I really love it when I stumble across a project accidentally and get hooked on the concept immediately. And thanks to iMDB, that recently happened when I learned about director Noah Hutton‘s and producer Sam Howard‘s documentary, Crude Independence. What really struck me about the project was how effectively Hutton and Howard have marketed the documentary through YouTube, Facebook, and Flickr (and other online venues). So, after gathering as much info as I could, I contacted Hutton and Howard to see if they would be interested in an email interview. They were, fortunately.
Here’s the basic background on the documentary:
“Crude Independence is a documentary film about the heartland in the process of transplanting itself, and its new heart is pumping oil. In 2006, the United States Geological Survey estimated there to be more than 200 billion barrels of crude oil resting in a previously unreachable formation beneath western North Dakota. With the advent of new drilling technologies, oil companies from far and wide are descending on small rural towns across the state with men and machinery in tow. Director Noah Hutton takes us to the town of Stanley (population 1300), sitting atop the largest oil discovery in the history of the North American continent, and captures the change wrought by the unprecedented boom. Through revealing interviews and breathtaking imagery of the northern plains, Crude Independence is a rumination on the future of small town America— a tale of change at the hands of the global energy market and America’s unyielding thirst for oil.”
February 2, 2009 Update: Hutton emailed me over the weekend to let me know the documentary, Crude Independence had been selected for the 2009 SXSW Film Festival, where it will be part of “the Emerging Visions competition, highlighting first-time and up and coming filmmakers.” Congrats to Hutton and Howard (along with the rest of the Couple 3 Film crew).
Tim O’Shea: When you first read the New York Times piece last January–were you actively looking for a subject to make a documentary about?
Noah Hutton: Yes. I had worked on a documentary the previous summer in Uganda and was trying to find a project of my own for the approaching summer. I read the New York Times piece and everything started falling into place. Oil prices were rising every day, I had just been blown away by There Will Be Blood, and after my first scouting trip out to North Dakota last January, I knew there was a film to be made there.
O’Shea: Was Sam Howard involved with the project from its beginning, or did he come onboard later in the process?
Hutton: After I came back from North Dakota last January, Sam was the first person I talked to and we began to develop the project together.
Sam Howard: I was initially indifferent to the idea, worried about summer internships and the lot, though Noah’s excitement intrigued me from the get-go. Eventually his ever-increasing interest led me to some literature on the subject, and from there I was one business school-related existential crisis away from getting on the plane.
O’Shea: Did it take a great deal of effort to get the townspeople to talk with the cameras on–or were they pretty open to talking with you from the outset?
Howard: This was a most interesting issue for me. Upon our arrival, the people of Stanley gave us a very mixed response, and I think that had a lot to do with where we came from. As college students from the east coast, many painted us as an adjunct to the “New York Slime(s),” and it became very apparent we would have to fight that image if we wanted to make any headway. We were able to do this honestly, because our agenda was far from a liberal smear campaign, a fact that definitely shines through in the final product. So warming the town to our presence ended up really being the key to its on-camera comfort. We did this by making sure we met first people without the cameras, allowing the interaction to take precedence over the future filming.
Hutton: One of the greatest successes on this front came when we were filming a town hall meeting at the courthouse in Stanley led by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND). We had interviewed Senator Dorgan a few days earlier in Medora, and when he came to Stanley for this town hall meeting that touched on issues with oil drilling in the region, we set up our cameras and were filming from the back of the courthouse. Near the end of the meeting the Senator paused and took a moment to announce our presence and introduce us to all the townspeople in the room. It was a powerful moment and one that really helped us to gain the trust of people we interviewed thereafter.
O’Shea: Both being the children of actors–do you think as documentary makers you are more sensitive to the need to respect people’s space/rights while at the same time pursuing a story as aggressively as possible (within reason)?
Hutton: I certainly have seen how unrelenting the press can be with my parents. But in terms of our own approach in a small rural town, we had no choice but to respect people’s privacy if we hoped to gain an ounce of trust in a place where everyone knows each other’s business. As Sam touched on earlier, we assured people that we had no agenda with the film—that we had no predetermined perspective or thesis about the boom that we were trying to capture. Our goal was to let the townsfolk and oil workers tell the story for themselves, so that the viewer of our film can shape their own opinion. There aren’t any environmental concerns about drilling presented in the film because we simply didn’t find that perspective up there. It may be there in ten years, but it’s really not there now.
Howard: I don’t think it really has anything to do with the profession of our parents. I have learned that any resonant conversations with others are usually had on a foundation of mutual respect – that type of respect is very subjective, and you have to be malleable to get the best out of your subjects.
O’Shea: When did you become interested in documentaries and making documentaries in particular? Have you ever seen Rosanna Arquette’s 2002 documentary, Searching for Debra Winger–or is that a documentary you both intentionally avoided?
Hutton: I’ve never watched Searching for Debra Winger in its entirety. I’ve seen the parts of it my mother was in and I was there when she taped the interview in our backyard for it. Personally, I became interested in documentaries around the time I started watching Werner Herzog’s films, and have since seen everything I can find that he has made and hold his work in the highest regard. I’ve had the good fortune of talking to him on several occasions about documentary filmmaking and his experiences. I was lucky enough to work on a documentary in the summer of 2007 in Uganda under the guidance of Academy Award Nomimee Susan Todd, a brilliant documentarian and a gifted teacher. It was that experience and advice from Mr. Herzog that compelled me to go out there and make a documentary, but my long-term hope is to direct narrative features.
O’Shea: In the early stages, when you were developing the proposal and looking to raise funds, is there one aspect that proved quite daunting and almost made you abandon the project?
Hutton: Our first plan of action after I returned from my first scouting trip to North Dakota was to apply for grants to fund the film. We were rejected across the board, which was difficult to regroup from at first, but I expected it to be difficult to get a first feature documentary funded with a limited reel and no other promised funding. We then moved on to find individual investors, which we did, and the rest was fairly smooth sailing.
O’Shea: Looking at your 2007 work, Shooting for Peace, can you look at your more recent work and see ways in which you have improved as a documentary maker?
Hutton: Shooting for Peace was an interesting project because it was a collaboration between myself and three others, all operating as co-directors. So there are parts of the film I feel like I had a strong hand in shaping and others that I had virtually none in. I have become bolder—more willing to approach strangers, make calls, and ask questions in interviews that may be uncomfortable on a personal level at the time but are for the good of the project. Initiative is the most important quality—if something interests you, just go out there and make the film, write the article, take the photographs.
O’Shea: Have either of you found that what Sam has learned in the Tisch School of Film producing program to benefit the development process with Crude Independence?
Hutton: Sam is the perfect partner for a project like this because his practicality, budgetary management and acute sense of story are what has kept and continues to keep this process moving forward and tethered to the real world and our real bank account. You should have seen the Excel spreadsheet he was managing on location in North Dakota. We came in under budget and even got to stop to see a movie on the drive back to Minneapolis.
Howard: The production minor at Tisch has definitely helped me in terms of practical story telling – I say practical, because there is always a means of making a film more efficiently without compromising its integrity. I’ve heard a plethora of lectures that have spoken to this topic wonderfully.
O’Shea: Before its release, do you intend to show the final documentary to John Warberg, Herb Geving or Senator Byron Dorgan, or other townspeople that had major presences in the project?
Hutton: We’ve already sent a copy to Mr. Warberg, and we will do the same for Mr. Geving and Senator Dorgan. We are hoping to screen the film at the Fargo Film Festival so that locals can come see it, and beyond that, we will send screeners to the town hall in Stanley, ND, for all those involved to pick up.
Howard: I think it’s important to note that we developed pretty great relationships with a lot of people that have transcended our departure. We keep in contact with friends there via email and text, and are very excited for their feedback on the final product.
O’Shea: How many festivals have you submitted the documentary for consideration? What’s on the horizon for the project in 2009?
Hutton: As of now we know that we’ll be in competition at Cinequest, The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and the Oxford Film Festival. (Editor’s Note: Since this interview was done, the film was picked by some of these festivals, as shown here.) We’ve submitted to a healthy lineup of festivals through the spring and early summer, and we’ll see what we can generate out of those. It’s a truly American story so we’re hoping that the film will be seen across the country in festivals large and small.
O’Shea: You are marketing the film on YouTube, Facebook, WordPress and IMDB.com–how much has the Internet been instrumental in drumming up interest in the project?
Hutton: We’re just starting to get the word out there about the film, and will make more of a push once we start showing it at festivals. We kept a WordPress blog throughout the entire process of making the film and have been able to keep in touch with a lot of people interested in the project through that platform.
Howard: I think that the Internet is the sole greatest asset to a new filmmaker, in terms of both generating interest, and eventual distribution. Even the fact that we have over 3,000 hits on our YouTube preview is astounding to me – there has never been such a cost-effective platform to show ones work.
O’Shea: Do you think the United States Geological Survey realized what economic changes they were setting into motion with their decisions back in 2006?
Howard: That’s an interesting question, because the economic impact of this discovery hasn’t yielded that much to the town itself in terms of the actual oil it is pumping – the price of gasoline is the same in North Dakota as it is in states that don’t have any oil to drill. In the same sense, the huge migration of oil companies to the Northern United States hasn’t drawn the necessary political interest (see the ’08 campaign cries for offshore drilling) to create an economic awareness amongst the greater American population. The fact is that we still get most of our oil from overseas, and we’re going to have to wait a few more years to see if this boom writes itself larger.
O’Shea: Given the economic upheaval that has swept the United States in recent months, have you considered doing a follow-up segment on the city in 2009 (for a DVD release)?
Hutton: As far as I have heard from people in Stanley, the drilling has continued despite the economic crisis and more jobs are still being created in North Dakota. In fact there was an article in the New York Times in December about how North Dakota continues to be immune to the crisis in the rest of the country. So if we did go back to make a follow-up film, we might find that we’re making the same film again.
Howard: I don’t necessarily see the gravity of the economic crisis coming anywhere near this area like it has to other places in rural or suburban America. Oil is in high demand, and will continue to be for the next decade. As long as this demand remains, towns like Stanley will continue to add a great deal of jobs, both in retail and infrastructure. The only thing to look out for that could warrant a follow-up would be if oil prices sunk to an unstable low (to the point where searching/drilling became unprofitable for companies), rendering that investment useless – though I truly don’t see that happening any time soon.
O’Shea: How critical has Alex Footman’s work editing the film improved the overall look and message of the project?
Hutton: Alex was crucial in the post-production because he came in with a fresh set of eyes as well as a sharp sense of story and narrative that he put to use in editing the film. We worked together through August and early September on the edit, and often Alex would continue editing certain sequences while I spent time composing the score for the film, and then we would reconvene and lay in the music. His work kept the film on message and he was constantly able to step back and ask the large questions about where the film was going. This allowed us to maintain a dialogue through post-production so that we could talk through any roadblocks we met in constructing a full cut of the film.