Politics, power, greed and the working class take the focus of Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated doc, “The Garden.” A follow up to his film, “OT: Our Town,” Kennedy’s film lays out how backroom deals, land developing, green politics, money and corruption intersect with working class families who rely on this communal garden for their livelihood. “The Garden” exposes the fault lines in American society and raises crucial and challenging questions about liberty, equality, and justice for the poorest and most vulnerable among us…. The film features a slew of celeb appearances, including Danny Glover, Willie Nelson, Joan Baez and Daryl Hannah. Kennedy talks about the lure of documentary, a yearning for an urban “Stand by Me,” and that “award thing…” Oscilloscope opens the film opens April 24 in New York and May 8 in Los Angeles.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
The magic, the buzz, the soul, and so much more. I loved the way movies make you feel and think, the way they can take you on a ride both emotionally and – in terms of an adrenaline rush – almost physically. And as I got older and started to see some of the techniques behind the filmmaking I thought: ‘wow it would be pretty cool to be able to make people feel the way movies have made me feel.’
How did the idea for “The Garden” come about?
It was through my good friend and co-producer, Dominque Derrenger, who saw a PBS piece, on the show Life and Times, about the garden. We had been looking to do a project together, and he said, ‘I think we’ve found something here’, and he was absolutely right. It had so many elements of a great story: the largest community garden in the country, born as a form of healing after the riots, a huge success, and after 12 years there is a mysterious threat of eviction, and best of all the farmers aren’t leaving until they get some answers. He sent me a transcript, and even with that it had the makings of a great American story. I was on a plane and got off in LA, and went right to the garden, and we started shooting the next day. So I guess you could say that there was no pre-production on this film.
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
Well the top three in terms of influences had to be “Harlan County, U.S.A.,” “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,” and then in post production: “The Wire.” Barbara Kopple’s amazing verite storytelling, Rob Eptsein’s ability to pull so many layers of emotion out of the story without ever being trite or sentimental, and finally David Simon’s inner city masterpiece: capturing all the layers, all the subtleties, the soul, with such courage and clarity, never yielding to political correctness or cliche. And in terms of goals for the film: it was to capture all the complexities of this fascinating story with hopefully a fraction of the skill and grace of these amazing filmmakers.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced with the film?
Of course, as a storyteller, you want great characters who have to deal with great twists and turns, but the question becomes: do you have the time, money, and sheer energy to capture all of this? And on top of that, even if you do capture it, and we captured a ton, now you have to face it in the editing room. What is good, what is bad, what MUST be in the film? How do you structure it in such a way that is truthful, clear, and – god forbid – entertaining? It’s hard, but very satisfying if you can figure it all out.
I have said that this film has swallowed me up and spit me out so many times. Every time I tried to wrestle it to the ground, it just shrugged me off. But please don’t think I am asking for pity. Documentaries are just plain hard to make, but in terms for documentary karma and serendipity, I have been very lucky. The wonderful people in “The Garden,” and the situations they struggled with gave me plenty of story; it was my job to not mess it up.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
While I hope to make as many documentaries as I can, I do need to scratch the itch and tackle a scripted piece, whether as a feature or T.V. I co-wrote a scipt called “Up River,” kind of an urban “Stand By Me” set on the L.A. river. I am also working on an ‘inspired by’ adaptation of “The Garden.” But I would love to work in other genres as well: I would kill to do comedy like “Sideways” or “Election,” but also a thriller like “Man of God,” or “Motorcycle Diaries.” Long shot dreams? Sure, but what does Boogie say in “Diner”: “If you don’t have dreams, you have nightmares.”
What is your next project?
I am in the early post production stage of my third Los Angeles documentary tentatively titled “Fame High”: a year at LACHSA, one of the top performing arts high schools in the country, following five freshman and five seniors as they struggle to become actors, singers, dancers, and musicians.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I would love to edit on someone else’s film, especially with a who I really respect. To bring all my passion for story telling without the pressure of also being the director and producer (and camera…) To be able to collaborate in that way with a great filmmaker would be a fantastic opportunity.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
It has gotten harder to define when you can have someone like Brad Pitt in a film financed by a studio or major Hollywood players and it is still called independent. Maybe it doesn’t really matter, I’m more interested in if a film is good or not than whether it is independent, animated, documentary, broad comedy, etc. That said: usually the best of any of these genres has some connection to independent film because more often than not, the most original, honest, soulful pieces are coming from the independent world.
What general advice would you give to emerging filmmakers?
Story, story, story. The means of production: in terms of cameras and post production keep getting more inexpensive and higher quality, but you have to have something to say. So you have to be your own worst critic: is there a story here, is it surprising, honest, and interesting through out? Would I like this story or be bored to tears if I saw it in a theatre? And you don’t just ask yourself this through the writing process, but from page one, through casting to locked picture (and even into marketing, but that is another story all together…). Obviously you have to find a balance to trust your instincts and not second guess yourself, but you can’t just fall in love with stuff cause of a clever line or a beautiful frame, it’s gotta all come together for one thing: story.
Give an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of…
Well, not too sound too caught up in the ‘award thing,’ but as a filmmaker it was a great honor to get nominated by the Academy. Especially considering what a long shot we were in terms of our very limited financial support and hype machine. But as great as that was, it still doesn’t beat just seeing an audience be engaged and moved by something you worked so hard on to bring to life.