Why a Documentary Recreated a Town's Dark Past by Casting its Current Residents

Restaging an illegal deportation, Robert Greene's 'Bisbee '17' proves equally self-reflexive and therapeutic for its protagonists.

Robert Greene has developed a notable reputation as a documentary filmmaker who enjoys honoring the nonfiction form almost as much as he does studying and restructuring its most common thematic devices. Whether in his two most recent films, Actress and Kate Plays Christine, or in his latest, Bisbee '17, a western epic with an eye turned to the horrors of the past, Greene takes a real-life event and makes no qualms about appreciating its theatricality. All nonfiction is truthful, and yet all cinema represents a slice of artificiality. Where those two merge is where many of Greene's greatest filmic moments are birthed. 

Unfolding over six chapters, Bisbee '17 studies the events leading up to the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, an event where copper miners in this small Arizona town went on strike and, as a result, were harassed, beaten, and loaded up on train cars and forcefully removed and banished from the area. A completely illegal act, the miners were seen as the enemies, the greedy "other," and to this day, the vigilante deportation is seen as one of Bisbee's darkest days.

"The first thing I thought of was, 'hey, let's collaborate with the locals to restage this 1917 deportation.' But I had no idea what that meant."

As the event's 100th anniversary nears, Greene proposes a restaging of the deportation as acted out by its current residents, many of whom have familial ties to the original event. Complete with breathtaking cinematography that captures the vastness of the mountains and the deepness of the mines, what follows is a film less about history repeating itself than one about history coming to terms with itself. 

As the doc screens at the True/False Film Festival, a midwest nonfiction mecca, this weekend, we're posting our chat with Greene conducted the day after the film's Sundance world premiere. Below, Greene discusses experimenting with different genres, the phoniness of an on-camera interview, and the recreating of historic events on the actual sites where they once took place.

Robert Greene's 'Bisbee '17.'

No Film School: In your intro to the world premiere screening, you noted that Bisbee’ 17 was a film you had been trying to make for 15 years. And yet, the film perfectly builds to a recreation of the deportation on the 100th anniversary of the event, July 12th, 2017. Was your original idea for the film somewhat different?

Robert Greene: The funny thing is that the first thing I thought of was, "hey, let's collaborate with the locals to restage this 1917 deportation." But I had no idea what that meant. Around this same time, I remember reading this piece about a movie that Travis Wilkerson was supposedly making. I think it was right after his An Injury To One and he was planning to make something where he was working with the townspeople, the state, etc. I was like, "We should do that, but for the deportation." But this was like five or six years before I had ever made a feature film, and so I had no idea [how to get it off the ground]. I knew that it would require money, and I had no idea if I could ever do it.

At the time, I didn't even know if I would be able to make feature films. And now I've been working with 4th Row Films for 15 years, and we do things like, "give me three scripted film/series ideas," and I would say, "it's Northern Exposure, but set in Bisbee, Arizona." I just always wanted to make this film, to tell the story of this town. I like the contradictions of it being such a dramatic place—the landscape is scarred with drama—mixed in with the sort of quirky, coast-y, hippie outsider kind of thing going on. And I hate hippies!

It's not normally a thing that I would be drawn to, but in this case, there's something desperate and beautiful about the desert, and Bisbee's the best part of it. I was always drawn to it.

NFS: In your intro, you mentioned that there are all of these ghost stories circulating around the town…

Greene: Well, they make money. Ghost stories are interesting. When you mine that many minerals out of the Earth—truly, there's this mineral energy floating in the air—combined with the way that everything has remained [a constant in Bisbee], with the post office still remaining from over 120 years ago, you get this certain feeling within the town. It's a real, strange feeling. It's undeniable and you can't oversell it; everyone feels it, this [energy].

On the other hand, ghost stories are money-making things because when, like Bisbee, a town has no economy, it has very little economy. People come into town and they want to make money off of doing ghost tours and telling ghost stories. So to me, it's a combination of a real thing—most likely this electromagnetic, physical thing that's in the air—and this phony...

NFS: Tourism.

Greene: Well tourism, but tourism as performance. Which of course, I'm obsessed with. Tourism has this performance/identity thing of who we are and what we are.

"I'm not saying you need to be a director to be a sharp collaborator, but the idea of a collective voice was one of the film's founding ideas."

NFS: The film is so visually rich and complex, and I imagine choosing your DP for the project was a monumental task. This is the first film of yours to be shot by DP Jarred Alterman. What kind of conversations about collaboration did you have before starting production?

Greene: Well, Jarred was the DP for the Ross BrothersContemporary Color and I was one of the camera people. Contemporary Color was actually a great launching point for us, because the way in which the Ross Brothers (who ended up shooting some of my film too) were able to collaborate and bring in other filmmakers' voices to the project in this big kaleidoscopic way was just super inspiring. I knew we needed to do that for Bisbee.

Jarred's a director, Bill and Turner Ross are directors, Doug Tirola, my producer, is a director...I'm not saying you need to be a director to be a sharp collaborator (obviously Susan Bedusa and Bennett Elliott, my producers, are strong collaborators, as is everybody else we had on the crew), but the idea of a collective voice was one of the film's founding ideas. Jarred's not just making beautiful images. He's helping write the picture, really.

NFS: Was he your first choice for DP?

Greene: Yeah, he was my first choice. Basically, I wanted Jarred to shoot the film from the beginning. However, I offered it to Sean Price Williams because we've worked together on everything prior. Sean said "yes," but then the timing didn't work out. I love Sean to death, but...I was relieved. Jarred's the guy that needed to shoot this movie. It was more that I wanted to do things with the image that I didn't know how to do, and Sean and I are [too] in sync. Yes, Sean does things I don't know how to do, of course, but we're just too in sync, and we fight to get to whatever we're going to get to. With Jared, I wanted a strong voice that was just like, "This is another way to look at this." And in order to create that western look and that musical look, I felt Jared could raise the game up a little bit.

Robert Greene's 'Bisbee '17.'

NFS: Throughout the film, each local/cast member introduces themselves by looking directly at the camera and introducing themselves sincerely, i.e. “Hi, I’m X and I’ve been in Bisbee for X years.” It feels intentionally stilted, a distancing effect that provokes laughter and reflection, and your camera begins filming about five seconds before the character speaks. You capture them getting ready to make their cue and not flub their lines, and then they speak. How did you come to choose that way of character introduction?

Greene: To me, the idea that an interview is somehow real is so, well, it's like one of the founding myths of documentary, right? "Oh, it's a documentary, it's telling me the truth because there are interviews!" In some ways, interviews are the most staged, constructed, performative part of a documentary. So I love that as a thing, and the idea here was to show the people of Bisbee on stages. The way I talk about the people from Bisbee is they imagine themselves to be, well, people in Bisbee.

That little moment of "the portrait/beginning of an interview" that you describe is really them claiming their stage; i.e. now you will watch them "perform" an answer, and I think that sets up the way you look at the performances throughout the film. There's not this contrast between "now it's real" and "now it's recreated." We're always intermingling those two things. There's also something ghostly about watching someone before they speak.

NFS: The viewer isn’t sure if the interviewees are aware that you’ve begun filming.

Greene: Exactly. There's an energy to it, an almost uncomfortable energy, especially in the beginning of the movie with that 10-second pause before the guy speaks. I feel like that's the space where ghosts exist, in that momentary space before someone begins with, "Hi, my name is....” One of the phrases in the movie is, "This is alternate history, alternate dream history." To me, documentaries are like alternate dream histories themselves, and we're sort of just pointing out the architecture, in a way, by doing it that way.

NFS: I’m remembering the one man who’s introduced walking across the historic Warren Ballpark in the evening. The camera is pulled back quite a bit as we observe the full width of the field, and then the man begins to speak. It reminded me of the trailers Alfred Hitchcock made for his films, where he’d speak directly to the camera and give the viewer a tour of his film’s locations. How did you work to contextualize these introductions? 

Greene: For me, every scene moves from one storytelling mode to another, and while we're playing with all kinds of genre throughout the film (like western and musicals and Telenovela), the documentary travelogue genre is also in there. The "let's-go-to-the-town and learn about the town!" genre [as shown in that example) is incorporated, and I just loved the idea of that man telling the story about the ballpark, and that we could be just constantly shifting between genres. That's thanks to Jarred's work and what I was able to do in the edit. We smoothed over that and it became this cohesive thing where all of the pieces fit together.

"I wanted to do something wherein over a single shot, you would see the past and the present become one thing."

NFS: There’s a beautiful moment where we follow Fernando from behind as he walks through the town of Bisbee and ends up entering the local theater from the back, eventually winding up on stage. It’s an uninterrupted, beautifully lit shot, as if the man has literally crossed from the present into the past. How did you craft that sequence? 

Greene: I wanted to do something wherein over a single shot, you would see the past and the present become one thing. The film really isn't valuable at all if you don't think of it as happening in 2017 rather than 1917. And that's easy to say, because the reenactments are certainly not escapist reenactments that take you into the past [laughs].

That sequence, the walk, is a three-minute shot: Fernando leaves the building where he works, changing clothes as he's walking, and performs a completely staged action (which we told him to do). He's dropping his clothes, he walks into this real estate office (that happens to be in front of a theater that actually was opened in 1917) and enters an abandoned theater where he walks onstage and announces himself. To me, that was a little bit like the movie in three minutes and it really announces Fernando as the movie's emotional center.

The 'Bisbee '17' crew taking in a shot on set in Bisbee, Arizona.

NFS: The score is incredible, and I’m reminded of the “miner walkout” scene, where they ascend out of the mine, leave their items behind, and walk away from the camera. There’s this strong booming effect on the soundtrack that’s intensely horrifying,

Greene: They're strings apparently! I don't how Keegan did that.

NFS: I was wondering how you and composer Keegan Dewitt came up with that loud, jump-effect of musical composition.

Greene: Keegan and I started working together on Listen Up Philip, Alex Ross Perry's film, and we've developed this incredible method where I'm editing his music, he's giving me new material, and we go back and forth organically. And speaking of Alex's films, Keegan and I also worked together on Queen of Earth and Golden Exits, and then he scored my movie, Kate Plays Christine, and so this is actually our fifth collaboration.

For Bisbee, I was like, "This is what I want to go in the direction of," and he's like "Well, this is my favorite kind of music. SO why don't we work with a couple of these tracks?" And one of those was that thump sound, which was reminiscent of There Will Be Blood, but somehow even more visceral. My assistant editor, Kellan Marvin, and I laid that thump sound in for the walk-out sequence, and we almost started crying. It was like, "Holy shit, that totally works." From that point on, we knew ... I mean we didn't want to overuse it, but we wanted to use it strategically.

Keegan created this music and it's actually a lot of different genres of music that he created that we were able to work in there. There's piano stuff, there's really epic western-sounding stuff, there's really ghostly, creepy sound effect-y kind of stuff, etc. Keegan and I trust each other innately, which is really nice. It's a great collaboration.

"The result was that the images felt really big, really produced, and we just made them with nine people standing in the mines and trying stuff with a bunch of non-actors."

NFS: Since you were already familiar with a lot of the locations, what was it like to recreate their history? When inside the mine, for example, you're re-lighting it (and staging it), I assume, in the actual mine itself?

Greene: Yeah, that's a great story, going back to when I visited Bisbee for the first time in 2003. I've taken the mining tour five times since then, but [from the very beginning], I was always told, "don't talk about the deportation." It's something that you do not talk about. And there was a moment where I was like, "well, maybe that's what we're doing. Roll camera, I ask a question, and we'll see what happens," right? But then I was like, "wait a minute." One of Jared's dreams was to get in the mine, restage that walk-out, light it, include a smoke machine, the whole thing, and yet we never thought we'd be able to do it.

And so we worked with Doug Graeme, who runs the mining tour. We went through the mining company that owns the whole thing, of course, but Doug runs the mining tour, and it took a long time for him to warm up [to us], but he became one of the chief collaborators on the movie. He even plays a guy [in the recreation sequence] rounding people up and drags Fernando down the street. 

Probably two days before we were supposed to shoot in the mine, Doug relents and says, "sure, bring everything in." And so it went from "there's no chance we're going to be filming in the mines" to suddenly we're lighting it and smoking it, and not only that but we had old miners to act as extras and helping us gaffe the thing! It was just the most beautiful, collaborative thing. The result was that the images felt really big, really produced, and we just made them with nine people standing in the mines and trying stuff with a bunch of non-actors.

Robert Greene's 'Bisbee '17.'

NFS: You began production on the film in October of 2016?

Greene: Yeah.

NFS: Given how current American politics have devolved quite a bit since then, were you looking to bring in some comparisons between 1917 Bisbee and 2017 “USA”? As viewers, we’re obviously going to be experiencing some unprompted, subconscious comparisons, but how conscious or how far pulled back did you want to be away from those similarities?

Greene: There’s no reason to mention Donald Trump's shitty fucking name in the film, because unfortunately that motherfucker's transformed our country. It was really hard. We went to Bisbee in October of 2016,  and the film felt like it would be interesting, one that would be talking about all these same things that we're discussing today. These issues existed before Trump, of course.

"We knew that suddenly (and I hate this word because I really think it's overused for documentary) telling the story wasn't just interesting...it was important." 

NFS: Arizona's anti-immigrant laws…

Greene: The Arizona laws, people being murdered on the border, etc., and so retelling the deportation was always going to serve as a metaphor that relates to today. When we went back a couple months after the election, however, it was almost like, "this might be too much." And everyone was sort of worried in town, because, as they themselves say, Bisbee's a "tiny, blue-dot-in-a-red-sea", and people were depressed.

The majority of the people in the country (65% of the people in this country) were depressed in November, December, and January of 2017, and I didn't know what that meant. I didn't know how that would change what we were doing. But we knew that suddenly (and I hate this word because I really think it's overused for documentary) telling the story wasn't just interesting...it was important. The weight of this animated how we went forward.

I don't really think of my movies as anything that have to be made. I kind of think, "I'm just going to try it, and we'll see what happens." But in this case it was like "no, we have to do this. I don't know what's going to happen." I still don't know what the ramifications are for everything we did, but I knew we had to do it, and I think that was a feeling everyone shared.

Robert Greene's 'Bisbee '17' is currently screening at the True/False Film Festival and is seeking distribution.

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