In his film, "Heartland Transport" – available in its entirety at the bottom of this page courtesy of SnagFilms – filmmaker Cody Stokes follows 17 same-sex couples who must travel to Iowa to be legally married.
Director: Cody Stokes
The full film is available free on SnagFilms (and at the end of this article). This interview with Cody is part of a new series of SnagFilms filmmaker profiles that will be featured weekly on indieWIRE.
The really short synopsis of the film?
“Heartland Transport” is the story of 17 same-sex couples who travel from St. Louis, Mo., to Iowa City, Iowa, to be legally married
Okay, a little bit more?
This film is about American citizens taking part in a civil liberty they have too long been denied. America is one of the greatest nations in the world. But you can't have peaks without valleys, and throughout our history we've been struggling to find equality for all our citizens. Whether it's the rights of workers, women, minorities, religions, handicap people, lower income people or LGBT people, our history has not been without struggle. I was lucky enough to capture a high point in one of these struggles. I hope that showing the joy of equality, even if for just a moment, really can keep the hope alive and allow the fight to continue.
I wanted to be a stuntman…
If I could spell better I would have written novels. But I’ve always been more drawn to images and, over the years, have found I can speak much more clearly through them. Images are hard to misunderstand, whereas a misplaced comma can ruin everything.
Here’s the bullet-point version of my career:
– I wanted to be a stuntman. No one needed a 10-year-old stuntman, so I started writing my own films.
– I have been writing films or, more precisely, ideas for films since I was a young kid. When I was 16, I won a commercial contest for Tommy Hilfiger. I bought my first camera and began making films.
– I went to film school but wrote my own degree. I was awarded a Princess Grace Foundation film grant to make my thesis film.
– I went on to shoot two films in Africa (both failed projects, but amazing life experiences. We are nothing if we don’t get out and live in the world.)
– I lost my job in the recession. I then worked construction, tended bar and worked as a substitute teacher, while continuing to make anything I could.
– Eventually I was able to get distribution for two of my shorts and moved to New York, where I now live and work.
The need to make films is a spell that is cast over all filmmakers. It’s hard to describe. I think we’ve all at some point been struck by it, and it consumes us forever.
One of the purist forms of filmmaking…
Two things inspired me to make this documentary: The first is I have always been a supporter of LGBT rights. And when I had the opportunity to actively take part in something that could help support the cause by using my skills as a filmmaker, there was nothing else to do but to make the film. The second, and much broader, reason is that I had been wanting to make a documentary for a while. Many of the great filmmakers I admire (Kieslowski, Bela Tarr, Herzog, Malle) were once, or have been throughout their careers, documentary filmmakers. To capture reality, to trust in you and a camera, is a daunting thing. There are no shot lists, no schedules, no storyboards. It is one of the purist forms of filmmaking. I believe it must be a lifelong pursuit to capture reality. Making documentaries informs my narrative work. I couldn’t have asked for a better start than this. It was rough and quick and didn’t allow me the time to think about wh ich camera I would use or if I was getting everything I needed. I had to just trust that the footage I was shooting was worth something. It was a truly freeing experience.
I was a little apprehensive…
There weren’t many challenges to making this film. I got a call about the trip the day before the bus left. Within a few hours I had borrowed a camera and was at Ed and Scott’s (my subjects) house interviewing them. I had never met them before and expected to have to work into a comfortable relationship, with me following them around with a camera. But that didn’t pose a problem. We connected right away.
Getting on the bus was a different story. I think at first people were a little apprehensive to talk to us. And, quite honestly, I was a little apprehensive to talk to them. I had gotten into the thing so quickly that I hadn’t really had much time to think about what I was going to talk to the couples about. Obviously, it was a very personal day for them, and I felt a little intrusive at first. So I sat and talked to some of the couples for a while, and once they realized I wasn’t trying to make some sort of shocking expose on same sex marriage, everyone pretty much opened up to me. The only thing I knew I wanted to shoot going into the film was the video portraits of the couples. That was the very last thing I shot, and by that point people were so happy and tired they were willing to spend a few more minutes with me before getting back on the bus to ride home.
It was like I was watching my aunt or my neighbor…
It’s funny, but at almost every screening I’ve had of the film I’ve been approached by someone from the audience afterwards who is so surprised at how normal everyone was. Inevitably somebody says something like, “I mean it was like I was watching my aunt or my neighbor.” They also are surprised at how happy everyone was. I was, too. We expected there to be protesters somewhere along the way, or at least some sort of small-minded pushback to this “Big Gay Bus” as it was being called, but nothing happened. The day was just pleasant in every way, and I think the film is too. It is great to see politics directly affecting people in a positive way. It makes you proud to be American.
Things are more interesting when they are felt…
I wouldn’t say I had any film that specifically inspired me while shooting “Heartland Transport.” It was conceived of and shot in a bit of a whirlwind. But at any given time in life there are always things that influence you. Going into the shoot, the only thing I knew I wanted was portraits of the couples. Not moving shots, just long static shots of them staring into the camera. One specific collection of portraits that has been fascinating me for years is Richard Avedon’s “In the American West.” I also can say for certain that “The Graduate” was an influence. I think the ending of “The Graduate” is one of the best film endings ever, that moment of fleeting glee slowly giving way to uncertainty, the camera sitting on the subjects just a little too long. If I could end every film I ever make that way, I would, and I pretty much have so far. But it was particularly suiting for this film. Everything the couples had gone through that day was symbolic in a way: Once we crossed back into Missouri, their marriages were no longer legally recognized. While going into this in the film would have required a longer movie — and ultimately would have taken away from the joyful experience of that day — I felt I was able to capture this feeling by holding on the final shot of the film. Things are more interesting when they are felt rather than said.
Over the next year I will be finishing a series of short films. One, “Paper Hallways,” is completed; another, “A Year Long Morning,” is going into production in January. And then there is a trilogy to follow, “The Dog Stories,” which will be in production in early spring. They are all narrative pieces that have been with me over the years and have finally started to surface. I, like everyone else, have a feature in the works, but I am in no rush to get into it yet. There are too many filmmakers rushing to make features only to have them fall on deaf ears when they are finished. Everyone dreams of being a great filmmaker overnight. I’ve had the same symptoms. For a long time I thought things had to be perfect — I couldn’t make films because I needed a budget, or the right location, or the right camera, or whatever. I was very much coloring inside the lines, so to speak. I thought there was a way that you were supposed to do things. There isn’t. I had to grow up some to realize that. I had a great art teacher once who would always say “art is not a golden cow.” You make something, get it done. If you don’t like it, make more. I’ve been repeating this like a mantra over the past year. It’s one of the greatest lessons in my artistic life and why, for the time being, I am making short films.
For anyone who’s interested, readers can find more about my films at my company’s website, www.konecfilms.com. I also have a Twitter account, @StokesCody.
Heartland Transport Official Website