Detropia is a very prescient film. It’s about what is going on in our country right now. It’s about how the middle class is disappearing. This is a painful movie to watch because it documents the crumbling fabric of our society. It also shows that this has been going on a long, long time. While we might be suffering the painful effects right now this did not happen overnight. The irony to me is that Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have made a beautifully looking film about a dying city. This may not be a pretty story to swallow but it is important and takes these two great filmmakers to whole new level in their work.
I sat down with the two of them to talk about the film.
Women and Hollywood: Why Detroit?
Rachel Grady: Because Detroit had been a bellwether for a 100 years. And it’s sort of at a crossroads as is the rest of America. Heidi who grew up in the area has been talking and telling me about what has been going on with her hometown for years. We decided why not why not explore – let’s see if there really is something there.
Heidi Ewing: We took a trip there in 2009, got the crew together and went to Detroit. We stayed with my parents and that happened for a while before we got funding. It was one of those things that you are just so turned on by the people and the attitude. We had never done a film about a city or taken on such a giant mouthful of anything before. It was the opposite of the micro-portraits we had done in the past and done well. It was like jumping off the cliff, and there was the personal connection as well. When we started showing our trailer around, we realized there was interest in Detroit because it didn’t take too long to raise the support especially from the Ford Foundation.
We were also empowered by people who were like yes, there’s a story there. Go find it! Good luck! Godspeed. It was like this moment when our interests sort of colliding with that zeitgeist. Next thing you know we moved to Detroit downtown in Sept 2010, took two apartments, got the cars, got the crew, and literally spent like one year looking for the story. And what we did find very quickly was a national story. There was a national narrative there. We didn’t have to push it, stretch it, massage it. It was all roads are leading to China. Everybody wanted to talk about real shit and globalization, outsourcing, corporate greed and capitalism. It was 8 months before Occupy Wall Street—when Tommy Stevens sat at the Raven Lounge and drank a Heineken and said you know this 2%… Detroit has been talking about these issues for 25 years and now the rest of the country is finally like hmmm, our middle class is getting smaller. Detroiters have had time to reflect on things that the rest of us are stunned by. And that was a beautiful, beautiful outcome. Cause there’s no way we could have known that.
WaH: Have you shown it to any of government officials in DC?
Rachel: Yes. The National League of Cities, some of the grassroots orgs. We showed it to some HUD people.
Heidi: It’s opening in DC on Sept 14. I really hope some of them will come out. It’s kind of funny. It’s a little bit of an awkward film for politicos in a sense. For partisan people, it’s awkward because it’s a complex story and if you are the Obama administration you want to talk about the success and recovery of the auto industry. And the auto industry is recovering but the jobs aren’t coming like we thought they would. In the film, we show that the jobs aren’t coming and outsourcing continues. It’s one of those films that talks about systemic problems that no party has figured out how to solve. Waiting for Superman was basically more ready made for that demographic. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in DC, if anything, with the film.
WaH: What do you think it says about our country?
Rachel: That the man on the street, your average Joe, is feeling 50 years of decisions. And it’s coming home to roost now. Cities are broke, there are no jobs, people without a high school diploma and sometimes even with a college degree can’t get jobs. There are not enough jobs in this country. And there are not enough good ideas for that right now. That is something that is kind of scary. Our characters were really eloquent and really broke it down in human terms.
Heidi: I learned this recently: 100% of job growth in this country is in entrepreneurial startups. Because even when the auto industry rehires that’s not considered job growth because they lost so many jobs.
Rachel: And who has the resources to do that?
Heidi: Exactly. And there is also that if you build it they will come type thing. People who move to Detroit who open a restaurant there, a coffee shop here. And people are coming but only those who can afford it. Right? But where’s the big idea which a few years ago we thought would be solar, or thought it would be wind and tech. China is making them faster and cheaper. It’s that flailing around looking for the next big idea. I don’t know if that next big idea is out there or if it’s going to have to be little businesses with decent ideas who can survive and make something.
WaH: How do you work together?
Rachel: We have had our company –10 years right?
Rachel: We worked at a production company and were put together on some projects. We got along really well. We then decided to start our own company. And pitched a couple things, one of them sold.
Heidi: Thank god
Rachel: And then it snowballed from there.
Heidi: We started at my apartment in the East village. We were there for maybe 6 months, not long—maybe a year.
Rachel: You can see our evolution in our office space.
Heidi: This is the first time we’ve had our own little space. It’s very DIY, very down home. We work with a small group of people. It’s very family style. We’re growing as a company too. You always have a couple of growing pains. We have a bunch of projects right now we need to figure out how to grow.
Rachel: We want to remain a boutique so we can have our fingerprints on everything. That means you have to do everything.
WaH: How did you find those main characters in the film?
Heidi: Basically we talked to everyone in the city of Detroit. We started with a reporter I knew growing up. His mother used to work in my dad’s factory. And her son became a very famous reporter in Detroit He’s an editorial page guy and kind of conservative. But he knows the city in and out. So we started with him. He gave us like 10 ideas and then we went to his 10 contacts and then their 10 contacts. That’s how it happened. A guy named Honest John told us about the Raven Lounge and we fell in love with Tommy Stevens. Tommy Stevens says the plant up the street is going to come back and it’s going to save my business. We go to the plant up the street. We find George McGregor up the street at the union because he’s in charge of that plant. And so on and so on.
WaH: How does this film differ from your other films?
Rachel: It’s really different actually. Stylistically it diverges. We have never started so wide before. How do you cast a film that’s about a city that has hundreds of thousands of people living in it? So our process was different. We also didn’t build it on a classic 3 act structure—it builds toward a mood/feeling towards an intellectual /emotional experience for the audience rather than what happens to character A in the beginning and at the end. It was really hard to edit because you have to figure out where to hang your hat on.
Heidi: We had like 50 different structures.
WaH: Where’s the title from?
Heidi: there’s a shot in the film of an auto parts shop where an artist has changed the letters to utopia. A guy walks by it I don’t know if it’s in the shot but it’s there. And the shot inspired the title-the combination of Detroit with utopia or dystopia. Left for interpretation. People project a lot on Detroit so they can decide if it’s a utopia or dystopia.
WaH: Why do you think women are more successful in the documentaries than in features?
Heidi: Because budgets are low.
Rachel: And it’s harder work.
Heidi: I think the ceiling has been broken through. We’ve got shining stars in the narrative world.
Rachel: It’s a handful unfortunately. It’s kind of pathetic how few directors there are. There’s like 3. It’s very frustrating. It’s really something that pisses me off actually.
Heidi: I think we have longer attention spans. It takes years to make these films…
Rachel: I think it’s money. And the people are controlling it.
Heidi: I think women have the ability to stick with things over a long period of time. We are good at it.
Rachel: Back to the money, people controlling the money are women.
Heidi: There are more women in TV.
Rachel: Most of our financial backing is from TV.
Detropia opens September 7 in NYC