'Phantom Cowboys': How a Filmmaker Grew Alongside the Subjects He Documented
In parts of America long ignored, a filmmaker found stories worth telling.
For many of us longing to reflect on our adolescent upbringing, we take to old photographs, home video footage, elementary school essays, and dusty journals. We're desperate to connect who we became with who we were; a narrative throughline with indicative hints must exist, right? What would we tell our former selves? To follow our dreams? That things work out? To stress less? To work harder? What if we had no choice in the matter at all?
Daniel Patrick Carbone's Phantom Cowboys, an elegiac documentary that quietly invokes those questions via three young men living in different parts of the United States, offers cumulative evidence rather than concrete answers. Life does the same.
Carbone first identified shooting locations (Trona, California, Pahokee, Florida, and Parkersburg, West Virginia) before choosing three subjects who faced challenges and questions about their future. We observe them in their enviornment—Larry in the sugarcane fields of Pahokee, Nick on the football fields of Trona, and Tyler on the automobile racetracks of Parksburg—and grow invested in their daily lives.
We never need to wonder what happened to these men, as the film consistently cuts between that early footage and follow-up material from several years later. Less an epilogue than an integral part of the film's structure, the "Phase 2" footage offers unexpected answers and a remaining hope for a more prosperous future.
As the film has its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, No Film School spoke with Carbone about the original concept for the documentary, how technical aspects of the production changed once he returned to his subjects, and how he personally grew as a filmmaker in the process.
No Film School: As the film spans across several years and at different intervals in the three main subject's lives, I imagine your concept changed over the course of filming. What was the original concept for this project?
Daniel Patrick Carbone: It's a good question and kind of a hard one to answer, as the answer had been changing [throughout filming]. We filmed our first scene with Larry in Pahokee, Florida in early 2010. It's been an evolving process over the years but we always knew that we wanted to find three towns, and we found the towns when doing research and applying for grants. We knew that we wanted to do Pahokee and Trona and, about a year later, we found Harpersburg. So then we had our towns and went to events we knew we wanted to follow. We figured we'd pick up our subject at the places we knew we wanted to shoot.
We found Larry and his friends out in the sugarcane field, Tyler at the racetrack, and Nick at the [local high school]. And it was supposed to be this ongoing, semi-long-term (but not as long-term as it turned into) profile of teenagers at important moments in their lives. We wanted to see how they view their future and how they grow into men in towns that don't offer many opportunities. There's mostly one factory or one company or one mine [in these towns] that, for generations, all men in town worked for. We were like, "Let's go into the 21st Century and see, from their own perspective, teenagers who grow up in these places as they imagine what they will be doing four-to-five years later.
"We went back and intended to film what would serve as maybe the last 10-to-15 minutes of the film, a kind of update."
Carbone: And then, life kinda happened and four-to-five years passed. We figured, "Hey, let's go back and see what these guys are up to." That had been the majority of the questioning we were asking them while filming them as kids. We thought, "Let's visualize what the changes were rather than just hearing about them."
We went back and intended to film what would serve as maybe the last 10-to-15 minutes of the film, a kind of update. As it turned out, we were getting such great material when we went back (and these guys had taken such different paths in life) that it really cemented things we were trying to get across in the first phase of shooting. We continued to shoot and talk to them and zero in on themes and ideas we wanted, that we felt were the strongest. And here we are now with the movie, that kind of half-and-half. The structure sort of came about thanks to the material we were coming back with.
NFS: Were you keeping in contact with the three men in-between the years you weren't filming? When did you know when it was time to return to their respective cities?
Carbone: The thing is....we didn't really know. It was never a film where we said, "We're going to start on this date and we're going to shoot for two years and we're going to finish in so-and-so year." It stayed in production, and we caught up with them every now and then. If anything really monumental was going down, we would always wrestle with whether we should go and shoot it. But for them, it was more of, "Hey man, what are you doing with all that footage you shot four years ago?" It was more them checking in with us.
Once we realized that we definitely wanted to go back and shoot, it almost became like production Phase 2. While the film wasn't really an ongoing thing—even if, communication-wise, we were definitely open—we treated it more like a past-and-present time period. There are two years in the middle there where we stayed in touch but didn't actually shoot anything.
"It was like I was watching a bit of myself as a filmmaker grow up as I went through the years of footage."
NFS: The concept of being a product of one's own environment is addressed in the film; in many ways, the film is about three men who are tempted to break away from theirs. This is made clear in the finished film, but what was it like going through your footage and working with your editor to make that clear?
Carbone: That's a really great observation too, because it's something a lot of people don't fully realize, especially going into the film and not knowing the exact form it's going to take. Since we didn't know what the structure was going to be when we started, the first few trips were a bit more open with anyone we wanted to talk to and anywhere we wanted to go. "Let's just kinda get as much stuff as we can and see what works and what doesn't," etc.
After we zeroed in on our subject and spent more and more time with them, things became very clear. There's a lot of great material that we didn't put in the film. Footage-wise, we just didn't have room for it. We would go back and look at some of that early footage, and it felt like...I mean, these guys are six or seven years older and I'm six or seven years older. It was like I was watching a bit of myself as a filmmaker grow up as I went through the years of footage.
As there's an evolution in the subject, there's also an evolution in the way we approached it and the kind of questions we asked. In a way, it's been therapeutic to finally finish this film, to reflect back on what it started as and what it's become. There were choices I made when I was much younger making the same film, and it feels like I was making a film about two different time periods, just like the boys were experiencing two different periods. I had to wrestle with that and make one cohesive film out of footage that was made in two very different times with two very different mindsets.
I'm proud of what it's become. I think a lot of that tension creates a more interesting film. A lot of the stakes in the film are there purely because you're seeing the time pass in a single edit. There's all this weight to that. As filmmakers, we had the benefit of being able to move forward and backward when we needed to, to clue the audience into things that would normally take much longer to get across. It was a learning experience for me as well, how to make something that's abstract in its general idea and have it play as a more traditional 90-minute feature. I'm still sort of working through it, as you can probably tell. It's going to be interesting to finally see this film in a room full of people and see what the real reaction is.
"You'd see a lot of people in the same places, but they'd be older and have a different appreciation for the place they're in now."
NFS: There's a shot of Tyler's child as a baby crawling on the living room floor. We then have a jump cut of the same child on the floor several years later. As the film keeps jump-cutting between different years in the characters' stories, how did you plan to make those transitions as seamless and unobtrusive as possible?
Carbone: That's a great question too. It's always a balance between wanting to be very seamless and wanting to be a bit more abrupt and jarring. You really want people to understand the structure that will unfold over the course of the film. It was something I spent a lot of time deciding with Thomas Niles, my editor: "How seamless do we want to be here? When do we want to use cuts that will push the theme to the foreground and let people know that this is a movie that's going to be jumping around?"
As the film goes on, it hopefully becomes more seamless and blends together. There were versions of the film that were 90 minutes of just the old footage. We had this running rough cut that evolved over time, and so a lot of those edits were in the film very early on.
When we went back to shoot, we tried to put ourselves in similar scenarios and have a more of elliptical way of shooting. You'd see a lot of people in the same places, but they'd be older and have a different appreciation for the place they're in now. We tried to create repetition setups where we see people in places the audience is familiar with but that now have a different meaning and tone upon returning to the men as adults.
NFS: And speaking of those environments, your camera captures these beautiful establishing shots of the young men's surroundings. It equally serves as a way to introduce us to the setting as it does to dig deeper into the restrictions their lives face. How did you map those shots out?
Carbone: I've always felt that there's potential in showing the environment somebody lives in and how, if you do it in an impactful way, it can carry through the film and color the way the audience views these subjects. It emphasizes the relationship to their home. That way, when the men talk about moving away, there's this added anchor to the space.
Hopefully that helps you familiarize yourself with these places. That's another reason why we started the film with Nick's voiceover about the guy who came through town and was super fascinated by it. The film is a mixture of people who live in these places (and will likely, by their own admission, remain there for most of their lives) but people by from the outside.
There's a tension between the observations made by myself and Ryan Scafuro, who shot the second half of the film. The beauty of the images and faces we see as outsiders juxtapose the view these guys have toward their own homes and the imperfections and limitations that exist. We were trying to balance things for the audience so that it doesn't feel too pretty of a picture. While we wanted to keep it realistic, we also found the areas to be very beautiful and wanted to showcase them in that way as well.
"The initial shoot was limited by what I had access to at the time."
NFS: You had two DPs? One for the earlier part of the film and then another person for when you returned to the characters several years later? Was there a visual consistency you were trying to maintain?
Carbone: Well, the initial shoot was limited by what I had access to at the time. It was basically myself and the producer of the first half, Annie Waldman, doing everything on that first shoot. There were more budget-access limitations at that time.
When we decided to go back, I had started working with a producer friend of mine, Ryan Scafuro. He came on board after the first half had already been shot. He's a really great DP and I saw that as an opportunity to not only take a step back from the shooting and fully focus as a director but to also form what the final film would be. It was nice to give up one of my duties and just focus on the interviews and the material we needed to get what we wanted across.
It also gave the film a different sort of visual style for that Phase 2, updated footage. While the film feels like a cohesive piece thanks to the way it was edited, it's definitely developing between the older stuff being a bit dreamier— there's a lot more slow-motion and idyllic sequences—and juxtaposing it with the new footage. The older footage almost feels like flashbacks now.
I wanted Ryan to shoot it the way he shoots his other work. He comes from a much more documentary-based background. He's worked for The Daily Show and has done a lot of shooting for news broadcasts. I wanted Phase 2 to be more traditionally shot than what I shot when I was a younger guy running around with a Handycam. I wanted to make sure that there was a noticeable shift in style that would cement the idea of these guys being older and haing more responsibility.
NFS: There's a recurring visual motif of smoke filling the evening air in, I believe, all three stories, most prominently as a result of sugarcane burning in the fields as Larry hunts rabbits. What was it about this image that felt like the right "connective tissue" for the film?
Carbone: The truth is that it really was present in all of these places. The first time we went to each town, we didn't really have specific imagery in mind; it was our first time visiting and we were trying to get as broad of a picture as we could. On our first trip to Trona, the bonfire was going on for the homecoming game, and on our first trip to Pahokee, we went out to the sugarcane fields and got really lucky, catching the burns right as they were happening. In West Virginia, the smoke of the pit and the dirt track were readily apparent.
All we really had to do was observe and play with juxtaposing the similarities of these places with highlighting how different it is to grow up there and how each life of these three guys' lives divert more dramatically than we could have imagined. We wanted visual cues that tie these places together, speaking to the larger idea of small-town America as a whole. While we chose these three towns specifically, we wanted them to stand in for hundreds of towns across the country and across the world that have a similar economic anchor to one thing. As our world changes, how are people dealing with that?
We zeroed in on those images because they were so dramatic and also very similar. It allowed us options to edit and separate the visuals out. Some of the film's visuals are, as we learn, specific to one location and others could be anywhere....that is, until the rising smoke clears. That was something we liked playing with and it ended up working out really well.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.