The Making Of

Director/producer Gene Rosow talks about the book that inspired the film, the advantages of indie filmmaking, and attempting to write from the point of view of dirt itself.

Independent Lens: What led you to make this film?

Gene Rosow: One day a ragged dog-eared paperback copy of Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth found its way into our office. As a former science student (pre-med, biochemistry, cellular physiology, parasitology, and, at the time, the new field of ecology), current history teacher at UC Berkeley (history of popular culture and American film), and early organic gardener whose favorite poet Gary Snyder was always going on about dirt, this book had a certain resonance with my life history. As a producer of theatrical feature films, the subject of dirt definitely offered the challenge of finding the right way to get dirt up there on the big screen — back to the cave walls where we smeared dirt to make art in the first place. After reading the book, I realized how out of touch I myself had become from the ground beneath our feet — how I, like most of us city people, take dirt for granted.

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

GR: Financing any indie film is always a challenge. And yet, the biggest challenge — beyond convincing our friends and families that making film about dirt was not crazy — was simply how to do it. The biggest challenge for us was to think of the topic in storytelling terms. Dirt’s story needed to be fun, scary, serious, emotional, spiritual, dramatic, and visually compelling with a cast of billions. So I thought we should try to tell the story from dirt’s point of view. But the voice-of-dirt conceit didn’t work when we tried it — or maybe we just weren’t skilled enough to pull it off. We had a lunch with writer Larry Gelbart to ask him if he thought it could be done. When even he wasn’t convinced it could work, we moved on to more traditional solutions.

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

GR: We contacted many of the subjects through our friends associated with different environmental organizations, and others I just called up and told them exactly what we were trying to do.

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

GR: More material in other locations, like Asia and Southeast Asia, and other very positive and interesting solutions around the world. Also, subjects like permaculture and biodynamic farming; one straw revolution; and awesome special effects that can power-of-10 zoom you into a 3-D microorganismic and molecular world, just humming and thrumming with life, and the sultry sambas of earthworms.

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

GR: Filming with prisoners in Rikers Island and the Green Team when they’re released into a program that rehabilitates the city and the former inmates.

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

GR: Audience responses have been incredibly gratifying and positive. A variety of audiences have reaffirmed our original intention of making a film that reaches beyond traditional environmental audiences. And so far the subjects who have seen it have thanked us and enjoyed it. Of course a couple of them wanted more screen time, and they’re right … they all deserve more screen time!

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

GR: Outreach, engagement, audience building — PBS is really the only place for this film.

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

GR: Why do you ask this? Just makes me anxious thinking about all that stuff still out there waiting to get done...

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