SxSW 2015 Interview: LANDFILL HARMONIC director Brad Allgood
By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/29/15 02:57:43
"The most entertaining and emotional documentary of the year, Landfill Harmonic is the unbelievable story of the Recycled Orchestra, a youth orchestra from Paraguay that plays instruments made entirely out of garbage. This modern-day fairy tale follows the orchestra on their rise to international stardom and shows how music can unite a community." Director Brad Allgood on LANDFILL HARMONIC which is screening at the 2015 South By Southwest Film Festival.
Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience and are you going to attend your screenings?
This is my second trip to Austin and first experience at SXSW. My first trip to Austin was for the premiere of 120 DAYS during the 2013 Austin Film Festival, a feature documentary that I co-produced and filmed. I will be at all three screenings of Landfill Harmonic during SXSW.
What do you love the most about showing movies in Austin and Austin in general?
I really enjoy the energy and diversity of Austin. The views from the river are great, and there always seems to be something exciting going on. And I like the unique flavor of Rainey Street.
Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also what have you worked on in the past?
I have been working full-time as a filmmaker for the past seven years. Landfill Harmonic is the fourth feature documentary that I have worked on in a producing or directorial role, and my fifth feature as cinematographer. However, my background is NOT in media; for a long time I was interested in biology, geology and public health.
In 2004, I moved to Nicaragua to become a Peace Corps volunteer, and it was during my time there that I unexpectedly fell in love with the craft of filmmaking. A friend of mine started a project that trained groups of youth across Nicaragua in filmmaking, and I was fortunate enough to mentor one of them. That experience inspired me to pursue media and filmmaking as a career. After the Peace Corps, I moved to Washington, DC where I earned my Masters degree in film from American University.
Because of my connection to Latin America, my focus has been on Spanish-language and bilingual films. I believe there's a growth market for Spanish-language content, and I love the challenge of making films in remote areas under difficult conditions and finding the untold stories that exist in the hidden corners of the world.
On one of my recent films, SONGS FROM BOSAWAS, I traveled deep into the heart of the Nicaraguan rainforest to follow a team of musicians who recorded the music of the Mayangna Indians professionally for the first time in history. Our team spent nearly two days traveling in a dugout canoe up a river, through rapids and torrential downpours and ended up on the river at night with nowhere to stay, only to finally end up sleeping in a family's thatched-roof house in the middle of the jungle, where they were raising 28 pigs. It was one of the worst night's sleep I have ever had. The pigs were restless all night, and in the morning we realized that their cries were due to two jaguars hanging around, hoping for a midnight snack. Even though the experience was pretty miserable - and quite scary - in the moment, we kept the cameras rolling, and the scene adds some comedy to the film. I always laugh when looking back on moments like those, and the brain tends to forget how difficult it was to both stay safe and "survive" while filming and not missing the action..
I also spent a week on the Miskito Keys off of Nicaragua's Caribbean Coast filming lobster divers for the film My Village, My Lobster; circled Botswana on a two-month trip shooting the feature doc The Road We Know; learned how to shrimp while filming Waiting for Oil in Louisiana (and got stuck in the Gulf after the rudder broke on our boat at 4 A.M.); and spent nearly four months following the story of a family of undocumented immigrants in North Carolina for the film 120 DAYS.
How did your movie come together?
Landfill Harmonic has evolved very differently from my other films. The story unfolded over the course of more than 5 years, so there have been many people involved in the production and post-production. This has definitely been the most collaborative documentary of which I have been a part - from the nearly 5,000 Kickstarter backers, to the many camera operators, translators, fixers, field directors, sound recordists, editors, assistant editors, tour managers, venue managers, concert hall staff and supporters around the world - every single person that has been involved in this film, no matter how small their contribution, has been essential in completing this project. And of course, the willingness of Favio, the orchestra, and the community of Cateura to open their homes and lives to us is the foundation of the film. Without the amazing and inspiring families in Cateura, this film would not have been possible.
Back in 2009, Executive Producer Alejandra Amarilla and Producer Juliana Penaranda-Loftus started researching and developing the film, and the cameras began rolling in 2010. The filmmaking duo continued guiding the process and working with field directors to find characters and the beginning of the story arc. In subsequent years, as the story evolved in ways that no one could have imagined, it became necessary to additional crew due to multiple shooting locations around the world. In late 2012 and early 2013, the story accelerated due to the film's fundraising teaser going viral - and that changed everything. It turned into a roller coaster ride for everyone involved, and it was all very exciting. It was hard for the team to choose which storylines to follow. Emails poured in from all over the world.
However, the fact that so many great things were happening for the orchestra presented a challenge as a director and editor. After about 5 months of edit, we had a 90-minute rough cut, but the overall story lacked some emotional ups and downs to keep things interesting for a feature. We had a lot of great, inspiring and interesting material, but it needed a little more contrast. Then, in June of 2014, as we were wrapping up the edit, Paraguay was devastated by the largest flood in over 20 years. Nearly 300,000 people were displaced due to the flooding, and many members of the orchestra were flooded out of their homes. With delivery deadlines looming, we made a very difficult - and risky - decision to open up production again and cover the events surrounding the flood in Cateura.
It was an emotionally intense experience to see our friends in Paraguay dealing with such a great tragedy. But deep down, we also knew that they had the resilience and strength to overcome the devastation and rebuild. Thus, with limited budget and time running out, we took a skeleton crew to Paraguay on two shoots to cover the flood. And it was shocking. The community of Cateura sat under nearly 8 feet of water for two months as the 15,000 families in surrounding communities moved to higher ground, living in plywood shacks during that time.
Not knowing how the flood narrative would fit into the film, or how it would evolve, and how to connect it to the rest of the film, we pressed forward with the edit. In the end, the flood became the
"all hope is lost" moment towards the end of Act II that shows how the orchestra became the glue that cemented the bonds of the families of Cateura, and provided a source of hope and inspiration during a very difficult time. Without their previous successes, the orchestra would not have been in the position to provide the assistance to the families most affected by the flood.
What was your #1 challenge with this movie, and how did you overcome it?
The primary challenge of this film was finding a structure during the edit. Since the film was shot over the course of more than 5 years, there was a mountain of footage. And so much of it was so good. Because it was all very positive and the orchestra was being met with so much success, we had a steady emotional climb in the film with a few small narrative reversals, but we didn't have the dynamic shifts we needed to keep the story interesting past about the 80 minute mark and land a solid ending.
To overcome the structural challenges, we were forced to make some tough decisions along the way. We had to lift an entire 13 minute sequence from the film that follows the orchestra to Oslo, Norway - the cleanest city in the world - as they practice and perform an original piece of music composed for the orchestra by Norweigan jazz composer Jon Balke. We decided to lift the sequence at the end of the edit since the second half of Act II became a bit episodic and started to drag somewhat. However, I did integrate shots from the concert in Norway into a montage late in Act II.
In the end, we analyzed every scene to make sure that they were all on-theme. If a scene meandered a bit, or wasn't related to the film's themes, then they were lifted from the film, or recut so that they were. Theme was the rudder that guided all decisions. In the case of this film, the main themes are quite simple: "transformation through music" and "hard work and dedication can lead to fulfillment of goals".
If you had to pick a single favorite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?
I have three favorite moments in the film. The first is the orchestra's trip to Brazil and the scene on the beach where they swim in the ocean for the first time. It's always an emotional moment for me. The second is where Ada meets Dave Ellefson from Megadeth - his visit was a surprise to everyone in the community, so when they meet the raw emotion is evident. It's a very touching moment. I also find a lot of inspiration when the film turns into Act III and the community comes back to life after the flood. Music - and the orchestra - is a source of hope and inspiration for the community, and it really speaks to their resilience in the face of great tragedy.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee/sugar/tea/soda products (Insert your poison here)?
What keeps me going while making a movie is knowing that things will turn out alright in the end. Every time I start a new film or project, I always feel a bit overwhelmed. To have mountains of footage and an empty timeline staring at you is frightening. I feel like "where do I even begin?" Even though it sounds cliche, you just have to take it one day at a time, one scene at a time, and trust that eventually you will have a completed project. Building out a project to rough cut stage for me is always the most daunting. But cut by cut, the film starts to take shape. During the edit, you reach a certain point where you have enough material in the timeline and you can start to see a structure emerge. It's always an interesting dynamic that exists with the footage because eventually the material begins to sort of tell you where it wants to go and how to cut it and it takes on a personality of its own. It's almost as if the film itself comes alive and begins to shape itself. Filmmaking at the most basic level is problem solving; making a film is like putting together a very complex puzzle, or sculpting and molding a film from this huge chunk of raw material that you shoot in the field.
For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on and why it was decided to be filmed this way.
Since the film was shot over the course of four years, the crew was always in flux, depending on availability, etc. There were three main Directors of Photography, and multiple B-cam operators and local camera crew on some shoots. Concerts were at least two-camera, and most were multi-cam. Interviews were shot mostly with two cameras, and because of the length of production, there are many different looks for interviews - and the characters like Ada, Tania, and Maria all age as the film progresses as well.
The majority of the film is shot handheld to follow the action. Landscape, city shots, and community broll are typically locked-down on a tripod. Slider and jibs were used on a few shoots, but in the edit these shots didn't fit the overall aesthetic of the film and weren't used.
The majority of the footage in the film is from a Sony F3, and B-cam was a Canon 5d Mark II and Mark III in most cases. In the Megadeth concert, there is a mix of the F3, Sony EX-3, XDCAM on the jibs, and 5D. The Canon C300 was also used during the flood sequences and for other broll. The aerials were shot with an octocopter drone on a Panasonic GH4. Some of the F3 and 5D footage was captured via external recorder in native Prores422. The film was cut on Avid Media Composer 7 on Macs.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW and in Austin?
I am most looking forward to finally sharing this film with audiences who love music. I'm so excited that we are part of the "24 Beats Per Second" section of SXSW, since this film is a powerful example of how music can transform lives and communities. Rock 'n roll fans will love the behind-the-scenes action with metal superstars Megadeth, and those more inclined towards classical music will get their fill of Beethoven and Vivaldi as well.
After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next? Anywhere you would like it to screen?
After SXSW, the film will be screening in New York as part of the New York International Children's Film Festival, and then in Washington, DC as part of the Environmental Film Festival. The film is also screening in Toronto as part of the TIFF International Kids Film Festival. We're still putting together the rest of the festival schedule for 2015, and gearing up for a theatrical release later in the year.
Alamo Drafthouse and Paramount theaters in Austin aside, if you could show this movie in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?
I would love to watch this film at Grauman Chinese Theater in Hollywood, or the Cinerama Dome at the Arclight on Sunset. Those are two of my favorite theaters.
There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?
For those just getting into filmmaking, the best advice I can give is to read as many books as you can on story and structure, and break down the structure of scenes and entire films. And study them. I mean really analyze them, shot by shot. Understand how shot length, pacing, timing, camera movements, etc lead to the build and release of tension. If you find a certain scene in a film especially moving, dig into it and figure out why. Don't get hung up on what the latest camera technology is, or what edit software you should use. Yes, it's important - but those are simply tools. What's most important is story. Period. Something that looks cool, or is cut stylistically will stick with you for a moment. But a powerful story that moves you emotionally hopefully will stick with you for a lifetime.
I would also recommend observing the rhythms inherent in the natural world. A lot of the emotion in film comes from rhythm and pacing, and developing an intuition for that in your surroundings is critical for understanding how that translates into emotion when limited to a rectangular frame.
And of course, experience is the best teacher. Take PA jobs, or AC jobs, or any jobs you can starting out, and watch and learn from those who have been making films or working in the field for a while. Ask lots of questions. Be curious. Take whatever camera you have at your disposal and go out and practice shooting, and then edit your own material. Read screenplays. Write your own screenplays. Find those who are doing what you want to be doing and research how they got to where they are. Don't get discouraged. Mastery of a craft takes a long time, so just keep going. Produce lots of material. Don't be scared of making mistakes, but also don't sacrifice quality. When you finish a project, move on to the next one. And then the next one. I like the expression With each project you'll get better and better. We all make mistakes, and we all fail. But that's how we learn.
And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have ever seen?
My favorite film of all time is BARAKA. I first saw it when I was in college, and it opened my eyes to the interplay between picture and sound. It's such a poetic and lyrical film, and the images are stunning. It moves me every time I watch it. I have never seen it projected on a screen fit for 70mm, but hopefully I will have that chance one day.
We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our now 45+ filmmaker interview series for our site. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!
This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 13-21. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte