"Terrence Malick told me: Don't approach editing literally. It's not just a chronological order of facts. Think of it as a piece of music.”
Laura Dunn's documentary The Seer, which just won the SXSW Special Jury Recognition for Visual Design, follows modern Tobacco farmers and their difficulties in the changing agrarian landscape — all framed through the eyes of beloved American novelist and activist Wendell Berry. Not wishing to appear on camera, Berry's poetic voice drives the film through cinematic landscapes of rural Kentucky as it's evolved since the rapid mechanization of farm life.
Dunn, whose collaborators on the film include Terrence Malick and Robert Redford, creates a unique, slow-building rhythm in her impressionistic portrait. No Film School sat down with Dunn at SXSW 2016 to talk about shooting the tobacco harvest, the painterly qualities of the Alexa, and editing in the middle of the night after her children are fast asleep.
"People either know Wendell Berry and he's the most important writer in their lives, or they've never heard of him."
NFS: What drew you to the story? How much did you know about Wendell Berry ahead of time?
Dunn: My first feature, The Unforeseen, features one of Wendell's poems. I was working on that film with Terrence Malick. Malick asked me to look at some other voices who were outside the story who could frame that story. So when I was looking at Wendell's work, I found a poem that really spoke to me. He invited me to come visit him, and I did an audio recording of him reading that poem. What struck me as I toured the movie was how few people knew of Wendell Berry, because I just assumed everyone knew who Wendell Berry was. Like I say in the film, people either know him and he's the most important writer in their lives, or they've never heard of him. There were way more people who had never heard of him, and it surprised me.
I wanted to do something to draw more attention to his work. I had spent years doing big, sprawling issues-based pieces and I didn't want to do that. I wanted something more intimate, something more personal, so I think that's where the portrait instinct came from. I didn't want to just tackle an issue. I wanted to try to see a person.
NFS: As we hear Wendell's poetic voice throughout the film, it's interesting that you cut back and forth from the past and present, shot to shot. Sometimes you're cutting from a black and white photo of a field, to contemporary footage from that same exact viewpoint. Can you tell us about the visual strategy of the film?
Dunn: Thanks for that question. It's nice when you get a question that's fresh and thoughtful. I think that the way I first start is trying to read everything Wendell has written and really immerse myself in his lens and his view. If you read everything that Wendell has written, I think you'll start to see these big themes of place. I wanted the place to be a big character in the film. I wanted to have the place come alive, and Wendell talks a lot about the past and a lot about the history of the place. Sometimes they're the actual same geographic location, but other times it might be this is footage from the '30s in Henry County, Kentucky, and this is footage from today in Henry County, Kentucky. I think interweaving the past and the present in the same place deeply emphasizes that sense of place as a character.
The other element to that was the seasons — going back many times to the same location, sometimes to the exact same spot across all four seasons. Instead of moving through all these different landscapes, you're moving through the same landscape across time and seasons.
NFS: Was it difficult to achieve that interplay?
Dunn: I think it's difficult to achieve it just in the sense that you have to think about it a lot. Sometimes we documentarians run-and-gun, just go and shoot and wing it. This had to be a lot more deliberate. You really had to study the places and think about it a lot and read a lot before you filmed, so it just takes more time.
"The colors in the Alexa are so painterly that it lends itself to an impressionistic portrait."
NFS: So much of the film follows the tobacco harvest — as it is harvested, and then hangs in barns. It's beautiful. How did you decide to focus on shooting that, and what the plan was to capture this footage in this cinematic way?
Dunn: I think it all starts with his texts. If Wendell were to see this film, how would he approve or disapprove? He's a hard person to please. In my sense from talking with him many times and from being in his landscapes a lot and reading his books a lot, it's tobacco, tobacco harvest, tobacco farming — he's written about that a lot. It's integral to the farm economy where he lived and his whole schemata is all about being right where you are, rooted in your own place. That's where that came from. If you drive around in Henry County, Kentucky, everyone has little plots of tobacco.
Tobacco a hard crop to film because it's very subject to the seasons. It's hanging in those barns, but they're only going to bring it down when the weather is exactly right. It can't be too cold or it will crack. It can't be too humid or it will rot, so you're there for seven days filming and you really don't know what's going to happen. Chasing farmers is challenging because you can't really plan very well, because they're completely subject to the weather. For some of the tobacco harvest stuff, we were planning to film something, but then I'd get a call from a farmer saying, "It looks like there's a storm coming in. It's coming earlier than we thought. We're going to have to pull everything in today," so you have to stop your interview and try to get an hour away in 30 minutes before the rains come. There's a complicated process there.
NFS: You had mentioned the run-and-gun style required for that waiting game of the tobacco harvest. Was it a run-and-gun camera setup?
Dunn: [Lee Daniel] and I decided on an Arri Alexa for the first several shoots. Then they came up with the Amira, which is slightly smaller, and we used the Amira for the last shoot, I believe. That's not a run-and-gun camera. It's a lot of setup and it's hard to try to move around so much with such a big camera, but that camera captures natural light better than anything we knew. I didn't want to have to only be shooting at magic hour. We needed to shoot in the heat of day sometimes. That camera really seems to capture the bright light in the sun... This footage is like a painting to me. The colors in the Alexa are so painterly that it lends itself to an impressionistic portrait.
NFS: There was an interesting line that Wendell says in the film, something like, "A farmer deals with the same structural problems as a novelist." As a documentarian, do you feel that process is similar, or different?
Dunn: I don't think I'm a novelist in that sense, because I don't have all the characters in my mind. Even a farmer, at the beginning of the season, they're plotting out what's our crops, how are we going to lay it out, where are we going to plant things that will work best. I think in some ways both of those crafts have more thought on the front end than the way I approach film. In my stuff, there's a whole lot of thought but not a whole lot of planning. I want to be changed and transformed by the material.
Maybe a farmer is kind of in between, because I think of the novelist as really having the roadmap and going out and realizing it. The novelist is sitting in his room with a typewriter. It's very different than a farmer who's having to respond to the natural world and the seasons and whatever pests or bugs.... There's an imperfection there and less control, so maybe in that sense I'm a little bit more like a farmer, because there are so many elements that I don't want to control. I'm more choosing. The farmer doesn't have a choice. I'm literally choosing to not control those things, and it's a bit of an experiment. You don't quite know how it will unfold. I like that. I like the messiness of that.
NFS: Was there a certain point in the process where you're like, "Okay, this is happening, I'm making my movie"?
Dunn: There are so many stages along the way when you're not really sure if it's going to work or not. I think there's maybe some milestones along the way. I think one of the milestones was actually in the discovery of all of those archival photographs, because again, I set out to make a portrait of a man who doesn't want to be on camera. That's a challenge. That's a constraint. It didn't really phase me all that much. I thought it interesting, perhaps not all that marketable, but quite interesting artistically.
How could you do something that in a way that challenges the medium itself? Whether it would work or not was an unknown, but when I did find all those photographs that were taken by James Baker Hall that were laced throughout the film, those black-and-white photos, they're real intimate. They're beautiful. They're of Wendell and his family and his place over many, many years. A lot of those were on slide negatives and had never been seen before.
"I didn't want to just tackle an issue. I wanted to try to see a person."
We got to know his widow. She introduced us to his archivist, and she trusted us with [the negatives]. We did all the scanning and all the archiving. There was thousands of images. There's enough visual information in all these pieces that you can create a composite of Wendell. You can see his face without having to put the camera on him. I think that was when I knew, "Oh, okay, we have a film. We can make a film." Who knows if anyone will like it, but I can make it.
Practically, in terms of funding and those resources, it's really hard for documentarians.... Even with Redford and Malick on board, you've got to find the funding. Then you put grants together. We got grants from Sundance and IDA. We got some great grants, but still you're piecing it together as you go.
NFS: What guided you through that process of choosing what to eventually put in the film?
Dunn: I would say that's a hard thing to summarize, because I don't have an assistant editor and I do it all pretty much in the middle of the night by myself. There's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours mulling over something. I would say that I think my most influential teacher in editing has been Malick, because he'll watch cuts and he'll give me feedback. He's been doing that off and on since my first feature nine years ago. It's really a tremendous privilege. I respect his work so much that when he gives me feedback, I just take it very seriously. He told me early on and has told me this several times: don't approach editing literally. It's not just a chronological order of facts. Think of it as a piece of music. Find the scenes you like, find the people you like, and just start there.
I'm also a social justice activist, so I think there's that thread of, what are the issues? What are the stories that are most important to the Berry family? How can I pay respect to that? That requires more of a chronological, analytical approach to how we are going to break down everything. Even watching the film last night with an audience, I could have made the whole thing feel like a poem, but there were certain issues that I knew that were important to Wendell that I had to get across. This arc of industrial agricultural and how it's affecting the landscapes... I just couldn't make a film about Wendell with conscience without really clearly articulating that argument.
NFS: I'd love to get your advice for both first-time and sophomore filmmakers. This is not your first feature, and so many filmmakers have trouble making a second. How did you do it?
Dunn: I think a lot of people want to make films. I've been doing this for almost 20 years now. I've seen the field grow and lots more people wanting to make films because the technology is so accessible, but I think you really have to love it. You have to really know you love it and that you have something you want to say. Even more, you have to love the process of it. I've told other filmmakers that, you have to love the work, because you're not going to make a lot of money. Don't just do it because it's what someone else is doing and it looks like an interesting thing to do, because there's probably a lot other easier and better ways to make a living. That would be my advice.
I think another piece of advice would just be to start. I've talked to a lot of people who say, "I want to make a film. I have this idea." There are so many cameras now. It's hard to even get into film school unless you can show someone that you have that kind of proactive approach. You can make a film with your iPhone now. You really can. I think that a lot of times you can put up a whole lot of blocks to starting. Just start. Start making it. That's the best way to raise money for your film. I raised money for my film because we got together a little tiny bit of money. We went to Kentucky with a super-small, not-so-great camera and a teeny tiny crew and stayed at friends' houses. We shot and we cut together a three-minute demo of that material, and that's how I got my first round of money. Then how I got my second round of money was we shot, and then I cut a 22-minute reel. Once you start showing people the work, that's the best way to start raising the money.
I think it is hard to make your second feature, but probably more out of just your own nerves, because it's that everyone is expecting you to fail your second time around. I think the benefit of it is that you know you're more mature. I don't come out all insecure and anxious, because I know some people will love it and some people will hate it. I'll get good reviews. I'll get not-so-good reviews. Some distributor might want it. They might not. That's okay. I think you're less vulnerable. You're less insecure. It's part of aging, right? You know who you are and what you want a little bit more. I think that's empowering that second time around as a filmmaker.
Your life becomes more complicated. I made my first feature, I had one child. Now I have six, so you really have to love the work. I remember saying that to friends, that if I'm editing in the middle of the night with a newborn and all this other chaos in my life but I still like the work, I'm doing what I should do.