Tina Mascara & Guido Santi on Filming a Monk and Meeting the Dalai Lama

When Nicholas Vreeland went to visit his grandmother, he wouldn't even think of showing up without his shoes being meticulously polished. And his grandmother happened to be none other than the illustrious Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Nicholas fit well with his grandmother's world as he went from childhood to young adulthood. Born to diplomat parents, he lived in Europe, happily playing the globe-trotting bon vivant. He did have a practical side, however. Vreeland took to photography and through familial connections, studied the craft under the tutelage of Irving Penn. 

Later, living in Manhattan's East Village, his home was robbed and all of his cameras were stolen. He interpreted the theft as a sign to trade material wealth for spiritual capital. He studied Buddhism for years before deciding to become a monk, dispatched by the Dalai Lama, who appears in Monk with a Camera as well as Richard Gere, to a refugee camp across the Indian border. In a third-act twist out of a Hollywood screenplay, when the 2008 economic crash wiped out anticipated funding for his monastery, Vreeland returned to photography and world travel, raising the needed revenue by selling his images. FilmLinc spoke with filmmakers Tina Mascara and Guido Santi about meeting Vreeland via a newspaper article, his initial reluctance to be filmed, and meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Monk with a Camera screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a one-week exclusive run.

FilmLinc: How did you come into contact with Nicholas Vreeland and what motivated you to take on this documentary?

Tina Mascara: We started when he was in the midst of his travels.

Guido Santi: We were doing research on a novel about Buddhist monks that we had optioned. We read his story in the Calcutta Telegraph and gave him a call. He first refused to be part of the project, but then in two months called back and invited us to shoot. We learned later that he didn’t want to have a film made about himself, but his teacher heard him talking to us and said, "You should let them make a documentary about you because it can help the cause [of Tibetan Buddhism]." Then Nicky asked the Dalai Lama, who gave him permission to be our subject.

FL: When did you start filming?

GS: Four years ago.

FL: And how long did you shoot him?

GS: Three years.

FL: One of the extraordinary aspects of Nicholas Vreeland's story is that he gave up his privilege and the trappings of being part of the Vreeland family. You show a sequence that looks back to this time when he'd speed through Parisian streets on his way to some glamorous party or event. Did you get a sense of how he felt looking back on his previous life as he told his story?

TM: Looking at the young Nicky, he was honest but he didn’t dwell on it.

GS: Nicky is very matter of fact; he didn’t hide anything from us. That happened, but it’s also the past and he doesn’t dwell on this past.

FL: He studied to be a monk and was awarded the equivalent of a doctorate from his 14-plus years of intense study, so it would appear that he's a very learned scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, but after the Rota Monastery was built he was nevertheless surprised at being appointed Abbot.

TM: Yes, he was very surprised. His name has been on that ballot for similar appointments previously but he was always passed over.

FL: I found his relationship with his teacher/guru Khyongla Rinpoche interesting. It was very poignant when he was sitting in Rinpoche’s living room in New Jersey and he was dressed in his civilian clothes and turned to Nicky and said, “I’m free and Nicky’s not.”

TM: He has such an amazing sense of humor. He goes all over the world as a scholar teaching things that he knows and many monks do not, but he still maintains this lightness.

FL: I found that to be a bit of a parallel with the Dalai Lama. He also had those light moments like when he was introduced to Nicky’s brother and grabs both their noses making a crack about their distinguishing characteristics.

TM: The Dalai Lama is very joyful too and laughs all the time.

FL: You not only had the Dalai Lama in your film, but you also had that other famous Buddhist as well—Richard Gere. How did his participation come about?

TM: We knew Nicky was friends with Richard but we didn’t broach it. Featuring a celebrity sometimes changes the work. But when Nicky was appointed as Abbot, Richard was in attendance and actually walked into our frame and so became part of the movie. We asked if he could have an interview and he graciously agreed.

FL: So how would you describe Nicky's impact on Tibetan Buddhism?

TM: He was appointed as Abbot to the Temple by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He is in a very unique position to bridge East and West. Nicky has a lot of sensitivity to the Tibetans and his number-one priority is bringing the message of Buddhism across to the world.

FL: What has Nicky’s reaction to the film been?

TM: He likes it and is very supportive.

GS: The film is not about him anymore but has some value to other people in terms of spreading the Buddhist message. Nicky doesn’t want popularity. We’ve known him for years and he’s selfless. He’s not even trying to promote his photographs.

TM: He has a [photographic] eye though. He did appreciate the craftsmanship of the film. He had actually studied film when he lived in New York.

FL: Did he ever chime in about how you were shooting or suggest technique?

TM: He really has an interest in cameras. He would speak with Guido about all the technical aspects on set, things that I didn’t even understand.

FL: And Nicky is still an avid photographer?

TM: Nicky always has a camera with him. If he saw you he would take your picture. There are going to be two photo shows happening soon. One opened a few weeks ago at ABC Home and Carpet in New York [888 Broadway] and then one is going to coincide with the opening of the film in Los Angeles on December 12.

FL: You of course spent a considerable time with him on the road as he traveled various cities in Europe, North America, and India. How was it working in India?

TM: We traveled there three times and stayed at the monastery. It was a real experience for us. The monks were so generous always giving us tea and cookies, and the monastery itself was just beautiful. The monks did a great job on the design. We were also there the first time His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to the Temple. It was amazing to see everyone from the small village come out to greet him. We’d like to go back.

GS: We worked with a small crew of five friends that included two fantastic cinematographers, which meant we were very flexible. We didn’t want to create a distraction in the monks' daily lives. Nicky [helped us] and would call us to say, "This would be great in the doc," and we would come. Also when we started the project, I was teaching in Ithaca, New York, at the time and were looking for a project we could partially film in New York. And then this found us.