When documentary filmmakers Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol set out for Uncertain, Texas, population 94, they thought they were going to make a comic short film. It took only a day to obliterate their misconception. Over the next year and a half, they got to know–and film–three of the town’s citizens: Wayne, a Native American fixated on catching a boar he’s nicknamed “Mr. Ed”; Henry, an aging fisherman intent on marrying a thirty-something gold digger; and Zack, an alcoholic diabetic desperate to escape Uncertain and its promise of perpetual poverty. Against this human landscape, the lake on which they all depend for food is being choked by salvinia, an invasive weed, which can only be stopped by introducing weevils into the ecosystem. In lesser hands, Uncertain would seem like chaos. Under the direction of Sandilands and McNicol, Uncertain is a masterpiece of compassionate perception. Winner of the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. • Availability: Check Tribeca Film Festival schedule, Hot Docs schedule. •Thanks to Russ Posternak, Murphy PR, for arranging this interview.•
DT: I was incredibly moved by your film. That being said, how did you find this place? As the sheriff said in the film, “You either have to know where you’re going or be lost to find it.”
AS: We were in Lafayette, Louisiana, making a short film called The Roper. On the map we saw this town called Uncertain about four hours away, and we thought, How does a town get a name like that? So we carved out a couple of days to go and see what it was all about, with that idea in mind: to make a short film about how a town gets a name.
EM: We drove into town and saw the sign that said Uncertain, Population 94, and the Church of Uncertain, and we thought, OK, this is going to be a comedy. When we said we wanted to go fishing, they told us, You’ve got to go out with Henry, he’s the best fisherman on the lake. It was a misty morning, and he kind of appeared out of the mist, almost like Charon, the boatman.
AS: The opening you see in the film was our first day there.
EM: It felt like we had jumped back to a different time and place, and we were captivated by it. We didn’t really understand a lot of what Henry was saying at first, cause it took a while to learn to speak Henry, as we say. [He has a very heavy accent and is subtitled in the film.] The next day, we went out filming with Wayne, the hog hunter. We asked why he shoots with powder guns, and he said, I can tell you the truth, or I can tell you what I tell everyone else. We asked him to tell us the truth, and he very quickly opened up in this incredibly graceful and candid way and told us about his past and being a convicted felon. That night, just two days into filming, we realized there was something incredible here and this was not just a short film; this was something bigger. We returned soon after that and continued filming on and off for a year and a half. For about eight months, we weren’t sure what the story was. We were in limbo, like all the characters in this film, not knowing how we were tying them together. In some form or another they were all looking for some kind of recovery or forgiveness, but we weren’t sure how they were all going to fit together. Then this weed appeared, and it was like a mirror to their stories, so we realized that was how we were going to tie this together.
AS: But for a long time all we knew was that we had these great men and this great place and it was worth following on that alone.
DT: Why were they so open to sharing their stories with you?
AS: We have no idea. It was a complete act of courage on their part to agree to open up to us. In Wayne’s case, I think he was ready to unburden himself. He’d been through a lot of work privately on letting go and forgiving himself. Our initial interest was in his hog hunting. That was the reason we were getting together that first day, but he ended up telling us about this tragedy, and we asked if he would be OK with us learning more about it. He was uncomfortable. A few days later, he asked us why we were interested, and I said, Because we can’t reconcile the man you are today with the man who did these things. That’s why he knew he could trust us: because we could see the good man he is today, he could trust us with the past.
EM: Everyone was incredibly open. I’m obviously English, so I’m even more of an outsider.
AS: They kept saying to him, “You’re not from around here, boy, are you?”
EM: But the fourth, the fifth, the sixth time we returned, some of the people who were unsure of us realized we were investing in them and the town, and I think at that point they realized they could trust us.
AS: The other thing that attracted us immediately was that the town really seemed to care about each other. They’re a very tight unit in a lot of ways, and that’s something you don’t get in most communities. They also live much closer to the land and rely on it. We were enchanted by that, and that’s another reason we felt like we were going back in time. These are ideals we had as Americans fifty years ago that we’ve lost quite a lot of today, and to see it still very much alive and well in Uncertain was another reason that we immediately bonded.
DT: I was really struck by the difference between their relationship to the land and my own. When Wayne was talking about killing all these hogs, my reaction, as a city person, was, Oh my God, you can’t kill all these innocent animals. But Wayne had a global view of things; if you kill Mr. Ed, that will allow other animals to come in. They might have no problem ripping the skin off a dead animal, but they have a love for nature the rest of us don’t.
EM: With Wayne, the hog hunter, that was part of the complexity in his character. He was very spiritual about taking an animal’s life, and every part of that animal will be used and eaten—you make dog treats, tan the hide, make necklaces from the teeth—so for him taking a life was not just about eating and it wasn’t just sport. It was the whole spiritual process, and that for us was really intriguing. At first it’s hard watching an animal being killed and gutted, but when you hear how he thinks about it, the whole cycle of life becomes complete.
DT: It also rounds him out as a person.
AS: Absolutely. That was one of the things about all of them. We talked quite a lot about this when we were editing the film; we wanted people to follow the same path of getting to know the town and getting to know these people that we took—you come in very much as an outsider, you think you know who you’re looking at, you think you’ve got them pegged, and in fact they’re very surprising, deep people.
DT: As an audience member, I found myself going through various stages: at first, this place was so foreign that I had to pretend it was another country. Then I struggled to overcome my stereotypes about these people, and finally I was stunned by the fullness of their dignity. I think that evolution was the result of your slow reveal. Can you talk about how you built the characters through editing?
AS: One of the first things we agreed on in the early, nervous days of editing was that we wanted to approach it as you would a tale. Tales don’t have fact, detail, so when we were talking about the lake’s ecology, we didn’t want too much scientific detail. We wanted people to be somewhat disoriented about where they are and who’s who. You only hear each character’s name one time, buried in the context of a scene, so we knew right away that we wanted that to be the overarching frame. In terms of the slow reveal, it was a lot about our own process of getting to know each one of them. We also knew we wanted each of their storylines to feather into one moment where they all turn together at the same point in time. So even though Henry’s story is a historical one, and Wayne’s is past and present, and Zack’s is very much present, we wanted them to all pull together in that one central moment.
EM: At the beginning of the film, there’s no dialogue for five or six minutes. You have these preconceived ideas about this hunter in a tree or that fisherman. You think you have ideas of who this person is. That’s probably what we had in the beginning, and we wanted you to go on the journey that we did. Try and change the perceptions of who these men are.
DT: The approach really worked. Let’s talk about the final shot. For me it did two things: It pulled all the threads of the story together into one tale about the mighty human struggle to correct the wrongs we inflict on the universe, including ourselves. It also transformed the film into an existential work about the human condition as revealed through these three characters. Am I reading too much into it? After all, it was just a shot of weevils eating a weed.
AS: That was a very purposeful choice. You’re not reading too much into it at all. I’m glad you saw it, I’m glad that all came out for you. We also felt like that was the one moment, hopefully the only moment, where our signature as filmmakers appears.
EM: It’s a very editorial choice. We spent a lot of time debating whether we should end on the lake. Some people see the weevils as evil creatures, and other people have watched and said they’re just kind of disgusting. For us this is a sign of hope, that nature can rebalance nature, that whatever man does to create the imbalance, nature will eventually find a way, with or without man, of rebalancing things. It leaves the film in this state of uncertainty, and that for us was where we wanted to leave the film.
DT: But also redemption.
EM: Yes, redemption is out there. These men who are looking for forgiveness can forgive themselves, and perhaps the town can solve these ecological problems.
DT: Talk about your use of music. I especially loved the music with the raccoon party.
EM: We didn’t want to go down the path of choosing typically East Texan music, because we saw this film as a tale, as a universal story. It takes place in a very specific part of the world, but the stories are very universal, so musically we felt like we didn’t want to choose music from that area. We didn’t want to lead the audience. We wanted the picture and the story to lead the audience and the music to supplement, so we were trying to be as restrained as we could with the music. Our composer, Daniel Hart, lives in Dallas, but he’s an extraordinary musician, playing the violin and banjo himself.
AS: We learned a great lesson from the director Ross McElwee. The Sundance Edit and Story lab invited us with the film, and on one of our first days sitting down and working with Ross, he said, What would happen if you took away all the music you have now and then just carefully, slowly, put it back? Not only did that inform our decisions about how to open the film without music but it also made us much, much more discerning about where to put it back in.
DT: So initially you had a lot more music?
EM: A lot more.
AS: When you’re nervous about how much of a film you’ve got, you think you can put music in to glue it together. But he said, No, you’ve got the film, take away, take away, take away.
DT: When you worked up the characters in editing, did you develop each one the same way, or did you vary between them?
AS: We used Wayne and the hog hunting as the first spine of the film because his hunt for Mr. Ed was the most consistently linear story. Then came this story arc with the lake, with the salvinia and the weevils. Again, we wanted to anchor all of them in the same turning point in the film, where they each have that heavy inflection point, so it was really about building up and around to that moment and then back out from there.
DT: What do you hope to achieve with your studio, Lucid Inc.?
AS: For us as documentary filmmakers, we’re most attracted to people, to human beings, to characters. In the world of documentary today, there is so much focus on issue-based films, or films with an agenda. We are not those types of filmmakers. We want to continue to pursue the types of stories that Uncertain is. It may make us outlyers in the world of documentary, but we’re OK with that.
DT: I’m sure it won’t. If this is what you can do, I can’t imagine what your career trajectory is going to be like. Which brings us to the next question: What’s your next project?
EM: We can’t talk in real detail because we haven’t locked in yet, but it’s going to involve being in one place again. We’re always drawn to the landscape and the people. Both have to be equally powerful.
Copyright © Director Talk 2015