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‘Welcome to Pine Hill’ Writer-Director On Letting Reality Spill Through the Cracks of Fiction and Tackling Race/Class in Debut

‘Welcome to Pine Hill’ Writer-Director On Letting Reality Spill Through the Cracks of Fiction and Tackling Race/Class in Debut

A film that blurs the lines between reality and fiction, “Welcome to Pine Hill” asks audiences to absorb what’s on screen and relinquish their desire to know what really happened. Winner of the top prize at Slamdance 2012, Keith Miller’s first feature is an extension of his earlier short film “Prince/William.” The film opens with the short, a recreation of a real-life event where Miller found a dog and ran into the original owner soon after. The two men erupt into an argument over the ownership of the dog, ultimately representing a clash between two separate worlds that raises notions of race and class.

“Pine Hill” follows the dog’s original owner Shannon, an ex-drug dealer who has transitioned into a new life working a corporate job only to soon discover he has a rare form of cancer. With a poignant performance from first time actor Shannon Harper, “Pine Hill” never lets the audience comfortably watch as passive spectators, instead inviting them into the film’s raw, honest world in which reality seeps through the cracks of fiction.

Miller, a member of the Brooklyn Film Collective and part-time professor at New York University, sat down with Indiewire to discuss the film as an amalgamation of truth and fiction, partly an homage to Miller’s close friend who died from the same cancer and partly inspired by Shannon’s life.

The film opens at Brooklyn’s reRun theater from March 22 – March 28, with some screenings followed by special Q&As with Miller. Go here for tickets.

You say on the film’s website that you try to disregard the line between reality and fiction. How much of the film is true and how much is fiction? Or does that even matter?

That’s kind of the central thing I’m interested in about this movie, making it from a conceptual framework not from a practical standpoint. People very often ask how much of this is true, but I mean all if it’s true, it’s on the screen. To say is this surveillance-camera-would’ve-happened-without-the-movie-being-made true? None of it. I mean it’s all fiction. Shannon didn’t come up to me that night about the dog, it happened two months earlier. So the framework that is traditionally constructed around fiction and nonfiction storytelling, particularly in movies, I don’t believe in that much. Having been privy to insider information with documentaries where friends have told me ‘Oh yeah that’s actually green-screen.’ So is that not true? If we were to keep in every detail to make it true the audience would be bored within minutes. There’s so many facts that don’t come into this story, a lot of the story’s elements on paper are either true or very close to it.

I think one of the things that makes people anxious watching this movie is that kind of uncertainty of where we are in relation to it because they ask “is this real?” I would be much more anxious about that certainty– is TV news fact or fiction or is reality TV really based on reality? With a movie like this people say ‘You have to tell me going in what’s real and not, otherwise I don’t know how to respond.’ Did Shannon really do these things? None of it’s real, we were completely making a movie. But I also tried during the process to let that bit of reality spill it, there’s a lot of scenes where things happened that surprised everyone shooting as well as those watching it. Until I call cut, we never stopped. That porousness between fact and fiction is much like a starting point for the movie as it is a manifesto of sorts. I don’t believe that non-fiction storytelling is non-fiction or that it has to be, or that fictionally storytelling is actually fake.

How do you hope the audience responds to this?

The hope is that they would engage with the physicality of the moment in an experiential way, as opposed to being bleacher seat passive observers. I tried to make it so we could interact with the movie as much as possible. With something like this I think the reason for a lot of the silences and the complexities of Shannon’s character is that we do go in there. A lot of people have asked me ‘What happened? How is he?’ And I’m like ‘He’s great, you know.’ But to me that is an indication of a real engagement with the reality of the movie, so in that instance it’s totally true, or I hope so.

There are so many scenes and lines that feel so genuine and real. Did you follow the script with the film?

Very often people have said some of the scenes felt too scripted and forced, but some felt very natural. And I always ask which ones because people always pick the wrong scenes. There’s like five or more totally scripted scenes, but even in the more unscripted ones it wasn’t like ‘Let’s see what happens,’ there was a ‘This is where you’re going.’ I’m more interested in having the natural cadence of language work that way and be a circuitous way to get to the point to the conversation. I was trying to have not so efficacious of a dialogue. Advancing plot and characters is one thing, but I was more interested in advancing mood, meditative engagement with presence.

The first scene is from a real life event that you made into the short “Prince/William.” How did you and Shannon go from arguing over the dog in real life to deciding to make a short out of it, to making a feature together?

The conversation that’s the opening scene was an hour-and-a-half, the back and forth was 11:30 at night till one in the morning. When I went to pay him in the morning, I think by then we had a sort of respect for one another because over an hour-and-a-half fighting about something that you both don’t want to give in on, most people would be dicks and we weren’t. When I went in the morning [to meet him] and said do you want to make a movie about this at first he said no way, but then he said sure. We shot it two months later and I screened it at Rooftop in Summer 2010 and by then we’d become close and continued to hang out. I knew I wanted to work with him again and one thing led to another and I asked him to do this movie. Shannon’s character came about, just as the first one did in the short, through conversations with him and me combining various stories into his story. It’s my story, my friend Rene who died who actually had that disease, and Shannon’s personal experience. All of those situations were fairly close to reality, but there is a point where things weren’t.

Before you met Shannon did you know you wanted to make a film about an ex-drug dealer or about issues concerning race and class?

No. I mean things like sociopolitical engagement, race, class, and all that is always on my mind, it’s always an interest of mine. I didn’t want to make a dogmatic movie, I’m interested in work that engages with those things, but this is more like something that happened to me and I was already sort of making short films that actively disregarded the frame of fiction and non-fiction.  This was just kind of a continuation of that. One of the things was me and Shannon had become very close and we seem like such different worlds, but we have quite of an affinity for one another in the way that we look at certain things. I saw this as a way to work through my friend’s death, but also to work through ideas and explore things. The shooting of the movie was as much what the movie’s about as the movie itself.

Are the other actors in the film Shannon’s real life friends and family or actors?

Very few of the people who ended up in the movie are what I would call actors with headshots. I mean everyone in the movie is acting, it’s a movie. In the backyard scene [Shannon] had just met those guys that day. Jaiden Kaine, the guy Shannon has the fight with, and Mark Anthony Hackett are both actors that are working. Most of them were kind of just people that I knew from here and there. The car service guy was someone from one of Rene’s movies. Almost everyone have a direct connection.

What’s next for you?

I’m halfway through my second feature, “FiveStar.” and it’s mostly all shot. It’s about a guy, Primo, who’s a five-star general in the Bloods in real life. In the movie, and real life, he’s a father and husband and loves his kids and he’s trying to figure out what it means to be a man. There’s a young guy John whose father dies at the beginning who was Primo’s mentor. So Primo takes John in and they’re trying to navigate manhood essentially. I think for a lot of people it’s always tied up with toughness, but someone like Primo is as tough as you get. For him he started, he turned Blood when he was 12, and 15 years later he’s like ‘Okay I’m tough. I’ve got kids and a wife now.’ That’s a different form of manhood and John is too young to understand it.

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