Cousins and directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo recently released Rich Hill, a beautiful, intimate documentary about three families in the town of Rich Hill, Missouri. Both filmmakers grew up visiting family in the town, and returned to document the changing scenery through the eyes of three teenage boys: Appachey, Andrew, and Harley. We spoke to Droz Tragos about what it meant for her to return to the area as a filmmaker, as well as about some films that inspired her.
What inspired you to make Rich Hill?
It was an excuse to go back to this place that I loved and missed. My grandparents died about ten years ago and that was a real loss. I hadn’t been back very much since then. When Andrew [Droz Palermo] and I started to talk about it, I immediately, selfishly, just wanted to do it for personal reasons. I also knew very quickly that it could be very important—more than just a nostalgia piece. A lot of families were struggling over the years. [There were] more and more houses and tarps on the roof, and trash piles in the front yards, and broken windows. We really wanted to knock on their doors and go inside and understand what was going on.
How did that make you feel? This is a place you have a personal history with, but you're coming back almost as an outsider.
There’s a fence that I felt like I was on. We got to go there, and many people knew us from the get-go, and knew of us because maybe they’d seen my first film and thought I’d done a decent job. But at the same time, I hadn’t been there probably in ten years. I was very much an outsider. You don’t see your kids grow up when you’re with them every day, you don’t see the changes. Or maybe you’re gaining weight and you don’t see it over time until your pants get really tight. It’s hard to see the changes in your town if you’re living there, but if you’re an outsider...I could go back and see what was different and compare it to what I’d experienced and seen as a kid. The town has experienced a decline. There were cumulatively more houses that were in disrepair, and fewer businesses.
How did you decide who to focus on?
We didn’t know at first. I’d never met Andrew, Harley and Appachey before. I’d never met their families before. We met Appachey in gym class and had a conversation with him that was so intense. It was very brief. He was so soulful and thoughtful and smart, but his skin was chapped and his clothes were torn and it was the middle of winter. There was a lot going on for him. That was something that never made it into the movie, but we wanted to go back and visit with his family. The second time we saw him was when he was being interviewed on the back of the truck in the first part of the film. We met Andrew in the park. He was playing the tough guy with a bunch of kids around some picnic tables, but then we went home with him and were so warmly welcomed. It was so striking to me how much we were welcomed into the homes and appreciated for being there. I think there was a notion of "Nobody’s knocking on our door, nobody really sees us." By the simple fact that we were wanting to bear witness and hear what they had to say... they were grateful, and I am grateful that they were so brave and welcoming.
Had you not spent time there before you started to make the documentary, do you think it would have gone the way it did?
Probably not. That doesn’t mean that it’s a requirement for every film and every filmmaker, but sometimes I do think what are the stories that I’m qualified to tell, that wouldn’t be told unless I tell them. That’s kind of a key right off the bat. Rich Hill is not unique, it’s pretty average in its circumstances but it is a place I have deep connections with, so yes, Andrew and I working together would be pretty much the two people that could have told this story. We never would have had that access and that trust initially had we not had the deep ties to that community.
It was mostly just you and Andrew filming. Did the small crew factor into the access you got?
That totally factors into it. At times we would have a sound system. For our first shoot we had to borrow a camera, and it was a lot heavier and had these crazy lenses. We also had an assistant camera person, but pretty soon we whittled it down—part of it was financial and part of it was our access. The intimate moments we wanted to have couldn't happen when it was more than just us there. Not using a boom mic also helped sometimes, for some reason even more than the camera, the boom mic was an object of distraction.
What were you watching or reading leading up to the making of Rich Hill?
We talked a lot about things that we didn’t want to do. The reality television approach of something that may be a bit more sensitive—we knew there were things we didn’t want to do [like that]. It’s always good to have a reference that way too: films you admire, and films you kind of want to do something different from. There were narrative works that we were inspired by: Ballast was a film that we saw that really inspired us. There was a film that came out right before ours called Only the Young which has such a beautiful treatment.
As a documentary, it’s hard sometimes to take a narrative approach where you don’t have outside experts and statistics, we knew we wanted to take that approach. We knew we wanted it to be really emotional and up close and intimate. There was another film called Bombay Beach that we both watched with similar subject matter and similar in its risk taking. It took risks in a different kind of way—it broke out into song and dance, which we didn’t do. Those are films specifically that come to mind. Of course, there are documentaries that both Andrew and I talked about. One of my favorite films is Grey Gardens, and Harlan County USA, these are films that I admire, I think in part because they’re not strictly vérité. We knew that we wanted to spend lot of time just in observation, but we also wanted to have conversation, so we kind of moved in and out of that. We didn’t have formal sit down interviews. We didn’t light anything. But we would talk to the kids and the families, go in and out of their lives and what they were doing. We’d have times where we were just quiet. We would be there and just hang out. With a few exceptions, we had to do a sit down interview with Harley’s mom in prison, because those were the parameters of her circumstances, but that was the one exception.
You kept things very intimate and focused on these three families.
We hoped that we could move people and have a conversation around the film. We thought, if an organization wants to use a film, we would want to make this available to them and they can bring their statistics and they can do their Powerpoint presentation, but this will be the film. This is going to be a human story. I will also say that in the process of making and researching the film we did spend time with people in and around the community. Some of that we used as information to inform our film, some of that ended up allowing for access later on. I’ll give you an example: we sat down with the principal of the school. We had a couple of interviews with him. We didn’t light it, but he was sitting at his desk because thats where he wanted to be. We had a conversation with him about kids, and these kids in particular. It was our instinct that we weren’t going to use it, but we wanted to have that conversation, and because we had had it, when Harley was having that day where he wanted to walk out [of school], he trusted us. He knew our intentions. We had a relationship—we had a dialog with him that allowed us to do that.
Now that it's so easy to find and watch most films, documentaries seem to be more popular than ever. What documentaries inspired you?
I’m not going to pull out anything terribly obscure. I do really appreciate personal documentaries. I love Stories We Tell. This year on the festival circuit I’ve been really excited about two films, in part because they just really resonate with me personally as a mother and a wife, and somebody who is also trying to make my films and do my own stuff and just balancing that. A film called Actress that Robert Greene made, and a film called 112 Weddings. I think I fall into the camp of a person who loves watching documentaries, and for the most part I really do appreciate lots of different forms of documentaries. I don’t think that documentary itself is a genre. I think that there are lots of different genres of documentaries, and that’s what I’m excited about, especially when the lines are blurred and we can just make films. I’m excited about Boyhood because it has a lot of documentary technique and roots in the way that in its very concept and premise—I love that and am so excited about that. I have an MFA in screenwriting. I started off from a narrative perspective and I loved the notion, the opportunity to blur those lines. At the same time, what I love about documentaries and what I miss in narratives that are too slick, is things being authentic.
Is that what drew you to making documentaries?
Part of it, and part of it is the accessibility—just being able to greenlight yourself. It’s a little bit harder to greenlight narrative. You can be a lean crew for a documentary. The accessibility of just picking up a camera... the barriers to entry, perhaps, are a little lower.
Your films seem to very much be a specific personal vision that takes that concept to heart.
I think it will often start from a personal place, but it doesn’t always have to. I don’t think that’s a rule—that you have to have a personal connection. I think you find it in the making of a film. I’m approaching now a couple of films that I wouldn’t necessarily—if you just looked on paper you wouldn’t understand what my personal connection might be, but there’s always something there that arouses curiosity or a connection. That’s how you can endure the lean times—when you have that personal drive to see something through.
Rich Hill is in select theaters and available on iTunes now.