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The Making Of

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“All I knew is that something happened here that was really big, and it affected a lot of lives in a profound way and that was worth telling a story about.”
Filmmaker Pamela Roberts offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of BUTTE, AMERICA, including outtakes from interviews with the miners who survived through both boom and bust.

Producer/Director Pamela Roberts talks about the indomitable spirit of Butte’s working-class population, the challenges of shooting in Super 16mm and gaining the trust of a tight-knit community.

What impact do you hope the film will have?

After seeing BUTTE, AMERICA, I would hope that Americans can better appreciate where we came from as a people and as a nation—and that this knowledge will help future generations become more responsible consumers and informed decision makers when it comes to labor, community and natural resources.

What led you to make BUTTE, AMERICA?

I was first attracted to the people in Butte. Secondly, to the sublime beauty of the minescape—the remnants of Butte’s world-class mining center. This place produced a different breed of people, a community of working-class people with a strong sense of identity, place and family. A few feature films and several smaller video projects had been produced about Butte, but nothing like BUTTE, AMERICA, [which is] shot in film to cover the broad sweep of Butte’s remarkable mining and labor history over 120 years.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

The locations and logistics were often difficult. The underground tunnels and shafts beneath the surface of Butte; the Berkeley Pit, a toxic lake loaded with heavy metals, as well as aerials of the damaged landscape in one of the largest Superfund sites in U.S. history.

Since we shot in Super 16mm, everything needed to come into Butte from the outside—equipment, film stock and core crew members. Shooting in film is extremely expensive, so there was a lot of stopping and starting during production, which can be difficult especially when interviewing elderly subjects. The story is huge and required some painful decision making regarding events to include or exclude, as well as a great deal of research, investigation and pre-production.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

The benefit of being an independent filmmaker is that it allowed me to establish and maintain a level of trust with my characters because I have the ultimate responsibility regarding film content. Also, initially open and friendly to strangers, the Butte community can be tight knit and clannish, with a certain amount of distrust for outsiders. I aligned myself with native Butte writer Ed Dobb to gain entry into the community. It took several years to identify the story we could tell (in 60 minutes), along with an articulate, knowledgeable cast of film characters. This gave us time to build relationships with each of our characters. They understood we wanted to get it right. That builds trust and respect.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

More about the lives of the women I interviewed. Their lives and experiences were so interesting, but often devalued in their own eyes. Also, more about Butte today and the current economic resurgence through its restoration and preservation economy.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

We shot a scene—that did not make the cut—with an underground miner we took back into the mine for the first time in over 30 years. He broke down and cried tears of joy for the opportunity to go underground again—he loved mining. And then came tears of sorrow as he recalled his longtime partner who was killed by an explosion. It was very revealing and very touching.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

The response has been tremendous. We have sold out to capacity crowds (even in second and third screenings) during the spring and fall tours. We have been asked by universities, labor groups and Irish groups to screen and accompany the film across the U.S., as well as abroad.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

I never look for a story; the story seems to find me. I see myself as a cog in the wheel. As a producer/director, I feel a tremendous responsibility to both my storytellers and viewers to be truthful. Telling stories and hearing stories feeds my soul; this is my God-given work, and I feel both fortunate and compelled to be doing it.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

As independent filmmakers, public television is one of the only viable places where we can expose our work to large numbers of people.

Is there anything else you’d like to share in this Q&A?

Most people ask what made me decide to make the film. I used to visit Butte as a young girl and was fascinated by the architecture, the red light district, the mining artifacts and the people of this extraordinary urban place located in the mountains of rural Montana.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

I gave up my ability to contribute any substantial or consistent income to my family. I often missed events and trips with friends and family. Filmmaking requires total dedication and a measure of obsessive work behavior. This excludes having a “normal” life during the course of making a film.

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