The Making Of
Filmmakers Michael Chandler and Sheila Canavan discuss the challenges and joys of making a very character-driven film in the heart of rural Maine.
What led you to make this film?
I was born in Bangor, Maine and raised in Portland and Sheila was born in Boston. In 2002, we returned to Maine in order to spend more time with our parents. One day we read a local newspaper article headlined “Some in Town Stand Behind Man Accused of Shooting Mother.” We wanted to understand why people in a hard-working farm community would sympathize with someone who tried to kill his mother.
In Forgotten Fires, a film on the black church burnings in the South during the mid-nineties, I told the story of Tim Welch, a man who got involved with a bunch of aging Ku Klux Klansmen and wound up burning two churches. Much like with that story, after hearing about Josh we wanted to know if the Osborne incident was part of a larger issue. We started filming (out of necessity) on the day the farm was being torn down to make way for a residential housing development.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
It was difficult to raise money to make the film. People may have been afraid that the film would be exploitative or would present Maine in a poor light.
Getting to know Josh was very difficult. He was behind bars for most of the shooting and he wasn’t himself. I could only see him once a week: during the half-hour set aside for visiting hours and after a two-hour drive up from the coast. Josh was unused to being inside and missed the hard work he did every day on the farm. In jail, he slept all day, refusing to socialize or attend therapy sessions. So it was hard to establish rapport and we didn't have a real chance to talk, even after several visits. We were finally able to grab a few minutes alone with Josh on the day of his plea hearing, in a small room off the main courtroom. He made it very clear that he did not want to talk with us because he was afraid he might cry like his sister had done during her interview a few weeks before. A local deputy sheriff helped to break the ice when he told Josh that maybe bottling up his emotions is what got him into trouble in the first place. Even so, it was several more months before Josh was willing to talk.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
We tried to spend time with people and let them get to know us a bit and we did our best to treat people with respect at all times. Even so, Mainers were very good at putting us off. People would conveniently forget to show up for interviews, cancel appointments, wave off the camera or slip out the back door. Hard winters make for tough exteriors. But if you are honest with your subjects and you convey that your goal is to tell their story as they see it, people will begin to trust you. It just takes time.
What is unique about rural Maine that differentiates it from the rest of the U.S.?
There's an invisible dividing line in the state, pretty much running along Route 1, which divides the haves from the have-nots. As we say in the film, this story takes place in the real Maine; the part of Maine that tourists and natives alike hardly ever see. In the real Maine, people are self-reliant. There is no such thing as not knowing how to fix something or make something; people just do it. Rural Mainers are defined by their ability to work hard, which Josh aptly sums up with his final words in the film, "I'm still gonna work myself to death; it ain't gonna matter what I do."
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to cover?
We really wanted to include Janette Osborne’s viewpoint. Although she was unwilling to be interviewed, she was very kind in writing us a note expressing her feeling that the film might help her learn more about why Josh did what he did. We tried as best we could to bring her perspective into the film using interviews from others who knew her and also using Robin Chase's experience as a farm wife to convey some of what Janette's own feelings might have been.
We also wanted to include the Chase family's efforts to preserve their farm through conservation, but it was tangential to the main story line. We talk about that on our nonprofit site www.themoenkopigroup.org, which has links for learning more about the preservation of farmland. We also spent many hours up at the Chase farm waiting for a calf to be born, but our timing was always off. We felt it would have been a strong image to tie together the two strands in the film: family and farming.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
For Josh's interview, Sheila had bought some books on dairy farming that she thought would be good for background. It was very helpful in starting out in the interview to ask Josh questions about the animals. It was a subject he knew like the back of his hand and he was comfortable talking about it. His description of feeding a calf from a bucket and his memories of his childhood led to one of the more touching scenes in the film. In the scene, he describes a memory of the whole family working together and then wistfully wonders whether he really remembers it at all—or whether he just wants to remember it like that. We found that very moving.
Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?
We could not afford to hire a camera person or crew, so we had to wear a lot of hats at every shoot. For example, many of the interviews in the winter in Maine required lighting, since natural window light would fade too quickly. This meant that I would be rigging lights while Sheila talked with the interviewee, carefully avoiding anything substantive until we were ready to interview. It can create awkward situations, with the subject wondering what's taking so long, but we managed.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
People love the film, especially rural audiences, where the themes of urban encroachment and loss of open space have impacted them directly. Rural audiences also get some of the more obscure references, such as when Kim Harding mentions a "skidder.” But urban audiences are equally moved by the story. We showed the film in Brooklyn as part of the Rooftop Film Festival's "Industriance" series, examining the changing modern landscape. The audience was quite shaken by the end of the film, and several people came up afterwards to tell us how poignant they felt it was.
Nearly everyone who appears in the film has reacted positively. Josh and Brian thought it was "comical,” and ADA Andrew Robinson said it portrayed the incident fairly. Josh's aunts and uncles enjoyed it, as did the Chase family. Donna is still bitter about her prison time and she thinks we may have treated Josh a little too sympathetically.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Being able to connect with an audience and see them deeply affected by what you've done is a great motivator. Whether it's people laughing or crying—and they've done both—you know you've made an impact. There was the woman in Maine who said she'd grown up on a dairy farm and couldn't bear to keep watching the film after she saw the farm torn down. Or there was the audience of 300 at the Full Frame Film Festival in North Carolina who started laughing as soon as the film came on and never stopped.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Frankly, we had a commercial offer that would have helped us very much financially. But we were concerned that the broadcaster would edit the film in a way that was exploitative or would deprive the audience of the richness of the story. Public television cares about documentaries and a diversity of viewpoints.
Is there anything else you’d like to share in this Q&A?
Meeting the Chase family was a real plus in making the film. We had passed their farm by chance one day riding out in the country and saw the sign for home baked goods, so of course we stopped inside. After chatting for a while, we asked if we could use their place to film shots of a working dairy farm. That grew into getting to know them and their family to the point where we bought pies and muffins from Robin at farmer's markets every Saturday. After all our raving about Robin's raspberry pies at film fests, audiences wanted us to post Robin's market schedule on the Web site!
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
We didn’t make a living!
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