You are a long-time sound guy and educator, what on earth possessed you to direct and produce?
It’s true. I’ve been lurking in the shadows and behind the scenes as a sound designer and postproduction audio engineer for more than 30 years. I’m naturally very comfortable with that role, as a team player and creative collaborator. As an educator, however, I’m out front, establishing a learning environment and explicitly directing the ebb and flow of any given class meeting. I think the best teachers do that. They’re wholly engaged in presentation each and every time they step across the threshold of a classroom. So, the transition to producing and directing film was sort of a combination of both worlds. Though I had final say, the making of this doc was highly collaborative. I knew the story I wanted to tell, but simply could not have done it without the help of my producers (Ben Spanner, Steven Berger, and Paula Froehle), DP (Pete Biagi), editor (Kate Hackett), composer (Scott Wojahn), music recording engineer (Ric Probst), graphics (Shaun Hildner), and colorist (Michael Dunne).
A couple reasons. First, I really don’t have any interest in writing scripts or directing narrative. I think there’s more intention required than I’m comfortable with. I probably work best through trying something unplanned, then reflecting on what I did, then making adjustments until it feels right. It seems to me that model would be very expensive for making narrative films with larger crews and set designs and the like. If I’m truly going to immerse myself in a fictive world and design something, I’d rather do it aurally with somebody else’s pictures. With docs, it’s more about observation and capture. And, you can do that on a shoestring.
Second, as I get on in years, I’m realizing there are so many important stories right in front of me. Stuff that I experience in a routine day. For example, there was an instant in time that inspired me to make A Farmer’s Road and it was completely banal. The first time I was on the farm for one of their dinners there was a vacant seat right next to me. One of the guests had some sort of conflict at the last minute, so after the tour of the grounds and introduction of the first course, Wes sat down. We got to chatting and I asked him: What were you thinking? Giving up the security of tenure at a major research university to work the land and raise livestock 24/7?!? He said he just wanted to go out his back door and grab a peach. That simple notion. That as someone who has spent a lifetime in agriculture, and recently deeply immersed in academic research, he couldn’t get a good tasting peach anywhere other than growing the damn tree himself. The depth and complexity of what was behind that statement knocked me for a loop and a switch turned on for me. I didn’t know how, but I knew I had to tell that story in a larger way.
How long has this film taken you to complete?
I never could have predicted it would take five years. I told Leslie and Wes in our initial conversations that it would take one complete cycle on the farm. So, maybe eighteen months including post to get the film done. But, you know, life intervenes. My day gig and personal world had starts and stops and ups and downs. It was just impossible to stay the course with an “occasional” schedule of working on the film. Capturing the next bit of footage was often the first thing to get rearranged or pushed back when something came up. And because of the cycle of the farm, when you miss something that only happens at one time of the year like the kidding season, you have to wait until the cycle comes round again.
How did you pay for it?
Throughout production, I paid for it entirely out of pocket. Being in the industry for so many years, I knew a lot of professional film folks, some of which are close and had expressed an interest in helping me get the project off the ground. I’m not sure how other first-time filmmakers do it, but I couldn’t have made this without an incredible amount of “friends and family” rates.
Post, however, was different. I wanted editing to be focused and continual, and I had ideas about the score that were going to cost some money. I still got the “friends and family” rate, but those are expensive processes. So, I cranked up an Indiegogo campaign to help offset some of the costs. Even though I didn’t reach my goal, it was largely successful, which triggered another subsequent fundraising effort that helped me get the film across the finish line.
Make no mistake, it’s an über-low budget doc by industry standards, but it’s a ton of money in my eyes, and a lot of dear friends and family have helped me realize the project. Truly remarkable support.
What are your plans for the film besides festivals?
From the very first conversations with Leslie and Wes, I have envisioned this film, and by association Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, as a model of small-farm diversity with sustainability at its core. I think there are tremendous opportunities within agriculture and agribusiness to screen the film as a “how to” example. Farmer’s markets, co-ops, the slow food movement, restaurants and chefs, and agriculture within educational settings – these are all portals to the population at large about local food systems and the importance of its understanding. The rise in awareness about organic farming and organic products is meteoric right now; I want to capitalize on that.
What was the biggest challenge in completing A Farmer’s Road?
I think doing anything as a side project is difficult. You are constantly up against decisions to prioritize your time. What you want to do is often in conflict with what you must do. I would have loved to embed myself and my crew on site for weeks at a time, but that just wasn’t practical. That said, I’m quite proud of the film and what it says about these people and what they are doing day-in and day-out to model small-farm diversity and sustainability.
Were there any surprises?
Yes, and during the most unlikely part of the process!
As a long-time sound guy, I was excited to get to post for obvious reasons. I had some very specific ideas about sound and score. I’m generally understated as a designer, preferring rich, subtle textures of environmental ambience to over-the-top use of effects. The edge of aural perception is a very interesting place from which to build a soundscape. I’ve always felt when it comes to building natural soundtracks, the best of them are the ones you don’t notice. Remove some elements, however, and something feels off. Of course, great production audio helps immensely. I knew ours was in really good shape, so everything sans music came together quite easily.
The score was different though. It was a sort of a known unknown. I wanted acoustic cues from a small ensemble of players – piano, fiddle, upright, maybe cello, mandolin, and acoustic guitars – but the tone and textures could go a lot of different directions. Too edgy or too Americana or too cliché and the film would lose its power of understatement, which was the one thing I didn’t want to violate. I called an old friend that I worked with many years ago in advertising production. Scott Wojahn has been on the national commercial stage since then, with a lot of major clients on his reel, but he’s also a singer-songwriter in the vain I thought this film deserved. He was thrilled to come on board. And another plus, he’s a foodie living in California, so he’s gets the whole “changing the food system” thing. We talked and talked and within the hour of that first conversation I believed I could just let go and let him do his thing.
Over the next few weeks, Scott sent dozens of examples and demos. As I dropped them onto my audio time line, the soundtrack took on a new life; elevated and soulful and exactly what I was hoping for. One day Scott calls and says he’s made some inquiries. And, if I had a bit of money and was so inclined, we could record the cues with some of the very best L.A. session players and do it at the Village in Santa Monica. In 30+ years of professional audio, I’ve literally been involved in thousands of sessions. So, it might not seem like it should have been that much of a surprise. Yet, the eight hours we spent in Studio D at the Village Recorder was dream-like.
Entering the facility, every inch of the walls are lined with gold and platinum records. Serious records. Most of the kind that defined my youth. The list is a history lesson in American pop music from 1968 on. The building was originally a Masonic Temple from the 1920s and remained that way until the early 60s when the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi used it for Transcendental Meditation. In the late 60s it was converted to a recording studio. Through the years more rooms were added. Studio D, where we recorded the score, was built specifically for Fleetwood Mac to record Tusk.
We were slated to record twelve cues. The total running time was not that much music, but the session was a bit complicated for a music studio. Multiple video playback screens were needed, in the control room and various live/iso rooms. The QuickTime files for each cue had to be tempo mapped into Pro Tools and driven into a headphone system with individual feeds from each musician’s combination of microphones. This is all standard stuff for large-format orchestral scoring stages, but requires a lot of set-up in a studio designed for music recording. The Village staff were total pros, both technically and with customer service. I was also fortunate to have Ric Probst, an old friend and stellar music engineer, agree to track and mix the cues. The tone we got from just opening the faders was astonishing. Like I said, it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but I was totally blown away. Seasoned players, a great score, vintage mics, vintage console, historic room, great engineers. It was a pretty good recipe.
I’m not sure. I have some ideas in the realm of social justice, but it’s a bit too early. There’s a lot of work yet to be done with A Farmer’s Road. I hope to get distribution on a larger scale, but certainly I’m going to work the education and agribusiness angles as well as film festival circuit.