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Friday, September 19, 2008

Culture Dispatch: "Trouble the Water" Interview

I happened upon a screening of "Trouble the Water" last weekend while in Boston. The documentary follows Kim and Scott Roberts, a husband and wife living in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. Unable to leave the city, Kim takes her camcorder to the streets to document the mood of her neighborhood before the storm and the unfolding disaster as Katrina strikes and the levees fail. The film later follows Kim and her husband as they search for opportunity and a new start in the aftermath of the storm. 

While there is a political undercurrent to the movie, the focus is foremost on the emotional story of survival (the first-hand footage of Katrina is riveting), defiance, and optimism. The movie open in several more theaters this weekend. I encourage you all to go see it. 

After the movie, two of the movie's producers, Carl Deal and T. Woody Richman, answered audience questions about their experience making the film. The third producer, Tia Lessin, was kind enough to chat with me on the phone this week about the film. Planner-relevant excerpts from our conversation:

At what moment did you know you had a big story? 

Just by the nature of what had happened on the ground [post-Katrina], the moral failure of our government, we knew [Hurricane Katrina] was a story of national importance. Later when we screened our film on the big screen, we saw that our story was a big story. The characters and events were emotionally engaging; our goal was to construct a story that was equally compelling. 

The subject matter had the potential to be emotionally draining. How did you avoid burn-out? What propelled you forward?

Who says I'm not burned out? It was tough to make the film with very little support. We've had to battle every step of the way for distribution; it's been a reality check to see how independent film gets made. We wanted to prove that a film like this is commercially viable. We wanted to make a film that has integrity, that isn't pandering to whatever we're told people want to see, just happy stories. Making entertaining films that also have an edge is a challenge. It was difficult to create a film that had a powerful political and emotional center, that was also entertaining, had god music, and a good story arc. 

In the press kit, you state that you "set out to make a dramatic movie, not to deliver information." How did you achieve that?

We knew we needed to put ourselves in an environment for good story cover. You're always casting for characters when you're telling an emotional story. Being an independent production helped. You're always hoping that you're reflecting what's going on around you versus what's in your head or on a production schedule or in the paper. 

I think we tried not to rely on a lot of conventional documentary devices such as talking head interviews with experts, voice-over narration, etc. We tried not to make a "see and say movie," but a compelling emotional story.

Was there anything that surprised you about the experience?

Everything! If you're not going to be surprised, you might as well go home. 

We were surprised not to see New Orleans rebuilt over the years we filmed. We were surprised to see Kim's hidden talents. We were surprised to get a sense for and capture the feel of New Orleans. We were surprised to have captured such a beautiful story and that we were able to get real distribution interest in it! 

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