how we’re doing.
It’s hard to do that when you’re a parent. You think about that sometimes, but this [experience] kind of ritualized it [and] made it easier. It was just one of the questions. It wasn’t the main question, but it is one I would ask each year just to see what she said. She had some interesting responses to that. And pretty honest [responses] too. She’d roll her eyes or she’d say “We fight a lot.” At [another] point she says, “I feel pretty good about it.”
When you filmed her, was it the same room and same couch each year?
It is the same house. We have not moved. And it was the same couch for the first 14 or 15 years, and then my wife really wanted a different coach. So we changed couches but I kept [Ella] in the same exact spot. Some people actually did notice that, and sometimes it goes unnoticed.
If it were completely up to me, we would have kept the couch until she was 18.
Happy wife, happy life?
Has Ella seen “How Do You Measure a Year?” If so, what are her thoughts on watching herself grow up on camera in the space of a half-hour?
She really loves the film. Before I finished it I showed her a rough cut and a fine cut to get her approval and consent again—because she was a little kid through most of it. But that said, I don’t think she is dying to see it with too many audiences. She kind of did that twice and that was enough [because of] little embarrassing [onscreen] moments. I think she is good with the project but maybe a little uncomfortable watching it with an audience.
Surely you are familiar with the “Up” series?
I am. I knew Michael [Apted] when he was alive.
Tell me about that.
We were [both] on the documentary branch in the Academy. For years he was one of the governors of the documentary branch and I was on the executive committee. So we’d see each other once or twice a year. And I saw him at some festivals. Very nice guy.
Did you ever talk to him about what you were working on, considering the spiritual similarity to his “Up” series?
I never knew it would actually be a film until I edited it, so, no, I never talked to him about doing that.
I’m thinking back to your previous short doc, “When We Were Bullies.” What was so great about that film was that it reminds us, uncomfortably, of the nuances involved in bullying.
Thank you, Eric. I would add that some of us, including me, were on both sides. It wasn’t always one-way.
What was the morning of January 24th like when the Oscar nominations were announced?
It really was [surreal]. I don’t know if you were aware, but “Bullies” was also nominated.
So I won’t say that I was used to it, because that would be really obnoxious, but I got through it. I kind of knew what to expect if it did happen, and I was thrilled. Really thrilled.
Because when you get nominated, it’s the documentary branch that votes, so just to be honored by my peers was so great—twice.
Ken Burns once told me it’s difficult to get documentary funding, and he’s Ken Burns! What is your experience of the financial aspect at your level of filmmaking, Jay?
I mean I have a day job. The kinds of films I make, short documentaries, you can’t really make a living doing that, so that tells you everything. I think there are more opportunities and less opportunities. I know that sounds contradictory, but there’s more outlets and more interest from the public—but there’s so many people chasing the same funding sources, so it’s very competitive and it’s very hard to find distribution.
I feel really lucky that HBO came on board. They weren’t really a backer until the film was nominated, but they’ve been amazing since. The film would have been seen by far, far fewer people had they not come onboard.
How Ella is doing now? Is she off at school?
I’ll just say that she’s doing great. She just graduated college and she’s in that place of trying to figure out what she’s going to do next. It’s a hard time, if you remember, when you get out of college.
What film would you like to make next?
I haven’t really talked about it but I think it’s going to have something to do with “twinless” twins, identical twins that have lost their twins. And my wife is one of those people, so I’ve seen it firsthand.
It’s just in the initial idea phase, but it’s another personal kind of story.
“How Do You Measure a Year?” is available on MAX