SHERIFF filmmaker Daniel Kraus talks about finding a good subject, battling North Carolina mosquitoes and being compared to legendary cinema verité auteur, Frederick Wiseman.
What motivated you to make SHERIFF?
There are thousands of documentaries made every year, and most of them revolve around the famous, the infamous, the bizarre, the topical and the aggressively quirky. This leaves behind the other 99 percent of the population—the sort of people who just trudge along, day after day, year after year, quietly doing their jobs. These people deserve to have their stories recorded, too, and decades from now their films will be the most important ones because they will show what it was really like to be, say, an American sheriff at a certain place and time in history.
Filmmaker Daniel Kraus experiences a serendipitous hunger pang while filming SHERIFF.
Probably the most surprising thing was the capture of the escapee at the end of the film. The sheriff’s men had cordoned off miles of swampland. He could’ve emerged anywhere, but we got in the car with a deputy to buy some snacks from a convenience store and he popped out right next to us. It was a one-in-a-million chance.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making SHERIFF?
Well, the entire production was a free-fall. Because there was no storyline per se, it was impossible to know what to shoot. There were definitely times when I found myself swatting mosquitoes in the middle of some swamp wondering, “What the hell am I doing here?” But the material affected me on a scene-by-scene basis and I kept hoping it would affect others, too.
Was the film meant to be humorous?
It’s not meant to be humorous or dramatic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not both. It depends on how you want to read it. I find parts of it funny—and I’m sure the sheriff finds parts of it funny, too—but I’ve had screenings where audiences take it as straight drama. All of these responses are correct.
What has the audience response been so far?
The style is so different than what people are used to, and I worried audiences would get hung up on that, but people have been really excited by it. As a viewer, you need to say, “This filmmaker is not going to tell me who killed this guy, and I’m OK with that.” Once you accept that, your mind is freed, and the movie can hit you more in the gut.
How does it feel to be compared with the world-famous verité documentarian Frederick Wiseman?
It feels really damn good. His work was a direct inspiration, particularly in the editing stage. I really like his ideas of limiting yourself as a filmmaker—no music, no interviews, no added sound effects—because without the safety buffer of all those things, you are forced to engage with a subject directly. I don’t think Mr. Wiseman has seen my film, but I have a fantasy where he calls me up on the phone to talk about it.
How did you convince Sheriff Hewett to let you shadow him?
Producer Jason Davis and I were just straight with him. We told him we wanted to do a very simple movie that followed his daily routine. Local media can often portray public figures as one-dimensional, and this offered him an opportunity to show a few more facets of his character.
How did you build a rapport with Sheriff Hewett?
Slowly. Sheriff Hewett is incredibly busy and he didn’t always have time for us, but he’s also very generous. It took him a while to trust me, but that’s not surprising—after all, he is a sheriff.
Did you capture any footage that was too sensitive to include in the film?
Sure, there are always little things. I cut out some crime scene stuff. There was no real reason to get overly graphic.
What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude?
We shot from approximately 1999 to 2001. I know this sounds like a long time, but I didn’t live in Brunswick County. I was sort of on-call, so I’d rush out in the middle or the night and shoot this stuff sporadically. It probably could’ve been done in two months if I had had the budget and means to pull it off. To make matters worse, I was shooting my feature film Ball of Wax at the same time. There were times when I had to leave rehearsals on that film to join Sheriff Hewett at a crime scene.
Do you have any updates on the people featured in the film and what they have been doing since then?
Sheriff Hewett was re-elected in 2004, and was recently elected president of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, which really shows how well-liked and respected he is around those parts. He’s had a million crazy adventures since we stopped shooting, but that’s pretty much business as usual in Brunswick County.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Success. Without the occasional moment of triumph—like this Independent Lens screening, for instance—you start to wonder if anyone cares about what you have to say.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television is where I first saw the work of Frederick Wiseman. When I began shooting SHERIFF, PBS was my goal so I’m pretty happy about how it worked out.
What are your three favorite films?
You probably weren’t expecting low-budget horror films, were you?
Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968)
The Wicker Man (Hardy, 1973)
Carnival of Souls (Harvey, 1962)
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Well, I didn’t eat well. I got really skinny. I was eating candy bars for lunch and that kind of thing. I was always sick. Thankfully I met my wife Amanda during that time and she put me back together again, meal by meal.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
I can tell you exactly what I would be doing—because I’m doing it! I’m a freelance writer and part-time librarian. I typically make very little money from my movies.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
I’m sort of a killjoy to aspiring filmmakers. I would ask them, “Do you really want to do this?” Because the fun, creative part is really only about ten percent of the process—the rest is a big, messy jumble of technical garbage, post-production nightmares, lawyers, insurance companies and so on. You also must seriously ask yourself, “Can I bring anything unique to the medium?” I ask myself this question all of the time. It’s only healthy.
What sparks your creativity?
Books. I usually take away very little inspiration from movies. All my good ideas are stolen from great books.
Have screening audiences asked any questions about the film that we didn’t cover?
Sometimes they ask what didn’t make the cut of the film. There’s a 20-minute sequence set during a huge hurricane that hit directly on Brunswick County. There’s some really dramatic footage of the storm and the aftermath. But we were physically separated from Sheriff Hewett for a while because of the flooding, and we had to rely on interviews to make the sequence work. As you can see, I didn’t allow any interviews into the final cut. So I axed it. Hopefully it’ll show up on the DVD.
Read an interview with the sheriff >>
Learn about cinema verité >>