Note: This is the fourth in a series of interviews with the makers of some of my favorite nonfiction films of 2010...
One of my favorite surprises in a year of great filmmaking came when I sat down at Hot Docs in May to watch Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's 12TH AND DELAWARE. A film positioned literally in the middle of the abortion debate could have easily been bombastic or one-sided in favor of a pro-choice position. Instead their film is a subtle, stunningly crafted work that watches as characters on both sides of the divide deal with the women who come to them with unwanted pregnancies.
As I wrote about the film for Sheffield Doc/Fest:
"There is a moment in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s new film where their protagonist – a staunchly pro-life woman who counsels pregnant women in hopes that they will decide to keep their babies – drops her cover. In most of the conversations that Ewing and Grady capture, the woman proves masterful at masking her true intent – she seems almost motherly in offering the possibility that there are options other than abortion. Their subject knows that if she reveals her true feelings, she risks alienating the very women she hopes to convince. Her effort is all about the soft sell.
But one particular case proves stubborn. And in trying to sway her, Ewing and Grady’s subject slips. She pushes too hard, too dogmatically. And in that moment, she loses her case – and, she fears, an innocent fetus will be sacrificed for her failure.
This moment proves that the power of nonfiction film remains as potent and as vital in 2010 as it has ever been. "
I emailed with Ewing and Grady about their characters, about the process of making 12TH AND DELAWARE - particularly their partnership with HBO Documentary Films, and how they divide up labor when they work together.
All these wonderful things: One of the things that I love about your films is that you tackle a subject that we think we know, one that might be easy to stereotype, and you give us a much deeper picture of that topic than one may expect going in. I'll admit to wondering what you could bring to the abortion topic before I saw the film, but the truth is that you brought levels of shading that I've never seen before. What was your process going into the film?
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady: We never set out really to make a film “about abortion,” as we didn’t think we had anything new to add to the discussion, which has become deafeningly loud by both extremes that hijacked the debate long ago. But thanks to the JESUS CAMP kids we had become aware of Crisis Pregnancy Centers, these low profile, anti-abortion centers that have quietly proliferated all over the United States. We had entered one during the making of that film and were confused as to what was happening here. There were ultrasound machines and ”medical” pamphlets but there was something else going on here. But what? We are so glad we go the opportunity to go back to this subject and get to the bottom of it.
ATWT: I've said before that Anne Lotierzo, the woman who runs the pro-life counseling center is one of my favorite subjects - maybe my favorite subject - in a film this year. Watching her talk to these women, knowing that she can't quite fully reveal herself and her strong beliefs, trying to nudge them away from getting an abortion, makes for an amazing character study and a very humanistic portrait. How did you find Anne and were you surprised that she ultimately turned against the film even though the film is quite neutral?
HE & RG: Anne is a foot soldier, a single-minded individual that we found endlessly fascinating. She lives in a world of black and white, of good and evil, right and wrong, in way that few do these days. She will do just about anything to prevent a woman from having an abortion. She never deviated from her position, not for one second the entire year we filmed. The inevitable consequence of this worldview is intolerance for the other side, an abhorrence of any other perspective. So, in that sense we were not shocked that she came out against the film, which endeavors to show all the many colors and nuances of an unwanted pregnancy. In the end, our film is about the women who are caught between opposing forces, and not about the greater moral and religious implications or abortion.
ATWT: Can you talk about your working relationship as a team - do you have a traditional split of duties, for instance, is one person always doing the interviewing, does one person take the lead in the edit?
HE & RG: It’s always hard to explain how we work together as any working relationship is always be evolving. As far as the nuts and bolts of our process: we only go on location together during the development, research and casting phases, and perhaps one or two shoots while the look and approach is being formulated. After that, we go into the field separately, so that the person who stays back has a fresh perspective on the material being gathered. That seems to work to weed out B scenes and assure the final film has only the best material.
We don’t have set roles but naturally gravitate toward what moves us most about any story or character. If one of us has a very strong and passionate vision about the look of the film that’s likely that look that will prevail. If one of us feels strongly that a particular aspect or scene is “missing” she will go out and try and get that. If one of us feels closer to a character she will be present at those shoots. At the end of the day, what we have is a deep respect and trust for each other’s instincts. Both of us want only what is best for The Film which becomes its own force and makes its own demands on us.
Of course, we also collaborate heavily with our cinematographer and editor from the get-go so we are unified in production. The process in the edit room can get a little hot as creative differences inevitably arise. This is the nature of the beast and we’re pretty sure the final product benefits from the spirited debates that ensue in our edit room.
ATWT: 12TH &DELAWARE is a beautifully crafted film - the cinematography, in particular, is some of the best I saw all year. And your editing choices - the way you enhance the idea this separation between the two factions by peering out through windows and withholding our entrance into the abortion clinic until later in the film - are really strong. Do you have a regular team of people that you like to work with and how do you map out your creative choices?
HE &RG: We are proud of the craft on this film, especially because at the beginning we felt that there were not a lot of visual options for us at the location where most of the action takes place. The challenge became how to visually describe the strange and complex emotional environment that was before us. What does paranoia and distrust look like? How do we show that the mundane can co-exist in the same frame as the insidious powder keg that is ready to blow on the corner of 12th & Delaware? The goal was to enhance visually what it felt like to be there, and talented cinematographer Kat Patterson used her seemingly bottomless reserve of patience to help us translate this bizarre environment onto the screen. Our longtime collaborator, editor Enat Sidi, went deep into the material to tease out the intensely subtle exchanges (that you picked up on while watching the film) and make them part of the landscape of each scene. The result, we hope, is that the drama slowly creeps up on you, making this film the polar opposite stylistically of the more bombastic JESUS CAMP.
ATWT: This film was something that you worked on from the beginning with HBO. What is that process like, working with Sheila Nevins and Sara Bernstein as you made the film?
HE & RG: This was our first collaboration with HBO so we really did not know what to expect. Sheila and Sara provided us with a great deal of breathing room to just allow us to do what we do. That was great for us. Documentary filmmakers working in the observational realm really need a lot of space to figure out not only what the story is but also a good amount of time for trial and error in the field, following various storylines that may not pan out, experimenting with the look, experiencing the daily successes and failures that really shouldn’t involve a large team of people.
We would check in with Sheila and Sara periodically over the production and show dailies when we were ready but real involvement came when we had a rough cut assembled and we were looking for notes and ideas. They had great, smart feedback. The best thing about working with HBO was that we were never asked to dumb anything down. There was supreme belief that the audience is intelligent and astute. They are seasoned pros in the nonfiction realm and it showed. There was never a sense of panic when we ran into roadblocks regarding access or finding the third act of the film. There was only encouragement and support and a feeling of being in this together. We appreciated that so much. We are currently doing another film with them, actually, but we can talk about that later in 2011!
ATWT: You've been traveling a lot to Detroit to work on your next project. Can you give us a preview?
HE & RG: Ah, yes, the D.. We are deep in production on DETROIT HUSTLES HARDER (this is a working title). The film not only looks at those incredibly charismatic Detroiters who have stayed in the city many others have left for “dead” but a look at what happened to American manufacturing. Is Detroit an isolated case or is the beleaguered but inspiring place the canary in the coalmine of the USA?
We are so excited about this film as it is a bit of a departure for us. We have never attempted to include a city as an actual character. We have never started at the macro level choosing a location first then zeroing in and looking for the story within. It has been exhilarating so far and we are so looking forward to sharing it with audiences, hopefully as early as this Fall.