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INTERVIEW | “The Last Mountain” Director Bill Haney: “This film took a village to birth!”

INTERVIEW | "The Last Mountain" Director Bill Haney: "This film took a village to birth!"

Below find an interview with “The Last Mountain” director Bill Haney, originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. “The Last Mountain” opens in New York and Washington, DC this Friday, June 3.

Synopsis, courtesy of Solid Ground Films.

In the valleys of Appalachia, a battle is being fought over a mountain. It is a battle with severe consequences that affect every American, regardless of their social status, economic background or where they live. It is a battle that has taken many lives and continues to do so the longer it is waged. It is a battle over protecting our health and environment from the destructive power of Big Coal.

The mining and burning of coal is at the epicenter of America’s struggle to balance its energy needs with environmental concerns. Nowhere is that concern greater than in Coal River Valley, West Virginia, where a small but passionate group of ordinary citizens are trying to stop Big Coal corporations, like Massey Energy, from continuing the devastating practice of Mountain Top Removal.

“The Last Mountain”
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

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 build 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 inspirations 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 co-producer 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.

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.

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