{ Q&A with the Rich Hill directors }

March 4, 2014 § 1 Comment

Now that half the town of Columbia has seen Rich Hill, some people might be interested in this interview with directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo that I originally did for Missouri Life magazine. This is the extended version. We talked about their connection to Missouri, how they found their characters, and how not everyone has an equal shot at success. As a bonus, Andrew offered an etiquette guide to waving on country roads.

Fun Fact: Andrew’s stepdad’s grandfather started Missouri Life. “He took photos like crazy, of course, so we have all the slides and prints of his photographs in our house, and we just have all these bound volumes of Missouri Life, which is kind of awesome.“

Tina Casagrand: You two are cousins, and your parents grew up in Rich Hill, right? How did you two reconnect to the town?

Tracy Droz Tragos: Our grandparents still live there. Our grandmother was a schoolteacher and grandfather was the mail carrier. For me, my father was killed in Vietnam when I was a baby, so the relationship with my grandparents in Rich Hill was very very informative. That was sort of my connection to him and to that side of the family. So I would spend most of my summers in Rich Hill and most of my winter breaks.

Andrew Droz Palermo: My mom stayed in Missouri. She went to school at MU and taught grade school in Jeff City. So I’ve lived in Missouri all my life, with the exception of going to college.

TC: Tracy, I read how your grandmother would go around town and show you off. Can you talk about that?

Tracy: And my grandfather, who was also a greeter at church. They were both very big on that, and it would kind of drive me insane. You had to pay your respects and visit all the people, and that was important to do. And I was representing the Droz family, so there was a lot of responsibility in that. But then I would get into it. I remember there was a lady who collected salt and pepper shakers, and all these interesting places. Often older people. Grandfather moved at a really slower place, just had a way with people, and he would take time to talk to them.

TC: So did you kind of use that method trying to find the characters in your film?

Tracy: It goes a long way that we were Dorothy and Clem’s grandkids, so basically doors just opened to us, and there was a lot of trust, and we were really grateful for the way that we were invited into homes and community places.

Harley from Rich Hill.

Harley from Rich Hill.

Andrew: I think all the boys interested us in different ways that really drew us to them. Andrew has such a light to him that we were very drawn to. He’s seemingly wise for his age, and soulful, I think. The same is true for Apache. I think were so touched by him, and I think Apache for me was one of the boys I was most drawn to. He said he wants to be an art teacher in China, and he’s kind of a kindred spirit. He’s just so sharp. And Harley I think, we met Harley through his cousin who we were following for a little bit. Harley’s very comedic; He’s kind of like a car salesman in some ways.

Tracy: Very charming

Andrew: Yeah, charming is the word, for sure.

Tracy: You know, finding the heart of a documentary, you kind of know when it happens. You know generally what you’re hoping to find and look for, but there’s a moment when you realize, OH this is the direction we need to be going with. I don’t think it was just our connection with these kids, it was also their extended families and their stories, and the fact that there was a real desire to share something, and the notion that no one had been interested in their stories or thought that their stories were necessarily worthwhile, and they were so surprised and honored that we did.

TC: I thought it was interesting that it was about young boys. A lot has been written about the downfall of the American boy, by success in school and all that, so it’s an interesting time to document them.

Andrew: Important things too about it being a young person. There are some arguments about impoverished people that they are waiting for handouts or they can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but I think it’s much harder to dismiss young kids; they’re much more victims of their society in a way that hopefully is a lot harder to dismiss. And also their views on the world are interesting because they can be less untainted. They still have some hope and they have these wild dreams at times. It’s certainly very appealing.

Tracy: They’re at this vulnerable time in their life. It’s less about economic security, it’s about social capital. There’s not the social capital there to support their hopes and dreams right now.

TC: What were some of the more joyful moments of making this film?

Andrew: There’s so much love within Andrew’s family. They struggle, and they don’t have a lot, but they have a lot of love, and they’re not afraid to show it to each other and also to say it. There’s a scene early in movie when he says, very outwardly, “I love my mom, and I love my dad, and sister.” He’s just, it’s such a great outpouring of love. Very touching to see.

Andrew and his mother.

Tracy: We are not experts, and we are not policy people, but sometimes it’s missed in conversation about low-income families, about what they do have and how to support that. So, if, it doesn’t necessarily mean taking kids from their homes if there aren’t enough resources, it means you need to get resources there to them. There’s a myth we hope gets busted: It’s not about picking themselves up by their bootstraps or about their choices, they’re there because they simply don’t have social capital to support a lot of things that they’d like to do. That hope that they can be a meaningful part of the conversation.

TC: There’s a scene in principal’s office where Harley says he doesn’t need an education, he just needs his family. The principal just stares at him when he says that. Is that kind of where you’re going with it?

Tracy: One of our target audiences is teachers and educators, administrators because I think an increased sensitivity or understanding around what kind of baggage kids are bringing to school, emotional and otherwise, is important. I think change and understanding needs to happen all over the place. Schools also have to have educational alternatives and programs like Big Brothers Big Sister.

TC: You’ve said, “Rich Hill is not unique,” as in, these problems are everywhere. Do you hope it will have some policy impact?

Tracy: We do see generational cycles of poverty, and it’s not an easy fix. There’s no single policy that you can point to and instantly make things better.

Andrew: To that end, I would say it’s not a particularly popular topic in American politics at all. Sparking that conversation, if it helps that, for instance in election time it’s not going to be talked about, and it’s not something that many communities even want to address themselves, and I would hope that perhaps we can put it on someone’s radar.

Tracy: It’s interesting the shame that is associated in America with being in need. People say, “This is the land of opportunity, and we all have an equal shot.” To that I would say no, we do not all have an equal shot.

TC: Yes, I was talking with Eric Norwine, the director of Walking Man, and he said the same thing. Especially in rural areas, there’s a idea of rugged individualism, that our grandparents pulled themselves through and we just have to do the same.

Tracy: I don’t think that that myth does anybody any good. It’s something we’re clinging onto, the idea that it’s the American way. It doesn’t help the country by holding onto that fairy tale, Wild-west mentality.

There is a lot of joy, and these kids do a lot of stuff that kids do, but there’s also depression and despair. Do we just say, ‘tough luck for them?”

TC: What else are you working on?

Tracy: I have several documentary films I am developing with Dinky Pictures right now, as well as one narrative.

Andrew: I’ll be shooting a narrative this summer. Originally I wrote it for Missouri in mind.

TC: Are you going to film it here?

Andrew: No, We were talking about filming it in Missouri and then Missouri lost all the tax incentives for film. The film commission used to have a full-time staff, and now it’s somehow rolled into commerce and tourism. There’s really no reason any film outside of Missouri would want to come there. As a result I’ll likely be filming in Washington State.

TC: What are your favorite things about Rich Hill and Missouri?

Rich Hill is famous for its Fourth of July celebration.

Tracy: Visiting Rich Hill is such a sensory experience. It’s so different from LA, where I spend most of my time. In the summers, it’s the cut grass, and it’s the sounds of the crickets, and it’s the lightning bugs. It’s such a comfort and sense of place when I see them and experience them. We’re trying to capture some of that.

Andrew: Something I’ve always loved, and this is such a Missouri thing, is the waving at every body when you’re driving.

TC: The two-fingers off the steering wheel, right?

Andrew: Yeah it’s like, one if you don’t know them, and two if you do. I love that culture, and when I come back home, I feel like that should be a thing everywhere. People just need to be more friendly to everyone. Should act treat everyone like you know everyone. That’s something, too, that I think helps a community.

The rest of the interview is in this month’s Missouri Life magazine, along with four other filmmaker Q&As and a long feature about the True/False film festival. Go get a copy, or better yet, subscribe! It’s a good issue, I promise.

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