Rich Hill (T/F 2014) takes an intimate approach to the subject of poverty in a small Missouri town just 70 miles south of Kansas City. In lieu of analysts and “experts”, we meet Andrew, Harley and Appachey, three boys whose families are struggling just to get by. With startling directness, the trio invite us into their lives and share their hopes for the future.
This film, declared “essential viewing” by Scott Tobias of The Dissolve, was directed by Tracy Droz Tragos and her cousin and former Columbia resident Andrew Droz Palermo. It recently returned to Columbia and is playing at Ragtag Cinema through Thursday, September 25 . I got the chance to talk with Tracy on the phone about Rich Hill and about creating and capturing authentic moments. In the course of our conversation some things arose which I would consider spoilers, so you may want to see the film before reading this interview.
T/F: Could you start by telling me about your relationship with the place?
TDT: Rich Hill is my family home town. It is where my father grew up. He was killed in Vietnam when I was a baby. So my relationship with his parents was very important to me, they were like surrogate parents. My mom was a working mom, so whenever school was out, I would go back to Rich Hill, winter break, spring break, summer. It was like a second home to me.
As an adult I hadn’t gone back quite as much since my grandparents died. But I really wanted to reconnect to this place that had been so important and formative to me. I also knew that there were a lot of people there who were struggling.
T/F: Do you think it is harder to make a film about rural poverty or for people to think about rural poverty?
TDT: Yeah, that was certainly part of why I wanted to make the film. I didn’t feel like there was enough films made about folks from rural communities.
It’s very distinct. There is isolation and there are fewer resources. If you are living in a rural community, and you don’t have a job or can’t find a job, it means you have to go somewhere else. But if you don’t have a car or you don’t have money for gas you’re kind of stuck where you are. And you are isolated.
T/F: Yeah, that’s definitely a theme in the film, the feeling of isolation.
TDT: Yeah, and I think there are different kinds of isolation. I think for Andrew who had to move so often, it’s not being tied to community and not being seen. The isolation being invisible and just sort of falling through the cracks.
T/F: Could you tell me about the three boys and the process of selecting them. Did you film with other boys?
TDT: Yeah, absolutely, we filmed other families. I was just talking about that because I’m now embarking on the front end of other projects and it’s a very similar kind of place, which can be a bit scary and unknown. It’s about casting a wide net and talking to people. You don’t always know who the voice of your film will be.
We found our main families in different ways. We first met Appachey in gym class. We had a very brief conversation with him that was so moving and soulful. He was hungry and his clothes were ripped and his face was kind of chapped. And he was so smart and talked in such an intelligent way, we were drawn to him and just wanted to get to know him more. Our next trip we met his family and it evolved from there.
We met Andrew at the park. He was practicing his fighting skills with some other kids. He was acting the tough guy at first which wasn’t particularly interesting, but when we went home with him the tough guy thing fell away. He was so loving with his family and they were so loving in return. They were also so welcoming of us, there really was a sense of “You care about us? You’re interested in hearing our story? Absolutely!” He had just moved back to Rich Hill.
We met Harley through his grandmother. We were in his home, where he lives with eight members of his extended family. The couch where we often see him waking up, that’s where he sleeps, that’s his spot. We were talking with his grandmother and ended up waking him up. He told us then about his mother being in prison. There’s a line or two from that very first time we met him that’s in the film.
T/F: What’s True/False about your film?
TDT: (Laughs) Well, what’s true is that these are real people, real lives, real families, real stories.
I don’t know if I would say anything is false. I would say it is subjective, it’s very much a film we intended to make. There’s definitely the hand of the filmmaker even though it’s observation. The families and the kids in the film feel like we told there truth, which I think is the most important thing. When they first saw it they said that it was real, so on that score I feel like we did justice.
But there is the hand of the filmmaker. What is false? Is it false to put music in? Is it false to edit out stuff or compress time? The techniques of filmmaking are inherently constructed and there is some lens through which everything is seen, so in some way you could say it is false. But I’d reject that word.
T/F: The boys interact so much with the camera and explain their lives directly to us, or to you or Andrew. Was that always your approach?
TDT: We knew we didn’t want to be purists in terms of, it’s going to be verite or it’s going to be observation only or it’s going to be X, Y or Z. I think it has to be authentic and about how the kids see themselves. We couldn’t pretend we weren’t there and we couldn’t be poker faced. We also didn’t want to have a ton of talking heads and sit down interviews. It’s more about coming in and out of conversation with them when it felt warranted, when they were doing things that were natural and of their character. They were collaborators in a way.
We were very clear that we didn’t want statistics or to have outside experts that weren’t a part of their lives commenting on them.
T/F: Was there ever a danger of what they were giving you becoming too performative or too constructed?
TDT: Sure, I mean, there’s always that danger. We weren’t a huge crew, so there wasn’t a feeling of total obtrusiveness. I suppose we were helped because they saw me as a bit of a mother figure. Any sort of tough guy thing or puffing up their chests or even any sort of Jackass tendencies was not something I was interested in, and I think they knew that. They knew that this didn’t need to be the face that they prepared for the rest of the world, and the guard could be let down a little bit.
T/F: Could you tell me a little about your collaboration with Andrew in that respect. He did all of the cinematography, is that right?
TDT: Yeah, that’s his background and his talent. I come from a documentary background and I did the talking and being with people. It was part of my job in a way to make sure the camera disappeared, so that when there was interaction they could focus on me.
It was very much a collaboration. After we shot we would edit together. We would cut scenes together and talk about the approach we were taking and how we would move forward. That would happen after every shoot.
T/F: Is there any particular moment in the film that was the most surprising to you, either when you were filming it, or when you went back and watched the footage?
TDT: Hmm, well, the Halloween walk where Harley reveals that he was raped. It was something that we’d known before, but it often kind of flows to the surface for him. It was something that he didn’t often talk about, but he really wanted to get off his chest.
When we were revisiting the footage, Andrew was actually working on that scene and at first wanted to cut out all the stuff about the chocolate and the rest of the lead up. And I was like no, you have to keep that in, even though it felt so long. That was how he was and that was how it gradually rose to the surface.
T/F: Oh yeah, that scene really stands out to me thinking back on the film. It’s interesting that he’s wearing a costume at the time as well, like maybe he feels protected behind it.
TDT: Yeah, it’s interesting he has a mask on. Our editor (Jim Hession) talked about the significance which I didn’t feel like we knew in the moment, that he had this mask on and then once he shared, the next scene is his grandma taking off this mask.
Moments rise to the surface. I think also the arm wrestling between Andrew and his dad at the very end. By being where it is that scene has layers to it that maybe it didn’t have in the moment, by the context of where it is in the film. I think ultimately it was true to what was happening in their relationship and kind of fulfillment.
T/F: The last thing I wanted to ask you about was finishing the film. Specifically, the way you used music and how you thought about the tone you were trying to set.
TDT: We thought a lot about the music. We brought Nathan (composer Nathan Halpern) on, he was an amazing composer and we were so honored to work with him. We did something interesting, not all films get to do, and I would love to do as often as I could. We brought our sound designer and our composer and our editor out for a spotting session before we completely locked picture. We went through every moment of the film and talked where the score would take the lead and where the recorded sound should take precedence.
There’s so much that goes into scoring a film. Going back to that Halloween walk, we brought music in, but we didn’t want to bring it in too soon to anticipate his reveal. It’s a balance. We also used foley (reproduction of everyday sounds) in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated, mostly with hand-gestures, to bring an audience more into the head-space of the kids.
The underlying intention to the score for the whole film was to allow for moments of transcendence, a hymnal quality. And we wanted use music to put our audience in a place where they could notice the small details and reflect.