Making Surviving the Dust Bowl
On finding the story
What drew me was the California side of the story, which is the Grapes of Wrath side of the story, which is something I think we all grow up with and have those images, those photographs seared into our minds. And so, originally, that is the story that I wanted to do and appealed to me. What I learned in the process though, was that there really is a misconception about the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl is really a very specific set of circumstances and it’s this area of the country that was subjected to these most extraordinary dust storms. And once I began to really learn — I mean, I guess I had always thought, okay, there was dust, there were storms. But once I began to really understand the scale of the storms, their severity, their ferocity, their unrelenting quality in that they lasted for nearly a decade, a time day after day, that it just — I just couldn’t understand how people could live through that and could stay through that. When I learned that in fact most people did stay, that’s what really made me interested in that story. It felt like a much more untold part of the story than the California side.
On casting for a documentary film
Casting for Surviving the Dust Bowl is kind of — it’s an ideal challenge for a filmmaker because you really get to go into the community. And the way you find these people is by calling the nursing homes, it’s by somebody telling you to talk to their Uncle Joe or the librarian telling you to talk to Aunt Jane. It’s a real process of entering these communities and talking to — I think we talked to hundreds and hundreds of people. It’s an extraordinary privilege that you have as a filmmaker that people allow you to enter their lives in a way that I think is unlike anything else, and share their experiences. So really, it took just months and months of just getting one reference to another to another to another until we finally found those few that just separate from the rest by their ability to tell stories and by the ability to really describe and almost paint their experiences.
On Melt White, a witness
Melt was very subdued when we first talked to him. He was very subdued but we certainly knew the connection to the “Plow That Broke The Plains” and that his father had been in the “Plow That Broke The Plains.” Once we found that out, of course he became a very compelling figure for us. But yet he had a certain modesty that really translated into a sense of being subdued. But when we finally got to the point of being in front of the camera, and he just — it was me and him and, boy, he just gave it all. It’s not often that you have, at least I should say I should speak for myself, it’s not often that I have moments when I’m doing an interview when I say this is it, this is making it into the film. Sitting there with Melt, it was one after the other. You know, “This is it.” It was really an extraordinary experience to interview him.
On why stories about struggle make good films
It’s a test of the human spirit. It really takes life down to its most fundamental elements. And certainly in the Dust Bowl, these people were survivors. They were first and foremost survivors. They had a lot of qualities that I think survivors of many difficult situations share. I think that becomes really compelling as well, is to see in some ways at its most difficult, its most primal, its most fundamental and the kind of spirit that allows one to live through it and at times overcome it, I think, is — well, it always draws me. I would imagine it draws a lot of people.