McNichol and Sandilands on "Uncertain," Certainly a Top Doc at TFF
Playing at Festival
McNichol and Sandilands on Uncertain, Certainly a Top Doc at TFF
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 5/11/15)
By Danny Peary
Uncertain fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. I am encouraged that it will get a theatrical release after Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands, partners in the Seattle-based studio Lucid Inc, received the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at the Tribeca Film Festival last month for their first feature. For me it was one of the most exciting surprises at the festival, one of those “who was smart enough to think to make such a movie?” revelations.
Henry Lewis in “Uncertain.”
From the film’s production notes: “On the edge of Caddo Lake sits the small town of Uncertain, population 94 and dwindling. The lake itself cross the borders of Texas and Louisiana, making it easy to cross state lines when running from the law. As Sheriff McCool says, ‘Running from anywhere, Uncertain is a good place to hide.’ Today only ghosts of the town’s once-glory days remain. The population is mostly poor, relying on visiting fishermen and modest tourism. The rapidly spreading weed salvina (likely introduced by someone setting a goldfish free) is aggressively choking the wildlife and fishing on the lake…As the lake struggles to survive so does the town of Uncertain.” What makes this town that none of us have even heard of worth saving? Yes, the beautiful and, in various locations, eerie lake itself. But also its fascinating people, including the three men—two who must live with having killed people in their younger days–that the two directors focus on. From the synopsis: “An ex-con [Wayne Smith] with a spiritual connection to the boar he obsessively hunts at night; a young diabetic [Zach Warren] struggling with alcohol, with big ideas but few prospects; and an aging fisherman [Henry Lewis] reluctantly letting go of his youth and ‘getting my heart right with God.’” For me it was a highlight at the festival to have this conversation with McNicol and Sandilands, talented and dedicated directors whose clearly noble intentions made the film’s three protagonists instantly feel they could reveal their darkest secrets to them.
Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands
Danny Peary: What were your backgrounds that led you to having a film partnership in Seattle?
Ewan McNicol: I was born in London. I went to art school, ending up at Edinburgh College of Art, and I did a three-year film course. My dad is a photographer, so I grew up being a photographer’s assistant and when he got a call from Starbucks to go to Seattle and do a job, I came with him. That’s how I met Anna.
Anna Sandilands: I studied ancient history in college and I studied photography, so I thought I would be an archeologist who takes lots of beautiful photographs. My dad was in advertising, so right out of school I kind of naturally followed in his footsteps. He had had his own agency and a film company for a while as well. So film and advertising seemed like good blood brothers to me and it didn’t seem incongruous to go into advertising with the hopes of eventually morphing from photography into film. At Starbucks, I was helping run the creative group and my boss said, “I’ve got this pet project, and I’ve already assigned the photographer, he’s on his way from London.” And I thought, “Oh no, I’m going to inherit this guy.” It was Ewan’s dad and Ewan.
DP: Ewan, you had made some shorts in England?
EM: I made three or four short documentaries, and one got a BAFTA nomination and played at the Edinburgh Film Festival and other places. It was called Taking Cuttings and it was about my grandma and her sundry ways of reusing and recycling things in the household. She lived through the war rationing, and throughout her life that mentality of being frugal and reusing things has been with her, and in the few weeks of filming her, she reused everything from her nylon tights to string; tops of yogurt pots got cut up and reused in the garden. It was a fifteen-minute film and I showed it to Anna.
AS: I thought it was such a lovely film, so personal and so tender.
DP: Were you ready to leave Starbucks and look for something different?
AS: Yeah, I was. But Ewan and I did a few projects together while I was still at Starbucks. All photography.
EM: Soon after Anna formed Lucid, which is now our company.
AS: After we did a few of the stills projects, Ewan said, “I want to become a partner in the company.” Little did he know at the time that he was the only one getting paid and he should have not have wanted to be a partner!
EM: We eventually threw in a lot of the commercial work, started putting money aside and trying to work our way toward doing more pure filmmaking. Then we started making short documentaries together.
DP: About people?
EM: There was a film called Missing, which is essentially about people’s relationships with animals—through the period of time after someone has lost their pet—and we followed a pet detective who’s helping this old lady find a cat called Truffles in the mountains near San Francisco. There was another short called TheRoper, which is about a young black calf roper in Louisiana. That played at Sundance 2013. We also did a short about this oil guy in Kilgore, Texas.
AS: And one about a UFO-logist who runs the national UFO reporting center. By himself, out of his home in Harrington, Washington. For us, it’s mostly about characters.
DP: Characters on the fringe.
EM: Probably, yeah. We’re always very excited by—and uncertain as well—the idea of going in with these preconceived thoughts of who someone is when you meet them, and then after you really spend time with them, you realize there’s something underneath.
AS: We consider ourselves outliers, non-traditional filmmakers. We’re very comfortable with that description.
DP: Was Uncertain meant to be another short?
AS: Yes. We were in Louisiana filming The Roper, which we thought would be a feature. We had our minds set on making our feature at that time. We’d been working together for about eleven years and looking eight or nine years for a subject that could be feature length. We had downtime, so we thought, “Let’s carve out a couple of days and go see what else is around the area.” And we literally found the town of Uncertain on a map. We thought we’d drive there in four or five hours and see if there might be a great short film we could do about how a town gets named Uncertain. It turned out that nobody knows how the town got its name, so we thought that was a great premise.
DP: Uncertain About Uncertain.
EM: There are many stories about the name, but no one knows for sure.
AS: They’re everything from great, historical family-feud stories to stories of bootleggers who were unsure if they’d make it out alive. The most plausible story is that someone applied to the state government to be allowed to sell liquor in what was a dry county. When asked on the application to incorporate the town, this person wrote for the town name “Uncertain,” thinking that would be a good placeholder until when it was officially named. That’s the best story.
DP: When you drove to Uncertain for the first time, did you know where you were going to stay?
EM: We didn’t know if we could stay there. So I think we booked ourselves a place to stay in Jefferson, a town a little outside Uncertain. Jefferson is apparently one of the most haunted towns in America and Steven Spielberg was there researching Poltergeist at one time.
DP: And where did you guys stay when you made the film?
AS: The first time we filmed we didn’t know we could stay there, but after that we stayed in town. There are fishing cabins you can rent. And we got ourselves into a comfortable rhythm. We’d land in Dallas, go to the grocery store for supplies and make the four-hour drive to Uncertain and stay in a cabin. There was no cell service there, so if we needed to make a call, we had to drive halfway down the long road to a gas station where we could get cell service.
DP: I bet you liked that idea.
AS: Yeah, we did.
EM: It’s amazing. It takes a day or two to slow down and get into that rhythm, but once you’re there, you get into the rhythm of Uncertain.
DP: Do people there have cell phones?
EM: I think there’s one carrier and you can get one or two bars if you’re in the right place.
AS: They’re connected and they’re disconnected. A lot of them don’t have their voice mail boxes on their phones set up. You call, and if they don’t answer that’s it, you just have to call again, that kind of thing.
DP: Do they have cable TV?
AS: They do.
DP: How long would you stay each time?
EM: Ten days to two weeks. We did ten trips over eighteen months.
DP: Did you go every night to that bar in the movie that is probably the only gathering spot in town after dark?
EM [laughter]: Not every night. We tried to spend as much time with people when we weren’t filming. I suppose if we were filming all day long, we’d tend to go off and work through footage at night, and kind of see where we were.
AS: And leave the people be for a little bit, give them a break.
DP: Did the residents know your names?
AS: Yes. We were conspicuous in town. Everybody gave us polite waves as they drove by, but it’s a small town and that’s what they do with everybody. We had folks that we were friendly with. But there were also people who just sort of tolerated us. They knew we were there and that we were focused on some people and not others.
DP: Did they think the film might help draw attention to the environmental situation?
EM: I think some people did. There were some people in the town who took a long time to be sure of us. I think when they saw us back the sixth or seventh time they realized we were invested. I’m sure some people in town wondered why they weren’t included in the film.
AS: I think many people just didn’t know what we were making. They said as much to us, too.
DP: What did you say?
AS: In the early days we said, “We don’t know either.”
EM: We’d tell them, “It’s not reality TV, it’s not the next Duck Dynasty.” Because they were worried that’s what we were trying to do.
AS: And we would tell them, “We’re not trying to sensationalize anything, we’re not looking for dirt. This will be a quieter, personal film.”
DP: And when did you realize you were going to zero in on Henry, Wayne, and Zach? I’m sure you had five or six people in mind at first.
EM: For a time we were filming a man named Billy Carter, who’s a fisherman and watches over the lake. He still opens the film and you see him with a raccoon. And we filmed a bit more with Karen, the shopkeeper at Johnson’s Ranch, Uncertain’s general store and boat launch. But we knew from the start we were filming Henry Lewis, the fisherman. We met him the second day we were there and our film was born.
DP: Did somebody say, you’ve got to meet this guy Henry?
EM: Yeah. We spoke to people at Johnson’s Ranch and told them that we wanted to go out fishing, and they said, “You need to go with Henry because he’s the best fisherman on Caddo Lake. So we arranged to meet him the next morning at 6 a.m. And that morning, he came out of the mist like Charon the boatman. The first shot we took was of him and his boat in the mist. We were so enchanted by him and the place. It was mystical.
DP: If you’re in that area, do you see Caddo Lake wherever you look?
AS: You sort of have to because it’s a massive lake, and it’s in Texas and Louisiana. You drive this one long road into the town, and there is a T, and you see the lake if you turn left. Then you can kind of see it beyond the houses. It is beautiful, with the cypress trees and the moss. But you don’t realize how massive the lake is when you’re first there.
EM: The Louisiana side is like an open lake without many trees. On the Texas side, where Uncertain is, is where all the bayous are, and where you see the Spanish moss.
AS: The people there know the lake like the back of their hands, and tell you about places on the lake with great names. You hear about Devil’s Elbow and Stompy Slew and you immediately start conjuring up images, before you’ve even been out on the lake.
DP: You mentioned Poltgergeist before and I think your movie has the look of a horror movie at some points. The word ‘gothic’ is used in the press notes, and there are some creepy shots of the misty lake, and you wonder what prehistoric creature is lurking there! And the environmental story of—how the spreading weed salvina on the lake is killing off fish and putting an end to the town’s necessary tourism—is similar to alien-plants found in fifties horror and sci-fi movies. Wayne’s hunt against a monstrous boar is creepy as well. Were you ever thinking that parts of your movie are a little bit like a horror movie?
AS: We were thinking more Biblical than horror. It’s this idea that all these men are in limbo and the lake itself is in limbo and good and evil are both present without either of them having the upper hand.
EM: I know people have gone to the lake to shoot horror movies. Because of the moss and the mist, it lends itself to that kind of genre. It has a mystical, primeval landscape we hadn’t seen before.
AS: Disney did a film called Bayou Boy down there as well. They built a little set on the lake.
DP: Because it’s where ex-cons and others flee to get lost, Uncertain reminds me of the god forsaken town in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, seemingly at the end of the earth. It’s not a prison, but it’s like a place you’d get exiled to if you’ve committed a heinous crime or went on your own to punish yourself and forget about the rest of the world you left behind.
EM: Early on, we definitely talked about it feeling like Purgatory.
DP: Is there still tourism down there despite the expanding weed?
EM: Just fishing on a small scale.
AS: There’s a little landing strip and there was a time that some people, like businessmen from Dallas, would fly in on small planes and fish for the day. There used to be a place called The Flying Fish and there was gambling and a little bit of prostitution and it got shut down. The old buildings are still there but they’re all in disuse and there’s no sign of any of that.
EM: I think a lot of why tourism has suffered is that they started building man-made lakes around Texas so people no longer had to fly to Uncertain to fish. The town lost a lot of trade and restaurants and other businesses closed.
DP: Does anybody in Uncertain have any money?
EM: There are holiday homes on the lake owned by rich people from Dallas. So there’s money spread out along different parts of the lake.
AS: But the people you see in the movie are the locals who live there year round and don’t have much money.
DP: Are there kids?
AS: Not very many. When we filmed at two 4th of July events there, we were surprised at the first one to see little kids hanging out at the edge of the lake. But I think they were visiting for the 4th. You don’t see a lot of young children there.
EM: There was one girl we were filming for a while. We thought about filming her more, but her family moved away.
EM: I think the few kids who live with their families in Uncertain go to school a couple of towns over, so they’re always heading off and you don’t see them. On the lake, you don’t see many children.
DP: Is there any pride that people have about living there?
AS: Oh, absolutely, yes. Fiercely so.
EM: Everybody loves the lake. They love being on the lake.
AS: And they say they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but Uncertain and Caddo Lake, for sure. They’re very protective of the lake, of their town, and of each other. They’re a close-knit community, a town of just 94 but they are very good to each other. I think there are a few folks who are of lesser means, and Johnson’s Ranch will give them a boat to take out for free to fish. There’s a quiet exchange that happens there, to support each other. They’re very proud of each other.
EM: Even Zach, who wanted to get out of Uncertain, wants to go back now. I think he has a kind of love-hate relationship with the town.
DP: Can you picture your three characters sitting down and talking to each other? Maybe Wayne and Henry can relate because they’re both haunted by the memory of killing someone years ago—but Zach is just a sweet misfit.
EM: Well, we have them here together at the Tribeca Film Festival for the premiere. We brought Henry in and it was really fabulous. Henry’s daughter came in from Dallas, and she brought him into New York. He said to her that before he left this earth, he wanted to make it to New York.
DP: So he’s happy to be here.
EM: Yes, He has been very excited to be here, although he can’t stand the noise. Two or three days, he was ready to get back to the lake.
AS: Wayne hadn’t been here since he was three years old and he has no memory of that. The word that he has used to describe the whole experience of the festival and the city alone is “overwhelming.”
DP: And Zach is here too?
AS: Yes, he gets lost a lot…
EM: He’ll say, “I fell asleep on the train,” or “I’m in a cab and my credit card isn’t working, so can you pay the driver when I get there?” But he has really enjoyed it as well. It was a really good boost for Zach because he’s been struggling. He’s got neuropathy now, he’s got some real gut problems, and he’s been having a hard time. He’s got a job now in Austin, which is great because it pays for his health care. So many things have been looking up, but his health has declined.
AS: He’s also lost twenty pounds since we filmed with him. And that’s part of the complications. He need more help and he needs a desk job.
DP: So how was it seeing the three together?
AS: It was fantastic.
DP: Was that the first time they saw each other?
EM: Henry and Wayne know each other pretty well, and they sit and chat together. And we actually filmed them fishing together one time, although that didn’t make it into the film. Zach knew Henry but didn’t really know Wayne because Wayne has been in Uncertain for only five years. I think he knew of Wayne, but they didn’t know each other.
DP: Do they get along?
EM: We took them out together to a few meals here in the city and everyone had a great time.
DP: What did Henry order to eat?
AS: Well, here’s the funny thing, Henry doesn’t actually like fish. He said, “I raised my family on fish, I raised my children on fish, I’m done with it.” He ate a lot of chicken, actually.
DP: Did they go to Times Square?
EM: I think Zach did. I think the rest stayed around the festival.
AS: I know they all went to the Freedom Tower and saw the memorial. The most important thing for us was to have them here, together. It’s their stories, so they’re the ones who should be here to be received by an audience. Henry—and we’ve talked about this a lot—has, according to his daughter, asked his family for forgiveness, and asked the family of the boy he shot dead for forgiveness—because they all know each other. And he has asked God for forgiveness. But he hasn’t forgiven himself. So for him to be embraced by an audience at this festival, to have people here see him as a good man has been important for him.
DP: I see that you are teary-eyed talking about this. Did you feel close to your three subjects right away and is that why they’re the subjects of your film, rather than the other ninety-one people in town?
EM: All three of them were instantly incredibly open, and we were struck by that. I think a lot of people are like that in this town. The first day fishing with Henry he told us about losing his daughter. And the first day with Wayne he told us about killing a man.
AS: Our connection with Wayne was the most immediate. It happened really innocently. We just asked him why he used a type of rifle when he hunted, and he said, “I have to because I’m a convicted felon.” We took a break to do another camera set-up, and we asked him, “Would you mind telling us why you are a felon?” And he told us right away that he killed someone when he was younger. He cried and we cut off the camera and hugged him. It was strange to have such a close connection with somebody so quickly. When Wayne told us he killed someone on our first day with him, we were out in the woods with him, and we didn’t really know where we were, and he’s got a hog-tooth necklace on and a knife tied to his leg, and guns! Then he said he was a convicted felon because he killed someone, and I thought, “Oh shit. Not good. Not good.” But then you see the man that you’re talking to and you know somehow that the man he is today and that statement seemed incongruous and there must be a good explanation.
EM: I remember Henry telling us in a very matter-of-fact way that he shot this man.
DP: Probably everybody in town knows of this.
EM: Yeah. I just remember being so, so surprised, because he was this incredibly warm, welcoming, fun man and I couldn’t connect what he said to his personality. It was the same with Wayne actually, when he started revealing these stories from his wild days, including using the ice picks…
AS: For me, the hardest thing to get right in my head was about his son, how there were threesomes. Because that idea is such an affront to what family means.
DP: Do you think if Wayne and Henry were still in prison, as opposed to being free despite having killed people, they’d be less tortured?
AS: An impossible question for me to answer…
EM: I think Wayne perhaps felt that way before, when he was continuing to use drugs. But he’s said many times, “I can only be a better man, it doesn’t help anyone if I continue to have a shit life–who does that help?” I think Wayne being out in the world is really important. He spent a number of years in prison, and when he came out he was worse and went straight back into violence and drugs.
DP: Did Wayne’s embracing his Native American heritage help him?
AS: Yes. He’s a Chickasaw and he embraced his roots and found that spirituality again. Also the hunting was part of both his roots and his childhood. It’s a tradition. Wayne says the woods are his church.
EM: When he was a child, he spent some time in Utah and learned to tan hides. I think going out in the woods was very much about doing something he did before he became this drug addict.
DP: How much footage of Wayne hunting was yours and his?
AS: All of the footage of him hunting is ours. At other times we had cameras set up and he had cameras set up, so that’s a mixture. We filmed him filming his prey at night.
DP: I take you both as being into animal rights, so was it hard for you to handle filming hunting footage?
AS: I should say that Wayne has such respect for the animals. He uses absolutely every part of an animal he kills, down to dog treats. So I saw what he was doing as being very respectful.
EM: I think with any hunter there’s two parts of a man. With Wayne there the spiritual side but also an aggressive side. In the film, he says, “Let’s get this fucking hog.” He is having a real macho, I’m-going-to-kill-this-animal adrenaline rush. And the next minute he has a spiritual moment. That, to me, is the complexity of Wayne. Those two sides.
DP: He is obsessed with killing a wild boar—and part of the “horror” element I see in this film is that this animal is huge and looks like a monster. I won’t say if he succeeds, but did you want him to kill it?
AS: No. No.
EM: Anna was actually quite upset with the idea.
DP: Did you also think he would be upset if he did it, eventually? Because that hog, who he calls Mr. Ed, is to him what Moriarty is to Sherlock Holmes.
EM: For him as a hunter, he couldn’t bear the idea that we would film him and he wouldn’t be able to kill this hog. We knew that for him this hog represented something much bigger than a simple kill. Wayne changed massively in that year period, hunting for that hog. He cut his hair off and lost forty pounds. The physical transition was kind of amazing.
AS: I think you see that Wayne is torn about the hunt for Mr. Ed. The macho hunter wants to succeed and for the cameras to see him succeed, but I think he considers Mr. Ed one of his demons. It’s part of his recovery, this hunt.
DP: It wasn’t as if this boar had attacked people, but what a creature.
AS: Wayne sure had us freaked out about the potential of being attacked.
EM: So it was you two and…
AS: A sound recordist. We had two people at two different times doing sound recording. The majority was done by Steven Bechtold. He put skin in the game.
EM: A fantastic sound recordist. He was very patient.
DP: When Zach moved to Austin, did you say, “This messes up our story a little bit?”
AS: Yeah. We talked about it quite a lot, whether or not to follow him and see it through. We purposely don’t draw any conclusions with the film, but for it to feel right we wanted all three subjects to have a soft landing somewhere in their storylines. And we didn’t have that with Zach if we didn’t go with him to Austin. And then he winds up in the hospital. We had to go.
EM: And he becomes part of a Nerdcore group with other guys into Marvel comics mixed in with bits of hip-hop music, Dungeons and Dragons…
DP: So did he find his place, too?
EM: Yeah, that’s why we felt it was really important to show that scene, and show him in Austin.
DP: So in your film, do you see all three characters having a soft landing?
AS: I think we leave each one of them in their right places. It seems that Wayne finds some kind of recovery, some kind of balance and spiritual understanding; Henry finds more peace with God; and Zach has found more of his people. Life has no hard black-and-white conclusions, so as an audience you can interpret whether or not they’ve found complete peace or whether they’re still in that process.
DP: So are you satisfied with how you ended your movie considering the three characters’ stories are unfinished?
EM: I think so. We always felt like we were going to leave it at an uncertain place, so we end on the lake and then we show you the weevils that are being put into the lake, which are kind of this last hope for stopping the salvinia from spreading further. It was an editorial decision to end it that way, probably the most heavy-handed thing in our film.
DP: In many of those horror and science fiction movies of the fifties with giant insects or monster plants, you see at the end that the “monster” isn’t really dead or will grow again from a seed or egg. In your film, you end dramatically by showing us a shaking weevil larvae.
EM: The sequel!
DP: But in this case, this growing creature is not a menace but is for good!
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: Did you change while making this movie?
AS: It’s our first feature film, so if nothing else we feel different for having accomplished that. Good or bad, we made a feature.
EM: Getting to know these people that I never would have met coming from England makes me feel much more connected to human beings than I ever had before.
AS: I think we learned while making our shorter films about the characters we did that you can never judge a book by its cover. We had learned that lesson, but making Uncertain really drove that home for us. We now have friendships that never would have been possible had we not gone to Uncertain.
EM: It’s about being part of their lives now. It never would have happened if we hadn’t made this film about them.