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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “The Last Mountain” Director Bill Haney

Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "The Last Mountain" Director Bill Haney

It’s easy to forget that each time we turn on a light, we are contributing to the ecological damage caused by the coal that generates electricity in this country. “The Last Mountain” gives us plenty of reasons to remember. Contaminated air, soil, and water; coal dust, cancer clusters, and toxic sludge are all by-products of this widespread energy source.

Focusing on the devastating effects of mountaintop coal removal in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley, filmmaker Bill Haney illustrates the way residents and activists are standing up to the industry and major employer that is so deeply embedded in the region. With strong support from Bobby Kennedy Jr. and grassroots organizations, awareness is rising in the battle over Appalachian mountaintop mining. Forces are aligning to prevent coal removal on Coal River Mountain and preserve the region’s precious natural resources. Superb storytelling and exquisite photography combine to remind us that this environmental calamity impacts us all. [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]

“The Last Mountain”
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Bill Haney
Screenwriter: Bill Haney, Peter Rhodes
Executive Producer: Tim Disney, Tim Roockwood
Producer: Clara Bingham, Eric Grunebaum, Bill Haney
Composer: Claudio Ragazzi
Cintematographer: Jerry Risius, Stephen McCarthy, Tim Hotchner
Editor: Peter Rhodes
Coproducer: Laura Longsworth

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Responses courtesy of “The Last Mountain” director Bill Haney.

Bill’s wine-induced introduction to filmmaking…

About a decade ago, I jumped on a WW2 vintage air force plane, complete with sofas bolted to the floor as seats, for the flight from Ensenada to a hard-packed sand strip along a UNESCO World Heritage Nature Preserve in Baja Mexico. I went to understand the plans of Mitsubishi Chemical to built a giant industrial facility along the shoreline of the last undisturbed nursing lagoon for pacific grey whales. Camping for a week in a tent alongside one of the world’s foremost whale scientists, seeing the small community that was trying to stand up to a powerful international conglomerate, I resolved to try to do something to help. Two bottles of wine into the night someone suggested I try making a film, and so began the long wandering journey that would become my first documentary, “A Life Among Whales.”

The film’s many parents…

The idea for this film has many parents, depending of course on what one means by the “idea for a film.” In one sense it is rooted in Bobby Kennedy Jr.’s powerful book, “Crimes Against Nature,” which documents the accelerating attack on America’s natural resources that took place over the past ten years. From another point of view, it is connected to the passion for the people of Appalachia and their circumstances that has long moved one of my producing partners, Clara Bingham. One can stir in my own 30-year history of connection to issues involving how environmental issues touch people and communities, and my desire to tell stories that celebrate the heroism of ordinary folks who are forced by circumstances to find something extraordinary within them. And the deep commitment Tim Disney, our Executive producer and my film partner, has to discovering practical tools for perfecting our democracy – in this case noting the power of citizen activism – played a big part in plumbing our story. Finally, many of the particulars at the center of our tale first drew the attention of Eric Grunebaum, another producing partner, well before I noted their tremendous resonance. I guess it is fair to say that this film took a village to birth – even in the conceptual stage!

Of course all these inspriations offered useful jumping off points for context and perspective, and each of these folks, along with many others (including critically the film’s editor, Peter Rhodes, our composer, Claudio Ragazzi and our coproducer Laura Longsworth) helped shape the film as it progressed. Ultimately, the story evolved according to what we discovered as we were filming. By listening respectfully to the folks in the community that is at the center of our film, following the tendrils of their story as it connects to society more broadly the ultimate character and dimensions of our film became clear.

Haney’s filmmaking process…

I start and end by listening. Letting the story and the characters breathe, and express themselves fully and safely. This process can be slower and more disjointed then a scripted expositional approach, or even the polemical style now favored by some documentary makers, but I find it lends itself to more authentic and moving storytelling. And since I am interested in building a bridge between the story and the audience, I like to listen to audiences as well – to their body language, to their questions and to their suggestions. This doesn’t mean that I am a fan of filmmaking by committee because I am not, but rather that discovering a personal interpretation on the voyage of a story for me begins with respectfully listening.

The honor of screening for a Sundance audience…

The programmers of Sundance review such a staggering number of high quality documentaries, that not only is it an honor to be included among the small number they select for viewing, but when combined with their understanding to the Sundance audience, it gives me a comfort that our film will offer the dramatic engagement and the illumination that insightful viewers expect. Other than my hopes, I don’t want to say more about the film’s characteristics because I like to let the film speak for itself.

What’s on deck?

There are three documentary films that Tim Disney and I are working on outlining right now. One witnesses the joys and challenges that a collection of artists, activists and scientists find in fighting for an endangered species. Another looks at the plumbing of our democracy and posits ways of changing the implementation of one man, one vote. The final one is a riff on entrepreneurship and the American Dream, told through the unfolding of one start up and its wildly diverse employees. We also make narrative films that I produce and Tim directs. Right now he is writing a script centered in a wildly idiosyncratic community in LA and I am outlining a dramatic fistfight of a film, set in an iconic small restaurant in small town America.

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions.]

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