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Friday, June 15, 2012

Q&A with Keith Miller (director of Welcome to Pine Hill)

Keith Miller’s emotionally intimate new film, Welcome to Pine Hill, begins with a white man and a black man’s heated argument over the possession of a pit-bull puppy. This scenario has already inspired Prince/William, a short film Miller made two years ago with Pine Hill’s star, Shannon Harper. The “moody and mesmerizing” (Time Out New York) feature that grew out of the earlier short is a daring hybrid of narrative and non-fiction that has already won praise (and a Grand Jury Sparky Award for Feature Narrative at the Slamdance Film Festival) for its deft subversion of racial stereotypes and audience expectations.

But Miller intended more than a sociological treatise on race. Welcome to Pine Hill is an intensely personal and contemplative film that follows a former Brooklyn drug dealer’s search for redemption in the Catskill Mountains after receiving some devastating news. Miller spoke with us about the challenges of getting the film made and what he learned in the process of collaborating with Harper.

The film screens at BAMcinemaFest on Saturday, June 23 at 4:30pm, followed by a Q&A with Miller and Harper.

What drives you to make films?
Photograph by Robin Holland
The first thing is the practical side of telling stories cinematically: being on a set, working with actors and the crew, editing, all of it. I hope to address the real world in a way that challenges our expectations and ways of seeing existing conditions. Things can come to seem natural to us when really they’re created and can be changed. If a movie can move someone enough that they look at a person or a social reality in a slightly different way, then it seems worthwhile. At the same time the main goal for a movie is to tell a story in an emotionally clear and engaging way and do that so it feels like it matters. So I guess I’m driven to make movies because I feel like it’s a great way to take on these challenges and talk with people in a deep way, both during the shoot and on the screen.

What films have served as inspirations in your work?
Like all of us, the list is long so I will just name a few that come to mind and have a direct influence on Welcome to Pine Hill. Tarkovsky is always the first one since The Sacrifice was one of the first movies I saw that moved me in a deeply human and philosophical way. Newer movies are The Son and almost everything by the Dardenne Brothers; Japón and Carlos Reygadas’ films in general; Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life was really important to me for its radical naturalism and human engagement with the political; Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy was such a startling bit of clarity that it really feels like a master class on cinematic restraint. Even though Pine Hill looks nothing like it, the emotional clarity, conception of sound and visual style of Lucrecia Martel in La ciénega was also really influential on my thinking about film.

What are some of the challenges you faced while making Welcome to Pine Hill?
We were shooting really long takes—up to 45 minutes—with three cameras, in the hope that reality would spill into the process and the final film. That marathon-like approach is tiring physically and mentally. But it’s also risky because when reality spilled in, sometimes it was a little chaotic. There was only physical danger a few times, but it was a bit too much for some of the crew. The greater challenge was philosophical. Working with non-actors on a story very close to a number of different real life situations, I was very conscious of avoiding simplification and exploitation. Luckily, Shannon and I and the rest of the cast became very close. And my fellow members of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, who are about three quarters of the crew, are really conscious about that stuff and good at what they do, so the challenges were really great opportunities to push for serendipity and surprise ourselves with what could be possible.

You wrote a compelling piece in the Huffington Post about issues of race and the dilemma of being a white filmmaker telling a black man’s story. Were these issues you had been thinking about before you met Shannon Harper and decided to make a film with him, and how have your thoughts about race in American filmmaking changed in the process of shooting and promoting Welcome to Pine Hill?
Before I met Shannon I wasn’t looking for a way to make a movie about race. I had already begun to engage in films that intentionally disregarded the line between fact and fiction. While conceiving and shooting this movie I knew I wanted to make a movie that addressed race but that was, finally, not a movie about race. In terms of race and filmmaking and the promotion of film, well, that’s a loaded issue. The bottom line is this country has a race problem. I think we have in some ways made great strides, etc., but to deny those facts is to actively promote inequality and injustice. Locating the site of these things (racism, etc.) is sometimes not as easy as it was 60 years ago, but I think most of the time that’s a matter of sophistication of language and not a transformation of social conditions.

Place plays a central role in this film. Can you tell us about the process of choosing locations and any difficulties you encountered in shooting in those locations?
The movie is set in two distinct geographic worlds, and I hope that we understand certain things from them, about class and race and expectations. Place can also be understood as a way of defining who we are in our belief system and the belief system brought to bear upon us. For this movie the location sort of defines the main character. The external conditions were imposed and in many ways invisible. Each location makes Shannon a different person, which is why he is so complex (like all people). One of the central issues there is that these external conditions, the places—many of which I would guess are internalized- are always seen as ‘natural,’ the way things are. With the big news he gets it challenges him to interrogate those conditions, to de-naturalize them in a way. The move to the woods was an attempt to undo some of that.

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