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Director Tracy Droz Tragos Compares Sundance-Winning ‘Rich Hill’ with ‘Boyhood’

Director Tracy Droz Tragos Compares Sundance-Winning 'Rich Hill' with 'Boyhood'

During a recent chat with Indiewire, Droz Tragos acknowledged the similarities, saying that “Boyhood,” one of her favorite films of the year, “is such a deep examination of family and family dynamics.”

But, of course, while “Boyhood” relies on some documentary-style storytelling techniques, it is a fiction film, whereas “Rich Hill,” which also chronicles boyhood, is pure documentary. But both films move at a conteplative pace, allowing viewers to see the world through their young protagonists’ eyes.

Shot in vérité  style, the elegiac “Rich Hill” follows three teenage boys as they struggle through the daily life of deep poverty in Rich Hill, Missouri, the directors’ ancestral home. In his review of the film at Sundance, Eric Kohn wrote: “‘Rich Hill’ instantly conveys the rush of existence that bears down on the despondent lives at its center.”

The film is being jointly distributed by Independent Lens, which will broadcast the film nationally on PBS, and The Orchard, which is releasing the film theatrically in select theaters beginning today and on VOD beginning August 5.

READ MORE: How I Shot The Golden Moments in “Rich Hill”

Below are highlights from our interview with Droz Tragos:

What drove you and your cousin/co-director Andrew Droz Palermo to make a film about the town of Rich Hill?

Rich Hill is our family hometown. It’s where my father grew up and it’s where the mother of my first cousin, Andrew, grew up. Because my father was killed in Vietnam when I was a baby, I spent every summer and winter break in Rich Hill and my grandparents were like surrogate parents to me and so it was a very important place. Whereas I didn’t grow up there myself, I had a really strong connection and love for the community and ultimately, selfishly there initial seed and the desire to go back came from a very personal place and just wanting to reconnect and understand what it was like for the families that were struggling there.

Did you go into the project with a conception of what the film would be like or was it more of an open-ended process?

Kind of both. I mean, Andrew and I talked a lot about wanting to shed light on poverty because we knew that the town was pretty impoverished, but to not shed light in a kind of way we’d seen before. Because we still felt that there was so much beauty there and there was still a lot of resources within the families that we felt we wanted to bring to light as much as we wanted to bring to light some of the struggles and the really hard circumstances that these families were facing.
That was one of the things that I love about the movie — that you manage to find beauty in this world even though it’s a difficult and sometimes unrelenting place.
I think there was so much that we took away from being with these families and being with these kids, Andrew’s sense of optimism and his faith and love for his family, and Harley’s sense of humor and charm despite his anger and, in large part, grief, and Appachey’s capacity for forgiveness despite the fact that so much crap has been heaped on his shoulders. So there was a lot from those three kids and their families that I think we hoped audiences would take away, not just a pity party but something more than that.

READ MORE: Watch the Trailer for “Rich Hill”

And yet it’s not an issue film per se. Was it important for you not to hammer an issue into the viewers’ heads?
Issues of world poverty are also so complex and these were cycles and it’s really reductive to say ‘this is the one policy’ or ‘this is the one.’ And yes, we felt that we wanted to do something different. We wanted to really have an intimate, close look at the experience and give these kids a voice that was their authorship and not have some outside expert commenting on it or ourselves commenting too much by being in it and being about the fact we, even though we were insiders, were also outsiders coming in and having it be about us.
How did you go about casting?
We didn’t know at first that the voice of story would be kids although it kind of clicked at some point in our conversations afterward. Because it was like, if we tell it from the perspective of these kids it’ll be harder to dismiss them. It’ll be harder to say it’s their own fault or their own inferior moral compass that they find themselves where they are.

We met Appachey in gym class in one of our very first shoots and the interview was something that immediately struck us. He was just so soulful and smart, but it was in the middle of winter and his face was chapped and his clothes were kind of ripped up and he was talking about being hungry and it was like, “Shit. We really want know this kid.” And then the next trip we went home with him and met his family. You kind of know, it was this instantaneous feeling of connection.

And Andrew we met in the park and he was kind of playing the tough guy. And we were kind of interested in him and he was such a tough guy and then we went home with him and he totally not a tough guy and such a sweetheart and loved his sister and loved his mother. And his mother – that anyone had come to the door – she sort of started talking. That was so striking that she shared with us her circumstances and what she was going through almost immediately.

And Harley we met through his cousin. Harley lives with eight members of his extended family, four generations in a doublewide trailer. And we had been talking to someone else, one of his cousins, and he was asleep on the couch. That’s his bed. That’s where he sleeps, on the couch there, and I was just like, “Who is that guy on the coach? Lets go talk to him.” And so we woke him up and started talking to him and he opened up about his mother right away and that actually is some of the first footage you see in the film. It’s from the first time that we met him and he just started to talk to us about his mom being in prison. And then we continued the conversation with him and he was so charming and funny and yet had such a story.

Were you surprised by how quickly people opened up and trusted you with their stories?
Yes. I think it’s an honor when that happens and it doesn’t always happen. I do think a lot of it was because we were known in the community and because of the connection and my grandmother was this amazing teacher that everybody loved and grandfather delivered everybody’s mail. We were sort of vetted in a kind of way because of that family connection and the fact that people were familiar with my first film (The Emmy-award winning “Be Good, Smile Pretty”) that was about my father from the area. So that was another little checkmark of validation. And then you have to honest with people and it’s a little bit of dance to feel each other out, but hopefully we were trustworthy in the end.

How long did the production process take?
There were months of pre-production because we knew we wanted to give it a cinematic treatment that was different from what we’d seen so we had to figure out what camera we wanted to shoot on. There were a few months before we started shooting and then we started shooting in December of 2011 and then our last shoot was July of 2013. So it was about 18 months of shooting and we had hundreds of hours of footage in that time.

Who edited the film?
Jim Hession, who is an amazing editor. I love him. Andrew and I started editing ourselves. We both have some editing in us. So from the very beginning when we started shooting we started cutting and we started cutting scenes. So we brought Jim on in May of 2013 when we had an assembly at that point. About a three-hour assembly at that point and then we brought him on.
It seems like with so much footage the editing would really be crucial for how the film would ultimately come together.
Yeah, I think in all documentaries the editor is just pretty much king.
How closely did you work with Jim on the editing process or did you give him free reign at that point?
Andrew and I had done a lot of editing so we were very familiar with the footage. We cut scenes. We gave him delivered scenes and some of those scenes are in the movie. So because we had spent so much time with the footage ourselves we felt a little freer to say, “Ok. Now you take a pass and we don’t need to be hovering right over you, watching you.” So we worked remotely. He was in New York. We were in LA. And he would have his time to work with what we had sent him. We also got to work at the Sundance Documentary Edit and Story Lab, which was fabulous and a really tremendous opportunity. Their support was invaluable. They were the first grant money in and then the support of the labs was unbelievable.
What was the goal when you set out to make the film?
We knew that we wanted to tell an intimate story of the families in the town, what was the experience of living in this town for particularly the families that were struggling. These were the families that had the tarps on the roofs and the trash piles in the front and what was going on in those homes. We didn’t know the voice and how we would necessarily get inside those homes. We didn’t know they would be so wonderful and courageous to let us in but they did.

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