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SXSW 2010 Interview: “Passenger Pigeons” Director Martha Stephens

by David Cornelius

The South by Southwest rundown on “Passenger Pigeons”: Set among the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky, 'Passenger Pigeons' is a story about dealing with loss and an ambiguous future in the dark hills of Appalachia. The film quietly interweaves four separate story lines over the course of a weekend as the town copes with the death of a local miner. Themes such as mountaintop removal, pride, fatalism, and wariness of the outside are delicately used to portray isolated life in modern Appalachia.

Just what is “Passenger Pigeons”?

Passenger Pigeons is an Altman-esque ensemble story set in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky. It’s a quiet little movie about human connections and dealing with loss and uncertainties.

What is it about Appalachia that led you to tell this story?

It’s my home. I have great respect for its history, culture, beauty, and people.

Rural Kentucky isn’t the first place that comes to mind when people think of indie filmmaking. What did it take to get this movie off the ground?

It really just started with a script and lots of fundraising. I’m very fortunate to have a very talented artist as a mother. She slaved over her canvas and sold paintings to help us raise the $8,000 to make the film. My extended family and friends also donated on our chip in site. We had a shoestring budget and a crew of four. It was difficult to work with such limited resources, but these limitations made everything more personal and intimate.

What challenges did you find from casting non-professional actors?

Most of the non-actors used in the film are actually my family members. Since we were filming a movie about Eastern Kentuckians, I thought why not use actual Kentuckians for some of the roles. I had previously worked with non-actors in college and discovered that there is so much untried raw natural talent that people can possess. I decided to use family because I knew there would be a certain level of comfort between us that I could depend on. Everyone was so great! We worked with a looser script, having them translate the dialogue into their own words. My cousin Earl Lynn Nelson, who plays Buck, really commands your attention whenever he’s on the screen. He’s sort of heartbreaking.

Occasionally someone wouldn’t quite understand the urgency of finishing a scene by a specific time or the severity of our deadlines but nothing too problematic.

Mountaintop removal and the decline of the coal industry play key roles in the film’s stories. Did you set out to give the film a particular message?

When I was location scouting in Prestonsburg, KY I had to be deliberately vague about the plot of the film. I was asked numerous times if I was “a friend of coal.” There is great division in these communities. They automatically assume if you’re making a movie in the area it’s a documentary about the coal industry or the poverty. I can’t blame them for being suspicious, really. I suppose with this film, I wanted to paint a contemporary portrait of modern Appalachian life. Coal is still the center of these towns. It helps and it hurts. It’s not black and white. In recent years, surface mining has really taken over. I didn’t want the film to come across as preachy in any capacity. I guess I had a slight agenda when I shot the scene by the mountaintop removal sight. How can you not look at that and be heartbroken? However, when you watch the scene there’s really no mention of the surface mining. I let the image speak for itself.

What got you started making movies?

I’ve always loved stories. I’m especially fond of books that are really in tune with regionalism. Flannery O’Connor is amazing. Harry Crews is my hero. The idea of making regional films has always appealed to me. From a filmmaking standpoint, Eastern Kentucky is an untapped part of the country that’s truly cinematic.

Any lessons learned while making this movie?

Lots! I found out just how difficult it is to both act and direct simultaneously. I’m not sure if I’ll do it again.

Are you nervous about coming to South by Southwest?

I’ve actually lost a few pounds from anxiety. Yes. I’m nervous. I’m both anxious and nervous to see how the film will be perceived. Getting to be apart of SXSW is such an incredible feeling. It’s also great for dieters.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently fleshing out a few story ideas for my next script. It’s about a pink-slipped English teacher who decides to spend his summer hiking the Jenny Wiley Trail (160 mile trail through the Eastern KY wilderness) instead of staying home to figure out his future. I’d like to be shooting again by next year.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d probably be…

I’d like to say I’d be something romantic like a national park ranger or a bush pilot. In reality I’d probably end up teaching.

Beatles or Stones?

The Beach Boys.

In ten words or less, convince the average moviegoer to watch your film.

See some cool locations. Watch some good performances. It’s a little movie with a big heart.

“Passenger Pigeons” has its world premiere as part of the Emerging Visions series. It screens at 11:30 AM March 13 and 6:30 PM March 16.

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originally posted: 03/04/10 21:13:41
last updated: 03/05/10 17:23:26
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