The Fragility of Optimism: An interview with Rich Hill director Andrew Droz Palermo
There are hundreds of towns like Rich Hill, Missouri crumbling throughout the American midwest – the strip malls that signaled comfortable suburbia now shuttered; the factories that paved the path to the middle class now rusted. But Rich Hill isn’t just any town to Andrew Droz Palermo, co-director of a new documentary that traces a year in the life of three adolescents amid the decay and disillusion of the titular town.
The Missouri native spent his childhood visiting his grandparents in Rich Hill, as did Palermo’s cousin and co-director Tracy Droz Tragos. In late 2011 the filmmakers returned to the town with a vague yearning to document its struggles. That inspiration didn’t take shape until Palmero and Tragos met the trio of boys who would become the heart of their alternately poetic and brutal portrait of life in the grasp of rural poverty.
Palermo, who also served as the film’s cinematographer, talked to Deep Fried Movies about the making of his Sundance Award-winning documentary.
(Above) In Rich Hill, Andrew (left) copes with an ailing mother and a dreamer father by believing his path is God’s plan.
Rich Hill is humanist and observational rather than didactic, but it’s impossible to ignore the irony of the film being structured around a pair of Fourth of July celebrations. This is a particularly divisive time in America in terms of race, class and morality as well as a period of great economic hardship. What do you feel is your film’s subtext?
For me, more than anything, it’s about the importance of family or friends who look out for you. No one can make it on their own and I really detest the idea that through hard work and determination, anything is possible. It’s not. Some people are just stuck and for all their hard work, for all of their effort, they can’t change their situation. And that’s where the support of loved ones really comes into play – be it temporary housing, a little loan here or there, hooking you up with some part-time work, helping you fix your car. Anything big or small goes a long way.
Unlike a documentary with a finite timeframe – for example a political campaign or a sports season – there is no easily defined end point for a character study like Rich Hill. How did you decide the appropriate point to stop shooting?
This was a challenge for us. Tracy and I both felt like we had the footage for two out of three of the boys, but Andrew’s story was continuing before our eyes. His father uprooted the family yet again and went in search of work in Montana. (Tracy) posed the question at the Sundance Documentary Edit and Story Labs, and the majority of folks didn’t think we needed to follow them any longer. They were satisfied with what they saw in his arc. So it was good to have some trusted advisors offer insight.
(Above) Harley (right) and his grandmother (left), who is raising the teenager.
You shot over 18 months and amassed roughly 450 hours of footage. How did you approach the editing process with so much material to sift through? Was the plan always to make a film that was impressionistic or did you find that rhythm in post?
Part of the documentary process is cutting a work sample. Nearly all grants require a 10-to-25 minute piece of the film. And so we continued to cut and noodled (with) it while filming and really found what the voice of the film would be while working on that sample over numerous years. We knew we wanted to make something poetic, artfully paced and a little non-traditional.
Just before our editor (Jim Hession) came on, Tracy and I assembled a 3-plus hour cut of the film. This cut didn’t include two families that we followed and also left out a great number of research interviews from folks that worked with our families – like social workers, police officers, lawyers, etc. So a lot of footage was left to the cutting room floor. Then Jim came on board. He whittled that cut down even further, while also adding a number of scenes (back in) that we previously overlooked. It was definitely a team effort.
Your co-director has talked in interviews about following children because of the empathy engendered by kids since they have little control over their circumstances. Can you expound a bit on that idea?
I very much like that description and totally agree with her. It’s awful how little sympathy people want to offer adults in poverty. People often say it’s their fault they live the way the do, which is simply not true. Each of the parents were just as bright, hopeful and full of life as their children are, it’s just that they’ve had a lot of challenges. So when you follow the kids, you get to see just how fragile optimism and dreaming really are.
(Above) Appachey, a skateboarding enthusiast struggling with a litany of acronyms including ADHD, ODD and OCD.
What cameras/lenses did you use over the course of shooting and what were some factors behind those choices?
We shot on a Red Scarlet with Canon zoom lenses – primarily the 17-32mm, 24-70mm and the 70-200mm. Occasionally in very low light situations I’d choose a 50mm and 85mm prime (lens), which were much faster. It was a big plunge financially, but I’m really happy with how the film looks. At the time, the (Canon) C300 was not yet available, so it was kind of between a (Canon) 5D, a (Panasonic) HVX or a Red. The 5D was problematic for us because of the roll-out time – you could only shoot 12 or so minutes before it’d stop recording. Can you imagine having a heartfelt interview and having it stop in the middle of a golden moment? That was sort of a non-starter for us. Choosing the Red caused some problems in extreme low-light conditions and also in heat, but I think it offered us a lot in image quality. We always wanted Rich Hill to be as cinematic as possible and it really helped us get there.
When shooting a verite doc, what are some ways to take advantage of the natural and practical lights around you? Would you do things like steer your subjects to a window or toward a light fixture?
I’d never tell the kids to do anything if it was an observational scene. It was my job to be as unobtrusive as possible, but also well placed. I think I got pretty good at anticipating where they would want to go and placing myself in a way that would give me a great shot of the action. In low-light situations, I’d try to always at least keep a hotspot within the frame, which helps tremendously with noise.
There’s a moment in the film when Harley is debating whether or not to leave school without permission, which would result in a call to his juvenile probation officer. In a moment such as that, how do you balance your responsibility as an objective filmmaker with the personal connection you’ve fostered with the people you’re shooting? How do you process the temptation to say to Harley, “Maybe it would be best if you just went back to class?”
I was not only tempted, I’m certain I said those very words to him. I definitely tried to remind him that his principal had his best interest in mind and was not a bad guy in any way. We grew to really care for these boys and their families and we wanted to help out as much as we could. It’s not particularly journalistic of us, but, after all, we’re filmmakers not journalists.
From a practical standpoint, can you talk about your experiences with legal clearances on Rich Hill. From Pepsi cans to Hank Williams Sr. songs, as a producer what were some of your adventures in clearing items for use?
We had a legal team help us out with clearance and they screened a cut and flagged things which were outside of fair use. We had to pay for the Hank Williams tracks, but didn’t really need to worry about things like logos. Some of the harder things to track down were the medleys the local band played on the Fourth of July, but we had a music supervisor help us out with that after we got ahold of some sheet music from one of the performers.
Below, Andrew walks us through a few shots from Rich Hill.
There’s something about this long, static shot of a tractor crossing all the way through the frame that instantly establishes the pace of life in a town like Rich Hill.
We went around and around on what our intro should be. Intros in documentaries need to do a lot of heavy lifting. They need to entertain you, but also inform you about what you are about to watch and in what context the story takes place. For a long time, we had a scene of Andrew unsuccessfully trying to build a bicycle out of junk parts, but it just wasn’t totally singing. (Our editor) Jim went around-and-around trying to figure out a “morning in Rich Hill” scene, which includes this shot of my uncle doing a bit of farm work. This was great for setting a sense of place, but it was also important in starting to establish the haves and have-nots. Most often, people with farms that have been passed down for generations are doing much better than those in town.
This early shot of Andrew is a good example of using your surroundings to your advantage in the way that the sheet over the window casts a warm glow.
I loved shooting in this room because of that curtain. In the evening the sun would set and hit it and really warm up the entire room with a soft red glow. I asked Andrew to read me the poem on the painting, which I could see out of the corner of my eye said something about family. Their house was great to shoot in during the day, but really difficult at night because it was often only illuminated by a single light bulb in the main room. Occasionally they’d have some lamps, but that was rare.
During the first Fourth of July celebration, this extreme wide shot shows Andrew and friends walking across an overpass. Talk a bit about how you found this shot and maximizing the idea of “coverage” in a largely single-camera doc shoot.
It was an entirely single camera shoot, so I was always trying to find ways to sneak off wide (shots) of the same action. Repetition is your friend in doc shooting. Heading to the firework stand we passed over the bridge, but I was close-up in a follow shot. On the way back to town (when we crossed back over the bridge), I took the opportunity to grab something from a bit further away. Our editor Jim loved this moment, because to him it symbolized them having to journey to the other side of the tracks. Which wasn’t exactly true geographically, but made a lot of sense thematically.
Was this bokeh effect of a firework from the second Fourth of July celebration something you knew would occur by shooting the bursts out of focus or did you find it in the moment?
Fireworks shows last about 25 minutes, which is a long time to shoot. Basically, how many bursts in the sky do I want to film the exact same way? The answer is “not many,” so I just started playing around. But I knew this would happen. If you come to close focus with any really bright spot it will bokeh out like that. Any (time) I could take something that you are familiar with and make it a bit more surreal or artistic, I wanted to (do) it. (Our editor) Jim had a nice saying about this scene: the first (Fourth of July) fireworks scene takes place at Andrew’s house and has a couple of booms, but nothing big. He named that “Andrew’s Call to God.” And this bigger, way more explosive and exciting one (at the end of the film) was “God’s Response.”
Rich Hill is now in select theaters and available everywhere on VOD. To read more about Palermo, check out our interview with him regarding his work as the cinematographer of the horror film You’re Next.
More images from Rich Hill