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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Diggers” Director Katherine Dieckmann

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Diggers" Director Katherine Dieckmann

Director Katherine Dieckmann‘s “Diggers” starring Lauren Ambrose, Josh Hamilton and Paul Rudd is set on Long Island, NY on the cusp of the Ford-Carter U.S. presidential election. Though ads in the local bar talk about a “change coming over America,” the local clam diggers are more worried about losing thier already fragile trade to an encroaching corporation. Like his father and grandfather before him, Hunt is a digger, but one with a restless, imaginative side.

Hunt’s lifelong buddies and fellow diggers include Frankie Lozo, a brash father struggling to support five kids and his longsuffering but spunky wife, Julie; laid-back local ladies’ man Jack; and philosophy-spouting pot dealer Cons. A sudden death propels the four best friends to look at their lives, as it does for Hunt’s recently-divorced older sister, Gina. Meanwhile, Hunt falls for a hip young woman visiting from Manhattan, Zoe, who wonders why his artistic impulses don’t propel him out of a dead-end town. Dieckmann hails from directing music videos for R.E.M., Wilco and others. She also directed “A Good Baby” in 2000. Magnolia Pictures opened “Diggers” in limited release this weekend.

Please introduce yourself, what is your professional background?

I started out wanting to be a writer, and pursued journalism when i was in my twenties, writing film reviews for “The Village Voice” and doing freelance articles for Rolling Stone, Vogue, Elle, Film Comment, Art in America, Artforum and other publications. When I interviewed Michael Stipe of R.E.M., we became friends and had very similar aesthetic interests and sensibilities. He picked up on a certain restlessness in me, and asked me to make a music video for his band. That video, “Stand,” was the very first thing I directed.

From there I went on to direct other videos (for Wilco, Aimee Mann, Everything But The Girl and other groups) and Nickelodeon‘s groundbreaking children’s serial, “The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” which really was conducted like an indie film shoot when we did it in the early 1990s—live action, shot in 16 mm on location, with these wonderfully quirky scripts, many of which were written by one of the show’s creators, Will McRobb, using a lot of Hal Hartley‘s crew, with great guest cameos from people like Steve Buscemi and Iggy Pop, and using some of my favorite bands like Yo la Tengo and Magnetic Fields on the soundtracks. That was like attending the best paid film school ever.

How has your interest in filmmaking evolved during your career?

My passions were always literature and photography, before I even became conscious of the idea that I could become a director. Filmmaking seemed like the perfect vessal for those interests. I remember the first movie I ever saw that made me truly understand how celluloid could be used as an expressive, poetic form, and that was Terrence Malick‘s “Days of Heaven,” which I saw at the mall as a teenager, and probably mostly because Richard Gere looked incredibly foxy in the poster. But I was blown away and returned to see it several times. The aspects of Malick’s work that attracted me–the strength of the scripts, the indelible images, the emotionality–still fuel my interest in film, with the added awareness of the collaborative aspect of working with actors, which is definitely one of my favorite parts of the process.

Are there other areas of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

Only to write and direct projects that I have more completely generated myself. I really enjoyed directing Ken Marino’s script on “Diggers,” because it was a very vivid script, but it’s a bit like being a midwife on someone else’s delivery. I guess I prefer to gestate personally whenever possible. It would be interesting to produce another filmmaker, though producing seems to me to be the toughest and often most thankless job in the industry.

Please talk about how the idea for “Diggers” came about.

This film came to me already more or less evolved: the writer, Ken Marino, who also acts in and was one of the producers on “Diggers,” had been developing the screenplay for roughly five years prior to my attachment as director. His idea was based in part on his experiences growing up on the south shore of Long Island, where his father and grandfather had worked as clamdiggers.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences…

My approach is always to assemble the strongest group of collaborators possible, both in terms of the production team and the actors. When you find people who are passionately committed to a shared vision, everything else becomes a lot easier. On “Diggers,” I was especially fortunate to have a really supportive triumverate to help me develop the look and feel of the film, especially since we were doing a period piece on a low budget: my cinematographer, Michael McDonough; my production designer, Roshelle Berliner; and my costume designer, Catherine George. Then I had this amazing ensemble cast to direct, all of whom gave themselves completely to the verisimilitude of their characters, and also formed a real ensemble, in that they all delighted in working with each other.

My influences on “Diggers” were the ’70s character-driven movies I’ve always loved, such as “The Last Picture Show,” “Diner” and “Breaking Away.” Michael McDonough and I also looked at films like “Fat City” and “The Deer Hunter” for framing and other aspects of the shooting style. In directing emotionally riveting scenes between working-class characters (specifically the couple played by Ken Marino and Sarah Paulson in “Diggers”), I was very affected by the films of both Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes. I always look to still photography, too, in this case color photographs from the ’70s by William Eggleston and Steven Shore.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?

The challenge in developing the project wasn’t really mine; it fell more to the producers, as I came on to direct late in the game. I did work on revising the script and prepping in a compressed period of time, but that wasn’t so difficult. Because “Diggers” was an HDNet Films project, it came with distribution (Magnolia Pictures) already in place, which is a huge relief for a filmmaker, especially one whose first film (“A Good Baby”) received a good deal of critical acclaim but never found a distributor. There’s nothing more painful than putting your heart and soul into a movie, believing you’ve made something of value, knowing there’s an audience that will appreciate it, then seeing it fail to reach the theater, where it will invariably look and play best. But you get over it and move on.

Director Katherine Dieckmann with actors Paul Rudd and Josh Hamilton at the film’s New York premiere last week. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

So, financing was in place…

The financing was already in place via HDNet. Producer Anne Chaisson of Dirty Rice Films had brought the project to Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente at HDNet, and they loved it, and recommended me to direct when the original director (and now co-executive producer) David Wain had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict. As for casting, Paul Rudd and Ken were already attached to the project. We worked with Cindy Tolan, who is an inventive and sharp casting director, to secure the other parts. Ken had worked with Sarah Paulson on a TV series, so he suggested her for his wife, which was a brilliant choice. We all liked Ron Eldard and felt he would show a more playful side in this piece, which he did. I had met with both Maura Tierney and Lauren Ambrose for other projects in the past, and was a big fan of both, so I suggested them. Josh Hamilton‘s part was originally to have been played by Peter Dinklage–actually that was the only part that Ken had initially written for a specific actor. But then Peter had a conflict, and we searched and searched for someone to replace him, and Josh was literally the last person to come in and read for us. Now I can’t imagine anyone else playing that part. I absolutely love Josh’s performance, and loved working with him as well.

What is your next project?

I truly hope my next film is “The Shaggs,” a project I’ve been trying to get made for six or seven years now with Rachel Cohen, who hired me to write and direct it when she was an executive at the now-defunct Artisan Entertainment. We’ve re-partnered with Killer Films and I feel optimistic that the movie will now get made. “The Shaggs” is a fiction feature based on the real-life story of three sisters from New Hampshire, whose father was a twisted blue collar svengali and forced them to form a pop band in the late ’60s, even though they were all chubby with awkward hairdos and no mainstream musical ability. They self-released a record called “Philosophy of the World,” and it’s one of the great outsider artworks of all time. I feel completely compelled to see “The Shaggs” get done. It’s been one of those endless indie sagas, which becomes really boring after a while. I just want to make it.

I’ve also written an autobiographical day-in-the-life script called “Motherhood,” which I plan to direct as well. I don’t really think in terms of genres, because the films I’m drawn to always combine comedy and heartache, lyricism and then maybe something a little harder-edged. I’m also attached to direct a comedy called “The Grisby,” written by Gideon Brower, and I was drawn to it because it’s that rarity–a smart, funny teenflick–and it called to mind everything subversive and witty that I delved into on “The Adventures of Pete & Pete.”

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

My definition of “independent film” is a movie that’s made from a distinct and individual perspective, where writing, directing and acting all exhibit some kind of stubborn uniqueness, it doesn’t matter what kind precisely. Some films that might be considered studio pictures would fall under that description, whereas some films designated as indie seem to me to be merely a generic reflection of that label.

What are some of your recent favorite and all-time favorite films?

My all-time favorite films include all the ones by the directors mentioned above, as well as everything from Elia Kazan‘s “A Face in the Crowd” to Kenneth Lonergan‘s “You Can Count on Me.” More recently, I’ve been haunted by Alfonso Cuaron‘s “Children of Men,” which is a movie I would never be capable of creating, and stand in awe of for both its technical and politicial ambitions.

What are your interests outside of film?

Teaching screenwriting at Columbia University (though that would fall under film), hanging out with my husband and two kids in the country, rampant acquisition of old and eccentric things at yard sales, auctions and flea markets, though not necessarily in that order.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

To gain a strong background in other mediums so you don’t just quote other movies when you set out to make something. To deal with the outside world with as much depth and curiosity as possible so that you learn things about people, because that will help you enormously with actors and with making a fictional cosmos ring true. To be stubborn and tenacious and resourceful and refuse to give up if there’s something you know you want to express in a movie.

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of…

I would have to say I am most proud of the performance that Henry Thomas and I devised together for my first film, “A Good Baby.” We just understood each other in a very understated way, and it was such an honor for me to see him inhabit the skin of this character I had spent many years writing and rewriting. I remember the last night we shot on the film, and in the very last scene, Henry was doing some characteristically quiet and beautiful and completely heartwrenching work, and I just sat kind of frozen at the camera beside Jim Denault, my DP, at the camera, and tears were rolling down my face because I knew that person that had been created was about to disappear and in some sense I’d never really see him again. It was a kind of death, though a necessary one. Then I yelled “cut” in this choked-up voice, and one of the guys on the crew called out “Dieckmann’s Crying!” and we all had a laugh. That to me is the essence of filmmaking.

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