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SXSW '08 Interview: "Crawford" Director David Modigliani

by Erik Childress

The “Crawford" Pitch: What happens to the 705 people of Crawford, Texas when George W. Bush moves to town? Shoved into the spotlight for political stagecraft, their insular town explodes, pushing a progressive teacher and her student to the brink -- and beyond. Invaded and abandoned, Crawford booms and then busts, like the Presidency itself. Now, through Crawford's eyes, comes a unique reflection on the last seven years.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.

DAVID: When I found out that Bush had moved to Crawford in 1999, a few months before announcing his candidacy, I was genuinely surprised. I had bought his origin myth hook line and sinker: I had thought he was really from Crawford. I got curious about what this 700-person, one-stoplight town was really like. Then I realized it was only a two hour drive from Austin.

With zero filmmaking experience, I had to convince three friends to come with me on the first shoot. We went in cold. We got in at night and someone told us we could find some local farmers at the Fina station before dawn, drinking their morning coffee. The next day we walked in at 5:30am; six guys around a table looked up at us; it was like the needle went off the record. But we screwed up the courage to talk to them and when they got past their initial skepticism they were warm and funny and we spent a couple of hours BS'ing with them before we even took the camera out. From then on we were OK. One person kindly led us to the next.

We shot over the course of three years and began editing in earnest last May. Since then, it's been 18 hr. days -- half producing, half editing. I'm lucky to have an incredible editor, Matt Naylor, who's been my running buddy all the way through. This is his first feature-length film, too. We've made every creative editing decision together in the suite. At night, there's no one in the post- house and every couple of hours we get up from the machines and hum a tennis ball back and forth in the hallways. A lot of our best ideas actually came while turning imaginary double plays.

I was fortunate to have another great collaborator, David Rice, who produced and created almost all of the music in the film. It's been an amazing opportunity to work with malleable music -- to go back and forth several times over a section of the film. It really allows the two elements to fully compliment each other -- to be greater than the sum of their parts. We spent a lot of late nights at David's studio, hashing out new songs. The most recent came when we found out we couldn't use the closing credits song we had in there because it infringed on a copyrighted arrangement. This was on a Thursday. We were locking our audio down that coming Monday. We spent the entire weekend in the studio, writing and recording a song. And I actually think it kicks the first song's ass.

Last night? Last night I was working on the poster for the film with another great collaborator, Emily Harrison, who has done all of the graphic work surrounding the film. It's the same process -- what's the story and how to tell it -- just now in a single visual frame. I was also pulling clips to use for press. I was also decidedly stunned that said clips were desired by said press. It's good stuff.

You do a nice job distancing yourself from the actual goings-on. While your political stance certainly shows its hand, perhaps the film's best scene comes during a lunch between three residents; two of them pro-Iraq while the third queries them and exposes their ignorance without ever raising her voice and just asking questions. Isn't this a telling difference between the left and the right; the former tending to be more passive in trying to get to the truth (sometimes a bit TOO passive) and the latter coming to the attack, usually with the knowledge being that the louder they are, the less truth they actually have?

DAVID: When I look at that scene, I see a teacher trying, socratically, to bring two people around to her point of view. I think someone from the "left" -- or the "right" for that matter -- can communicate their vision much more effectively when it comes from a calm, reasoned place that never discounts the other person or their point of view. That's hard to do. Misti Turbeville is a pretty amazing person.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be "When I grow up I want to be a …" what?

DAVID: A baseball player. And I am. Just not, you know, a real one.

How did you get your real "start" in filmmaking?

DAVID: I think it's happening right now.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you're a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.

DAVID: This is my first rodeo. But, living in Austin, I know all the short-cut back alleys, swimming holes, secret parking places, great bartenders and the majority of public officials, so I'm ready to rock.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it's on "the festival circuit?"

DAVID: I feel like people are going to see it. And that makes me happy. I can't wait for them to meet these characters.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?

DAVID: When we began editing in earnest in May, the SxSW submission date was our fine-cut deadline. That drove the entire process. It forced us to work long days, every day, but we made it. And we made it right. I think the film's hitting the right time window because we worked backward from that deadline. So, yes, we were thinking a lot about SxSW. We knew it would be the perfect place to launch the film.

As far as customers? I didn't really think about customers; I worked to make the movie I would want to see.

Does it make you cringe when you hear people actually refer to Fox News as the ones "telling the truth?" Is it truly brainwashing when one chooses to only listen to one side of the story?

DAVID: I think we increasingly choose our news based on what we want to hear. We choose our "facts" by what we want them to support. And the people of Crawford are no different. Broadly speaking, CNN, Fox and most major media outlets seem to be choosing entertainment over journalism.
That disappoints me. They're appealing to our desire for simplification -- but they're making money. So, it's our job to disrupt the easy narratives -- to inspire each other to question those narratives and draw independent conclusions. I hope CRAWFORD disrupts Bush's narrative -- his origin myth -- but, more importantly, I hope it disrupts the narrative of red states and blue states. Because that's a binary, divisive, crock of shit.

Those seen protesting Cindy Sheehan in the film with taunts of "who is paying you" and "you're shitting or pissing on your son's grave" remind me a lot of the Fred Phelps camp who protest soldier's funerals because of the military's allowance of gays in their ranks. At what level do the "misguided" or the "brainwashed" become truly dangerous - or what some religious sects might say - beyond saving?

Civic engagement is far better than apathy. Free speech is far better than censorship. But with that comes all kinds of viewpoints – and all kinds of expressions of those viewpoints. Do I agree with all of them? Certainly not. But protesters only become dangerous when they infringe on others people's rights.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?

DAVID: Jim Henson

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?

DAVID: Back up your hard drive?

I think the biggest lesson has been one of collaboration. The best thing I did was to surround myself with people who shared my vision, believed in it, and relentlessly brought their talents to the film until it was the best it could be.

The most devastating aspect of Crawford comes when we are made aware of a tragedy concerning one of the residents. And not just one of the residents, but someone we've come to know throughout the film. This is the kind of in-the-moment tragedy that documentaries rarely come upon during the process of filming. Can you talk about your own reaction to the news and how important it was to include his footage in the completed film?

DAVID: I'd rather not talk much about that.

What I can say is that when momentous things happen in a doc. subject's life it makes the strange pull between the objective relationship and the subjective relationship all the more intense. There's the objective relationship to the people in the film in which you have to step back and see them as characters in a story you're trying to tell. You have to cut and chop, mercilessly. You have to do what works. Then there's the subjective relationship that comes from the simple (but sometimes forgettable) fact that these aren't characters in a screenplay. They're real people, with real lives that move and change for better and for worse in arcs entirely beyond any inkling of control you might feel you have in the editing room. When something momentous happens in a doc subject's life, the reality of your complete lack of control comes piercing through the process.

To me he is as much a symbol of the hopelessness of the Bush administration ending this war as is Cindy Sheehan and her son who play an important role in this town's recent history. What would you say to the horse painting cowboy who continually says that people like him disrespect this country and the memory of the fallen in this war?

DAVID: I'd ask him the next question. Anything else would be counterproductive. Throughout this process, I've tried to get each person to tell their story as dynamically as they can and then I've tried to stay as true to that as I can. I rarely challenged anyone's assertions. I wanted very much for them to assert and to continue asserting. My job was to gather those assertions, those viewpoints, those anecdotes and deliver them to an audience. Ultimately, what I would say to the guy you're talking about, Ricky Smith, is "hey, I finished the film. I'd love for you to watch it." And he did. And he said "Y'all did some Bush bashing, but naw, it was pretty even-handed all the way through." He's trying to come the premiere.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?

DAVID: Early in the editing process I watched VERNON, FLORDIA, a film by Errol Morris. I was blown away. It's an incredible film - probably my favorite doc. Morris trusts his characters entirely. He gets the hell out of the way. (Which, I've found, takes a lot of work.) It helped me trust the characters in my film to tell their stories.

Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell "This! I want something JUST like this …only different."?

DAVID: Not really. Pre-production was the car ride to Crawford.

What actor would you cast as your favorite cartoon character?

DAVID: I got nothin'.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?

DAVID: I haven't had much time to think about my next project, but I know that I don't want to remake, adapt or sequelize anything. I want to make another documentary film.

Finish this sentence: If I weren't a filmmaker, I'd almost definitely be...

DAVID: Health-insured.

Have you "made it" yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say "Yes, wow. I have totally made it!"

DAVID: To me, "making it" means getting the chance to start the next project. I hope I get that chance.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?

DAVID: I think they influence what gets seen and they add a great deal to awareness about films and critical dialog surrounding them. But I also think that word of mouth trumps anything else.

What would mean more to you? A full-on rave from an anonymous junketeer or an average, but critically constructive review from a respected print or online journalist?

DAVID: I value the opinion of people that have seen a lot of films. Because I haven't. So, I'd value both of those. But the reviews that mean the most to me are the reviews from the people of Crawford.

You're told that your next movie must have one "product placement" on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?

DAVID: Click here:

What's your take on the whole "a film by DIRECTOR" issue? Do you feel it's tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it's cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?

DAVID: The by-line is as much an acceptance of responsibility as it is of credit.

Can you talk about the blank "executive producer" you're leaving open on the film? With an advisory board already consisting of Jake Gyllenhaal, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, to whom are you reaching out further to put their name recognition behind it?

DAVID: I was looking for funding much more than any name recognition, but I never found anyone willing to take a huge bite out of the budget. Instead, I got a lot of contributions from a lot of different people. I guess you could say we have about 350 co-executive producers.

With over 110 hours of footage, you have whittled it down to a little more than 70 minutes of running time. If more support were to come in for the film, would you consider lengthening it, say, another 15-20 minutes or so? Surely there are a lot more stories to be told from Crawford. Any you would care to share now?

DAVID: I think film should only take the time it needs to tell its story. And not a second more. Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend, "if I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter." I've had the time to write the shortest letter I can and I'm proud of that. Sure, there are tons of things I'd put on DVD extras, if we get to have such a thing, but I wouldn't add a frame to the movie itself.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?

DAVID: As we get ready to turn the page on the Bush era, we're just now beginning to reflect on it. We can choose to look back through the eyes of the media, through pundits, through historians who will write articles and essays and books, or we can step through all of that and get the story from the people who had a front-row seat. CRAWFORD is a unique reflection on the last seven years -- a people's history of the Bush era told by some of the most dynamic people you'll ever see on screen.


David Modigliani's Crawford will screen at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival on Saturday, March 8 (4:00 PM) at Austin’s Paramount Theater. It will screen again at the Paramount on Monday, March 10 (11:00 AM) and Saturday, March 15 (1:30 PM).

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originally posted: 03/01/08 09:11:43
last updated: 03/01/08 14:35:32
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