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The Film and More
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The American Experience

Interview with the Filmmakers




Photo of Jeanne Jordan and Steve Ascher Visiting the Farm
Real Audio

Q: Have you spent much time at the farm since your brother has taken ownership?

JEANNE JORDAN: Well, I would say that given the fact that we were there almost all the time during the year that we were filming, it hasn't seemed like much time because we were there so much. Basically whenever we go home, now we stay in town with my Dad. But it's -- we always go out there and spend a lot of time out there, and our son loves to go out there. You know, it's the farm.

Q: Aside from the physical changes, does it have a different feel now?

JEANNE JORDAN: Definitely because it's, you know, three kids live there, number one, so there are the bikes, you know, when you drive in because my parents had been there alone for quite some time. And they've done a lot of different things with the house. And it's their house now. It feels like Jim and Gini and James and Jesse and Grace's house now, not mother and daddy's.


Jim Jordan's Decision   Real Audio
STEVEN ASCHER: After about three years he realized that with three kids getting ready to go to college he needed to have more cash income, and he went back to school and was trained in engineering and drafting. And now his primary income-producing work is building bridges, basically. He's a foreman on a construction -- for a construction company. He has some -- about 60 acres that he farms himself on nights and weekends and then the rest of the crop land is rented out to neighbors.


Off-The-Farm Work   Real Audio
JEANNE JORDAN: It's a common arrangement these days. It didn't used to be. But basically if someone doesn't have the money to buy more land and be a bigger farmer, I think that many of them have found that having an off-the-farm job, having that extra income is pretty necessary. His wife also teaches so they have two incomes to basically help support their lifestyle on the farm.

STEVE ACSHER: And the good part is that the land is still in the family.


Pioneer Mentality   Real Audio
JEANNE JORDAN: None of us were expecting my dad to be as easygoing and graceful about turning the farm over as he was. That has continued to be true about almost everything in life these days with my dad. He really thought it was a good idea for Jim to go back to school. He's so incredibly proud of Jim's straight A's, and he was sort of the star of his class and also about 20 years older than anybody else in his class. And I think my dad just sees -- he's got this real mentality where he sees all kinds of things as pioneering. So I think he's got Jim in that category now. He's pioneering the new way to farm and to keep it going.


Big Changes for Russel and Mary Jane   Real Audio
JEANNE JORDAN: We were all amazed that they loved moving into town. They loved this little house. It was a house on one floor which they'd never had so that seemed exotic to them. They got -- mother got new, small oak furniture other than her enormous Ethan Allen furniture that she'd had at the farm. They were very happy living there. I remember that summer when we came back to see them there. Daddy said something to us like, "If we won the lottery tomorrow and could live anywhere in the world, we'd live right here."


A Very Difficult Year   Real Audio
JEANNE JORDAN:Unfortunately within the next year my mother had a heart attack in 1992 and had a heart bypass and that was very hard for them to deal with, but they did fine. And then in 1994 she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease and only lived for a year after that. So she died in May of '95. That was at the same time we were finishing the film. And she did get to see the film which was wonderful.


Carrying On   Real Audio
JEANNE JORDAN: For my father I think that if it hadn't been for the film and the fact that it came out at this time and was successful, I think that the last year would have been just a horrible time for him. But instead it's been a very wonderful experience.

He went with us to the Sundance Film Festival. He went to the Academy Awards with us where he was mistaken for Sean Connery twice. So whole new vistas opened up. Perhaps he has a future on the screen. It's been hard, but also -- like as people saw in the film, my family -- I wouldn't say "stoic" is the word -- it's just -- they just keep moving; they keep going, and he is.


Intimate Access   Real Audio
STEVEN ASCHER: As filmmakers when you have that kind of intimate access with your subjects, you can film things that you can't film with strangers. And so you always go in with kind of trying to balance your desire to get in very close and also because you know them, in this case they're family, you also want to protect them. We really tried to film as truthfully as possible and get the important things that were going on and not hold back in those moments to not shoot. By and large the family was completely accepting of everything that we wanted to film. They never questioned it. And they never asked to see anything. They really left it in our hands.


Local Reaction   Real Audio
STEVEN ASCHER: The real trial by fire was when the film opened theatrically in Atlantic, Iowa this January which they were far more nervous about than any of the Academy Award stuff or anything, you know, because this is like the hometown crowd. Russ didn't even want to come to the theater because he was afraid people would be critical.

The response from the town was just astounding. This was a 300-seat theater that sold out every night for, like, three weeks. More than the population of the town had, by that time, seen the film. And really just incredible reinforcement for the family too because people would come up to them on the street and tell them their story about what happened on their farm or -- anybody who's seen the film knows that, you know, you become very intimate with the Jordan family. You feel like you're part of the family.


Daughter/Filmmaker   Real Audio
JEANNE JORDAN: There would just be moments where I was just a filmmaker and knew what worked, what didn't work. And there was also situations in thinking about it where I could push for things that Steve would never have pushed for. For instance, something I did everything but apologize to mother and daddy for in the film which is talking them into going up to Rolfe to look at the house that we lived in when I was little. Daddy didn't want to do it. And he hadn't seen it for 15 years. He didn't see why I should see it now. And I basically wheedled him for, like, three days.

Every time I found him alone I would, "You know, daddy, it would be nice if we could -- and did this thing where he finally said, "Okay we'll do it." And went up. And it's a great scene. And like I said, I feel bad because I made them have an experience that was very hard for them. And I felt later that it wasn't a great thing I'd done it as a daughter, but it was real good thing I did it as a filmmaker.


A Faulty System   Real Audio
JEANNE JORDAN: One of the things that drove me crazy throughout the 80's and the "farm crisis" and watching what the art world, the media world, whatever, did with this: It was just such cartoon characters, the good farmer, the bad banker, and it's not the way it is. And in many of these situations, these were people who were very good friends at one time because it's a small bank and a small farm. Then bigger conglomerates come in to buy the bank. The same guy often times had to tell his friends that their credit was running out. In some ways it's merciful when they send in a guy who doesn't know the people, which they did in my parent's case.

STEVEN ASCHER: The film sets up with the idea of westerns where there are clear good guys and bad guys. And some people will extend that to our making the claim that the bankers are the bad guys and the farmers are the good guys. On the contrary. We're trying to show it's a much more complex reality. The midwestern reality is much more complicated than the western myth.

We don't think of bankers as bad guys. They made a reasonable, economic decision based on the fact that a farm the size of the Jordans' in good years makes very little money; in bad years it can lose a lot of money. It's a problem of the system. And everybody's caught up in that system.


The Rural Response   Real Audio
JEANNE JORDAN: Rural audiences get it much more. Although, you know, urban audiences are what made the film and love it and everyone brings something apparently to the film from their own life. It's got universals in it so people react. Anybody that's ever had financial trouble identifies with it. Everyone who has a mother who is a pack rat, and apparently there are quite a few of us out here, identifies with it. And so that's been great. But when you show it in to rural audiences, to farmers, it's a completely different experience for me because they just get everything, every little twisted humor thing or reference at all.


A Second Act   Real Audio
STEVEN ASCHER: I think one thing I think about that Russ's story touches for urban people and anybody -- I mean Fitzgerald had this line about how there are no second acts in American lives. And, in fact, there often are second and third and fourth. To see somebody who has spent his entire life, and the lives of all of his immediate ancestors had been geared toward the same way of life and the same career path as farmers, you know, go all the way through his life and then say, "Okay, I have to stop this. I have to change gears completely." In this way that nobody could have predicted that he would have to, and he did it with so much kind of grace and good humor. I think that's a real inspiration.

JEANNE JORDAN: It's definitely been the biggest learning experience for me in the film. I think that there's this way that I've thought people stop changing at a certain time. I'd never sat down and thought it out, but I would say probably around 60 maybe I thought that you sort of end, especially my father who seemed to be written in stone a long time ago. And he is such a different person now than he was in the 50's. He's such a different person now than he was ten years ago with that kind of worry, the level of worry and responsibility that I think farmers always lived with, things out of your control. I mean, you are such a little ant. And I think that his life now, except for missing my mother terribly and feeling like it's just not fair that they didn't get to do this part of it together. I think that he is in a kind of new phase of his life and I think that that's one of the real hidden lessons in the film and I think it's why a lot of older people are coming to see the film.


That Darn Cat   Real Audio
Q: How is the cat?

JEANNE JORDAN: It's a controversy because there is a rumor in Atlantic, Iowa that there was more than one cat. And that the cat in my brother John's hands looks bigger than that cat. Well, that's because he's a lot closer. But I just wanted to sort of address that the cat on the barn is such a metaphor in so many ways. We use it in the film as a metaphor for the family. It's also a metaphor for us on some levels because when we are were out there filming that was during the first shoot, and it was at a time when we did not know what we were doing. We were filming all the time, and random events were happening and none of them seemed to have anything to do with -- and my family was not talking about what was going on because it was so bad. And one day Steve and I were sitting out in the yard. And we kept hearing this meow, meow, over and over. Finally John actually spotted this kitten up on top of the barn.

Now on farms there are barn cats all over the place. They have babies. They have whole lives, other children. They die. You never see them. They're up in the haymow. They're wild. And apparently there was a nest of them that were born clear up high in the haymow. And there was a hole in the barn roof, and one of them crawled through that hole and got up on the roof. He had distemper in his eyes so his eyes were matted shut. He couldn't see.

So basically we just started filming this cat walking back and forth as we're trying to figure out what's happening. I think the darkest day in our filming careers probably was when -- we could tell this cat -- Jon kept urging the cat to jump, like the lunatic John is, and it became clear that this cat actually might jump, the way he was reaching down toward John and stuff. So we decided we were going to reposition the camera from John's view. And as we were moving the camera, the cat jumped. And Steve turned back on and got just the very end of it.

But for all those people that think it's either a stunt cat or something -- that we somehow set this up, it's really not the kind of thing you can set up. I just wanted to say that.

STEVE ACSHER: And don't try this at home.


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