Uncertain/Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol

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 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Click here for trailer.  Availability:  March 9, 2017 at the MoMA and IFP Made in NY Media Center in New York, plus limited theatrical release across the US and London; click here for theater listings near you; March 17th on iTunes (pre-order March 2) and VOD.  Thanks to Russ Posternak, Murphy PR, and Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview, and Kellyn Holmes, Prodigy PR, for arranging the reprint.


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.

EM: Thoughtful.


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

Keep On Keepin’ On/Alan Hicks

It’s hard to imagine a film more filled with reverence, devotion, and inspiration than Keep on Keepin’ On, a tribute to jazz legend Clark Terry lovingly crafted by Alan Hicks, one of Terry’s former students (a set that includes Quincy Jones and Miles Davis).  When the master started to lose his sight, Hicks introduced him to a young blind pianist named Justin Kauflin.  The bond between these two malsighted musicians was instant and profound, and we are grateful to Hicks for catching it on film. For his efforts, Hicks won Best New Documentary Director at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the film received its world premiere with a post-screening concert featuring Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, and Justin Kauflin.  Produced by Quincy Jones.  •Availability:  See RADiUS-TWC. Thanks to Susan Engel, PMK-BNC for arranging this interview.


DT: How did you meet Clark Terry?


AH:  When I was eighteen I moved from Australia to Brooklyn to study jazz.  I got into William Paterson University, and I was there for a year, but I was young and hadn’t planned things well. It was pretty tough, and I was going to move back to Australia when the pianist James Williams, who was a teacher there, said, “Before you move back I’ve got you on the door of this gig.”  It was a gig at the Blue Note with the Oscar Peterson Trio.


DT:  Not bad.


AH:  I couldn’t even afford to go into the city, and he walked me into the gig and sat me down between Clark Terry and Gwen Terry. They turned around and said, “You must be Al.”  It blew my mind, because Clark was one of my idols growing up.  My dad bought me the Quincy Jones autobiography for my flight from Australia to America, and in that autobiography Quincy wrote a chapter about Clark, and I remember going, That is so cool.


DT:  You’re a drummer.


AH:  I’m a drummer.  So by fate I met Clark, and he said, “I heard you were planning on moving back to Australia.  I heard that you can play, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to move.”  Then he said, “I’m having dinner next week.” That was past the date where I was going to fly, but I called my mom and said, “Cancel my flight home.  Clark Terry invited me over for dinner.” We had dinner.  He said, come next week. Another dinner. I came the next week, and the week after, then he said, Bring your sticks, so I brought my sticks, and it turned into every other day and then I was just over there every other day for years.  Then I joined his band and we traveled a lot, too.  Me and Clark spent a lot of great time together, and it started as a friendship before anything else.


DT:  But a friendship based on music.


AH:  James Williams obviously thought I shouldn’t go home, and he talked to Clark and Gwen. I didn’t know that compassionate side of Clark Terry, I just knew him as this master trumpet player.  Clark and I became really, really good friends, and during the time when Clark was starting to lose his sight, Justin Kauflin happened to start coming to the university. Clark was fretting—he was having a hard time adjusting, and he was getting real nervous about everything getting dimmer, so one night I said to Clark, “There’s this young blind kid who just started at the college.  Maybe I could bring him along.”  Clark said yeah, so I brought him over, and it was amazing to see those two connect.  Justin lost his sight when he was eleven, and he explained to Clark that it wan’t so bad losing your sight. He said it doesn’t go pitch black, that your brain fills in the gaps, and it really calmed Clark down.  Chilled him out.  So they started a beautiful relationship.  Years later I had moved back to Australia, and an Australian documentary channel wanted to do a story about my relationship with Clark.


DT:  So you were approached by someone else about making a film?


AH: Yeah, and then they pulled the funding.  I was bummed.  One day I was surfing with my high school mate, a bloke called Adam Hart, and I said, “Mate, they pulled the pin. They’re not going to go ahead with it, and it’s a bugger of a thing.” He happened to be a cameraman, and he just said, “Mate, I reckon we can save up and do it ourselves.  Let’s just go for it.”  So we saved up for a year and bought our airfares and some equipment and just started shooting.  I wasn’t in the story—it was just about Clark.  I’d never done anything in film before, and Adam had worked on surf films, so we both had very little experience, and we just started shooting.  Once we started shooting we realized how strong Justin and Clark’s relationship still is.  Justin would be down at Clark’s house in Arkansas all the time.  We asked Justin if we could start shooting with him too and he was like, Yeah, no worries.  Because we were all such good mates it was never a problem.


DT:  I assume that the editing became critical to really shaping and making the film.


AH:  Yes.  Us being naive worked in our favor, because we just shot and shot and shot and shot.  I can’t even tell you how many hard drives we filled up.  There’s 350 hours of vérité footage, then there’s 100 hours of archival footage. We watched every minute of it and then we started editing.  I had a real good idea of how the story should go cause I was there for the whole thing, but it wasn’t until we got to editing that we could really start honing in.


DT:  When did Quincy Jones come on?


AH:  Quincy literally walked into the film.  Justin was going back down to Clark’s place in Arkansas, and we were going to shoot them for three weeks.  While we were there, Clark and Gwen got this call saying Quincy and Snoop Dogg wanted to come down and record this album that they’d been planning on doing for years, with Clark doing his mumbles and Snoop Dogg rapping, because Snoop’s a huge fan of Clark’s. Snoop sprained his ankle playing basketball with his son and couldn’t come down, so the recording session was canceled, and it ended up being Quincy just coming to hang out with his teacher. Then he got to hear Justin play and loved it. We were still following Clark and Justin the whole way, and as Quincy took Justin on, that just grew.  But it wasn’t until we got into postproduction that Quincy was able to really come on board and help us, because we’ve got more music in our film than I think almost any other documentary.  There’s fifty-two music cues, then score by two composers.  Everything needed to be cleared, and we’re an independent film.  There’s music from Miles Davis, from Duke Ellington.  With Quincy’s relationship with all these people, he was really able to help us keep that music  in the film.


DT:  Let’s talk about Clark.  Can you pinpoint why his teaching is so extraordinary?


AH:  With Clark it’s not like you walk in and it’s time to teach, the lesson’s started, the hour’s up.  The moment you walk into his house, you’re studying.  It’s every single aspect about the guy. Everything he says is a piece of wisdom, even if you’re just eating dinner.  If you sit down and have a meal with Clark, he’ll tell you all these old jokes, and then you finish the meal and he’ll start talking about Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown…there’s jazz history lessons all over the place.  You’re always studying.  If I was driving to a gig with him, in the car he’d be singing rhythms and telling me about these old drummers and these little things you can do.  It’s a hundred percent of the time.  That’s what’s interesting about Clark, and the way that he leads by example as well.  I’ve seen him handle some really tough situations, and that’s helped me navigate through a lot of tough situations of my own, because I think, How would Clark handle that?  So it’s not conventional, as far as you’ve got your lesson time. He’s never charged a student in his life, either.  He’s not trying to charge kids to learn about jazz.  He just wants to get it out.


DT:  Can you talk about the dynamics of the small ensemble group Clark formed at William Paterson University?  It sounds like a life-changing experience.


AH:  It started off with just a few students jamming at his house.  That went on for a long time, then the university invited him to start an ensemble at the school, and Clark would select students to be in this ensemble.  For years, every Monday night we’d rehearse with Clark; the rehearsals would be four, five, six hours, and Clark would always be the last one standing.  It was crazy.  That became a really cool group of kids, and then we started working with Clark outside the school.  The craziest bit is we’d do these huge sessions with Clark every Monday night, and then he’d say, “Oh Gwen’s cooked up a huge feed, you guys should come over.” We’d go over and hang out and eat and learn some more jazz history, and then we’d have jam sessions after that in his living room.  That went on for years.  We’d be falling asleep in jazz history class the next day because we were up all night getting the jazz history from Clark, but it was just this really special time.  We’re all so lucky to have been in that guy’s presence, and especially at that part of his career, too, cause he was still really strong on the horn.


DT:  At the Q&A after the Tribeca premiere, someone asked about the process of getting your own sound.  As a musician, how do you describe the process of getting your own sound, which was so important to Justin?  I mean, it’s important to every musician, but that was really the crux of Justin’s issue in the film.


AH:  Being a musician myself, I struggle with the same thing.  That’s what made it a comfortable thing for me to approach in the film, because I get it.  Everybody is looking to find their own voice or own sound, but Justin is a very special case because he’s so talented and doesn’t see it.  The thing with Clark…Herbie Hancock says it in the movie:  Clark doesn’t want you to copy him, he wants you to find your own sound.  I’ve been trying just as hard as I can with Clark to excel on my instrument, but transitioning into doing this film, so much of the advice that Clark has given me musically has been able to transcend to this process—that whole thing of trusting what you’re doing and just working really hard.  And repetition, especially with the editing process. Doing those fifteen-hour editing sessions, I would always think about Clark: with the small ensemble, we would do one phrase for two hours, over and over and over.  I feel lucky that I had that training with Clark, because I was able to apply those methods to making a film and navigating through something I’ve never done and didn’t know how to do.  So in a sense he’s helped me find the possibility of a voice in another medium.


DT:  When you were doing the same phrase for two hours, would Clark tell you what he was looking for?


AH:  He’s very specific, and he wouldn’t move on until we’d nailed it.


DT:  What would he say?  The timing is off here, or—


AH:  He’d sing rhythms and melodies, and the way it’s phrased is so important.  In the film you hear that doodle system.  It’s real subtle but superimportant, and he would make the rhythm section play a hundred percent of the time.  He’d just tell us to play softer while he worked with the horn sections, and then he’d sing rhythms to us.  It taught me to not be afraid to keep going until it’s right and pushing the people around you to make sure they do it right.  I was always a bit tentative about making an editor work as hard as they can, but through Clark doing that to us, I felt confident and comfortable pushing people to work harder.  And that’s how this whole thing has been, pushing people with good intention: that’s something Clark has done his whole life.


DT:  What does he say to someone to encourage them to bring out their own voice?


AH:  He simplifies everything.  He’ll slow down a phrase, and then repeat it for an hour.  It makes it clearer because it’s so simple.  He’s got a quote, I think it’s “Imitation, assimilation, and that leads to innovation”—that’s what Clark would always tell us.  You’ve got to imitate the people around you and then start to see where you fit. Then you can start to innovate.  It’s all about the basics with his teaching, but then he could teach anyone, and he has.


DT: For readers who don’t know Clark Terry—he’s not a household name the way Duke Ellington is—why is he so important in the history of jazz?


AH:  He’s at the root of the tree.  He’s right at the beginning.  I’m not a historian, so you’re better off having an historian answer that, but from what I know about Clark’s life, it’s his influence on these major people in music, like Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Quincy Jones, and playing through the swing era into the bebop era, and moving forward.  Musically he’s a huge influence.  Christian McBride says in the film that almost every major jazz musician in our time has learned something from Clark Terry, whether it’s just listening to his records or learning from him personally.  But one of my theories about the reason he’s not a household name like Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis is that he didn’t pursue that.  He was always focused on mastering his craft and also giving it back to the kids.  From the beginning he was like that, so he just didn’t have time to be self-promoting.  He was busy promoting the artform.  And I think in the film something that comes across is how selfless he is.  He’s always thinking about other people.  Even when he’s having those life-or-death moments, he’s thinking about the people he wants to help.


DT:  Last question:  Are you going to continue playing drums, and are you going to keep making films?


AH:  I’ll definitely continue playing drums.  Clark’s been on my case about it, saying that once you get finished with this, you’ve got some work to do.  But I’ve really enjoyed this process. It was a total discovery that we were able to make a movie.  I didn’t know.  With me and Adam it’s just two blokes from Australia who love surfing and playing music, so it’s a total discovery for me.  But I’d really love to get into the narrative world of directing.  It really intrigues me.  I know in jazz you can study with the masters, and I was fortunate to study with Clark.


DT:  I’m sure not everyone can study with the masters.


AH:  Maybe, but I’d love to study with a master director.  I’d love to really get into the process and learn a lot more about it.  I have a lot of ideas swimming around at the moment, but we’ll see how we go.


DT:  You’re hooked.


AH:  I think I am.


Copyright © Director Talk 2014