Friday, May 20, 2011

One of the year's best, EARTHWORK opens in L.A.; Q&A with the filmmaker, Chris Ordal

Last month TrustMovies raved about a very small film -- EARTHWORK -- that blurs that line, yet again, between narrative and documentary. It's narrative, all right, but has many earmarks of a documentary. (The original review is here.) Because the movie opens today in Los Angeles (at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills, I'm giving it another push, while adding in an interview I did with its writer/director Chris Ordal toward the end of last month, when he was here in New York doing Q&A's with his audiences, post-screening. It stars one of last year's Academy nominees (the excellent John Hawkes), has won numerous awards at festivals across the country (while proving equally popular with audiences), and probes the psychology of the artist about as well as any American film I've seen. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


The young man who made this film seems as friendly and open as we New Yorkers might imagine a Midwesterner to be. Below is an edited transcript of our interview, with TrustMovies in boldface and Ordal (shown below) in standard type.

What I loved most about your film was how it shows us the intense need of the artist to create. I believe most artists can’t help themselves: They just must create their art.

That’s exactly it!

Your movie hits it directly.

I am so glad to hear you connect with that part of the film because people are always asking, about me, "Why don’t you just take this job or that one. And I have to tell them: "You just don’t understand: I can’t do that!"

So your movie also applies to you? Not just to Stan Herd.

When I wrote this film, I very much connected with Stan. He wanted to show people things they don’t usually see. The Thomas Hart Benton connection is what really did it with me. There was more of Benton in the movie but when we spoke with the estate, they really made our life hell, so we couldn’t do it. But Stan was inspired by Benton. And Benton, when he focused on Midwestern themes and Midwestern characters, was completely ostracized by New York and Paris—the established art world. For Stan to come to NYC and do a piece in Benton’s style of a midwestern image, I thought that was so great!

We don’t really get to see much of the finished piece, do we?

You see only a still image of it. But since the movie is kind of about "reveals,” you are introduced to the characters but don't know who they are until after. Same thing with the piece, and all that happens. We don’t realize what the real connection is until after. And I love that.

That’s why, stylistically, I found your movie so wonderful.

Just like Stan’s art, since you can only see it from about, it was to be revealed after the fact.

For me, only showing the tiniest bits -- the briefest things -- seemed perfection, because we get the point – but with no belaboring.

The whole movie is like this. If you look at the way the shots are set up and structred. Really, I think if we’d had more money in the budget I might have screwed it up. (I laugh) No, really!

How much did the film cost?

The movie cost -- right up through going into theaters and getting 35 prints -- a little over a million and a half.

That’s not that much.

Yes. Some people spend more than this just on their opening weekend. When we wrote the original script, the budget was projected at 2 million, but I just couldn’t raise it. The hardest part of the production was just keeping the damned artwork alive.

That would be the plants used for the project?

Yes, and for the opening titles.

Stan is amazing, isn't he? I can't understand how he knows what things will look like so far before the fact. And from that whole other angle – above!

It’s just an instinctual thing; he's got this singular, amazing vision.

And you capture that so well. Beginning with him as a kid. And it’s so wonderful that, even though his folks don’t understand his art, they are supportive anyway. It’s so great that his dad is not against what he wants to do. Which I am assuming is true.

Stan had a wonderful upbringing. And it's funny – I keep getting pounded in the press because critics want more “friction.” But that’s not the way it was.

I’ve always felt that life always gives us more friction -- of all kinds -- than we can easily handle, so we don't need to invent more of it. Be grateful when it isn’t there. And anyway, your movie has plenty of this friciton as it moves along!

If I’d have put friction in, this would have been another movie. And it's one that we've seen already. Many times.

But with your film, I really did feel like I was seeing something fresh. Within a framework of what I have seen many times before -- now, finally, I was seeing something different.

That’s a beautiful statement you just said.

Were there photos taken of Stan's work at that time?

There were photos and all, but they did not get the exposure they deserved. The NY Times had a tiny piece, but it was so small.

I'm wondering: Did you shoot some of your scenes supposedly set here in New York City with actors back in the Midwest, where you lived? Their accents didn't sound like NYC.

Oh, yeah. We had to. We couldn’t afford to film everything here. We had to do it there. But it was important to me that the homeless be from mulitple places. Lone Wolf is from New York, as is “The Mayor.” Ryan, we're not sure where he's from. And El Trac is from Chicago. Outside of El Trac, these were all New York  actors.

They are all so good. Jim McDaniel, particularly. 

He just called me this morning; his son is just getting back from Germany. Jim’s a great guy and just wonderful to work with.

Those are the first words his character speaks in the film, right? And you handle that so well: Not calling any particular attention to it. But we get it. This, I think, is the mark of someone who knows what he is doing.  And yet The New York Times reviewer called these all characters clichéd. How crazy is that? That made me really angry.

It’s funny. I've talked to so many people from NY and L.A. and in the Midwest. People from all over the country, and they all predicted what was going to happen.  "Well, the Times is going to be mean." It's amazing how right they’ve been about that publications. The reviewer just did not connect with the film, and that’s her right. One of my main goals in this film, was to show New York –  the New York that never gets shown. So many New Yorkers who have seen the film, they didn’t know anything like this exisited back then. But it did.

I thought you handled the Donald Trump organization very well. And carefully, maybe.

We were careful, but there were people within Trump's organization -- like the Andy Weiss character -- who really were wonderful to Stan.

They did get him a helicopter, right?

Yes, and the whole story of Stan's getting the procjet because he offered to pay for it all.

If they didn’t have to pay for anything, of course they would give it to Stan.

At first, I couldn't believe that this whole project actually existed. I so much wanted to tell this story, that one day I was just badgering Stan with questions, and finally his eyes just glazed over, and he started talking about his relationship with the homeless, and that even though he viewed this as a kind of failure as an artist career-wise, it was also the kind of moment where he realized that he had connected with one human being and changed that person's life with his art. Stan looked at me right after he said that, and oh, it was really kind of cathartic. "That’s the story!" I thought to myself, and  I ran home that day and wrote an 18-page treatment.

Funny how things happen like that.  How old are you now, Chris?

I'm 29, but I wrote this when I was 24.

Five years of your life spent on this?!

It took me three years just to raise the money.

And you had a job at the time?

I was a student, and I started a video production company with my two producing partners. We just made money doing commercial shoots and spots, and things like that, when I was at KU (The University of Kansas). I was trying to get to the point where I could make an original script. But when Stan’s story showed up, I thought, "This is what I want to say!"

And you didn't want to do it as a documentary?

I struggle with those documentaries where you are just listening to someone tell you what happened. The story I wanted to tell was not a story that connected with artists we all know: Ray Charles, Johnny Cash. I think 99 percent of creative people are not household names. They are not getting any real recognition. They don't have the money or the fame or a name. Stan has been one of those people for years. But he has worked all the while and done his art for years now. So to me, it's a crime not to tell his story.

Was Stan happy with John Hawkes' interpretation?

Oh, yes!

Why did he wear a white hat? Did Stan really do that?

There are times when Stan would wear a hat, but that’s really John’s thing. He wanted some signature visual for the character, so he chose the hat...

Editors' note: There’s a lot more here, but much of it acts as a spoiler for this film, and I want you, reader, to have the experience of seeing this movie fresh. So catch Earthwork if you can, while it's playing in L.A.  Or check out its further playdates here: in Santa Fe, NM;  Paonia, CO; Columbia, MO, Rhinebeck, NY; Peoria, IL; and Fort Wayne, IN.  If you can't catch it at any of these venues, wait for the DVD.

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