Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker have produced eye-popping, gritty fare before, including an acclaimed film about street dancing, Flex Is Kings, and the HBO film Hard Times: Lost in Long Island (which Walker edited), but making Welcome to Leith was a different experience altogether. The award-winning directorial duo went from urban New York to remote, rural North Dakota to make a film that put them on the, well, map, to record the tense story of notorious white supremacist Craig Cobb’s attempted takeover of a small town. The end result is a “cautionary tale [that] couldn’t be more timely or essential” (LA Times).
Welcome to Leith is “is a sober, terrifying look at the very real monsters roaming the quiet countryside,” adds Bilge Ebiri in New York Magazine, and “haunting…a stunning portrait of First Amendment rights pushed to their extremes” (IndieWire). The film makes its television debut on Independent Lens on PBS Monday, April 4 at 10pm [check local listings]. Directors Nichols and Walker talked to us about how making this tense, taut film — that includes subjects who were armed and dangerous — took its own psychological toll.
Why did you make this film?
Because the story was incredibly compelling and contained several themes we were interested in exploring (racism, civil liberties, first amendment rights).
And how did you first learn of the Leith situation and what made you decide to quickly mobilize to start capturing it as a film? It must have taken you awhile to set up and get the lay of the land as events were already unfolding.
In town, the houses are clustered fairly close together given the empty prairie enveloping it on all sides. This layout meant that we’d be filming with the family of white supremacists during the first part of a day, and then go literally across the street and film with their neighbors for the second part of the day. We were open with both sides about wanting to tell the whole story, but it still felt surreal to keep going back and forth. Part of what was so fascinating about the story was that what Cobb and his followers were attempting was completely legal. Chris and I were captivated by Cobb’s motivations and the implications of his plan for Leith and what that could mean for other small towns in America if people started following in his footsteps.
How did you gain the trust of main players in this story on both sides of the issue?
We were as transparent as possible about wanting to tell the complete story from the perspective of everyone involved in the situation, and everyone who participated in the film understood that. As well, I think it helped that we were a two-person crew – this allowed us the intimacy necessary to tell such a delicate and charged story.
Did you experience any culture shock, coming from the East Coast to a very rural part of the Midwest?
Leith’s isolation struck us immediately. After driving two hours from Bismarck and passing maybe 10 cars on a two-lane highway, we turned onto a dirt road and drove another three miles. Our GPS didn’t work, and we ended up driving into a small crick on some farmland, getting stuck. We had to call the Mayor and hike up a hill so he could find us and pull us out. It was a rough start, but we like to think we endeared ourselves to the town once that story got out.
There’s a creepy element to the film, not just the plot but the setting and the tension and everything. Did you strive to make it feel that way as you were shooting and then editing it?
We approached the project in many ways as a documentary version of a horror film — everyone was scared and confused and felt as if one wrong move could end in violence. The tension was palpable. To help convey that, we embraced some tropes of genre filmmaking — slow push-ins, disorienting glidecam, long b-roll establishing shots. Some of the editing in the cell phone-filmed armed patrol borrows from the [horror anthology] V/H/S, and then our composer, T. Griffin, came up with an absolutely haunting, otherworldly score.
What were some of the other challenges you faced in making Welcome to Leith?
Finding production funding was tricky, too. After our first trip, we decided to cut a teaser and post it online to see what would happen. Luckily, it went viral and received nearly 22K views in a day, resulting in a lot of interest. This is how we partnered up with The Cinemart and Sundial Pictures, who financed our next two production trips and allowed us to turn what we thought would be a short into a feature-length film.
The film took a psychological toll on us, as well. It wasn’t possible to distance ourselves from the fear and anxiety that was coursing through the town — everyone was armed and preparing for the worst. And it was frequently disturbing listening to the ideologies of the white supremacists who participated in the film. These networks are frequently violent, and that’s something we’ve had to come to terms with as the film goes out into the world.
What would you like viewers of Welcome to Leith to take away from it, as far as points of discussion? i.e., What do you think we can all learn from this situation, and do you think it can happen again (especially in such a tense political climate as we have right now)?
We aimed to capture the sense of fear and isolation that residents living in a town of 24 people 70 miles from anything experienced when Cobb made his takeover intentions public. And we tried to get inside Cobb’s head, too – really, to somewhat objectively capture a very strange and scary moment in time.
We hope the film triggers conversations about what it means to live in this messy American democracy where you and your next door neighbor might hold diametrically opposed views. Given this year’s political season, we feel that the film is more timely than ever. Donald Trump is mainstreaming a lot of the views that white supremacists hold dear (Craig Cobb is a huge supporter), so it doesn’t seem so outlandish that something like what happened in Leith could happen again. But we don’t think the film provides many answers.
Do you have any updates on where the main players in the Leith story are right now? Cobb, Kynan, Ryan Schock, and the town itself?
Craig Cobb recently attempted a similar move in Antler, North Dakota. He was unsuccessful, but ended up bankrupting the town as it out-bid him to buy up available properties. Most of his recent online activity is centered around supporting Donald Trump.
Ryan Schock is still Mayor of Leith. He’s hoping to put everything behind him and wants things to go back to the way they used to be before his town was exposed to the national spotlight.
The town seems to be returning back to normal — we visited last fall and things seemed very quiet and peaceful. But then again, we’re not from there so it’s hard for us to say. There are still three plots of land owned by white supremacists Jeff Schoep, Alex Linder, and Tom Metzger, but they were vacant last time we were there.
Was there anything else you originally wanted to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
There was a storyline about a couple that bought some properties from Cobb right before he was outed by the SPLC [Southern Poverty Law Center]. They claimed to be unaware of his ideology, but the townspeople were suspicious and concerned they were followers of Cobb. We spent a lot of time filming with them, and had to cut them towards the very end of the edit. The town is still very divided.
We also spent a lot of time filming with Jeremy Kelly of Unity ND. Unity ND formed to oppose Cobb’s takeover plan, and they organized the huge protest to Jeff Schoep and Craig Cobb’s town hall meeting (featured in the film). Jeremy bought a house in Leith to increase the number of those living in town [who were] opposed to Cobb’s plan.
Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
Most of the people in the film still living in Leith have seen it (the Schock family, the Cook family, the Harper family, Gregory Bruce). Those who have seen the film have responded very positively to it, which of course is a relief, though we can add that Craig Cobb has also now seen the film (we sent him an iTunes link in December 2015), and has been posting about it frequently on white supremacist message boards. His overall take is elusive, but he’s not pleased that the talk show involving his DNA results is included in the film.
What are your three favorite films?
Michael: Pulp Fiction, The Shining, Mr. Death.
Christopher: Badlands, Contempt, Sherman’s March.
Can you tell us what projects you are working on next?
We’re currently finishing up a short documentary on youth bullriding at a Christian camp in Oklahoma, and are currently producing and filming a feature documentary on NYC nightlife/fashion/LGBT icon Susanne Bartsch for first-time filmmakers Anthony&Alex.
See more on the making of the film here: