POV: What is Bright Leaves about?
Ross McElwee: Bright Leaves is a very personal journey that I take through my home state of North Carolina, pretty much letting my curiosity take me where it will. But it’s very centered upon wanting to explore the issue of tobacco and the notion of what it means to make films.
The major theme of this film is legacy, what gets passed down from one generation to the next and notions of home. What’s so powerful about an idea of home for those of us who have homes? All of us do have a home, even if we’ve left them behind, and there’s the desire either to get back to it or the urgency to get away from it. I think “Bright Leaves” explores both of those extremes, and I think that’s something that people can relate to for the most part.
POV: Why did you make this film?
McElwee: Because I’m from North Carolina, I’ve always felt that at some point in my career as a filmmaker I should try to make a film that deals with tobacco. It wasn’t until a cousin of mine reminded me that my great grandfather had been very influential in the tobacco industry that I realized that that could be a possible starting point for making this film.
My great grandfather invented the immensely popular brand of tobacco called “Durham Bull.” He was very successful, but somehow, he lost control of the trademark because he wasn’t a very good businessman. The Duke family in North Carolina ended up with it, and my great grandfather died a penniless soul. The family lore has been that the Dukes took money that belonged to the McElwees, and I thought this could be an interesting way to explore tobacco. What would it mean to have that kind of fortune behind you? What if I did have this gigantic tobacco fortune, how would I feel about that?
POV: How long did the film take to make?
McElwee: The film took six years from when I shot the very first film footage to when it was finished. I wasn’t constantly working on the movie, since I teach and had two small children and made some short films during that time. So there were all of these other things happening in the process. This is often the way it is in independent filmmaking. You can’t just sustain a simple progress on one film, you have to mix and match to get through it.
POV: Why did you choose documentary?
McElwee: Making documentary films constantly surprises me. It surprises me by revealing things that I never could have scripted in a fiction film, such as moments, people, events around a corner that I didn’t see coming that are rich and complex and unpredictable. It’s so satisfying to me that I’ve never felt compelled to write a fiction script, and I’m probably one of the few people who have not written one yet. Because of that, documentary just continues to entice and offer up an infinite variety of forms and shapes for me to explore.
POV: How did you find the main characters?
McElwee: I found the main characters through my family. You know, I hadn’t actually met John before making the film. I was told to get in touch with him by another relative of mine and that’s how I met him. That’s often how it works in these movies. It’s very much a matter of just following intuition and suggestions. I don’t work with a script. I don’t work with preproduction interviews or anything like that. I just dive into it to see where it’s going to take me. That often leads to things that are totally unexpected.
POV: How did you establish trust?
McElwee: Trust is a very important thing to think about as a documentary filmmaker. For me, the fact that I shoot as a crew of one person helps gain people’s trust. They’re just dealing with me as a person and I happen to have a camera on my shoulder. The other thing that happens quite frankly is that a lot of people I film are family members or friends I’ve known for quite a while, so the trust has been established previously.
Nonetheless, I think there is still a strong urgency on the part of most documentary filmmakers not to betray that trust. You have the power as the filmmaker because you have a camera on your shoulder or on a tripod, but your subjects don’t have that power. And you have to honor that kind of one-sided relationship. I try to do that and think I’ve done that in most of my films.
POV: How do people react to being subjects?
McElwee: Back when I started making free-form documentary films, it was much more of a novelty than it is now. Back then, to suddenly appear with a camera on your shoulder was an unusual thing to do and people were very curious about it and very much wanting to partake in the adventure of being in a film. You want people to have that enthusiasm.
But what I’m encountering now is a sense of concern or that question of trust, because we’ve all seen reality television, and documentaries are everywhere now. I think people realize that informal filming done in any given moment could possibly place you in an unwanted spotlight. People are now very, very aware of that, so they ask more questions before you begin shooting than they used to.
POV: What was the biggest challenge?
McElwee: The biggest challenge in making Bright Leaves was not so much the shooting. For me, the hard part was the editing and getting the right balance of all the themes. This film has so many themes, and weaving them in and out of one another to get the film to cohere was an extreme challenge. It deals with everything from the history of tobacco in North Carolina to my family’s involvement in it to Hollywood filmmaking in the 1950s to the biography of Gary Cooper and his relationship to Patricia Neal.
POV: What was your greatest satisfaction?
McElwee: Going out into the world with this film and presenting it to live audiences has been a terrific thrill for me as a filmmaker. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003 and that was something I’ll never forget. These festivals are great launching pads for films and that was a terrific experience. But I’ve also enjoyed opening the film in various cities where everything was a little more low-key. Going to art house cinemas and talking to people afterwards about how the film worked for them and what they thought of it have always been one of the most pleasurable parts of completing a film as a documentary filmmaker.
POV: Did making the film change you?
McElwee: No, I don’t think this film really changed me in any fundamental way. It helped me to explore certain things that are important to me. It helped me come to terms with the paradox of tobacco being part of the culture of my home state and also of my own family history. But to be honest, I wouldn’t say that any seismic changes occurred in my existence because I made this film.
POV: Who do you want to see this film?
McElwee: I think Bright Leaves can be seen and appreciated by a broad range of people. One thing that occurred to me was that anybody who’s ever smoked cigarettes will find this film interesting. I also think people who love films and the process of making films, which is explored in “Bright Leaves,” will like this film. And that’s just about everybody in the continental United States.
POV: What do you want audiences to get from this film?
McElwee: I’d like the audience to be entertained, first of all. I think it’s mildly comic in places and you’re supposed to have a good time as you watch it. I think people generally do appreciate the humor in it and that’s important. But I also hope the film can be thought-provoking and get people to think about the paradoxes of history in terms of their own lives, and the complexity of the human condition. That’s something that is embedded in the film, and I hope people will find that interesting and think about that.
POV: What might Northerners learn from this film?
McElwee: Well I hadn’t really thought about it as a message to the North. But perhaps it’s some kind of message about the intricacies of this part of Southern history. It might be interesting for people in the other parts of the United States to think about tobacco culture from the perspective of a Southerner — me.
POV: How have audiences responded to the film so far?
McElwee: There’s a certain degree to which Bright Leaves is about family and legacy. And I think that’s something that all of us have some thoughts about, just by definition of being alive on earth. Because we’ve all inherited certain things from the generations before us, we wonder how what we’ve inherited transforms in our existences from the way it began with generations before. I think that’s a kind of universal concern. The other thing the film is really about is the notion of home and what home means. So I think those universal themes have something to do with why people are able to relate to the film.
POV: What’s the hardest thing about making independent, documentary films?
McElwee: The hardest thing about making independent films is that [while] it’s hard to make them, it’s even harder to figure out what to do with them afterwards. Digital video has of course created a tsunami of video documentaries. And so much of it is good material, but where does it end up? There are only so many places you can show films. And I think that’s probably the hardest part, especially for young filmmakers — getting noticed and distribution.
POV: What is the most enjoyable thing about making films?
McElwee: The most enjoyable aspect of making documentary films in the way I make them is that I’m able to follow my own curiosity and my own intuitions about life as I’m filming. I’m not working from a pre-production script. I don’t do pre-interviews. So it really is a matter of allowing myself to be constantly surprised by life. And that works very well for me. Most filmmakers probably prefer the other alternative in which you’re carefully controlling everything. There’s a lot to be said for that and it certainly yields a certain kind of film. But for me, the surrender of that control gives me a certain pleasure as a filmmaker.
POV: What are you working on currently?
McElwee: Well, I’m always shooting. I’m always shooting around the house or collecting footage for my personal archive, not really knowing where it’s going. I’m still doing that kind of shooting and I’m also trying to finish several short films, but I’m not quite sure what my next long project will be.