Interview: Josh Fox; director of GasLand.

Interview: Josh Fox; director of GasLand. By Simon Miraudo.

GasLand is one of the year’s best films. It’s a thought-provoking documentary about “fracking” (short for ‘hydraulic fracturing’), which is the controversial method used by the natural gas industry to harvest oil and natural gas deposits (and might be poisoning the water of innocent Americans in the process). But GasLand is about much more. It’s a heartbreaking account of the abandoned people living in America – specifically the community of Dimock, Pennsylvania – and a journey of self-discovery for director Josh Fox. If I may tear a quote from my own review: “He begins the film as an unassuming yet inquisitive American citizen, and ends it as a spokesperson against an impending environmental disaster.” I jumped at the opportunity to speak to Fox about his fascinating film. Although we shared a broken phone line (which led to many awkward interruptions on both of our parts), he offered up some candid insights into his one-man production; from his proudest moments to his biggest regrets.

SM: When the film begins, you’re kind of chilling out at home. I’m interested in what your life was before you embarked on this project.

JF: Well, I’m a theatre director, and I’ve made one previous feature film. I actually have a fairly unusual job, which is that I run my own theatre company. It is one of the more well-known downtown companies, but we also perform all over the world. It’s kind of a break-the-mould, avant-garde company called International Wow (which is the production company of the film also) and we have – since 1996, so basically the last fifteen years – created large epic theatre pieces with actors from all over the world. We rehearse those in New York; we rehearse in Thailand, Japan, Philippines, and we also rehearse in Pennsylvania. So that is kind of my job. That is my job. I founded the company. So when this came into my life, I was actually in Pennsylvania for two months, because I was going to dedicate those two months to both finishing the edit of my feature film, but also to [attend] Barack Obama’s primary campaign in Pennsylvania. So I just so happened to be there for that period of time, to soak up the breadth of that controversy as it was headed towards me. So I wasn’t just like sitting around at home…

SM: Sure.

JF: I make four or five plays a year, and I was in the process of learning how to make a feature film.

SM: I definitely didn’t want to imply that you were lazing around.

JF: (Laughs) No, no, you weren’t. It’s funny, because we had versions of the film were we included my life in New York City, my life as a theatre director, but it was kind of self-indulgent and beside the point, so we took it out.

SM: I think that’s actually one of the best parts of the film. A film I was reminded of was Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, which is a very different type of documentary; it’s almost a half-fantasy if you will. But it’s about a director using a mission to learn about himself.

JF: Yeah, I had traveled throughout America. And I love to travel; I go all over the world through my work at the theatre. But I hadn’t been across the United States since ’95. So when the opportunity came to investigate this from where it was happening, in those places in the west – and of course in addition to Pennsylvania – I was really interested to see not only what was out there, but how I had changed in ten years. Trust me, there were a lot of campfire shots where I’m sitting there talking to the camera (laughs). That journey of self-discovery was in there; we just took it out. It was unnecessary. I wanted to be in the film as little as possible.

SM: Can you share with us what you learnt about yourself? If there was anything you found, even in the process of making the film, not just the period of travel.

JF: You know, I always sort of thought about my work as a director. With actors, I’m asking for the deepest level of their integrity as human beings to put us down on stage. And I think what I learnt is that in the real world, with real people, that that works and that actually really makes life better. In so many projects, as a director and a playwright, you want to see it the way you want it. There’s this constant push and pull between the subject matter, the actors, the text, what’s going to happen on stage vs what you want to create. In this case, you just have to listen. It’s their story. So I think I learned a certain kind of attentiveness and letting it go; letting the thing happen by itself. But also that the cultural stereotypes in America, that I was afraid of initially – like going to Texas , going to Wyoming – were totally irrelevant when it came to how people can connect.

SM: That’s interesting. I think a lot of our readers are interested in how one puts together an independent film. You mentioned you’ve done a feature film before; I think documentaries can be especially tricky. It’s not the same process of lining up a cast, but there is still the need to get funding and get a crew, and work out a structure. Like you mentioned, you cut out a lot of the self-discovery stuff. I’m wondering what was the first reason you picked up the camera for GasLand?

JF: Well I had actually learned how to shoot, because I was taping video; taping my own place. So I always had a camera. I really was, for a large part of it, a one man crew. I had the camera, I had the mikes, I had the tripod. And then I had people who got very interested and involved – principally Matt Sanchez, my editor – who then taught me a lot of stuff. I think the learn-as-you-go approach is fine as long as you have sound that works O.K. I like the first person aesthetic. There really wasn’t a crew ever on the movie. Matt and I, when we shot together, we figured out what camera sound is taken, and what angles; but when I was on my own, you know, you literally walk in and out of frame with the camera out at arm’s length or you’re in the shot.

SM: When you’re by yourself, do you find it hard to put together a plan?

JF: The great thing about a documentary is that you can’t plan it. You get what you get. You have to have a nose for it, I think. Where are you gonna go next? Just play your instincts. But there was so much of this material that I didn’t have any problem. I mean, the time we spent shooting … some people think ‘Oh, this must have taken you a year to shoot!’ And yeah, there was the sporadic moment, but the majority of the road trip was a month-long. We had so many people that wanted to talk to us. I guess the best – and this is how I work in the theatre as well, we work as we go. We find the story in the rehearsal. So by the time of opening night comes, you have to have finished the play. So that’s a high wire act that I’m used to. And in this case it just meant starting “here” and following my nose and where it ends up is where it ends up. And we ended up pretty much stopping so that we could edit it for the Sundance Film Festival. One of the last things we ended up shooting was the D.C. hearing [Ed: the film’s conclusion, in which members of congress are asked to defend their involvement with the natural gas industry], and I think it was extremely amazing that that happened. I mean the timing was extraordinary. I get the letter in April, I start investigating this situation throughout the summer to figure out what I’m really dealing with here and to clear my schedule, I get on the road in January and February and head to Dimock. April and May is the road trip. We edit a bit. June is the DC hearings. There were things that happened over the summer that we got, that were going on in New York City. And then our deadline was in October. And that was unbelievable.

SM: That is an extremely tight schedule, and it’s interesting with these small films that you can make something in six months or so. How do you feel about distribution?

JF: Just to add onto the last question. When you’re doing a documentary by yourself, you can achieve a level of intimacy and honesty and trust that you might not be able to with a big crew. Because all of a sudden you’ve got a lot of crew people there and everyone’s under a lot of pressure to perform; you’ve got to sit down, you’ve got lights, you know? When I was on my own, it was … simpler. And of course nobody knew who I was; there was no kind of notoriety attached to what I was doing. When it was [Wyoming rancher] John Fenton and I, it was just two guys standing in the middle of a field talking. It becomes what I see as this amazing American monologue that he delivered right then and there; and it was just this thing that happened between two people, and now of course that’s been witnessed by millions. That’s amazing, you know? I think there’s an advantage to that; there’s an advantage to staying small. I couldn’t imagine going into a documentary situation with more than that.

SM: Is there any concern when you’re a small production of two people, that because you don’t have producers at this point, it’ll be harder to get seen? I guess this leads into my distribution question. Obviously you got into Sundance, but at what point did you start getting attention?

JF: Before I got into Sundance, I had no idea what a sales deal was. All these people kept calling me; we got calls from Sony Pictures Classics and CAA, and everybody in the whole universe seems to call you when you get into Sundance. I didn’t answer the phone because we hadn’t finished the movie. You’ve got the whole world calling you, wanting to represent you, or buy the movie, but we weren’t done. So I was like ‘We can’t deal with any of this, or learn any of this, until we actually finish the movie’. And we finished the movie the day before Sundance. So then I showed up there and asked ‘Well, what’s supposed to happen here? I hope people like the movie.’ And then everyone was like, ‘Well you’re supposed to sell the movie here’ and I’m like ‘I don’t want to sell it, it’s mine’. I mean, this is ridiculous right? Now I know a lot more about it (laughs), but I think we lucked out. I think we lucked out in America, with the HBO thing, because that brought us into 40 million homes, and that changed the game. And I think clearly we’ve lucked out in Australia, because [distributor] Palace is awesome, and they’re doing an amazing job.

SM: Do you remain in touch with the people of Dimock, or the people you’ve come across in the doco? I imagine, as in the film, they’re invested in you and the film.

JF: We’re very, very close. In a lot of these cases we’re very, very close. I’m going to celebrate Thanksgiving in Dimock. I mean, this is not just a film, it’s a major struggle, and we’re all fighting for each other. I think the people in this film are really grateful to the response that the film has had, you know, and get out there with me at every possible chance to go talk about it. But we all continue to have various roles in the media to talk about these things. And there have been CBS … national news magazine stories a lot of the people in the film, just because they’re in those hot spots. So there’s an ongoing dialogue. Because the objective of the film is certainly not to be in a film, and not to gain any kind of attention through this, but to actually stop it. That’s not happened yet. And we’re working our tails off trying to fix the situation, to appeal to the government, to appeal to the news media, to say ‘Please, deal with this s**t because this is craziness’. When you get to the point where you’re literally being poisoned in your home, you have to go out to the media, you have to go out and do things you wouldn’t want to ordinarily do.

SM: I think to that point, as you go along – and every journalist asks this of themselves- is there a question you wish you had asked, or an interview you wish you had gotten?

JF: Yeah, Dick Cheney.

SM: I assume you reached out to him obviously, but how far along in the process …

JF: (Laughs) Of course we had no chance. You know, that’s a really good question. I think there’s always parts of a story that need more illumination. And there are several objectives right now I’m working on trying to accomplish. One thing I didn’t answer, is the way … the objective of the film from the beginning was something quite modest on the one hand, and on the other hand we were looking to get a mainstream eye on this problem, so that’s definitely in there. But the other thing that was in there, was we wanted to have people – ranchers of a certain cultural mindset , like the guys out in Wyoming – talk directly to people in Pennsylvania who are all around me who are leasing who think and talk a little bit differently than me. There’s a cultural divide, and I wanted that direct form of communication. As it was, with me being a director and being in the media spotlight with HBO, there became a ‘Hollywood factor’ that I think unfortunately made some of the people who I was making the film for tune out, or at least be more susceptible to the criticism of it. So all of a sudden: ‘Oh that Hollywood movie; that’s not who we are.’ When in fact what I was trying to do is get those people in a conversation with each other. And I wish in a way, there had been time to go to them with the thing before Sundance, and before the craziness began, so they could see it for what it really is, which is just a simple document to say to my neighbours, or to the other people in those situations, ‘You don’t want to do this’.

GasLand arrives in select Australian cinemas on November 18, 2010. Check out our review of GasLand here.

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