I've known of Julianna Brannum for years through the Los Angeles-based film organization Film Independent (FIND), formerly IFP Los Angeles, where she was a programmer. A long-time producer, Julianna also spent about eight years working as a programmer for AFI FEST and the L.A. Film Festival. We got re-acquainted this past summer at the Sundance Resort in Utah where we both were attending the Producers Conference. Julianna was there with her project, LaDonna Harris: Indian 101, a biographical and verite-style story about Comanche activist LaDonna Harris. This project was recently a recipient of a projects-in-development grant from the Sundance Documentary Fund. Brannum is also a member of the Comanche Nation.
The Creek Runs Red, a feature documentary that aired November 19 on PBS' "Independent Lens," a national prime-time series, was her directorial debut, where she shared directing credit with long-time friend and fellow University of Oklahoma alum, filmmaker Bradley Beesley and geologist and filmmaker, James Payne. The film was awarded the 2003 ITVS LIncS grant and received funding from Native American Public Telecommunications. I blogged about it on Spout the day before its TV broadcast, and here is my in-depth conversation with Julianna about the making of this very special piece. We (unsuccessfully) tried to wrangle Bradley and James into the conversation, but it ended up being just us girls.
"It gets in your blood," says the mayor of Pilcher, Oklahoma about his hometown. Pilcher is another environmental casualty of the US government. It is a toxic site, a legacy of lead mining, and was declared a Superfund site in 1981, well over 20 years ago. The film tells the story of the small community's residents who have been forced to choose between preserving their home and preserving the health of their children. I talked to Julianna about the experience of filming this intimate story and about working with her two co-directors; most of the time, the three were never in the same place at the same time, and yet they've managed to produce and direct an affecting and deeply emotional portrait about a quiet (and mostly forgotten) place in America.
We also talked about the hard road that an independent producer takes, where you're basically doing it all on your own:
Still in Motion (SIM): It's been quite a challenge to get together for a chat. Busy, eh?
Julianna Brannum (JB): Very! I’m wrapping up a project for PBS' "American Experience." It’s an episode that Firelight Media is producing. It’s a five-part series. Our episode deals with Wounded Knee 1973, when the American Indians came through the Pine Ridge Reservation and had a standoff with the federal government for 71 days. So that’s been the past year of my life, basically. And then, as you know, I received some development funding from PBS to continue developing a documentary on LaDonna Harris.
SIM: That’s the project you had at Sundance this past summer, right?
JB: Right, and I just found out that I also am receiving some money from the Sundance Doc Fund which was exciting.
SIM: Very, congratulations!
JB: So, yeah, I gotta get cracking on that. It’s sort of been on the backburner because we’re trying to wrap up this project. I’m anxious to get started on that. Everything’s just fallen into place and rolling along pretty quickly, but it’s been rolling without me. And our air date for The Creek Runs Red is next week; I haven’t even sent out an email to anybody! I haven’t done anything.
SIM: It’s really hard to juggle all of that when you’re doing everything on your own. It’s a lot of work.
JB: It all came together for me at once. It is exciting, but it’s so overwhelming—it’s really too much to handle.
SIM: The thing of it is, though, is that you will handle it. I know that when you were shooting The Creek Runs Red, Bradley was working on several different projects simultaneously, barely making his rent, running around like a maniac. Jim Brown, who helped Bradley and Sarah Price with their theatrical run for Summercamp!, met Bradley in that state.
JB: I think I’m in that place now. I remember that. I was constantly amazed at how he was managing. You just go into that mode, I guess, where you know you have to get things done, your personal life suffers and you work around the clock. We’d have conference calls when he’d be driving from one location to another or be on a call with our funders from the airport before boarding a plane—he did a lot of his work in airports. It was crazy. You really do sacrifice so much.
SIM: The solace is that it’s a highly creative time, too. But, it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure. Or someone who needs a lot of job security. All the ground work does tend to come to fruition at the same time for some stupid cosmic reason.
JB: Yeah, and you ask yourself, “How do I maintain?” That’s what I’m struggling with right now. How do you balance family, your personal life, your sanity?
SIM: Where were you when The Creek Runs Red project came across your radar? Were you still working at Film Independent?
JB: Yes, I was working at FIND and Bradley and I (he was living in Austin and I was living in L.A.) had been wanting to work on something together. He had already done a few documentaries on his own and I hadn’t directed a film yet. We both went to film school together at the University of Oklahoma and he wanted to work on something. We were fleshing out some ideas and shooting a little bit, submitting reels for funding. We got a couple of rejections and Bradley suggested this idea of doing something on Tar Creek in Oklahoma. We had never even heard of it and we’d lived there our whole lives! And then he invited James Payne to be a part of it. James had an environmental and geology background, so James came on board and then we started working on the proposal for funding. The funding came right away through ITVS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
SIM: Did James substantiate the project a bit more? Is that what made it more fund-able, do you think?
JB: I think it was something that very much fell in line with the ITVS’ funding mission. It was a community story, and the fact that it was an environmental issue was key. So this was something, at that time, that was very fund-able. It’s an intriguing story, an important one.
SIM: Well, what first struck me about your directors’ statement, is that in the very first sentence you state that this is a documentary told from the point of view of a small community. There was something that was so charming and old-fashioned about that. I knew in that first sentence that I was going to be stepping back in time. And the photography reflected that so beautifully. I knew from the first few frames that I was going to like this film. To me, a still photo, expertly framed, can convey so much and be used to such powerful affect.
JB: Bradley’s an amazing shooter. We were lucky enough to get a whole HD package from our sponsoring PBS affiliate station. And the landscape there, even though it’s so dangerous, is really beautiful.
SIM: And then you focus in on the inhabitants of the town and you really found some amazing characters. And you let them speak their own truth, their own story. All those choices you guys made enriched it so much. Considering there were three directors, how did you settle on these aesthetic choices? Was it a struggle? I would assume you had fairly different points of view. How did working as a threesome on this project change the way you might work in the future?
JB: All three of us had different things to bring to the table. And we were working in a strange way. We were all in different locations and so it was a constant back and forth. If there was something that one of us didn’t like, we would just say it. Likewise, when we were in agreement, like what would happen in any kind of collaborative relationship. But, the downside was that I still had a full-time job. I would have preferred to have been more committed to it in terms of the time I had. Brad had a lot of other projects going on, too. I would never do it again this way, unless everyone was able to be completely involved and that we would all be able to be in the same location, so we could all be in a room together. We were with our editor at different times. I would go and work with Leah [Marino], then Brad would work with her, James would be working with her at a different time, so we never had an opportunity to be able to have any kind of brainstorming session together, which would have been helpful. Our editor, needless to say, was amazing. She, in my opinion, is the fourth filmmaker in this.
SIM: You’re not the first documentary director to make that kind of acknowledgement to your editor.
JB: Yes, she really had a huge hand in this. Brad has a very quirky way of seeing things; James has a more environmental background; he really contributed an interesting element, as well. He really understood the implications of all of this, the details of the issue.
SIM: Was this also the very first time he made a film?
JB: He produced Okie Noodling, but yes, this was his directorial debut, as it was mine. I wanted to focus on trying to highlight the story of the Quapaw Tribal issue that was happening there. And that was difficult, because they were in the midst of a lawsuit and they didn’t live in the community. And it was really the community that lived in the town that was suffering the ill effects of the lead mining. But the Quapaws actually own the land, so their issue was getting their land repaired, restored back to the way it was before the mines destroyed it.
SIM: Were they satisfied with the way they were portrayed, the way they were folded into the story?
JB: I haven’t heard one way or the other. JR [Mathews] was certainly happy with it. I think he understood our limitations. We could have made a whole documentary about the Quapaw, which is something I would have loved to have done. But, again, since they weren’t living in the community itself and with an active lawsuit, it was difficult.
SIM: Those choices are always hard.
JB: Somebody said to me the other day, “Why didn’t you include the EPA’s [Environmental Protection Agency's] voice or the government’s voice or the state’s voice? Was that intentional?” And yes, it absolutely was. This is a story about community, which is far more fascinating than some guy from the EPA spouting statistics.
SIM: Well, their presence was there in all that poisoned ground. That is basically what they have to say, right? Which is nothing. They left people to live in a poisoned environment and never looked back. It’s very satisfying that by the end of the film you see that some resolutions have been made. I mean, you cross your fingers that they’re actually going to do what they say they’re doing to do, of course. But at least the concession’s been made, an admission that there was negligence and that they’re going to try and fix it.
JB: People are moving out. They’re getting their money, their payouts. But the fact still remains that the Quapaw tribe experienced something tragic; it’s a huge loss for them.
SIM: Yeah, well it goes beyond a lawsuit. It’s deeply emotional. I appreciated the fact that you captured that, because from a white person’s point of view, it’s so hard to understand. We don’t think of the planet we live on that way at all. We’re far removed from that, for the most part. When you hear people like that talk, you’re a bit bewildered. It’s not just a political issue. It’s intensely personal, their relationship to the land.
JB: Our goal was to get that multi-dimensionality so that people can try and understand that--that just picking up and moving away is untenable for all kinds of reasons. Number one, they simply don’t have the money to relocate themselves. And they can’t sell the land because they don’t own the title to it. And there is that spiritual connection; this is their home, generations of people have lived there and have that connection to home, especially native people. That’s the most important thing—home, land, family. Non-Indians are now having to deal with that, thus JR’s comment about feeling sorry for them.
But being moved—it’s happened to them before. Indians have been relocated to other places many, many times. It’s part of that painful legacy. It’s a familiar thing. And he so beautifully puts that into context. He shrugs and says, “Yeah, this has been going on for centuries; what else is new?” But the white man can now identify and feel how devastating that is when you don’t want to move. We wanted to show that the communities are staked in this, one way or the other, whether it be through denial or activism. The thing that impressed me so much about that community is their commitment. They had a very small voice. But they kept screaming and screaming and screaming until finally somebody listened. That’s not an easy thing to do. They were just dedicated to it; they spent their whole lives dedicated to making better lives for their children. That’s just so empowering and inspiring, I think.
SIM: What do you mean by empowering?
JB: That these small voices, just a few voices from this community, are trying to talk to federal government. And they're getting some movement on this issue. It makes you realize that if you do speak out, this can happen. It took them a really long time, obviously. They were largely ignored for many, many years. But their constant commitment to getting out paid off. But not everyone could or wanted to leave their home and it’s sort of random how certain people were adversely affected physically and some were not. You look at people like Walter who’s in his late eighties/early nineties and he’s still going. And he worked in the mines. He didn’t have anything wrong with him. So why would he believe that there’s anything wrong with the land he lives on or the food and water he eats and drinks? So, everybody’s got a different way of dealing with this issue.
SIM: That was what was such an interesting layer to all this: the community is certainly not a united front. Yet, each in their way, has their stake in the cause, their claim. They’re not being moved, but for a variety of different reasons. Those reasons could be the polar opposite of what your neighbor’s idea of what’s going on might be. It’s a fascinating microcosm of the larger world. We all have differing points of view, but we can still live side by side; it’s possible. How interesting that all of the residents aren’t speaking in a united voice from just one point of view. If that was the case, you could have done a 20-minute piece and been done with it. Why would you want an hour of everybody agreeing with one another? That’s no fun.
In choosing your interview subjects, what were the criteria in your minds, in terms of points of view, character, etc.? Did a lot go into that or did you just hit town and meet all these amazing people right off the bat?
JB: Oh, no. It was a whole process. We were going there way before we were filming, literally knocking on people’s doors randomly. “Their yard looks interesting. Let’s see who lives there!” Or, “This guy’s an O.U. Sooner fan; we’re all graduates from O.U., let’s go knock on his door.” You just talk to people; you just start meeting people. Somebody might start bad-mouthing somebody else and so you’d have to track that person down. And we began to realize who our main characters would be. People like John Sparkman who spearheaded the Steering Committee to get everybody out. He was obviously a key person. Betty Cole and her family had all been suffering a variety of health issues that she feels are a result of the contamination. One thing leads to another and then we went and shot in the high school and talked to the students.
SIM: I really, really liked that, that you guys let those young teenagers speak and have a voice. That was really cool. Kids that age rarely have a voice; nobody really listens to them or takes them too seriously.
JB: Well, we had to. That environmental issue is affecting the children. And if they don’t have a voice, that’s just not fair to them. The young ones that it’s affecting the most don’t necessarily grasp the concept of what’s going on, but certainly the high-schoolers do. I love it when one of them says that, “We don’t talk about national politics. We talk about local issues.” That’s how committed this town is. That’s how distressed this town is. They’re so focused on what matters to them in their daily lives. And it’s so unimportant to anybody else but them.
We really liked the idea of finding really interesting, quirky characters, small-town, very Americana. We wanted a slice of life, unique people with unique voices. That took a lot of searching and a long time to gain the trust of those people. They’d been under a microscope for so long by scientists, educational institutions, EPA, the media. They really didn’t trust anybody. It wasn’t just finding them; it was also forming some kind of relationship with them. We just showed this recently to the community and everybody seemed to like it, including all of the subjects. It felt good to know that we made a fair story. It wasn’t a strictly environmental story; it wasn’t a journalistic piece; we didn’t set out to make anybody look bad, in any way. That was important to us. We didn’t want to poke fun at anyone or make anyone look stupid for staying—it’s simply what they wanted to do and they had their reasons. Working with all these characters was quite challenging, keeping the story moving in an interesting way.
SIM: It’s good storytelling. I was totally engaged.
JB: I’m interested to see what the viewer feedback is going to be on the Independent Lens web site. I hope that we can focus on doing some good educational distribution. That’s important. There are so many of these communities in America. This just happens to be the number one [Superfund] site, but there are so many. And there are only going to be more, as time goes on.
SIM: Going back to featuring teenage voices—that’s going to stand you in good stead. Because when students watch this, they will see people that look and sound and think like they do, you know? “That’s us!”
Besides the educational market, in terms of exhibiting the film in other ways, do you have a festival strategy? I think it would play really, really well at festivals. It would create a whole other audience that didn’t get a chance to see the television broadcast. I know after it airs publicly, it’s a bit more challenging. The Internet might enable you to have more of an international reach. It’s a very American story. TV sales in other countries would be possible, I think. And where are there not indigenous people that are going through something very, very similar at the hands of an indifferent government? If it’s not an environmental issue, then it’s something else. Cultural marginalization exists everywhere. But distribution is a full-time gig and you’ve all moved on to other projects.
JB: Even with three of us, there are just not enough resources.
SIM: And you’ve got the Flaming Lips on the soundtrack! How much better can you get than that?
Let’s talk some more, in the future, about your LaDonna Harris project. Please keep me posted on that, especially since you’re at the beginning of your process. I’m excited to see how you grow that one, too.
JB: I will!