For six months, two filmmakers followed three Blackfeet youth with a Sony EX3, capturing some of the most important moments in their lives, and some of the most cinematic vérité footage you’ve ever seen.
Anna and Nicolas Hudak sat down with No Film School to talk about the visual and philosophical strategies of embedding themselves in the lives of Andrea Running Wolf, Edward Tailfeathers, and Douglas Fitzgerald in their feature documentary Where God Likes to Be.
As a kid, Nicolas grew up next to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana but was always told to keep his distance because it was “a dangerous place.” As an adult, he found himself wanting a stronger connection to his childhood neighbors. In 2003, when he returned to show his home to his wife and filmmaking partner Anna Hudak, a severe snowstorm stranded them on the reservation. They were inspired by who the people they met within a single evening and returned with cameras to make a documentary in 2009.
NFS: What did it take to win the trust of the Blackfeet and of the characters to make this film?
Nicolas: I think generally the Blackfeet have had so many sour experiences with media coming onto the reservation, taking some sort of “hard luck, poor Indian, sad story” away and never coming back.
Anna: We talked to many people, and eventually got access to community leaders who were open to listening to our ideas. They were willing to help us with get access — but it was important to them that the Blackfeet would benefit from this film in the sense that they would have access to the information we were creating.
NFS: How did you decide on the three main characters?
Nicolas: Doug was the first protagonist we met with. It was love at first sight. Then we met Andi, and she was unsure at first. We had to reassure her on a number of separate occasions before we started filming together. Eddie was open to the idea of the film from the beginning and we spent a bunch of time hanging out with him and his band in a garage in the middle of nowhere. The world’s most epochal garage band.
Anna: I always loved their name: "Nothing Survives."
We stayed in a small trailer on the reservation for six months and tried to meet up with each of the three people in the film as much as possible without appearing to be creepy stalkers.
NFS: Who shot the film? How embedded were you in the characters' day-to-day lives? How did you negotiate your presence during these shoots?
Nicolas: I shot it — out of necessity. We stayed in a small trailer on the reservation for six months and tried to meet up with each of the three people in the film as much as possible without appearing to be creepy stalkers. A good day was when we had been shooting all day long and had to back up footage in the midday to clear cards. A crummy day was when no one would call us back and we would spend the day throwing rocks at the train tracks.
Anna: Andi was the only one of the protagonists who had a very clear storyline. She was about to graduate from high school when we met her and was moving away from the reservation to go to college. She was uncomfortable at first; the camera obviously got a lot of attention from her peers. I feel that because we filmed together for such a long time our protagonists simply got used to having us around and trusted us and our intentions with this film.
I like when films unfold without too much agenda. The interview method, for better or worse, was an exercise in intuitive filmmaking.
NFS: Sometimes we sit down with Andi, Eddie, and Doug, but sometimes they are speaking casually, such as while riding horses. What was the philosophy about talking to the characters in the film?
Nicolas: I like when films unfold without too much agenda. I also like when things feel natural and not overly constructed or staged. The interview method, for better or worse, was an exercise in intuitive filmmaking. We didn’t really have a storyline or particular event to follow. I wanted to get to know the people and had faith that we would have small realizations along the way. I also really like when an intimate reflection comes out of a moment while someone is tending to a cow or packing bags; that just feels like real life to me. We had one camera and we cut around.
Anna: It was very much an experiment. I had worked a lot for daily news media and wanted to try a completely different approach. We had all the time in the world and our story was wide open. We indulged in this absolute freedom — and paid for it in the edit.
"We didn’t have an Internet connection in our trailer, nor did we have smartphones during the filming, so we spent a lot of time just watching the horizon change color."
NFS: There are lots of beautiful panoramas of the horizon in the film. What was your visual strategy?
Nicolas: We didn’t have an Internet connection in our trailer, nor did we have smartphones during the filming, so we spent a lot of time just watching the horizon change color. I would put the camera on the tripod at the widest lens we had, and just stand there. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful light. I had a Sony EX3 with a zoom lens that was something like a 24mm to 120mm and I would try to move it as much as possible to provide options in the edit. It took some getting used to for Andi, Doug, and Eddie too, me asking them questions while operating the camera and looking down the viewfinder. I suppose this was also a contributing factor to the interview style. Sometimes I just wanted to put the camera down and look them in the eye.
NFS: What was your creative decision-making process in this six months of shooting? What motivated you to shoot handheld at times and on tripod at others?
Nicolas: Generally, my approach to shooting is deep thinking beforehand then spontaneous inspiration and intuition while in the act. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it’s a disaster. My hope is that if I just keep up this technique I will actually get good at it — intuition will be the guiding light and the disasters will be kept to a minimum. Kind of like muscle memory in sports. You can train and train but when you are dropping in on the biggest wave of your life it’s best if there is not too much thinking going on.
NFS: You must have had a lot of footage. How did you whittle it down in the editing process?
Nicolas: The edit took us a lifetime. I am not sure how many hundred hours of footage we shot. We cut for a year and just kept hitting a wall.
Anna: Neither of us had ever made anything longer than 45 minutes and our ambition was to make something 90 minutes long (or longer). After the first year of working on figuring out the storyline, we had to abandon the film and took a paid commission for another documentary feature. When we returned to Where God Likes to Be we started to see the light. We hit bottom many times in the edit. In our darkest hour, right as we were about to give up hope, IFP hauled us aboard, invited us to their documentary labs and saved the film’s life. We will be forever grateful.
"We had all the time in the world and our story was wide open. We indulged in this absolute freedom – and paid for it in the edit."
NFS: The film is very much centered around young people on the Blackfeet reservation. How have the youth responded to the film?
Anna: We had a beautiful world premiere at the Big Sky Doc Fest in Missoula with 1000+ people in the audience. A young Blackfeet woman came up to me when we got off the stage after the Q+A. She gave me a long hug and burst into tears, thanking us for making the film. We were obviously very nervous to share the film with the Blackfeet and I was very moved by her emotional response. One of the elders who was a gateway into the community for us and the first person to help us in the making of Where God Likes to Be sent me a message recently saying: “High schoolers are grabbed by the courage of all three young Blackfeet to be themselves. The film will have a long-lasting positive impact.” Could there be anything more rewarding than that?