Directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal‘s documentary “Trouble the Water” humanizes a voiceless population silenced after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In the film, the filmmakers team up with native New Orleans filmmaker and musician Kimberly Rivers and her husband to create an account of the effects of Katrina has had on the city’s population. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, a Gotham Award for best documentary, and has been nominated both an Academy Award and Spirit Award in the same category.
Please introduce yourselves…
We are Tia Lessin and Carl Deal a filmmaking team living in Brooklyn, New York. Tia was born in 1964 and raised in Washington, DC; Carl was born a year later in and grew up in the Midwest and Mexico.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
We both have always loved going to the movies. But we came to filmmaking through a back door. We were not formally trained in visual story-telling, but very good at delivering information as journalists and activists. We had to re-educate ourselves and learned fast that how a story is told is as important as what the story is. There’s always that moment when you realize what you thought you knew, maybe you really don’t, and you have to swallow hard and say, “Oh, I get it now.” Which leads to the next moment when you question that thing you think you just got… That’s a good thing. If we are transformed in the creation of a film, we believe the audience can’t help but be transformed in the watching of it.
Have you made other films? And how did you learn the craft of filmmaking?
Tia: I never went to film school. I had the good fortune to start my filmmaking career working for documentary makers Charles Guggenheim and Arthur Dong, and then to work for many years as a producer for Michael Moore on his two TV series (which resulted in a lifetime ban from Disneyland), and three of his feature films. The hands on education with Michael in the field and in the edit room was more valuable, and more fun, than any formal education could be.
Carl: I came out of the broadcast journalism and non-profit worlds and have worked on a dozen feature docs. I joined forces with Tia on “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” and never looked back.
What prompted the idea for “Trouble the Water” and how did it evolve?
Like the rest of the country, we were stunned and outraged by the images we saw on television in the aftermath of Katrina. We wanted to know why the city had not been evacuated before the storm, and why help was so late in coming after the levees collapsed.
What originally brought us to central Louisiana was our interest in documenting the return of National Guard soldiers from Baghdad to nearby Fort Polk. We wondered what they would encounter, going from one war zone to another in their hometown. But the story started to bog down when the National Guard public affairs team closed off access to the troops. “Fahrenheit 9/11″ screwed it up for all you guys,” said the media “liaison”, little suspecting she was addressing two of that film’s producers. We were ready to shut down the cameras, send the crews home, and just begin volunteering at the shelter. That was when, a week into the shoot, two gifted storytellers who had evacuated New Orleans a week earlier, homed in on us. And we ended up telling a slightly different story.
Can you elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film?
Our approach is pretty straightforward — trust our instincts and each other, listen carefully, and be impacted by what happens around us. Life takes place outside the narrow lens of the camera, so we try to respond to what is going on in the moment, not just what’s in our heads or written in a treatment. That’s how that chance meeting with Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts redirected us and the story we decided to tell.
We chose to open our film with that first encounter to bring the audience into the story the way we were brought in ourselves. Along the journey, we felt surprise and outrage, and were moved to tears and laughter. We knew that unless we screwed it up in the edit room, the audience would also feel the same emotions. You can’t expect the audience will feel something that you don’t yourself feel when the cameras are rolling. You can’t manufacture that. It needs to be real.
What were some of the other big challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
The biggest challenge we faced in making this film was wearing two hats as producers and directors. As directors, we want to be open to whatever happens and go with it. As producers, we worry constantly about the budget and the financial implications of the creative decisions we are making. We drove ourselves a bit batty. Sometimes we just took turns producing. Most of the time, we just let the budget concerns be damned.
What are some of your recent favorite films, and/or all-time favorites?
We just took a break from our sound mix and saw the beautifully dark “No Country for Old Men.” Yikes! On our first date 15 years ago we saw Jennie Livingston’s “Paris is Burning,” a fabulous film and the first of many date nights with each other at the movies. “Roger & Me” was a revelation — a documentary that was poignant and funny, and unapologetically truthful! And “Hands on a Hard Body” is a reminder that a great film is all about a great story, no matter what kind of camera you shoot with.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker going forward?
Success is making a film that moves an audience to laugh or cry together and then engage with each other about they just experienced -whether on line at the bathroom, on the ride home, or at the water cooler the next day. Moving forward, our goal as filmmakers is to make movies that we would want to see on a Friday date night. And to be able to afford to hire a producer to help us execute our vision.
Any upcoming projects in the pipeline?
A film about the holy grail of country music. And an animated documentary.
What is your take on the state of independent film today?
We would do this, but have to get back to our sound mix!