Yesterday, we opened our series of interviews with some of the year's top nonfiction filmmakers with MAN ON WIRE's James Marsh. Well, if any film rivaled the attention MAN ON WIRE received at festivals this year, it had to be Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's TROUBLE THE WATER, an intimate portrait of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on one New Orleans couple.
TROUBLE won the Grand Jury prize at both the Sundance Film Festival and at Full Frame and this fall's theatrical release via Zeitgeist has been pretty successful. It's on the Academy's Documentary feature short list and is regarded by most as a favorite to be nominated.
I asked Carl and Tia about their Sundance premiere, their unique theatrical outreach and about the relationship between them as filmmakers and their subjects, Kim and Scott Roberts.
ATWT: We're nearing the one year anniversary of TROUBLE THE WATER's premiere. For all of the folks who are headed to Sundance with a film next month, I'm curious what you were feeling at about this time last year. Were you finished, still finishing? Did you have any expectations for what you thought the response might be?
Carl Deal: Feeling? We were too busy finishing the film to feel anything really except stress and a buzz from too much coffee. Those six weeks leading up to Sundance were pretty intense. Between the online, the color correct and the sound mix, we worked straight through Thanksgiving and Christmas, but the payoff was seeing and hearing the film come alive, day by day. After we shipped the finished film to Park City, we took a couple of days off tocelebrate the New Year with Kimberly and Scott in New Orleans.
Tia Lessin: We were thrilled to be headed to Sundance, but weren’t really sure what to expect. Carl had never been. I had been to the festival ten years earlier with THE BIG ONE and broke my knee skiing, so my lasting Sundance memory was not of screening at the Eccles, but of being carried down the slopes by the ski patrol in a wire basket. We just hoped for a better outcome this time around.
Carl: Nothing could have prepared us for our premiere that Sunday afternoon at the Library. It was the first time that all of us – our crew, Kimberly and Scott, and all our families, watched the film on the big screen with a real audience, and the house that day was packed. The response was overwhelming, emotional, more than we had dared fantasize. The audience seemed to really feel it, and so did we.
Tia, you've directed before, but for much of this decade you've been producing. I'm always struck by how producing and directing overlap in some key ways and yet how important in can be as a director to have a strong, experienced producer working with you. Can you talk about those roles and how they came together in your work here?
Tia: In my mind, a producer is responsible for executing a director’s vision, whether in the production office, in the field or in the edit room. Pulling out all the stops. It’s an intimate, creative collaboration, especially in documentary film, which is so execution dependent. At times the roles of producer and director can be at odds -- as a director, you want additional shooting days, more music, another week in the mix, no green M&Ms. But as a producer, you worry about what those creative decisions are costing, and how to actually get it done within very real budget and time constraints. It’s a challenge to do both jobs at once, but a lot of documentary filmmakers do. For me, producing has become second nature. It’s one of the things I bring to the table, just like some directors who shoot their own work, and others who edit their own work.
Carl and I, as directors, have strong producers in each other. We’re two very stubborn and fairly determined individuals -- neither of us easily takes no for an answer, but are saved (we hope) by the fact that we seldom give no for an answer. And in the end, we never ever let financial constraints dictate creative choices.
One example of how this came into play with TROUBLE THE WATER was when I insisted that we needed a particular Massive Attack song to use under the audio montage of 911 calls, and, even though we knew we couldn’t afford to license it, Carl approached them anyway. They fell in love with the film and offered to score the whole thing. Carl and I have a strong base of trust and the experience of coming through for each other over the years, of making the impossible possible.
There was a big discussion earlier this year when it was revealed that Errol Morris paid some of his interview subjects. My thoughts at the time were that what a lot of commentators didn't understand was that, in a lot of cases, our subjects are put to work during the festival run and theatrical release of the film. They come to screenings, they do interviews, which, granted, can be fun, but it's also a huge time commitment. Your subjects have been with you at a number of your screenings, available to talk to press, etc. Can you talk about what the experience has been like for Kim and Scott?
Tia: Kimberly and Scott have been very eager to travel with the film when they can, and have given a lot of themselves. They’ve shared with us that they are blown away by the love and support that audiences have shown for them and their community all over the country, and especially in their hometown where the film played for five weeks.
Carl: Nowadays it's almost compulsory for audiences to interact with documentary subjects when available, isn’t it? The discussions that spill into the lobby long after the credits or the official Q&A has ended is testimony to the special connection that docs hold with their theatrical audiences, something bigger-budgeted, star-laden narratives rarely equal. And we find these Q&A’s always present opportunities for dialogue. I remember one time an older white New Yorker of some obvious means challenged Kim on her “inappropriate” use of the English language and Kimberly elegantly and eloquently transformed an uncomfortable silence into wild applause.
Tia: Kimberly’s role in TROUBLE THE WATER is more than as subject. She and Scott invited us to document their journey and exposed their lives for this film. And Kimberly is also one of the two directors of photography. She entrusted her home video to us and 15 minutes of that footage, shot at ground zero the day before and the day the levees broke, anchors the film. And of course, Kimberly, aka BlackKoldMadina, composed the film’s title track (which, incidentally, is available on their very own Born Hustler Records).
(*ATWT Note - Roberts' version of TROUBLE THE WATER is one of 49 songs announced on Tuesday by the Motion Picture Academy that are in the running for the Best Original Song Oscar.)
At the end of the day, all of us, along with our executive producers Danny Glover and Joslyn Barnes of Louverture Films, are committed to seeing TROUBLE THE WATER engage and inspire young people to find hope and create change in their own lives and communities and channel resources to the Gulf Coast. So our journey together with this film, personal appearances and all, is far from over.
I've noticed that even as your film has been scheduled for theatrical release, you've received some grants, which I assume helped with your outreach and P&A. How important has that support been in your theatrical release, which by all appearances has been extremely successful?
Tia: We’re working with a very passionate and hard working distributor that has taken TROUBLE THE WATER to nearly two hundred theaters across the country. But Zeitgeist, like most small distributors, has limited money to spend on community outreach and audience engagement. We received small grants from the Creative Capital Foundation, the Ms Foundation, the Open Society Institute and the Sundance Documentary Fund (which was also the arliest supporter of “Trouble the Water”) to help us extend the reach of the film beyond the arthouse and the festival circuit.
Carl: In many ways, we find this community outreach more important and more effective than traditional P&A, because we are doing more than selling tickets. We’re building partnerships with groups that are using the film to advance the fight for racial and economic justice and maximize this story’s impact at a moment when the country is yearning for change.
In the next few weeks, TROUBLE THE WATER will be presented during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend hosted by the King Center for Non Violence in Atlanta, at a DC fundraiser for the Green Building Council’s initiatives in New Orleans, at the Brotherhood Synagogue in New York City, at a youth summit in Ohio and will continue to be screened at other community-based events long after the theatrical run ends.