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Gene Rosow, "DIRT! The Movie": Dirt, Sustainability, and Reconnecting with the Land

By Indiewire | Indiewire January 11, 2009 at 8:20AM

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
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EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

From the Sundance catalog: "Inspired by William Bryant Logan's acclaimed book Dirt, the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, directors Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow employ a colorful combination of animation, vignettes, and personal accounts from farmers, physicists, church leaders, children, wine critics, anthropologists, and activists to learn about dirt--where it comes from, how we regard (or disregard) it, how it sustains us, the way it has become endangered, and what we can do about it. Benenson and Rosow find answers everywhere: in tiny villages that dare to rise up to battle giant corporations to trendy organic farms; from prison horticultural programs to scientists who discover connections with soil that can offset the damage from global warming."

DIRT! The Movie
Documentary Competition
Director: Bill Benenson, Gene Rosow
Executive Producers: Bill Benenson, Laurie Benenson
Producers: Bill Benenson, Gene Rosow, Eleanore Dailly
Cinematographers: Antonio Rossi, Tom Pakulsky, Steve Elkins
Editors: Anne Stein, Jonathan Shaw
Music Supervisor: Tom Schnable
Sound Designer: Michael Kowalski
U.S.A., 2009, 90 mins., color

Please introduce yourself...

I'm Gene Rosow. Born in Texas, raised in Southern California, nurtured further by living in Berkeley, San Francisco, New York, Paris, London, and back in L.A. (Santa Monica)

What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker?

As a kid I grew up in a film industry town and spent time on studio movie sets, which planted a seed. This became a seedling when I migrated to film from large format still photography. Put some time in at film school (UCLA) but for film history, which was great for viewing films (before tape/dvd). A career looking at and writing about films and teaching seemed great until one day while I was teaching film history at U.C. Berkeley I bought a used Bolex and started shooting. Oh yeah... better learn to edit. I became a union editor and finished a doctoral dissertation on gangster films - which I thought would be way more interesting to turn in as a film. "Sure," said the Dept of History...as long as I wrote it too. (They fooled me on that one). I did both (supposedly the very first doctoral history dissertation on film) and published a book about Gangster Movies ("Born to Lose"). I went on to make my own films, work with and for other people, in almost every part of film/TV production. Images, ideas, telling stories that would somehow make the world a better place: I plunged into full time film making and never looked back (well, sometimes.) I found each film took me to a new world-literally and figuratively--and challenged me to make some sense of that world and express something about it in a way that would move an audience.

What prompted the idea for the film?

One day a ragged dog-eared paperback copy of "Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth" found its way into our office. Here was Dirt's story crying out to be told. And if Dirt chose us; who are we to say no? It happened like this:

I was working with my fellow director Bill Benenson on developing another feature film, a period piece set in Italy (where we would have to live while shooting, natch) when a friend of ours gave Bill this book, "Dirt, The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth" by William Bryant Logan. Intrigued, he passed it to me and asked, "Do you think we can do something with this?" I read this amazing book -- and the subject spoke to every part of me. As a former science student, (pre-med, biochemistry, cellular physiology, parasitology, and at the time the new field of ecology), history teacher at UC Berkeley (history of popular culture and American film), early organic gardener, whose favorite poet Gary Snyder was always going on about dirt -- this book had a certain life history resonance. As a film maker who has made documentaries, fiction, short animated films, experimental shorts, this film seemed a natural. As a producer of theatrical feature films the subject of dirt definitely offered the challenge of finding the right way to get Dirt up there on the big screen...back to the cave walls where we smeared dirt to make art in the first place.

But more than that...after reading the book I realized how out of touch I myself had become from the ground beneath our feet; how I like most of us city people take dirt for granted. After reading the book I knew I would never again look at the ground beneath my feet in the same way. Why not make a film that could do the same thing. And thinking back, as a film historian, I hadn't yet seen a movie in which Dirt is the main subject. Could we do something with this?! Absolutely! And so we did.

Hoping to share the excitement, I tell friends and family that I am going to devote myself to making a movie about dirt. After the initial reactions: Dirt?! Huh? Why? Are you out of your mind? Came some cautious support: Could be cool. Might work. How are you going to do it? How indeed. Dirt's story needed to fun, scary, serious, emotional, spiritual, dramatic and visually compelling with a cast of billions. Meaning no disrespect: we wanted to make something different from the Nova version of soil science.

So we set out to tell the story of Dirt and humans from Dirt's point of view. We experimented with this approach which worked on a short film basis but not in terms of sustaining a feature length doc. Too cheesy. For a subject that went from macro to micro and around the world we decided that we should do a previsualiization cut for both creative and logistical reasons: To both narrow down the subjects and work out a narrative line: a love story gone bad with a shot at working things out. Set up our long standing love and understanding of dirt: Show how we lost touch and grew abusive; reveal the people around the planet that might heal dirt and put us back in touch with dirt and ourselves. The pre vis showed us the way and we answered dirt's call and set out filming.early organic gardener, who's favorite poet Gary Snyder was always going on about dirt -- this book had a certain life history resonance. As a film maker who has made documentaries, fiction, short animated films, experimental shorts, this film seemed a natural. As a producer of theatrical feature films the subject offered the challenge of finding the right way to get Dirt up there on the big screen... back to the cave walls where we smeared dirt to make art in the first place.

But more than that... After reading the book I realized how out of touch I myself had become from the ground beneath our feet; how I like most of us city people take dirt for granted. After reading the book I will never again look at dirt in the same way. Why not make a film that could do the same thing. And thinking back, as a film historian, I've never seen a movie in which Dirt is the main subject. Could we do something with this?! Absolutely!

"DIRT! The Movie" director Gene Rosow. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

What challenges did you face in developing the project?

The biggest challenge - beyond convincing our friends and families that making film about dirt was not crazy--was simply how to do it? How indeed... the book we optioned in the warm glow of possibilities is a series of essays.. a magical meditative journey through the wonders of dirt. Some great characters, history, science, biblical tales, and astonishing insights. But there was no inherent story inviting adaptation. The topic was definitely cool but the biggest challenge for us was to think of the topic in story telling terms. Dirt's story needed to fun, scary, serious, emotional, spiritual, dramatic and visually compelling with a cast of billions.

So I thought we should try to tell the story of Dirt and humans from Dirt's point of view...what was the relationships of humans and dirt like if you looked at it from Dirt's point of view. Bill Logan, the author of the book was skeptical but at least not insulted by the attempt and so we tried. Dirt is a subject that ranges from macro (as in deep space and time) to micro (billions of micro organisms in a teaspoon of dirt) and around the world - with music, animation, FX... and one that we had never seen done. So to meet this challenge we decided that we should do a previsualization cut for both creative and logistical reasons: to both narrow down the subjects and work out a narrative line: we humans share a love story gone bad - but with a real shot at working things out. Set up our long standing love and understanding of dirt: show how we lost touch and grew abusive; reveal the people around the planet that might heal dirt and put us back in touch with dirt and ourselves. I wrote the script we worked with a talented animation writer to work on the voice of dirt and we put the cut together using pre existing footage and scratch narrations. So did we meet challenge number one? Telling the story from Dirt's POV worked for a while but we couldn't make it work in terms of sustaining a feature length doc... It was too cheesy - or maybe we were. We met our first challenge and it ate us. The Dirt POV just wasn't working. You try out these things and when they fail it's hard not to take them personally. The story structure worked in theory and we turned to a more traditional documentary approach with the story we developed as a base line for the music of rest of the film. The subjects we chose were in fact great. The topic was unique and could be compelling. The pre-vis showed us what would not work but also showed us what could work. So we answered dirt's call and set out filming. Both Bill and I knew we had taken on the most difficult film that either of us had ever worked on. And this was only the beginning of all the usual challenges that confront film makers, financing, putting together a team of collaborators, convincing people to be filmed, etc. etc.

What was your approach to making the film?

My approach to this film combined - and required - all my experiences in making and producing documentaries, theatrical feature films, internet animation, writing, producing music, using films to promote social action and social justice, as well as experimental film making. The fundamental approach to the film had to be one of being open to where the film and the material take you. What is there to learn from the subjects of the film, as well as the people with whom you work? Having made films that range from pick up a camera and start shooting ("San Francisco Good Times") to fully scripted documentaries ("Knights" - a 9 part series for French TV Canal +) to animated films I had to draw on all those experiences and be flexible enough to see how they fit in with making a film about dirt. And so we took an approach that used traditional documentary interview and sequence filming, world music (with Music Supervisor Tom Schnable) animation, with 3 different animators, third person narration (being narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis) and kept an eye on the underlying story we set out to tell.

What are your influences?

Creative influences past and present are too many to list...they include film makers, photographers, musicians, political and social activists (a great deal of creativity required), gurus (who understand how the flow of energy goes through all creation), and 3 generations of family, above all my wife/life partner Linda Post (screenwriter and landscape designer), Natasha Rosow (writer), Zumi Rosow (actress, musician, jewelry designer) whose challenging perspectives always influence me. Film makers include, Melies, Eisentstein, Ozu, Keaton, Chaplin, Joris Ivens, Chris Marker, Godard, Ford, Hawkes, Renoir, Brakhage, Michael Snow...just getting started... Roll it all the way up to Danny Boyle and the films made during the Depression (which will soon be really relevant again).

What future projects are you planning?

We set out to make "DIRT! The Movie" as a film that was part of an overall media project designed to educate and activate people regarding what we have come to regard as a fundamental issue in preserving our planet. I have made and distributed anti-war films in the Vietnam Era and had previously shared that wonderful film maker conceit that if we just make a film we can change the world. Certainly that has worked for brave films that live at the tipping point of a change in consciousness, like and Inconvient Truth. But we are in the midst of a fundamental shift in perspective in how we use film/media to promote positive change. Many film makers are seeding that field (eg. Robert Greenwald). The day after our World Premiere at Sundance we all expect to inaugurate a new era in which the films we make will play a fundamental role in shifting our consciousness about how we treat our planet - dirt - and each other. With that in mind, "DIRT! The Movie" is a modest beginning of a media project for which we have much broader goals. It is a digital tail that wags a media dog of educational and public engagement projects devoted to imagining a sustainable future. My next four projects are devoted to that process. They include using the media potential of the material produced for "DIRT! The Movie" in television, internet and educational projects as well as other three feature and documentary projects revealing that another world is possible.

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