In Taggart Siegel‘s doc, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John“, a family farm becomes a mirror on American cultural revolutions. Eccentric and way ahead of the curve, John Peterson raised eyebrows in the small town of Caledonio, Illinios by embracing hippies, building an art commune, creating performance art, and working night and day to keep his farm afloat throughout. As he watches it slip from his hands in the 90s, his last shot was to go all organic. Siegel spoke to indieWIRE as his film begins to slowly open across the country.
How did you become a filmmaker?
I heard a series of lectures by Donald Spoto in 1979 (who wrote “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock“) at The New School of Social Research about “Psycho“, “Stranger on a Train“, “Shadow of a Doubt“, “The Birds” and “Vertigo” and I was so mesmerized by those films that I decided to become a filmmaker. Whether I’m making a fiction film or documentary I still turn to the masters for guidance. I enjoy going back and forth from narrative to documentary but usually documentary calls out to me more.
How the idea for “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” come about?
In the late 90s I was frustrated by the film industry after making my debut feature narrative film called “Shadow of a Pepper Tree.” I needed to replenish myself so I returned to making documentaries. The Sony camera VX 1000 and PD 150 came out and suddenly I was riding a wave. I felt transformed as a filmmaker, having gone from large film crews to a one man show. I decided to do a follow up documentary, (like Michael Apted‘s “7 UP“, “14 UP” and now “49 UP“), that I made in the 80s of Farmer John called “Bitter Harvest“. What interested me most was the difficult journey he went on and how he survived and rose from the ashes to transform his family farm into a thriving organic farm.
Following Farmer John was like an autobiographical odyssey. I was able use many films I made on his farm in the 80s and integrate them into “The Real Dirt on Farmer John.” I also had access to all of John’s home movies from the 50s, 60s and 70s plus John’s deep and moving autobiographical writings. “The Real Dirt” is a culmination of 50 years of John’s life. I witnessed his tenacity to survive and through his tremendous struggle and strife he remarkably rose above his grief to create something new and powerful.
What was your approach to making the film?
Because I have known John for over 25 years I had intimate access to him, his farm and archives. I was able to delve deeper into his character and story, exploring areas that might have been missed by another filmmaker. It was crucial that the story was accurate. Through John’s autobiographical writings and hours of interviews I sculpted the outline of the story with editor, Greg Snider and producer Teri Lang. We had John critique the rough cuts and write the narration.
I saw John’s life as an epic journey, grappling with failure but finding a creative way out of his turmoil. My goal was to find a universal story/theme that moved and inspired audiences; to challenge preconceived notions about farms and farmers; to inspire audiences with a tale of tenacity; and to challenge viewers to examine more closely their prejudices and judgments about others.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The biggest challenge was being good friends with the subject and remaining objective.
Another big challenge was to wade through 250 hours of footage and not get bogged down with footage that ultimately didn’t serve the three act structure. John’s character and life had so many facets that the subplots started interfering with the main plot. They sometimes got so tangled up that it took weeks to unravel the real story we were trying to tell. We had to sacrifice wonderful footage in order for the emotional breadth of the film to expand and penetrate deeply into the viewer.
Securing theatrical distribution was a challenge because we already had a TV deal with Independent Lens for National PBS and most distributors declined because they wanted all the rights. We kept winning festival after festival but still the main distributors declined.
Eventually Gaiam picked up the film for home video rights and CAVU Pictures is the theatrical distributor and currently releasing the film nationwide. The film will also be released overseas in the fall.
How did the financing for the film come together?
It took Teri Lang, the producer, and I years to get financing. Eventually we received small grants but we weren’t able to complete it until ITVS came through and gave us completion funds for a TV version. We then had to raise additional funds to complete the feature version.
What is your next project?
A story about Bees.
What are some of your all-time favorite films?
I learned so much from Hitchcock as a brilliant storyteller and master of suspense, but most of all, from the way he used the camera to manipulate the viewer. I am still haunted by “Vertigo”, “Shadow of a Doubt”, “Psycho”, “Marnie”, “Strangers on a Train” and “Notorious.”
Fellini‘s “8 1/2“, “Juliet of the Spirits“, “La Dolca Vida“, and “La Strada“, and Bunuel‘s “Exterminating Angel” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” set me free to experiment as a filmmaker. De Sica‘s gritty realism in “Bicycle Thieves” and “Shoeshine” made me want to make documentaries. I also love “Delicatessen” by Marc Caro and Jen-Pierre Jeunet.
What are some of your recent favorite films?
“Crash“, “Little Miss Sunshine“, “Grizzly Man“
What are your interests outside of film?
Photography, yoga, farming in New Zealand, gardening, dancing, learning the ukulele, helping orangutans, and being with my wife Jenny and my two-year-old Olive.
What advice do you have for emerging filmmakers?
Make lots of short films, study great films, learn three act story telling, collaborate with others, get critiques and apply it to making better films.
What achievement from your career are you most proud of, so far?
It’s been a long journey with “The Real Dirt on Farmer John.” One achievement is sharing this story of hope with the world and knowing the film is making a difference.