'Peter and the Farm': Tony Stone on Why the Audience Should Be Your Co-Writer
You've never met a man quite like Peter.
What was once Peter Dunning's youthful reverie is now his personal prison. Sitting on 187 idyllic acres in Vermont, Mile Hill Farm is the organic farmer's pride, joy, and ruination. After 38 harvests, he has nothing to show for his life but three ex-wives, four estranged children, and the ghosts of hopes and dreams.
"I care more about the farm than me," says Dunning, but he doesn't have to say it; it's written all over him. Once an aspiring poet and artist, the sexagenarian is now a depressive alcoholic who has pushed away everyone he loves—except for a crew of filmmakers, helmed by Tony Stone, who become his only friends.
Peter and the Farm trains an unflinching eye on the organic farmer as he lords over his solipsistic domain, at once defeated and raging with an inner fire that keeps him bound to the eternal return of the farm. He milks cows and guts sheep whilst recounting his memories in beat poetry. He frequently speaks of his own death (most often suicide) in a manner so cavalier that it begs intervention; while leading the film crew down to the basement, he says he will shoot himself, fall down the stairs, and smash his head. Of course, he hopes they will find his body before the potatoes go bad.
"When you're making a movie, it's an excuse to do something out of the ordinary."
Though the film is a character portrait of the self-destructive and irascible Dunning, it ripples with a transcendence larger than the man himself. "I've spread and lost hope over every acre," says Dunning. "This farm becomes me. I’ve become the farm. There's not a part of this farm that has not been scattered with my sweat, my piss, my blood, my spit, my tears, fingernails, skin, hair."
No Film School caught up with Stone following the film's premiere to discuss his emotional connection to (and responsibility for) his unstable subject, making experiential cinema, and more.
No Film School: You've known Peter Dunning since you were a kid?
Tony Stone: Yes, I have known Peter since I was nine. My parents were friends with him but only through the [local farmer's] market. My parents never went to the farm. Going to the farm for the first time, I was in awe of it. Seeing nature, feeling as if it was not going to be around much longer. That's where the urgency kicked in to get up immediately and do this. Peter was super charismatic. He was coming off of a year-and-a-half of truly being landlocked on the farm after his second DUI. He was in need of company. So he was opening up to us.
When you're making a movie, it's an excuse to do something out of the ordinary. Making Peter and the Farm was that, but we also felt like there was personally so much to learn from being with Peter, even with all the darker elements that might arise from being with somebody who's that severe of an alcoholic.
"We knew from the beginning the experience with Peter would teach us something about life."
NFS: You mentioned Peter opened up to you because he wanted company, but I imagine gaining his trust was a bit of an uphill battle.
Stone: It took time. For a few days, there wasn't that much there. Peter was stilted; it was a little not totally him, almost another form of himself. There was a bit of a guard that took a while to break through. Peter would sometimes question what we were up to and maybe after too many ciders be a little frustrated with us. He would say things like, "I don't know what you're up to, but I get it." Other times he would say, "I don't know what the fuck this film is about." He'd have a freak out after something not-so-glamorous happened. But I think Peter knew that we were approaching each other with a mutual respect. Being there, we went through dark times with him. He could see the compassion.
Luckily, Peter is so outside of the media world that he had no reference for the idea of reality TV and the exposé line of a lot of nonfiction work. That allowed him to be open. We shot very close to him all the time. I don't think he necessarily was aware of the mechanics of it.
NFS: Even if he isn't privy to the reality TV phenomenon, he is very aware of narrative. He's a natural storyteller. It's clear that he sees the camera as a mirror reflecting his life back to him.
Stone: Absolutely. That's where sometimes I feel like Peter is five steps ahead of us. He knew the arc that the film needed to make. He thought about this late at night. He had his own ideas, the highs and lows.
At one point towards the end of shooting, there was a skinny-dipping scene that ended up being cut out. We had been talking a moment—it's the winter —and he just said, "Sure, I'll jump in there for you. Why the fuck not? I've given it my all already." Peter was willing. He knew the film needed a rhythm and he knew his life. He wasn't going to shy away and hide things; otherwise, it wouldn't be an honest portrayal. There was an interesting self-awareness from up above looking down at the whole trajectory that I sometimes can't believe.
NFS: Did you harbor a sense of personal responsibility for representing his story?
Stone: The last thing I wanted to do was do something that was short-sighted. I think Peter and the Farm is about Peter, but it's also about us all. We knew from the beginning the experience with Peter would teach us something about life. We wanted to keep it big picture and not go off into the gutter—what he's gone through and his individual story. We wanted it to be a lesson for future farmers, too. There are huge thematic elements that are bigger than the farm, bigger than Peter. It was difficult balancing out: summarizing his life, but also trying to deal with the humanity of it all.
"You want the audience to be your co-writer."
NFS: You were very meticulous about documenting Peter's process. You wanted to be there for everything. Since you have a background in narrative and this is your first doc, were you worried about finding the narrative structure?
Stone: This was my first documentary. I mostly make narrative. Yeah, this was the first time jumping into that world, and it was very different but also very similar. The way I approach narrative cinema is a lot of documentation of process. In a way, there are more similarities than differences between narrative and documentary. It depends on how you approach the doc. If you approach it as a film—visual storytelling—the worlds aren't too different.
NFS: I would categorize this film as experiential cinema. Through vérité, you transport us to a place. It's a tactile experience. Would you definite it as experiential cinema?
Stone: That's a good question. It's almost hard to define because it's...
NFS: It's visceral.
Stone: It's visceral. So much of it is visual information for the audience to pull apart. I think a key thing in experiential cinema is what's missing from TV: audience participation. If you're telling a story visually, the audience is allowed to process it.
Obviously, Peter's also a very wordy person in the film. But we allowed the visuals to explain where he's at—to explain the conundrum he's facing and the beauty and the torture of trying to hold on to his greatest work, the farm. [Experiential cinema] is allowing the mind to be an active participant in processing the visual story. You want the audience to be your co-writer. That's why there are pieces of the story with Peter that you don't know about, but there's enough: you understand that his wife left and the kids don't speak to him in these little scenes, but you don't go into specifics. You might see it in a lonely shot with him and the dog afterwards or before that story, it's allowing for you to get the essence of the issue.
"You have no idea how to document it at the beginning, but you sure do the next time you go back, and the next time you go back."
So many docs are audio informative. You can listen to a doc without looking at the visuals and it would be the same story. I don't think you could do that in this narrative with Peter. Obviously, there's the duality of him versus place. It was a huge commitment of understanding location where he was at. Being there takes work. You do the cycles over again. You spend 20 straight days with him and you get to this place, you understand how the farm looks at a certain moment. We committed to the physicality of it.
You have no idea how to document it at the beginning, but you sure do the next time you go back, and the next time you go back. You see things and there's a sound you want to make sure you got. You want to be immersive so you can understand the tactile.
NFS: How long was the entire process?
Stone: We started election day four years ago. Four years. The filmmaking was probably more like three with the editing. That's where you need time; it's super important not to rush it and not try to put an end cap on what the narrative should be. We wanted to keep it open, since we had the idea of it being a cycle from the beginning—wanting to see what unfolded, to see Peter at these different times. It's almost this time lapse moment of Peter up on this difficult hilltop farm.
How different it is living in that world where the physicality of the earth affects your behavior and state of mind. It can be totally terrifying to be left alone in winter months with idle hands. At the same time, in the summer, it can be totally euphoric, where you're in this beautiful landscape and your life is based on the weather of the day.
NFS: What was the process like over the course of three years? Would you come back to the farm intermittently?
Stone: It was in flux, as all of our friends went through our own changes and difficulties. We went back for extended weekends through that winter scene. We took a little break after that because it was a pretty serious time with Peter, where he was quite close to being suicidal. Then the experience was more like checking in with a friend. Where is he at this moment? "Let's go see Peter, let's have a reason to go see Peter." I think Peter sometimes thought maybe we would come visit even if the film was over. But it was a waste if we weren't up there documenting. But we became so close to Peter that it was partly checking in and seeing where he's at and helping him. Peter was still very open to the camera, for the most part, coming back out and documenting his state of mind.
NFS: Were you involved in the editing process or did you hand all of the footage over to the editors?
Stone: Pretty involved. It's a balance. We had to find an editor who had a like-minded feeling about Peter—that he was pretty amazing and extremely intelligent. Maxwell [Paparella] and I connected in the sense that our subject was more important than anything else. There was a lot to sift through. It was like editing somebody's written word.
"Filming this movie was being truly in the shit."
NFS: What were some of the specific challenges that you and your crew faced making this film, when you look back on it?
Stone: It was definitely an emotional process to get through. We were trying to not burn out, in a sense. Even if Peter was in a bad mood or too intoxicated, telling us off, we knew that it wasn't something you take personally. You move on. It's all part of the subject. Tomorrow would be a new day. We tried to be objective in that we're entering his world and we don't want to judge. It's different than if you're hanging out with your friend and your friend is [exhibiting] bad behavior.
Life is such a process. Farming is such a process. Filming this movie was being truly in the shit. It's an incredible life lesson. The more we are in the earth and in the natural world, the better it is for our soul. It was great figuring out how to unplug and use Peter as inspiration for staying with the printed word, but at the same time not letting perfection be this driving force that pushes people away.
It's important to let things unfold and not try to control them when you're making a film. Obviously, we had an amazing subject, but that was a very interesting change after making narrative. It's anti-control: having faith in the outcome as long as you had a prepared idea of how to approach it.
NFS: Can you think of some specific times when you had the impulse to control the outcome, but didn't?
Stone: It was more trying to make sure that we were having a conversation with him, never asking any specific questions. That's how the information would come out. If we asked a question about something that happened in his life you wouldn't get the story. It was never on your time, it was on Peter's time, which made sense and was far more interesting. There was so much more we wanted to investigate. Going through these chores over and over again, a new memory or a new story [would emerge]. We let him lead and didn't pry too much. In was crucial that our interference was minimal.
Obviously, we [interfere] in the winter a little bit into his life and try to help him. We suggest that he go to rehab because he truly was in such a dark state, we didn't think he was going to survive. There was moments where we did cross over, but it wasn't as if there was any regret. Four people documenting one person on the farm—there would be no way to be a fly on the wall. That would be, I think, a lie. Us being there affects the trajectory of what was happening with Peter so there are these small moments that overlap.
We wanted to put the audience there, to document the farm cinematically and use techniques so that you were immersed in Peter's world. We wanted to create a true experience just like you would approach narrative filmmaking. I hope [Peter and the Farm] transported you to his little farm.