Producer/Director/Director of Photography Taggart Siegel talks about the challenges of editing down 50 years of footage, getting his protagonist’s enemies to open up on camera and dismantling preconceived notions of farmers.
What led you to make THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN?
I have been making films since 1980, switching back and forth from narrative to documentary. In the early 1990s, after making a feature dramatic film called Shadow of a Pepper Tree, I lost faith in the commercial aspects of distribution so I eagerly returned to making documentaries. I found a new sense of creative freedom when the Sony digital VX 1000 came out in 1996. I was able to shoot the films myself, without the cumbersome aspects of large crews and inflated budgets. I returned to two very personal films I made in the early ‘80s, one on a Southeast Asian Hmong shaman (Between Two Worlds) and the other on Farmer John (Bitter Harvest). I wanted to see how these two extraordinary lives had changed over the past 15 to 20 years. By blending archival footage with current footage, I was able to make two films for PBS, The Split Horn: Life A Hmong Shaman In America and THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN.
How did you meet John Peterson?
I met John at Beloit College in 1979. John invited me to his farm and I was so amazed with the commune-like situation that I moved there for the summer. Art and agriculture thrived on the farm as I made my first film, Affliction, starring Farmer John.
Bitter Harvest charts the farm debt crisis of the 1980s through John Peterson’s personal story. What made you decide to go back to John’s farm and pick up where you left off?
In 1982, John's farm was caving in. I made my first documentary, Bitter Harvest, about the plight of his family farm. I decided to make another documentary on John's life in 1996 to capture the miraculous resurrection of his family farm. I knew I had hours and hours of archival footage so my goal was to create a rich and celebratory film of an individual fighting the odds and transforming his family farm into an economic, organic farm.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
My biggest challenge was to edit 250 hours of footage into an 83-minute film for a theatrical release and a 53-minute version for PBS. It was like squeezing a giant into a bottle. I had over 50 years of footage of John's life and it was crying out to be an epic. My goal was to make it feel like an epic story but entertaining, funny, tragic and ultimately uplifting.
The other big challenge is that I've been friends with John for 25 years, so staying objective was difficult. I had so much personal history intertwined in the film that I had to choose a great editor (Greg Snider) who could be objective, strong and cold-blooded about the story we were telling.
The greatest challenge in making a film is to have a great team. I couldn't have done it without the dedication and commitment of my producer Teri Lang who helped inspire the team to stay on track. Also Farmer John’s high standard for searching for the truth.
How did you gain the trust of the people profiled in the film—including Peterson family members and friends, Sheriff John Edwards and John Peterson’s suspicious neighbors—and get them to open up on camera?
It was very tricky to make THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN because I was asking very sensitive and personal questions to all the family members, friends, enemies and past and present partners. They all had their own history with the farm and I (and the camera) served as the conduit to their hearts and minds. I felt like an investigative reporter when it came to tracking down people that turned against John and spread rumors about John being a devil worshipper, cult leader and drug dealer. I gained the trust of many by being very open and sharing in why I was making the film.
THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN successfully blends home movies with
archival and new footage. Was this difficult to do?
I was so fortunate to have all this archival footage of John's life, from
family home movies from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s and my personal footage of Farmer John from the last 25 years. On top of that I had all ofJohn's writings, photographs and oral histories to work with. The biggest
difficulty was cutting out so much rich history. Ultimately if it didn't serve the story powerfully, it would end up on the edit floor.
What did you want to achieve with THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN?
When I decided to make THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN, I wanted to pay
tribute to the small family farmer and to Farmer John. John is a testimony of endurance, resilience and passion in fighting for a new form of community. I was inspired to tell a story of a person that was dismissed and dismayed and still found a way to reemerge stronger. I saw it as a epic journey, grappling with failure but finding a creative way out of his turmoil. My goals are to challenge preconceived notions about farms and farmers, to inspire audiences by a tale of tenacity and to challenge viewers to examine more closely their prejudices and judgments about others. Also, through John's personal struggles and powerful connection to the earth, viewers can discover an appreciation for where our food comes from and the vital link to community. By filming the emotional events unfolding in John's life, I've portrayed the fate of an American farmer and the impact it has on all of us.
What has the audience response been so far?
The audience response has been tremendous. We have screened the film all over the world and it has won 25 International Film Festival Awards to date. The theatrical launch for the feature version has gotten fantastic reviews.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Creating a story that's inspirational and uplifting and to work with a team of creative friends.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television is a great way to reach millions of people. Public television has allowed me to express myself freely as a filmmaker and to be partially funded for my work.
What are your three favorite films?
That's a hard one. If I had to choose I would pick Hitchcock's Vertigo, Fellini's 8 1/2 and DeSica's The Bicycle Thief.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Develop my photography career.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
A painter, photographer or running an environmental organization to help save endangered species.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Be very passionate about your subject so you don't abandon ship.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Hitchcock, Fellini, Buñuel and DeSica.
What sparks your creativity?
Other great artists and a deep yearning to express myself.
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