Welcome to Leith, a partially Kickstarter-funded independent documentary about a small town in North Dakota, is one of the more surprising and impressive documentary films screening this year at Sydney Film Festival. Ahead of its Australian premiere we spoke to the directors of the film, Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker.
So firstly, what I want to ask you about the process of finding this story. I know you’ve said in previous interviews that you first found it from a New York Times article, but beyond the local press, it seemed like you scored this amazing narrative that everyone else had somehow ignored. Why do you think that is?
Michael Beach Nichols: That’s interesting, you see, there were some other film people who came, there was one independent filmmaker who came about a month after we did who we ran into a couple of times, actually National Geographic came out there a couple of months after we did. We were a little bit worried about them, obvious they came out with this huge crew, I think they had like 12 people, they spent a lot of time interviewing people in the town and when we got there for our second trip everyone in the town was pretty exhausted, having spent all that time with them so Chris and I were pretty worried, also because they had so many resources. But their thing ended up just getting shelved, they never did anything with it, so we were pretty glad about that. Also, obviously, we were doing something completely different; I think they did more kind of reality…they were doing re-creations of the patrol [Cobb and Dutton walking around their property with guns] with actors and stuff, so it sounded pretty corny.
Yeah, that sounds horrible.
Michael: It was funny, we were talking to the people in the town and they were telling us about that. So, yeah, we definitely read about it and we just kinda didn’t think that we’d be the only ones, you know, the only serious independent filmmakers, going out there. But once we talked to the mayor and we asked him that; that’s usually kinda the first thing that we ask, especially if you read about something in a big publication like The New York Times, whether anyone is going to be covering it. And at the time, we were the first people out there, so that was something that we felt very confident about. So that was enough for us to buy a plane ticket and head out. And once we were out there, I mean, it was just once we met Ryan and Michelle and the Cooks, Bobby Harper, and Kynan Dutton and Deborah Henderson that was when we realised – and also Gregory Bruce told us that he had been filming all of these city council meetings when Cobb had been getting in people’s faces, and that the big town hall protest, when Jeff Schoep came – when we learned all of that had been documented, all of the stuff that we had missed, we really felt like we had stumbled onto something really powerful and fascinating and strange and scary.
I mean Chris and I were originally just going out there to make a short. We had just paid for the first trip ourselves and went out there and were like ‘this would be a really cool and interesting little short’. And after that first trip, after we met these people and they were so interesting and, you know, good on camera, and the story was so compelling, we wanted to figured out a way to get back out there. And a few days after that trip Cobb and Dutton were arrested for that armed patrol, Chris and I sort of panicked a little bit, because we missed that by a few days and we were just thinking that we had missed it, and then a couple of days after that some of the armed patrol footage surfaced on YouTube, so it became clear that someone had filmed that patrol. So we realised that there was footage that existed and the story had taken this sort of turn and it looked like there could be a resolution. You know, I think part of the idea of making the short was that we had no idea where the story would go and maybe we would just kind of go and get a sense of it, get a feeling for what was happening, but once Cobb and Dutton went to jail, it felt like, you know, there was going to be an ending to this.
When you talk about the YouTube footage and all of the photos that Gregory Bruce took, I think it’s interesting that you guys have almost curated all of this other footage in addition to filming your own. I know Chris, you’ve done a fair bit of editing work before, and this is your feature debut, what was it like to collate all of that footage from photographers, from the internet, and piece it together into a discernible narrative?
Christopher K. Walker: It was a lot of fun, actually. When that stuff comes into your lap it’s kind of like a gold mine. Just as an editor. being able to flesh out the story without being there, for that first quarter of the story was really really helpful. In the editing room we really tried to cut the film in a way that made you feel like you were there, that the audience was there, that the filmmakers were there. We’re not trying to go back in time really, as much as didn’t have to. So yeah, it made things a lot easier in terms of getting the narrative fleshed out.
Definitely. It’s pretty remarkable device that works really well. It’s got this strange feeling; for the most part you guys are using direct cinema – you’re there, there’s no voiceover, hardly any intertitles – and it’s really interesting to see other footage and other people’s filming being brought into it so seamlessly. How was it, as a two-person crew, filming this insane story? Did that help you get access to these people? Because there’s some pretty frank interviews in there.
Christopher: Yeah, like Mike mentioned before, with the National Geographic 12-person crew, I think being lean and mean is the best way to go for these kind of delicate stories because you really want to forge relationships with your subjects, on and off camera, and it’s just much easier when there’s less people around, and people that aren’t used to cameras can get used to one camera and just two people. Having conversations and forgetting the camera is even there. It definitely works towards your advantage, and we try and do that moving forward. We’re actually in Oklahoma right now shooting our next project, so we’re taking that model with us.
Yeah, well, if it ain’t broke…
Christopher: It is hard, though, I will say. I totally think it’s incredibly effective for the type of storytelling that we want to do, but in that – it’s just the two of us; we’re going and we’re lugging two tripods, a slider, monopod, we have two cameras, so we’re sort of carrying everything with us, awkwardly some times, and it just gets kind of exhausting to be a two-person crew. And also I’ve got the sound mixer strapped to my chest. We’re also trying to produce while we’re out there at the exact same time; I can’t just walk away and take a phone call, so it’s kind of like a juggling act, but you try and make the best of it, and I think we made the best of it in Leith.
I know you both Kickstarted your previous documentary Flex is King, and you used Kickstarter to raise some of the money for post-production in Leith. Do you think a certain type of documentary cinema is going to have to use crowdfunding to move forward?
Michael: I think it’s a great option. I mean, as far as we know, documentaries actually do better on Kickstarter than narrative films. I totally can’t remember where I heard that, I feel like I read that in an article or heard it from someone who worked for Kickstarter. I feel like the old model of trying to get grants, especially if you’re a new filmmaker, I think it’s really really difficult to get any kind of grants. I mean, we applied for all of the grants for Flex is King and we didn’t get anything. Welcome to Leith we applied for all the grants and got one grant. So it’s really difficult and I think Kickstarter provides that amazing way of not only funding your edit or your production but you get this built-in audience that follows you, and I think they’re rooting for you in some ways.
It’s interesting that you used the internet as financing off-screen, but actually within the film there’s this subtext about the internet as a tool for connecting disparate groups – you’ve got the forums for the white supremacists, Facebook where (presumably) Gregory Bruce is posting his photos. I saw that on the Dazed Digital article where you guys hosted a clip from the film, the only comment on there is from Gregory Bruce, which was a bit surreal, seeing real life interact with the film like that. Did you expect any blowback online from some of those particular forums?
Christopher: It certainly was a risk, you know, when we were building our Kickstarter campaign we were like, well, not sure what kind of incentives we can offer, it’s a very delicate subject matter.
Michael: And we weren’t totally done filming.
Christopher: Yeah, so we still had to do the interview with Jeff Schoep in Detroit, the leader of the NSM. So we had to be very delicate and careful. Still today we don’t want to, like, censor people but we also don’t want just…
Christopher: Yeah, trolling.
Michael: When Sundance was announced, and kind of during Sundance there was some trolling on the Facebook page. You know, and that’s going to happen. We know that they’re paying attention to the film, the white supremacists, and we see that online, they’re posting about it on forums and so, yeah, it’s a strange sort of exposure for Chris and I, as filmmakers knowing that a lot of these groups use personal information if they are displeased with you to sort of intimidate you. We haven’t had that happen to us at all, and we don’t necessarily think it is going to happen to us with this film. When white supremacists see the film we think they might like it; we think we did a very objective job in letting everyone sort of speak for themselves and I think if you have a certain viewpoint this film’s not necessarily going to change what you believe.
I would agree with that. I find it interesting that when you did the Kickstarter, I guess it’s because you hadn’t finished filming, the campaign came across more like ‘here’s a small town under siege’, whereas the film itself almost flips that around. It’s a very objective look, and I think a very nuanced look, at civil liberties, because as the film goes on you kind of realise that not everything is black and white, and that someone’s moral ‘right’ is completely different from the legal right.
Christopher: Yeah, you nailed it on the head right there.
I studied law at university, so as soon as the film started moving towards Cobb’s trial the film became interesting is a very different way, particularly since the charges against him felt a bit drummed up. This guy’s civil liberties actually were being impinged upon even though, an hour earlier, you never would have expected that’s where the film would have gone. That’s why it came off so even-handed, you spoke to both parties. The film also speaks to access the law, and that people don’t have a strong understanding of how the legal system works, which warps people’s understandings of what is right and wrong, particularly in such a small and isolated town like Leith.
Michael: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. I think a lot of people in the town were struggling with the idea that Cobb had these legal rights, and it was difficult to separate out his beliefs from what had actually happened in the town.
Mike, I know that in an interview with IndieWire you talked about how one of your biggest influences on the film was Errol Morris, and that definitely shows in your cinematography, there’s these gorgeous shots of the landscape and the isolation of the town, and you’ve got this almost snarling musical score that goes with it to keep everything tense. Were you focused on sustaining this sense of dread?
Michael: Yeah, well Chris shot a lot of the film with me as well. I think, going into it, we definitely had the idea to approach it like a horror film in a lot of ways. The Errol Morris influence came in when we were sort of gonna make one trip out there, it would be a short film, and we wanted to do the interviews the same way he does – wide angles, you can see the whole environment and you’re asking these really interesting questions of people and you can see how and where they live. We were thinking of Gates of Heaven in a lot of ways.
Yeah I definitely saw some of Vernon, Florida in the interviews here.
Michael: Yeah, so that was very conscious. When you know that a white supremacist is plotting to take over this town in the middle of nowhere and then to go there and see what the town looks like, with these abandoned houses and crumbling structures, it’s really not a leap to be cinematically able to use that horror/western cinematic language when approaching the film. When we approached T. Griffin, our composer, we wanted his score to have this other worldly feel but still be organic, but just not be able to know what kind of instrument is coming out. We wanted it to have that horror feel in the strings, an almost violent soundscape.
Christopher: The abrupt ends to the music with picture cuts was something we used pretty much, I think like four or five times throughout the film, building score and then it just kinda drops it cuts to a wide of nothingness.
It’s certainly effective, especially with those month-long intertitles, where it breaks in to show you the passing of time. I also like that the film ends with a resolution but is totally open tot he idea that not everything is resolved. It’s this interesting snapshot of a time.
Christopher: Well, definitely. There’s certainly some stuff still happening there.
I had a look at the Leith website, the official town website, because there’s an ongoing legal battle happening with the mayor and the burning down of that house in the film, with some political or judicial campaign tied up in it. It’s baffling to think that there’s still some story there, even though Cobb’s gone and the central narrative you capture in your film is gone, there’s still something strange happening in Leith.
Michael: It’s interesting, that fire that Mayor Schock is being charged with. We have footage of that fire, we have cellphone footage from the people who are charging Ryan with a reckless burn. That used to end the film and we ended up taking it out because it was taking the film in a different direction and it didn’t really make sense, and these people weren’t really in the film. I don’t know, Chris, what did –
Christopher: Yeah, these people were really, they were actually really interesting, the people putting charges up against Mayor Schock, they bought property off of Cobb the weekend before the news broke, and they didn’t know who he was. And the reason Cobb sold his property to them is he needed a little bit of extra cash. They were just these out-of-towners from Wisconsin and were eccentric people and the whole town reacted negatively to them, not believing that they were not white supremacists. They thought that they were with Cobb, that they were going undercover and pretending not to be white supremacists, so they had a hard time integrating into the town. And so we would kinda catch up with them on each of our trips to see how that was going and then after we left the third time, is when their little cottage that they bought was burned, then they sent us the cellphone footage and we tried to end the film with that but it felt like a double ending, and they weren’t really that central to the narrative, people would be like “who is that?” and the footage was too shaky. But there’s definitely like a whole other short film with these people.
Your composer, T. Griffin, he also composed the score for The Overnighters, the Jesse Moss’ film which is also set in North Dakota, and it seems like the oil fields out there are becoming — it’s not a movement per se but it’s a focus, you guys touch on it, Jesse Moss has, even Albert Maysles final film, In Transit, has a section about the oil fields and workers there. Why do you think that that has become a sort of focus for independent American documentary cinema?
Christopher: I think North Dakota is definitely a place that isn’t really thought about, at least for Americans on the coasts, middle America isn’t really shown in a light like that, and when a transformation is happening, where the culture is changing rapidly, doc filmmakers are drawn to that region because of that. And the landscape is beautiful and the people are great. Just like the oil was untapped, it was an untapped resource for story.
Michael: I think so many people are drawn to it, it’s like a gold rush basically, so you’re getting all different types of people from all over going to this place and you’re going to get all these clashes and strange things happening when you have all these outsiders congregating in this small town.
It makes for a very interesting dynamic. So you’re filming in Oklahoma right now, how does this new film compare to Leith? Will you be Kickstarting that production as well?
Michael: Well we’re taking a lighter approach on our next project; we needed a break. So we’re looking at rodeo culture out in Oklahoma. We’re drawn back to middle America but we’re down a bit, south of North Dakota and kind of looking at it from a more cultural approach, more cinema verite. This is our first trip out here so we’re just trying to figure it out, so I don’t know about a Kickstarter for it or anything at this point.
That’s good, though, even with Welcome to Leith that approach of near-improvisation; you’re figuring it out as you go along, finding the puzzle pieces. It’s a more organic sense of documentary filmmaking.
Well that’s me done for questions. Thank you very much for having a chat with me.
Michael: Thanks a lot, we really appreciate it.
Welcome to Leith screens on the 6th and 8th of June at Sydney Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.