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Laura Dunn

DATE: November 10, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
MEDIA: HD video
REEL: 3463

[Please note that the numbers mark time codes for the interview recording.]

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It is November 10, 2018 and we’re in Austin, Texas. And we have the good fortune to be visiting with Laura Dunn, who is a filmmaker of note, who’s been responsible for several movies that have an environmental aspect to them, a really a core aspect but the Green, another movie called The Unforeseen, movie called Look and See, a movie called The Sky

LD: Become the Sky.

DT: Become the Sky. Thank you. And there’s certainly more to come in the future. So I wanted to thank you for taking time to discuss all this work that you’ve done. And I look forward to hearing more about your work.

LD: Thank you.

DT: Usually we start these—these interviews with your childhood. And if there was early experience or maybe some caregivers or mentors, family members, teachers, who might have introduced you to the outdoors, and the natural world.

LD: Sure, yeah. Yeah, so my mom’s side of the family is all from South Mississippi. And my great grandfather was the world’s largest pecan farmer at one point. So my family had 150,000 acres in South Mississippi at one point—pecans. So I didn’t know my great grandfather but my grandparents were horticulturalists. They had a camellia nursery. They were always in plants. And so—and my mom is a maize geneticist. So she’s been searching for the origin of corn. So she, you know, I traveled around with her. She’s a single mom.
She was going from university to university, post-doc, you know, adjunct faculty positions, always in botany and biology departments. So I grew up in those departments, for the most part, and/or experimental corn fields. What she was trying to do was breed tripscum and tris—teocinte to grasses—native grasses from Mexico—and breed those together and show that she believed that the origins of corn—it’s the only grain plant we don’t know the origin of—and so she was—her life’s work was trying to prove the origin of corn, as well as, in that process, develop organically, rather than synthetically with pesticides and whatnot, drought resistance, root worm resistance.

So, you know, my mom was reading Rachel Carson to me when I was probably ten years old. And sh—my—certainly my kind of sense of stewardship and responsibility to the environment comes from her. I think that—I think that my grandparents and that whole side of the family—they were just nature people. And that’s where, you know, had my jel—joy. My—my parents separated—divorced when I was young and I was, you know, this was in the eighties, right, divorce was the thing.
And I was sort of shipped back and forth between my dad and my mom and we were moving every year. So I moved to new cities, new states, almost every year. So there was a lot of turbulence there. But South Mississippi and the landscape there was home. That’s where I spent all my Christmases, all my Thanksgivings, all my summers. And it was outside. I mean, it was completely outside for the most part…and rural. You know, small town Mississippi. So I think the roots grow deep there.
And then my mom, I mean, you know, we always were going on nature walks. She’s always gardening, always in her corn field. And when I was in high school, you know, she’d go out of town and I was responsible for doing the corn breeding for a week. We’d have like a big corn plot in our backyard. So, you know, the roots run deep I think.

DT: And—and the—the kind of relationship you had with your mother—wa—was she the sort of person who would point to things or, you know, teach by doing, or was she somebody who would tell you things and instruct you directly?

LD: I think both, you know. I mean, I—you know, I definitely remember, I mean, lots and lots and lots and lots of weekend nature walks. And my brother and I would be sort of running ahead and, I mean, she stops at every little flower and every little, small plant, and wants to look at it. And, you know, and—and we were wanting to race ahead. So that’s my mom in a nutshell. I mean, she’s a botanist and so all the small things and the small details. I only really appreciate that I think later in life because I think, like most kids, your parents are into the things they’re into and you’re—you kind of absorb it but you don’t necessarily know the value of it until later, you know.
I mean, I think, in my own turbulence in my own life where I have found great comfort and peace is being in natural spaces. I mean, and I think you learn that as a kid. I mean, I think it gets planted in you as a kid because you’re placed in the spaces. You have these opportunities. I think if you don’t grow up with those, you know, that’s much more effective I think than saying, “This is Rachel Carson. She’s important.” She did all that too. But I think it’s the stuff that you absorb experientially that is really most deeply in you.
But, I mean, my, you know, all my family—all my mom’s family’s like that. I mean, they’re all plant people. They’re all plant people. And plant people are particular kind of people, you know. There’s a quietness to it. There’s—I remember when my grandfather—I was very, very close to my grandfather and he was a southern historian, but I just always remember the tenderness with which he would care for, you know, all these flowers, all these camellias. Yeah.

DT: So when we were talking earlier, you were telling me about your grandparents and their relationship with the land, which seems one of—of many different kinds. I mean, there’s—you can have a relationship with wilderness or you can have a—a relationship with open space or the vacant lot next door to you, but their life seemed to be very tied with agriculture and a working landscape. And that seems to pop up in your own working life. I mean, I—I think of Look and See and I was curious if—if you see a connection there between, you know, your exposure early on?

LD: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, I think it’s—it’s—it’s agriculture. It’s also the South. And Kentucky is a Southern state. You know, it’s has a really interesting history, in terms of the Civil War and the Confederacy and the Union. I mean, it had both Confederacy and Union in it. So it’s sort of this borderline state, you know. But there’s a lot of aspects of Southern kind of agrarianism in Wendell Berry’s work and in his writings.
And I think I definitely connected that to th—his work because of my own roots, you know, my own time with my grandparents’ fam—my grandparents and that whole side of the family because they’re all very much Southern agrarians and, you know, people whose livelihood is based on working the land. But it’s done in a way that’s sustainable and respectful to the land. It’s not, you know, large scale 2,000, 5,000-acre monoculture grain crops, you know, where you’re—have big John Deere tractors and whatnot.
You know, it’s a different kind of a economy and it’s complex. I mean, the whole history of Southern agriculture is obviously incredibly complex and difficult and painful. So I think I’m probably sensitized to those complexities—kind of the beauty and the—the evil and all that—that went on there. But, you know, I think if you love—if you, you know, you grow up love—being loved as a child, then you love the place from which you come. You love those people.
And so that’s I think where my love for that and my affinity for, you know, the Southern agrarian culture and landscape, it’s because it’s where I started and it’s those people loved me, you know. I think it’s really that simple.

DT: I think it’s—it—you sound like you traveled around a lot, although you had these deep roots in—in Mississippi and—and in the—the South. But eventually you—I guess your—one of your first stops was—was in college. You went to Yale. And—and I—I was wondering if when you first arrived there if you knew that you wanted to be a filmmaker or if that was just one of many options when you first arrived?

LD: Yeah, no, I didn’t want to be a filmmaker. I wanted to be an actress which is why I went to Yale. I know. I loved the arts, you know, I always loved theatre and music and singing and the arts. And—and so it’s where I want—I wanted to do that. And that’s why I went there. But also, you know, back in—I also was always very interested in journalism. You know, I was the editor of my high school newspaper but I—I always—and I grew up watching 60 Minutes and Dan Rather was a big hero of mine and, from a young age, which is kind of an unlikely hero for an eleven year old girl.
But I was really interested in journalism early on. So I think those two things are—have kind of come together in documentary but—because there’s a lot of acting sometimes in documentary production. I can talk about that. But when I went to Yale, I was a fish out of water. I mean, none of—no one from my family had ever gone really I think to school in the Northeast. My dad’s from Michigan—Notre Dame. He went to Notre Dame. But I wasn’t from those places. So it—I was a fish out of water. And I had never confronted urban poverty in that way.
I knew Southern poverty and I knew about racism a lot. But the social and economic dynamics in New Haven, Connecticut were a shock to my system. I mean, the—my—my freshman year’s roommate—her dad was on the board of the New York Stock Exchange, you know. I had these like uber wealth that I had never been around. And, at the same time, I was a student worker in the dining hall. So I was a de facto member of a very large, historically rooted blue collar, you know, workers’ union, de facto union. I had never really learned about that either.
And a strike broke out on campus pretty early on in those years. And I was much more comfortable with my coworkers in the dining hall, just culturally, than I was with the people in my classes or dorm. So I was straddling these worlds. And I started out as a theatre major but I don’t know if you know much about New Haven, but it’s largely gentrified now right around the campus. But when I was there in ’93 to ’97, they hadn’t yet done that kind of bubble—“bubblification” of the campus. So there were lots of little crack baggies on the sidewalk.
There were shootings outside my dorm room. There was incredible amount of raw, urban violence right around the campus. And—and it permeated the campus plenty. And so I was dealing with that and it—it made the kind of, you know, late night dramat—pr—rehearsals where everyone’s looking at themselves in the mirror, feel very silly and inconsequential. So I dr—dropped the drama major for—after the first semester and I started volunteering at the Juvenile Detention Center.
And I would be riding my bike, you know, down to—I did—redid all their filing system. It was just this sense of like there’s all this pain and suffering all around me. And I was 17 when I went to college and I think I was really animated by that. I wanted to do something because the juxtaposition of all the extreme wealth and the painful, extreme poverty like right there interweaved together.
And, you know, you know, the—the—the presidents of Yale and the professors and the people—they espouse all these great words about citizenship and enlightenment and—and yet there was all this poverty right there that no one seemed to really be paying attention to. So it was that—I—talk about this—they talk about kind of the origins of filmmaking, it was just this cognitive dissonance. You know, I mean, these two worlds that don’t seem to talk to each other really and I’m in both and I—Rodney King trial—the Rodney King incident ha—hap—had happened.
I had switched over to be an American studies major because there were some really interesting professors there who would let me explore these kinds of questions in an inter—interdisciplinary approach. So I could be creative and I could do things differently, in terms of the medium. I wasn’t so constrained as I would be in a more traditional academic major. And I remember the Rodney King stuff happened and it was astonishing to me how just the fact that there was a video—there was a video of something.
We all knew about police brutality and racism, but once there was a video that stood as a kind of witness, how that catalyzed people, how much that changed things, and the L.A. Riots and then all the attention. It was the sense to me that, wow, this screen that everyone seems to be looking at—because I never—I never really watched TV much as a kid. I was never really interested in film or TV or—I was really more out—outside, you know. But it was this—as someone who’s concerned about social justice and about getting people to see things right where they are, it was a powerful moment I think in our history.
And that’s when I said well, gosh, I’d be kind of interested in exploring film. I mean, people are looking at it. It’s a way to show evidence of something. I can write about it and talk about it all day, but if people see it in video format, things seem to shift a bit, you know. So I think that was big. And Michael Moore had just done Roger and Me, which was really interesting. So I—I took a documentary class and this was in 1995 I think. There weren’t a lot of documentary—documentary’s exploded since then—but Fred Wiseman—I watched a lot of Fred Wiseman’s films and just was so moved by those.
This window into these worlds you wouldn’t otherwise see but in a way that, you know, very unlike Michael Moore, although Roger and Me was fantastic—the—there was this—there was an ethnographic aspect to it where you’re just opening up a world for people to see. So it just kind of all happened. And I was hired to be an interviewer on a like a Yale reunion video—it’s just—I was trying to make money. I interviewed a bunch of people and liked that, interviewing on camera.
And I met someone—a—a friend of mine who had a camera and he was a filmmaking major. And so I said look, a strike is breaking out. Like it’d be interesting to start filming the labor strike, you know, because I knew a lot of the workers. And that’s where it started. So I started filming with my friend. And then he graduated and I just kept going with it. Filmed about a hundred hours of footage. So I would interview—I would go in between these two worlds. I would interview graduate students and professors and deans of colleges and all of that.
And I interviewed, you know, like all these Yale, you know, the—the human relations people and the labor negotiators because I was a student. I could kind of wiggle in and interview them. But then I also interviewed big internat—you know, international labor union leaders and Jesse Jackson, and all these people because they would come and do all these protests. And then I would film, you know, the custodians and the secretaries and the electricians and the dining hall workers.
So I just found with my camera I could kind of, you know, move in between these different worlds. I had about a hundred hours of footage and I wrote my thesis because, at that point, there was no film production major at Yale. It was just film theory, which wasn’t particularly helpful to me. So I wrote my thesis, graduated, and then applied to Film School at UT because I felt like I needed some practical—I need ac—access to resources. I needed editing equipment. But I also just wanted some practical knowledge of filmmaking, not film theory but the making.
What do I do with this hundred hours of footage? I know there’s something here. I want to make something. And I knew I wanted to be back in the South. And UT, at the time, was best film school in the South. And—and they—they, at that time, it’s different now—but Paul Stekler—I was interested in his work because he did a lot of Southern politics and I came and met with him. And they let you only do documentary. I didn’t have to do any narrative film. I could just do documentary.
So I came here. And that first semester edited, had a great editing professor, Don Howard, who still teaches at UT. And I loved UT because I always tell people this—in—the—it gets criticism for this, but I had very little structure. I was really just given resources and allowed to do whatever I wanted to do. And I loved that because I had a mission. So I just edited that movie. And, in the first semester cut The Subtext of a Yale Education. And—and I wasn’t really necessarily planning to be a filmmaker. Honestly, I—I didn’t—I just wanted to make that film.
I didn’t even know if I’d finish film school. I just wanted to make this film, you know. I think it was me processing my education and that whole experience and wanting to see it through. But what happened is that film in—did really well in student film festivals, much to my surprise. And then Michael Moore sponsored a tour of it in another film all over the country about looking at like corporatization of higher education. And I thought well maybe I’ll just stick with this a little bit.
And I had to do a pre-thesis my second year in film school and I really wanted—I’m from New Orleans—I was bir—born and my family’s all from South Mississippi and I just wanted to go back there. Since I was in Austin, I was fairly close and I just wanted to spend time in—in my birthplace and reconnect to that place. And I think it was my mom sent me a newspaper article about the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.
And there were several law students who were working with their lead professor—he was an amazing guy named Bob Kuehn—and they were representing a small community in Convent, Louisiana about halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans along the Mississippi River and it was a group of women—black and white—crossing these traditional racial lines and they were already bombarded by I think it was, I mean, thousands of times the—the healthy limit of exposure to toxic chemicals into the air, land, and water, but they were coming together to fight the location of a company called Shintech, the world’s largest polyvinyl chloride plant.
It was going to—it’s the world’s second largest polyvinyl chloride plant—was going to be put there in their community. And so they were working with a Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and defeated this plant. It was this really amazing, wonderful story. So I just thought oh this will be an interesting pre-thesis, you know, I could go down and interview some of these people and document their activism. And I called the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, left a message.
Bob Kuehn, the he—the head of the clinic—this amazing lawyer—called me back and said there is a national advisory—it’s a National Advisory Council to the Environmental—to Environmental Justice, NEJAC, I think that’s what it’s called—of the EPA. So it’s a special council that advises the EPA on environmental justice issues. They were going to be having a meeting, like a three-day meeting in Baton Rouge like the following week.
And he said it’s going to be fascinating and there’s going to be this community section where they go down to—it’s actually a Labor Union Hall in kind of inner city Baton Rouge—and you should come to that. So I—so I le—I had a little camera at the time and I—I said okay. So I just drove down and went to that meeting. And it just forever changed my life. I mean, it was so gut wrenching because it was in this packed, little windowless Union Hall in Baton Rouge.
And it was like community after community after community, all of these people, you know, largely African American, not all of them, all from poor communities, rural communities along the Mississippi River Petrochemical Corridor, and they were just one at a time getting up and telling their stories. And it was gut wrenching because it’s the most polluted stretch in America between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. There’s over 150 petrochemical plants in that hundred miles, within about a two mile periphery of either side of the river.
And so th—the—the cancer clusters are just horrifying, you know. And in children, I mean, that’s where it really gets you. And so it was just testimony after testimony after testimony of these people coming up and telling their stories and I was just crying. You know, everyone’s crying. So afterwards, I went and introduced myself to a couple people and just said this—I’m just a student filmmaker but could I come see you tomorrow?
And this one woman said I could come over—lot of people didn’t—they didn’t initially trust me, I mean, who am I, but she said she’d meet me—and this was in Convent. And I went there that next morning with my camera and she never showed up, but her little girl, Porsche, was about five or si—five years old I think—had a big balloon in her lung. She had had all kinds of health problems. She was playing outside the trailer home. So I just filmed with her for a little while. And that’s kind of where it started.
So that—I went back and forth. It was much more than a pre-thesis. Pre-thesis is supposed to be a ten minute thing, but I shot a—over a hundred hours of footage and just got completely, you know, consumed by the whole thing and made Green as my second year pre-thesis film, which looks at six of those communities along the river. And—and that won a student academy award and then we toured it to sort of environmental justice communities all over the country and, at that point, I was like, okay, I’m going to just stick this out. So that’s kind of how it all started.

DT: You know, essentially that two similarities between your Yale film and then the Green film occur to me. And it may be—correct me, but it seems like they’re both about—I think you—you described it as dissonance, but I think it’s—and I would think of it as about ju—justice really and injustice, particular in—and—and I was curious if that—that seems like a—a strain through—through not just those two movies but other ones you’ve worked on. So I’m curious about that. And I’m also wondering—both movies weren’t just to entertain in a cinema, but it sounds like you organized the distribution and a tour to use them as an advocacy tool—tool. Is that—is that fair to say?

LD: Yeah, I think I was—in my origins to filmmaking, I was almost 100 percent motivated by activism. You know, I didn’t get into film because I loved film. It’s changed for me since then, mostly because of my work with Terrence Malick, but those early years, it was pure activism, pure, raw activism was the motivation definitely. So I don’t think it’s very much a journalistic thread to that. It’s just that I didn’t want to just, you know, I—I—I had a kind of confrontational spirit I think, you know, for whatever reason. You could probably do a therapy session on why.
But yeah, I was very motivated by that. And I came to love these people. You know, I think it—it, you know, it sounds so cheesy but I do think it goes back to like the people you care about and a—and—and a—a desire to use whatever resources you’ve been blessed with to help those people, you know. I mean, I think that the people that I worked with at Yale and—and so much of the falseness I think and the pretense of all this wealth and all this pomp and circumstance, it didn’t—didn’t really appeal to me.
And so many of the people I worked with in the dining hall, I just loved, you know. And I—I was sort of in defense of them And I—I didn’t get really irritated by, you know, people with money and power and how self-righteous and self-important they can be and the lies. I think—I think documentary is this, you know, search for truth, right. It’s—you have all these opposing views and it’s the sense of like well where’s the center? Like, where do you—there’s this W. B. Yeats poem that I have always loved. It’s the Second Coming. Do you know that poem?
It’s—it’s this—it’s—it’s really great. It’s—it’s things fall apart—it’s very famous, but things—he wrote it right after World War II—but “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” And it goes on. It talks about how the falconer cannot hear—no, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.
And he’s talking about sort of post-World War II, but, to me in my own life, I’m sure, as a child and then it kind of grows and evolves, but that sense of like where’s the center, you know, where’s—where are the things that don’t move, that don’t change, that need for some kind of solid truth to—to build upon. I think that’s an intuitive need of mine. And so you’re in these worlds where there’s all this noise. You’re sort of looking for where the—where are the things that are real? Where are things that are true?

DT: Do you, you know, like there’s a likeliest place to find truth is—is in some sort of communal storytelling where you talk to many, many people and you amass many, many hours of film or tape and—and then you—you somehow distill it for that. Is that about what—?

LD: Well it’s certainly one—I guess that’s been my approach, right. I mean, I—I do think that there’s something to that. I mean, you know, li—take—take the Bible as literature, just as an example. You know, one of the—and it’s very—something people debate very passionately, right. One of the most interesting pastors I ever knew talked about how, you know, he believes that there’s a truth. There is a truth. We’re not going to just descend into post-modern nonsense that it’s all relative.

Like we—we believe that there is a truth somewhere, but you’ll never see it in full. You’ll never have the full grasp of it. So if you look at the Bible as a—as a work of literature, not with any other baggage there, but you see this one story refracted through all of these different lenses. And I thought that was so beautiful.

DT: With different witnesses and testimonies?

LD: Yes, and—and that’s what you’re doing in your own, you know, conservation history. It’s like there’s a history, there’s things that happen, there’s some truth out there. It’s far more complex than one mind can ever get around. So you look at is as refracted through all these different points of view. And I do think you can get at—at the story and the truth and the fundamental nature of things that way. You can certainly approach it.

DT: Well I’m—I’m struck that—that in both these first two movies you made that you did so much homework. You know, you—you did so many interviews and you met so many people and you amassed so many hours of recordings. And I—I was wondering if you could talk about the steps that you took after that because those first two movies—it sound like they were kind of your babies. You know, you di—you didn’t—you were still a student so you didn’t have people that you might hire and bring into the mix. And I was curious if you could talk about the mechanics of taking all this raw material and making a finished movie out of it.

LD: Yeah, it’s a very messy and time-consuming process. And there are a lot of documentary filmmakers—great filmmakers—who, you know, have a script and they go out and find the material that will fit that script. And the editing process is a lot simpler. I think, to me, my favorite aspect of documentary are the interviews and the editing. And I love editing, you know. I—I think it’s the writing of the film. But it—it is unbelievably time-consuming and my way of doing it is very time-consuming. And I don’t necessarily say that sort of self-righteously.
I’m sure there’s much better ways to approach the material. It’s just that that’s just the way my mind works. And I’ve done this long enough to just say this is just how my mind works and I’ve done this long enough to just say this is just how my mind works. If it’s good or bad, you can be the judge. But I don’t know any other way. I’ve tried to hire editors and I just can’t because I have to find a mess, get totally disoriented in it and then find my way back out. So the editing—I might have a hundred hours of footage and I interview lots of different kinds of people, you know.
I mean, with The Green, for example, I mean, I interviewed lots of community members, but I also interviewed, you know, lots of government officials in Louisiana. I’ve—I—the head of the Louisiana Chemical Association. I mean, I really try to embed myself in these different worlds. So, in the edit, I—I try to find and make sense of it. And I like to go to an interview with someone who might have a very different view than I start out with and come out of that interview thinking, huh, like wow, now I really am confused.

Maybe they do have a point, you know. Like I really like to get disoriented and confused because I think that’s a more honest—you end up having a more honest project. I think you have something that’s more—more honest. There’s something more open about seeing things anew rather than I see everything the right way, now let me show you how it is, you know. I don’t like it when people talk to me that way so I assume that my audience member won’t like that. So that’s just my approach. So you have a hundred hours of footage and I—I work through it all.
And I think about it like a sculpture. You have a big stone and you don’t go from that stone to the—to the finished piece just like that. Now a lot of editors, they just lop stuff off fast. I don’t. So I’ll take that, you know, hundred hours and I’ll cut it down to maybe ninety hours and then I’ll cut it down a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more. And I tell people like in the process, I co—I’m kind of memorizing the material. It’s just how I work so that then I can start to see the natural connections between things.
If someone over here talks about a garden, if a man who’s living on a superfund site is a gardener, an award winning gardener, and he’s growing all this beautiful food in his backyard and it’s not until later that he realizes because he was planting it in toxic soil, it killed his daughter, you know. He’s talking about this and—and he does this in an interview that’s gut wrenching. Well when I get to know Bettsie Baker-Miller who’s the head of Louisiana Chemical Association and she talks all about her garden, you know, then I say huh, I’d like to see your garden.
And so she walks me around her garden. Then that’s a seam, you know, in a film that I didn’t create. Those are just places where the story itself has pieces that naturally connect and interconnect. And I like to find those scenes as much as possible and then, at the very end, impose whatever structure I need to impose upon it. And you always have to at some point, but I wait until the very end, until someone says okay, this ninety-minute cut is full of interesting moments but I don’t really know what you’re saying.
And then I have to think oh okay, now I’m going to have to find some kind of structure to put it in. And, you know, that’s where the Mississippi River is a physical landscape and just a helicopter shot came in for me. It was like well, this could be a journey down—I read John Mc—some of John McPhee’s writing about the Mississippi River, and so I started [inaudible 00:32:52] about Mark Twain and these kind of, you know, big sort of American narratives around this place and this river and this sort of idea of journeying down the river and thought well that’s a natural sort of structure to put upon it.
So I took excerpts, quotes from those texts and then I also raised money to do a helicopter shot where we could fly down the Mississippi River and stop in each community as we go and let the story unfold so that you have a geographic map and you have a kind of poetic interleafing. And I think that’s enough. I think that’s enough. I don’t think you need my voice narrating. I think you give the—the viewer a sense of okay, I’m on—there’s a direction here. I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re going somewhere.
And so you can trust the driver, you know, to take you there. That’s kind of what—how my approach is. And that’s how it’s been in—in all of my work.

DT: Well I have a question about—about editing. It seems like you—you go to great ends to—to be as holistic and well rounded a storyteller as possible. You know, tell a story from lots of different [inaudible] you know, different views on—on a—on a single story, but, you know, the reality of the world is that some people have power and the ability to tell their own story. Other people don’t, you know. And I was wondering how—how do you balance that out? You know, the—the lobbyist who has a story about her garden versus the African-American who has a story about his garden, but the lobbyist probably has more access to the traditional tools of media and public relations—

LD: Uh-huh, sure, yeah.

DT: —and the news than the African-American gentleman. How do you balance those two stories?

LD: Well, I’m not sure if you do balance them. I think that, you know, I trust that the viewer can kind of see the contradictions in that. I’m not necessarily trying to balance them as much as I am trying to intercut them because most of us, and now more than ever, right, we live in our own little bubbles. We don’t—we only read the blogs that reinforce our world views. And we live in our little neighborhoods and our little communities and we get in our little routines and we’re not really seeking things that make us uncomfortable. We’re all guilty of that.
So I think that documentary has this powerful ability to confront you with things, you know, that you might not otherwise see. And that’s kind of where I think it plays out. In other words, I don’t really—I’m—I’m—I’m balancing it in that I’m telling a different side of the story than you’re going to hear if you just listen to the Louisiana Chemical Association and the powers that be in Louisiana’s government, you know. I’m going to bring to you a different story but I’m going to intercut it with the story you know. And I think that’s interesting, you know.
I know that—that—that specific scene I’m talking about was—was really painful for people. And—and it was painful for Bettsie Baker-Miller, you know. I think she felt like I abused her trust and that I kind of tricked her into participating. And I’ve gotten that kind of feedback. I mean, Gary Bradley felt that way. But, at the same time, Brigid Shea condemned the film as being too friendly to Gary Bradley so, you know, people are going to have their opinions. I think you just try to represent people the way they represent themselves and, you know, intercut these things.
It’s the intercutting that I think people think is so polemical. But I don’t necessarily think it is. I mean, these are just worlds that coexist and we’re showing them to you in context of one another and you can draw your own conclusions.

DT: Well some and maybe that’s it, that—that you trust the viewer to—to maybe do his or her own editing and telling and, you know, layering and leveling which one—which story you might believe or—

LD: Yeah, that’s the hope.

DT: Well I think you mentioned that you also took this helicopter trip that was—that was part of the—the tie that—that bound these different towns and I guess petrochemical plants and communities and people. Can you—I think I read that—that you somehow found a—an old Korean War veteran who flew this—this route. Te—can you tell me a little bit about that?

LD: Well there’s a—there’s a—an aerial cinematographer named Vance Holmes who’s here in town. And I was referred to him through probably—I don’t even know. I mean, I—I was getting to know a lot of different people at the time and I heard about him. It could have been Don Howard, my editing professor, who recommended him or he recommended someone who recommended him. And Vance is a—a real daredevil. And he and I connected pretty quickly. And so I had raised some money to do this helicopter shot and I just wanted to do this one shot and so I sort of pitched it to Vance and Vance told me, okay.
Well we need to get a helicopter. Go to Red Rock Helicopters. So I contacted them and told them what I wanted to do. And they hooked me up, because what I wanted to do was a little bit unconventional, you know. This was pre-9/11 so here weren’t the same kinds of laws and rules and fears. I mean, it’s illegal to fly above those—those plants and I knew that. So I was asking someone to do that but I was [inaudible 00:38:32] do it on a Sunday morning, no one’s going to be out there.
But it wasn’t the same kind of enforcement you would have now. I mean, now it would be very difficult to do what we did. At the time, it was like I just want to fly along those plants, knowing that I want people who are going to, you know, be up for that. And so the Red Rock Helicopters guys, you know, I rented—I think I rented from them and they just gave me a pilot who was up for it. So we actually flew all the way from here to Baton Rouge in the helicopter. Yeah. And—and I—I forget the guy’s name but he—he did have these huge forearms that had Tex tattoos on his forearms.
And I talked with him the whole way, yeah, and he—he was fascinating. But he was up for it and then Vance was up for it. So we flew all the way to Baton Rouge, spent the night, got up early the next morning on a Sunday and it was beautiful morning. And we did that whole thing in about four hours. And then flew all the way back home to Austin. It was crazy. But we mounted the, you know, a 16 millimeter—it was shot in 16 millimeter film—on the nose of the helicopter and then Vance manipulated all of that. So I think we shot about four rolls of film.

DT: Could you talk a little bit about the landscape that you saw from that aerial perch?

LD: Yeah, if you’re—if you’re on the ground in these little communities, you know something’s going. You know that—you know something is up because there’s all these cancer clusters in children. It’s this—it’s really devastating to these communities. At the same time, these communities are very dependent on the economy and the jobs in these plants. So there’s all this tension you have. And, to me, what I wanted was to see the scale, to see the scale of how vast and large these plants were next to this mighty river and these little communities that were former plantations.
They were former sugar cane plantations, most of them slave plantations. And so the descendants of the slaves have settled in these communities around—what the plantation sold their land to the petrochemical and chemical companies and so there you have it. It’s this brutal kind of story. And I wanted to see all of those—the scale of the plants and the plantations and the river and these little communities. And that’s what you see, you know. It—it—I think the aerial—when you’re doing film about the environment, to be able to see the landscape from a bird’s eye view, it tells the whole story, in a sense, you know. You can see it.
You can see how vast these things are. You see this huge bubbling vats of who knows what and there’s these little tiny houses right along the border, you know. It’s—it’s gut wrenching. And you could see the old plantation homes and you can see the river and you can see the sugarcane fields. So, you know, that geography is—is, in a sense, the whole story.

DT: And—and do you find that—that while that is very rooted in that stretch of river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, that that has—echoes elsewhere?

LD: Yeah, sure. I mean, I learned a lot about sort of the environmental justice movement nationally. And, of course, a lot of the toxic waste dumps and superfund sites and petrochemical plants and—are placed in poor communities. And depending on what part of the country you are, it could be environmental racism or it could be environmental justice, you know. The—the dis—I think down in Louisiana, it’s both. There’s deep racial divides and history there. But, you know, in—somewhere else it’s just going to be the people who are poor.
You know, it’s going to be the place where the land values are low and there’s not a lot of political power and so that’s where they’ll go put all the toxic stuff. Sure, I mean, it’s happening here in Austin, you know. You could talk to Susana Almanza and she’ll tell you the whole history. So, yeah, it’s everywhere. It’s a—it’s kind of the conscience of our economy. You live in this very, you know, comfortable economy with all this materialism, but it—it comes from a place that—that’s very polluting and then—and the consequences of our consumption and materialism are borne out in the—in the communities and the people who, you know, don’t have as much money or resources.

DT: You—you mentioned Susana Almanza that seems like a—maybe a good chance to—to talk a little bit about another movie that you’ve made that’s based here in Austin where Susanna lives—the—The Unforeseen that came out in 2007. And—and I was wondering if—if first you could maybe talk about—about the—the title and maybe use that as an introduction to the subject matter.

LD: The Unforeseen, as a title, came from a Wendell Berry poem. And that actually came very late in the—the editing process was that title and that poem. I think if I reflect on sort of why that was, it kind of requires—I think it might be a little more natural for me to kind of start at where that project started, which is I had finished Green, I had finished another experimental film after that that I did just because I could at the end of grad school. And actually I was—I had a Fulbright and I was going to go to Israel.
I was look—wanted to look at the ecological underpinnings of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and the water aspect specifically. So I had a film that I was working on called Mai Myim. Mai in Arabic means water and Myim in Hebrew means water. And so I was looking at that and there were a lot of great resources at UT to look at that. I had enrolled in the Middle Eastern Studies Department. I was learning Hebrew and Arabic. I was going to go to Israel. And what happened was there was a really, really, really bad intifada in 2002 and there was a bombing at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Well it killed eleven Americans, one of which was the woman coordinating all of my studies. And it was just one of those, okay, I can’t go right now. I have to wait. So in about a four month waiting period, that’s when I met Terrence Malick. So Terrence Malick asked me to do what became The Unforeseen. And I was already very interested in water, you know. I was looking at water in the Middle East and the parallels between water in the Middle East and on the Mexico/Texas border because there’s a lot of interesting water research that goes on at UT.
And so that’s where I was mentally. And so when Terrence Malick—he—I met him through really Bill Bunch. And I had just done this grad student work and I was going to do some work—I was going to do some maybe PSAs for SOS. I was sort of like in this holding pattern like well I don’t know much about Austin. I should do something that contributes to Austin while I’m waiting to leave again, you know. And they gave my work to Terrence Malick and Terry said ah, I really like this. I want to do—I want to do a whole film about the whole battle over Barton Springs.
Well, I mean—so I got a call saying, you know, he wants to have lunch with you. So I was, even though I was a documentarian, I loved Terry’s work, you know. Thin Red Line was so inspiring to me because of the way the natural world is a full blown character in his films. You know, like the grass and the sound of the grass has this space in his films. And I just loved his films and how spirit—there’s so many spiritual dimensions to his work and he was exploring these themes of spirituality and our relationship to the land.
And anyway, I just found his work to be so beautiful. So when I got a call to go have lunch with him, it really was one of those wonderful surprises, you know. And I—I met with him and he asked me to do The Unforeseen—what became The Unforeseen. And—and he—this is what he told me. He said take Barton Springs as that which God gave us and look at what we’re doing to it. It’s effectively what he told me to do. And he said—he also emphasized that you have to see the whole world through a grain of sand. So don’t just look at the fact of things.
Look at what are the forces behind what’s happening and look at how that refracts on a much bigger scale. And so that’s what he asked me to do. And pretty quickly, he got Robert Redford involved and then I worked with Terry for about a month back and forth, back and forth on a treatment for it. We just—I would write something and he would tear it to shreds. And I’d write something and he’d tear it to shreds. And we finally got a treatment and then he asked Bob Redford to come on board.
And, by then, it was like okay, well this is a really amazing opportunity, get to work with these people and Terry was very actively mentoring me those first eight or nine months. And so we raised some money to start working on the film pretty quickly. And I just kind of put Israel aside. I kind of told him I couldn’t go and I was going to stay here in Austin and—and do this. So that’s what happened. We ended up filming for four years I think, another hundred plus hours of footage and that was a whole big process. But that became The Unforeseen.

DT: I see. And—and I think that earlier you had said that you talked to something like four hundred people.

LD: Yeah, I talked to so many people. When I—when Terry and I fina—got out kind of one page that he was happy with—because this is very different than my other films—you know, you say my other films were kind of like my babies—like this was not a film that was my idea, you know. It didn’t start with kind of my own idea. It was Terry’s idea. And I had to figure out a way to make that work. It’s very different, you know. If—if you’re the kind of—the genesis of an idea versus it’s someone else’s idea that you have to then bring to fruition, that’s a different kind of challenge.
So my instinct was, okay, just read lots. And I read like lots of Austin Chronicles, you know, kind of looking at the whole development history, the fight over Barton Springs. And I knew that I was coming from an environmentalist sort of position. And so what I was interested in wh—what’s the other side, you know, wh—what’s the other side of this story? And it’s going to be a lot harder to get those interviews than it is to get all these others. So I put on a little power suit and, you know, basically met with every developer and lobbyist I could meet with in Austin for many, many months.
So I talked to all of them. I mean, I was downtown every day for hours meeting with all these different people. And, you know, I got in the door because I was, you know, I had Robert Redford on board and I was sort of this UT film student, you know, had some awards. And so I just kind of used that as a way to get in the door and interview all those people. And I interviewed all of them on audio. So I’d have an audio recorder. And so I had hours and hours and hours of audio tape before I ever shot an interview, yeah.
So that’s what I do and because you can—oh, and what I was going to say is in reading all of those—so much of the history, the person I became most interested in was Gary Bradley because, you know, there was this Austin Chronicle cover where it literally showed him as a kind of Satan. They kind of did this cartoon of him as the devil and through like that’s really interesting, like who is he, you know? What is his story? It took a while to get to him. He was very guarded. But I did finally get to him and he was absolutely fascinating to me, you know.
He—he—he—very articulate, very smart and charismatic, and he had this office that was a castle overlooking the Capitol. And behind him in his office, he had this huge marble table in front of him that was like a reflecting pool because you could see his reflection in it. And then behind him, he had this huge wall full of all these maps, these development maps. And I just found him to be really interesting and—and so Texan. You know, I’m not from Texas. He was just sort of this larger than life Texan. And so I just became really fascinated by his point of view and spent a lot of time with him.
And—but I also spent a lot of time talking to, you know, lots of in—people who had fought for Barton Springs and spent a lot of time meeting with and talking to, you know, reading the—what was that book that Marshall—the Barton Springs—do you remember that book? There’s that book with photos. What was his name? Marshall—

DT: Johnson?

LD: No. Oh what was his last name? He put together a book. It might have been called Barton Springs Eternal.

DT: I think it was, yeah.

LD: And it has a lot of oral histories.

DT: [inaudible].

LD: Yes, she did. It was a beautiful book and it had basically a series of oral histories and it had photographs of all these different people. I mean, I—I talked to every single person in that book, you know. And then they would lead me to someone else. And I spent a lot of time with like Beverly Sheffield’s widow, Lois Shef—I mean, I went down every little nook and cranny before we really started filming interviews.
But then after we started filming interviews—we filmed tons of interviews—and—and shot a lot of footage and I ended up with over a hundred hours of footage with that one too and—and edited it. And Terry was helpful in the edit. So I’d piece it together and then he’d give me feedback and it was kind of process.

DT: Can you paraphrase the—paraphrase the—the story that you gave story at the very outset and how that might have evolved through, you know, all those interviews that you did as the story developed?

LD: I wish I had that one page or I’ve looked for it since. So it was ter—Terry said you start with questions. You don’t start with answers. So he was very—he directed me a lot early on. Taught me so much in those days. I mean, he—he—wa—wa—I’m trying to think—the questions were—we had a little teaser with it but it was—oh there were a series of questions. How do you value, you know, the worth of a spring? Why does society fall apart and become a marketplace?
He talked a lot about kind of the losing public space and common space and in—being it replaced with the market—to the marketplace. There were a whole series of questions like that. They were all philosophical. And, you know, someone trained as kind of an activist/journalist, that was a whole new approach to documentary. I mean, it wasn’t go out and find a bunch of literal truths. He would tell me that. So often, he would say don’t just do a chronological story. Make it more like a piece of music and you have these little tangents like in a—in a symphony that pop up and then disappear and maybe never come back.
He would tell me like, you know, find the scene that you’re most interested in. It’s not necessarily the most significant, you know, academically but it’s the most compelling to you personally, build on that scene and work out from there. And it was a totally different approach to anything I had ever done. And it was a series of questions. Now he wanted me to look at the battle over Barton Springs. And so my kind of journalistic mind kind of had to reconstruct that chronologically. I couldn’t just abandon that and start philosophically, you know.
I think it’s in the editing and in the questions I ask people and the themes and the tones I tried to strike with the final film that it would end up exploring poetic place—spaces, you know. We—we tried very much to do that. And I worked with Lee Daniel as the cinematographer who’s a local talent, who’s very much into vérité documentary but he’s—he’s—he’s a true explorer and artist. So that shaped the film a lot too was sort of exploring places visually. So, I mean, I had all these great mentors that kind of changed my approach.

DT: Well that’s what I was hoping you might be able to des—describe this a little bit. There are lots of people who can maybe tell the story of Barton Springs from their perspective but I think that you have really thought about the collection of people that were involved and—and I was wondering if you could talk—you—you mentioned Bill Bradley—sorry, Gary Bradley—and—and I—I think there are some others that I found really fascinating. There’s a lobbyist named Dick Brown and then there’s a property rights advocate named Marshall Kuykendall.

LD: “Kirkendall” is how you—

DT: Kuykendall, I’m sorry. And can you give us a flavor of—of what you learned from them?

LD: Well Dick Brown was—is so smart, you know. So Dick Brown is a lobbyist and he was hired I believe by RECA, like the Real Estate Council of Austin, I believe. Anyway, he was instrumental in writing House Bill 1704, which allowed the state to trump the local ordinances and regulation on development. And so the state could come in and say these lands are grandfathered. They were given these development rights before Austin passed these ordinance restricting development over the aquifer and the—and the recharge zone and the contributing zone and all of that.
And so the state could come in and say oh, no, we’ve already grandfathered those rights so you can still develop that at 50, 60 percent impervious cover, even though under local regulations, it should only be at 12 to 15 percent. So, of course, you can see how that dramatically, you know, reshapes the landscape as money pours into Austin and things are developed. So he was the architect I believe behind that. And I got to know him well. I—I met with him many times. He did not want to go on camera.
He did allow me to do a—sort of a—I think in three-parts, we did an audio interview. [inaudible 00:56:50] two hours at three different times to kind of get the whole history of just—just recording audio. And I said to him after I had this, you know, this is such an important part of the story, which it was, I need some kind of visual corollary to go with it. And I noticed he had a lot of, you know, military model airplanes hanging from his ceiling in his office. Actually there weren’t that many in his office. He had a couple maybe in his office.
And I asked him about it and he—that was a huge hobby of his. And he said it was a little bit like lobbying because, you know, building a model airplane is very in—intricate process and there’s lots of little pieces to it. And he said that’s how lobbying works. It’s this kind of a mosaic. You put a little piece here and then a little piece here and a little piece here and you—you build it. So I said well could we film you building a model airplane? And I—could I use that—just your hands as you build the model airplane, as you—you recount your—your work. And—and he liked that.
And I think that’s an example of like I don’t go in trying to make him look bad. I don’t go in trying to paint him. I respect his intelligence. He’s very intelligent, very strategic, very disciplined and careful in his work and I respect that. And—and that he told me his side of the story I think is really important because it helps us have a better understanding of how these things work, you know, as opposed to just some polemic that just reduces—all of those people are bad and all of us are good.
You—you’re never going to make much progress in your understanding of how things work if you assume that kind of I think almost childish position. So I—and I tried to think of how can you visually—how can you represent him on his own terms, you know, represent him as he represents himself, not try to manipulate him into participating so that I could then misrepresent him. You know what I’m saying? So there’s an ethic there and even if I think gosh, the fact that the state trumped the local ordinances, regardless of what issue it is, I think I’m more of a local control person.
I do think that we should have more control over our own local communities. I think it’s just a principle of kind of democratic, you know, society. And I think the fact that there’s all this new development over sensitive land is a terrible thing. It’s important to me to try to understand how that unfolded. I think that what I learned from Marshall Kuykendall, you know, how deep the private property issue runs in Texas and it’s different here. I remember moving to Texas and like driving, you know, outside of Austin and just there were fences everywhere.

You know, you don’t really see that even in like rural Mississippi, North Carolina. There’s some fences but everything is fenced in Texas, you know. So this whole mindset of private property and how deep, deep that runs in Texas—I learned that through my time with Marshall because he’s a, you know, eighth generation Texan and huge private property rights ad—advocate. And I think you need to understand that when you’re looking at any kind of politics in Texas, especially environmental history, you know.

DT: He had been a proponent of Take Back Texas. Is that right?

LD: Yes, he was the leader of the Take Back Texas movement in 1994 I believe. And [inaudible] Ann Richards was very active in supporting protection of lands, conservation lands, both in Austin because of the salamander and then west in a bunch of counties west of Austin for the Golden Cheeked Warbler and the Black Capped Vireo. So she was very active in trying to support the local ordinances, you know, and regulate some of the development and protect some of the lands—conservation lands. I’m sure you know all that history.
I knew it really well at one point. It’s just been a while. But he started Take Back Texas and that’s a whole mess of a story. I mean, you know, was it really about private property rights or were private property rights used to kind of manipulate rural Texans to, in effect, electing George Bush and sort of supporting development in places where they live but then end up pushing them off their land. I mean, I think you can argue that.
I think you could argue that Take Back Texas and private property rights—Ann Richards is going to bring the federal government in and they’re going to take away our lights on our land because they’re going to tell us what to do because of a bird. You know, that was the rhetoric. But a lot of these same ranchers—what—they want us to be able to stay on their land. And what happens is if you pass laws that end up allowing, even propelling real estate development in those lands or around those neighbors, then it pushes up their property values, it pushes up their taxes and they can no longer afford to stay on that land.
So one could argue that the Take Back Texas movement was sort of misappropriated in ways that end up hurting those land stewards. I would argue that, you know. But—but Marshall was a big part of that and that was intertwined with George Bush’s gubernatorial election.

DT: So we were just speaking about The Unforeseen and—and about the collision between developments interests and—and maybe [inaudible] conservation interests in—in Austin. And—and this maybe is the segue point to talk a little bit about Become the Sky, which was another film project of yours.

LD: Well sure. Become the Sky was just my thesis project. So I did Green and then I had a third year in film school before I graduated and I just wanted to—I wanted to explore Texas and I wanted to do something totally experimental because Green had done well and I felt good about it and I felt like when do you—when can you just experiment, you know, it’s kind of my last chance. Once you get out of school, you have to actually make a living. And so I just—we traveled. I had five different shoots and just traveled all over Texas.
I picked five different geographic regions and I said I want to look at how—an ecological map of power in Texas. This was right post-9/11, I was really interested in oil and petroleum and all the politics therein but also, I mean, we went to dams along the Rio Grande and nuclear power plant in Glen Rose and went as—wind was just picking up, you know, so we were doing the wind turbines out in West Texas, which now cover the mesas out there. But yeah, so that’s what I did. And it was very, very experimental by nature.
I mean, I was intentionally—I just had thirty little kind of visual portraits of places where kind of Texans are harnessing power from—from the earth. That’s what it was. But it was—it was—there’s no real narrative structure to that. It’s very disconceptual and exploratory. And then came The Unforeseen which was my first feature, you know, and I had a budget, and I hired crew. And it was an almost vertical learning curve, I mean, in all ways. So that was huge. And it—it—it—so it premiered at Sundance and it aired on the Sundance Channel.
It had a theatrical release and it won an Independent Spirit Award so it was this, you know, really interesting. I think the thing that’s worth mentioning though, just for the purpose of your oral histories, was how interesting—I mean, I, you know, saw myself as celebrating and honoring Barton Springs and the community’s fight to protect it and how fascinating all the intersection of politics and views and how interesting all these characters were. I mean, Texas is full of really interesting characters and how impassioned the environmentalists were.
You know, so often you find the most interesting and powerful impassioned activists in the places that are hardest, you know, fought. And I think Texas, and Austin is an example of that, I mean, the intersection of these incredible sort of political powers and the money and the real estate development and the private property rights. I mean, that stuff is—it’s like—it’s like that old book that was written in the sixties called The Super Americans, you know, where it’s like Texas is sort of the super Americans of those huge threads in kind of American narrative.
And—and then you have people like Bill Bunch, you know, and these—and—and the community rising up and the whole story of SOS Ordinance and Shudde Fath and so many people we’ve interviewed who are just the best of the best in terms of their resolve and—and th—and their—how articulate they are. So you have this total clash and it was all over this, you know, natural spring fed pool in the middle of the town. So it was this—it was a really interesting story. I remember starting out thinking like ah, is this—what are we—Barton Springs? It’s beautiful but like what?
So it was a learning curve for me in kind of learning about Texas and that whole culture clash and—and the fights therein. So it was—it was incredible to make that film. And, in the end, I definitely felt like I was advocating for Barton Springs. But what was interesting was how different the community here responded to the film. Gary Bradley hated the film until Bridgette Shay hated the film. And then when Bridgette Shay hated the film and Bridgette and I are on good terms now, but she would come to screening after screening and just attack me from the audience.
And she wrote an op-ed piece to the Statesman about how I had been kind of like won over and tricked by Gary Bradley and his lies [inaudible]. And then Marshall Kuykendall wrote an op-ed piece to the Statesman defending me. It was really this like what have I done? And I think it—it—interesting, you know, I think if you’re a documentarian, in a way, that’s a good—you’re doing a good job there. No one likes you in the end really. But you’re kind of intersecting, you know, you’re intercutting these different perspectives and you’re—you’re ideally just holding up a mirror back to the place. And they see what they see.

DT: [overlapping conversation] controversial [inaudible].

LD: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, you know, then they hopefully can see themselves or see their place in a new light and hopefully that does good things. But you never know. You never know. You—with Green, I made a film saying I’m going to show this in justice and we’re going to change it. And I learned the hard way that that’s just not how it works, that you—you work in this medium because you hope that it can have some—shed some kind of light and be helpful in some way but you put it out there and you don’t really know what’s going to happen.
And the—the situation with The Unforeseen in Austin’s a really good example of that, that you don’t really know how people will perceive it. And the way people perceive it now is different than they perceived it ten years ago. And so I’m—I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the way that it wasn’t just the same old, same old, that it brought out Marshall Kuykendall and Bridgette Shay into the same room is—is a good thing I think. It’s kind of community building in a—in a different way.
But after that—The Unforeseen—the title comes from a Wendell Berry poem because as I was editing The Unforeseen, Terry Malick said I want you to try to find some—some voices that are outside of Austin who can contextualize this very local story in a bigger frame. And one of those voices he told me to look up was Wendell Berry. And I had read Wendell Berry’s work probably in high school. I always loved his poetry. So I looked again at a lot of his poetry and found this poem from his Sabbaths poem and the unforeseen is not the title of the poem, but it’s a word that’s repeated throughout the poem.
And it’s this picture of a man walking through a kind of forsaken landscape where everything is manmade and there’s nothing natural left and the despair therein. And at the very end, he comes across this little pool of water and there’s all this life springing forth. And it’s this hope in the unforeseen. You know, this landscape that man makes is everything’s planned out, everything’s mapped out, all the answers are there, and if you—I would tell people in Q&A’s like, you know, as a twenty-something year old making this film, like I—if you do the math on the environment, it’s very disconcerting.
It’s like why bother, you know, we’re just going to—we’re all in a sinking ship. You know, I mean, it’s just not go—but this idea of the resilience in the natural world and how it can surprise us. When you think it’s forsaken and it comes back. That—that was such a important theme to me, kind of emotionally and spiritually that there’s always hope and it’s where you don’t see it. It’s where you don’t expect it.
And so you have to keep open that possibility. And that’s why I wanted to name the film that and I—I—I went to Kentucky and recorded Wendell reading that poem and interleaved that poem throughout the film so that the film itself was this walk through this unforsaken land, no this forsaken landscape. And, in the end, you come across this sort of unexpected hope. That was what I wanted the film to say. And when I toured that film all over place, I was shocked at how few people knew who Wendell Berry was.
I just assumed everyone knew who Wendell Berry was. But I was really surprised. I mean, places like San Francisco Film Society. I mean, they didn’t—no one knew who Wendell Berry was. You know, and it was—so Robert Redford asked me after The Unforeseen what do you want—what do you want to do? I want to support your next work which, at the time, I’d had a child; I was pregnant with another child. I didn’t really feel like doing another film. But I told him I was rereading Wendell’s The Unsettling of America and I thought it was really something we needed to pay more attention to.
And—and Bob was very moved by that same book back in the seventies and he wanted to support it. So and then I talked to Terry and it just started. So we ended up making what I call a portrait of Wendell Berry and that took us what another—it took about four years but I think I had four children in that—in that time. I tell people things take a while when you’re having lots of children in between. But we spent a lot of time in rural Kentucky documenting Henry County, Kentucky where Wendell Berry’s from and his community and his place and his landscape and cut that into what became Look and See, which is my last film, a portrait of Wendell Berry.

DT: And—and I guess this—the description of his part of the world is—is about an agricultural landscape and maybe one that’s sort of on the ropes [inaudible] a way of life that is seeming to pass away from the sort of family artisanal [inaudible]. It’s maybe more industrial or—can you describe that in better detail than how I introduced it?

LD: Yeah, yeah. Well and I think I can bring it together a little bit. So what I was seeing is this—so Wendell Berry comes from, you know, multi-generation of subsistence rural farmers in Kentucky. And so these are not large scale farms. These are small farms that are really suited to the place and the landscape. And that’s his background and he writes beautifully and poetically about an ag—an agrarian culture, which is not big plantation. It’s small communities where you’re living based on an agricultural relationship with the land.
And that’s really at the roots of American history and American—the American landscape. You know, since World War II, we’ve really moved away from that and so it’s more of this industrial model across all things. And if you look at the industrial model played out on our landscapes and agriculture, in particular, you start getting a very different economy of scale, where people have to have large acreage.
They have to have—have many, many, many, many acres and they have to use chemicals because of that scale and it becomes in you—you’re dealing with a global economy and a global market price says you have to produce as much as you can because you’re going to get as little price as—cost as possible for it and then you end—so there’s a whole domino effect. And Wendell is—is critiquing an industrial economy that displaces us from our land and our communities.
And—and so it—the film really explores those themes because that’s what he cares about most through fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. So I was—documented the changing landscapes in kind of rural ideologies in Henry County, Kentucky, as seen through Wendell Berry’s eyes is what that film looks at. And why I was saying I’d bring it together I think is, you know, Gary Bradley in The Unforeseen came from a rural farming background. And if you might remember, there’s also the farmer from Hutto that’s in that film. Like there’s farmers throughout my work.
I love farmers. Back in Become the Sky, there were farmers. In Green, there were farmers. The farmers kind of weave through a lot of what I do. And so I’ve been reflecting on that. And I—I think this third film I’m working on now is looking at that same post agrarian landscape. So we really in a what we call like a post agrarian landscape now where we’re increasingly urban. You know, less than one percent of our population lives in rural places. There’s very few farmers anymore because the farmers, to survive, they’ve become convinced they have to have these mass scale operations.
You know, we’re—we’re very detached from the land in a fundamental sense. It’s not just parks. It’s not just wilderness. It’s our own sustenance, you know, and how we relate to the land. And so I’m looking now—I think that—I think Look and See looks at the post agrarian landscape through the older man who’s in his eighties looking back, right. I think The Unforeseen very much looks at the post agrarian landscape but through that middle ag—that middle aged man who left the farm. The film starts out with him on a farm.
You know, it’s subject to the forces of God, as he says it, but nature—wanting to have more control. So he leaves the farm and comes to the city and wants to map out his empire where he can have control and he can build his empire. So I think The Unforeseen is looking at that tension there. So what I’m looking at now in my third piece of that sort of trilogy, if you will, is what that post agrarian landscape looks like from the boys’ perspective. And I have six boys.
My husband and I are raising six boys and I’m constantly reflecting on how this post-agrarian landscape, you know, on the farms in Kentucky, there’s a lot of places for a boy or a child, you know, to ex—to ex—expend all that energy whereas, in a suburban or urban landscape, we’re constantly having to tell them no, no, no, no because they can’t explore. .
There’s not enough tactile or sensory inputs and they’re in highly controlled little boxes all the times and our schools look like prisons and, you know, I mean, it’s this whole thing, as opposed to when they’re out on the land and they’re interacting with the land, there’s a very different spirit that emerges I think from a child and a boy perhaps, in particular. So that’s what I’m looking at. It’s—it’s going to be called Forest and the Trees.
And we’re looking at kind of why boys are struggling so much, why there’s so much violence, screen addictions, plummeting academic achievement rates, ADHD diagnoses and medications. And my kind of thesis is I think the disconnect from nature—it’s a part of our post agrarian landscape—is a huge force in—in kind of what’s happening with kids today and perception. So I’m just exploring it. As you can tell, it’s kind of a—a mess of ideas. There’s not yet focus but we’ve shot—we’ve shot—we’ve done a couple shoots and we’re definitely in production. So that’s next.

DT: Well I—it’s—it’s fascinating to me to think of this sort of triptik of, you know, the boys and middle aged man, the older man and—and the connection between this different relationship with the landscape, whether it’s, you know, agriculture or it’s development or it’s just a place to explore for a kid. So I wish you the best with that. And knowing that your time is limited, maybe we could—if you’ve got a moment, I’d like to ask you just two more questions.

LD: Yeah, good. [inaudible]

DT: First of all, you seem like somebody who’s has ties to many landscapes. Is there any one particular place that you could describe that—that means a lot to you?

LD: Yeah, I was thinking about that when you asked me at the beginning. I think that’s hard for me because I’ve lived so many places. And there’s this book—I’m actually going to interview this man named David Elkind who wrote this beautiful book in the eighties called The Hurried Child, which is—oh, it’s just such a profound book but he looked then at kind of the culture of parenting and child raising in the eighties, which is when I was raised. And I’ve thought about that a lot since. You know, I mean, I moved every year to a new place.
So I don’t have that sense of rootedness to home that I think, in a way, I fundamentally long for but I don’t have it. I mean, even now I think about like I’m wanting to plant that in my kids but I don’t—I almost don’t know how to because I don’t feel—I mean, I’ve lived in Austin for twenty years and I have a lot of sense of history. I could tell you a lot of places I love in Austin. I mean, I used to love the—the Town Lake Trail. I don’t really go there anymore because it’s so crowded, you know. Barton Springs is magical.
I don’t go there so much anymore because I don’t—I couldn’t afford to live in Central Austin so we live kind of a little bit out and just driving in and out is tough, you know. I like the Green Belt in Austin that is wonderful and I hike down in there. But I can’t say that I feel special to that than I do another forest. We just went to the Redwoods to film for our new film and that was astonishingly beautiful. So that one’s most fresh on my mind. I think trees and the forest are—are a huge thing but I also think the coast and the beach and the water and the sand.
So I think, for me, as sort of a child of the eighties, who was displaced constantly, I think it’s really just being in natural places. I don’t think that there has to be a particular natural place for me. But I definitely think that where I find peace and comfort is always in natural places. But it could be, you know, a huge tree outside the window, you know what I mean. It doesn’t have to be, for me, a specific place. And maybe that’s sad but it is what it is. I think it’s reflective of the kind of—I think it’s reflective of kind of mobility culture, you know.
But there’s a—there’s a constant there. It just isn’t necessarily rooted to a single geographic place.

DT: I understand. Well and then this last question and—and I think that with your focus on this latest movie, I’m sure that this is sort of top of mind, that—do you have a message for a younger generation about experiences and attitudes you’ve—you’ve earned through, you know, the many years you’ve been thinking about these things about conservation in the natural world.

LD: Yeah, I mean, I can just speak to my own kids. Look, I have six kids, ages three to thirteen. And I think it’s because you—there’s two ways to look at it, right. I mean, w—we just had in—a local election and they were fascinated by all of the political yard signs, right. And they wanted to know who was good and who was bad and who I was voting for and who was—and why. You know, they want to cast everything in black and white. And so we had a lot of conversations.
And I would tell them, you know, like my issue almost always is the environment because clean air—air, water, you know, clean air, clean water, that’s pretty fundamental. And I feel like that should cross all these other lines. And a lot of other people have other issues that maybe are more important to them. But I think of that as so fundamental. If you don’t have—I mean, look—we just had our city’s water shut down for a period of time. I mean, if you don’t—and I think this comes from my time honestly in South Louisiana.
Like with people there who don’t have clean air and clean water and there are cancer clusters in little children. It’s easy in a kind of very pristine place like at least part of Austin a lot of us live in to lose perspective, you know, on the fundamentals of—of human health and the environment. We lose perspective on that so much. So I think that when we talk about environmental stewardship, you’re talking about really fundamental ideas that we, as a culture, don’t pay much attention to. So I think it’s easy to connect with kids and explain that.
They get that, you know. They understand that a lot better than a lot of us adults do. And so I do try to talk to them about that and—and how that plays out in politics and why I think that should be an issue that trumps other political concerns because it’s just so fundamental. But I also think it’s immersing—because I find so much joy and peace in natural places, I want my kids to feel that. There’s such power in that. You don’t have to spend money, you know, to find that. You don’t have to buy something.
There’s just—I think those of us who love natural places, and obviously you do because you’re doing a conservation history, but like we know the power in that—in that—that connection. And so I want my kids to have that too and so we just try to immerse ourselves—I try to immerse them in natural places. I really think that’s one of the most powerful ways because then they’ll care. If they don’t have any connection or affection, you don’t come at it through their mind, say oh you should care about this. They find their own love and affinity for these places.
Then the hope would be when they’re older, they realize oh I love this place so therefore I want to fight to protect it, you know. I really think that’s the fundamental thing. So I’m homeschooling my kids in part to give them that. And they spend one day a week at Earth Native Wilderness School. Have you heard of that?

DT: No.

LD: Wonderful program. It’s a program that was started here but it’s one full day a week for homeschoolers. And they spend all day at McKinney Falls State Park and it—rain or shine. You know, they’re out there. And they’re learning primitive skills. So my boys love using knives and stick throwing and building fires. It’s not kind of an eco-thing as much as it is the nature skills, you know, what it’s like to survive, which, of course, my boys are very animated by. And—and so yeah, they went yest—all day yesterday and they’re muddy and covered in mud.
And I think, you know, really de—you have to, in our culture today, you have to be very deliberate about that. But that’s the other way sort of I approach it with my own kids.

DT: A little bit more contact with the natural world it sounds like, more mud. More mud.

LD: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

DT: Well this has been great and I—I—I don’t want to keep you any mi—longer, but if you have anything—

LD: I’m sorry for the constraints on time. I can tell you’re very comprehensive. I so appreciate that. So—

DT: Well is there anything you’d like to add before we wrap up?

LD: No, I mean, I’m—I’m honored to be included in the company of the people. I mean, I—I, you know, that you would call me a conservationist is great. It’s a great honor, really, because I think, as a filmmaker, you’re often—I’m often—I just kind of have my head buried down in the work and I’m not, you know, I’m not doing a lot of the hard groundwork. I think our culture puts so much—I work hard, but I’m saying we put artists and sort of film people up on a pedestal, you know. You get to go screen your film and stand up there and you get all this credit that really you’re not.
You’re just piecing together. I mean, people—we talked about shooting Shudde Fath. I mean, the hours she has put into hard community activism or Bill Bunch or these people. I mean, they’re, you know, the countless hours they’re putting in to try to—what they’re doing to try to protect these places is—it—it’s on a different level than a filmmaker. So, honestly, I am honored to be included in that company.

DT: Well I—I’m glad [inaudible] be part of this. Thank you so much.

LD: Thanks.

[End of Interview with Laura Dunn – November 10, 2018]