How far would you go to save your family? It’s a question that’s been posed since time immemorial. As a narrative device, it’s grown relatively tired. But newcomer Kimberly Levin has given the dilemma a 21st century facelift. “Runoff,” the biochemist-turned-filmmaker’s directorial debut, is a compelling character study in environmental ethics. In the wake of last week’s news regarding our planet’s “looming mass extinction” largely attributed to man-made causes, Levin’s film is more relevant than ever. It’s an augury for the increasingly compromising ethical quandaries that face us today.
“Runoff” is the story of Betty, a Kentucky native who owns a modest farmstead with her husband and two sons. We catch them at financial rock bottom — unless they can raise funds to match a factory bid, the bank will foreclose on their land. To make matters worse, they’re in the midst of scrambling to afford their son’s college education. Backed into a desperate corner, Betty makes a Faustian bargain. Indiewire sat down with Levin to discuss the protagonist’s relatable dilemma, the benefit of shooting in your own hometown and nefarious, flesh-eating pigs.
You started out as a biochemist. How did you get into filmmaking?
I did! I was working in the lab and doing research on hydroxymethyl-phytochelatin, which are peptides. They’re amino acids strung together. They were living in certain plants in response to heavy metal exposure. I was studying certain plants’ ability to uptake and detoxify contaminated waste and soils. I was loving it intellectually, but I realized when I looked around that I couldn’t see the rest of my life in a lab. One of the things that I was most interested in was communicating this stuff to a larger audience than I might be able to in science.
Which specific elements of your background in biochemistry did you bring to the conception of this story?
In Kentucky, where I’m from, I was doing field biochemistry research. I helped to uncover that there was a textile factory that was dumping raw, untreated effluent in this tiny little tributary that fed the state’s greatest tourist attractions, like Cumberland. Beautiful, beautiful lake, emerald waters, limestone cliffs, so many people fish there. The water comes out of there for local communities. The research was picked up on by attorneys and activists. Basically, what ensued was a long legal battle that ended up closing the factory down. I felt like it should’ve been a victory, and it was on one hand. But later I learned that the factory was relocated. It was very sobering news because the relocation was not a solution. It was just putting that problem in another person’s community.
How does that ethical framework come into play in “Runoff”?
I started thinking about the way that people make choices, what they prioritize when they make a choice, how they prioritize. I started thinking about this concept: How wide do you draw the circle around yourself when you make a choice? If you have a tough choice to make and your back’s against the wall, who’s inside that with you in that circle of protection? Is it you? Your family? Your community? How far out does that circle extend? We put blinders on to satisfy the urgent needs of this moment instead of thinking about further implications, because we feel like we can’t afford to. What happens, at least in the film for the character Betty, is that the implications catch up with her a little bit sooner than she thinks they will. The idea is really to condense or contract time in a way so that you can look at this tension between the urgency of the present moment and legacy. Legacy feels like this abstract concept that we put off until some distant time in the future… until it kicks you in the ass right now.
What do you think it would take for people in today’s world to track that circle around them and start making the right environmental decisions on a daily basis?
One thing that’s happened is that there’s so much polarization in terms of a lot of issues, whether it’s about climate change, GMOs, energy use, what I’m drinking my coffee out of. All of us feel overwhelmed by these issues. A lot of us feel like we don’t have the kind of background or context to actually make an informed choice. There’s not a lot of dialogue going on in between the polarized sides. My hope is that instead of approaching this from a place that’s driven by agenda or polemic, we start bringing up these issues in terms of dramatic stories that are interesting and stand on their own. Stories that happen to engage people in this kind of reflective exercise, where there’s a refractory quality.
Every viewer interprets the film in very different ways. That’s something I was hoping would happen, because there’s enough space in the film to ask people to tell the story with the film as they’re watching it. That allows them to personalize the meaning in a very deep way. It’s my hope that people come out of the film and start talking to each other about things that they may not have otherwise. They can actually humanize each other. There’s not one character in the film that’s not compromised in some way. It’s the world that we’re looking at right now. We can’t all of us go off the grid. There is nobody above anyone else, nobody who’s been able to figure it out.
How did you finance the film?
We did a Kickstarter at the beginning. That was a small portion to make people aware of the fact that we were making a movie, to build an audience. Then we raised all kind of equity. Most of the investors are based in Kentucky, where we shot and where I’m from. We went out one at a time. It’s the grind of being an independent filmmaker, but looking back on the whole process of that, I’m so very grateful for those who believed in the film early on. They allowed us to make this film such a fiercely independent way. Especially with this subject matter, I had freedom that I don’t think I’ll ever have again.
What kind of freedom?
Freedom to take the time that it needs to actually find the perfect calibration for the story. To make sure the drama, the characters and their stories were at the core. Anything that was more political engagement bubbles underneath that. If you see it and want to engage it in, great. If you don’t, you can also watch the film as a straight narrative. That took a while to figure out. The financing allowed me to have space and time.
Did you engage with the community to get locations?
That was huge. As you can imagine, gaining access to working farms…. I knew it was going to be tough. The film would not happen without that. A lot of the time was pre-production on the farm locations: finding them, getting access and getting people to sign and say, “Yes, this is going to happen.” It was an interesting outreach process. Because I’m a terrible liar, people asked me, “Did you tell them what the movie is about?” and I was like, “Of course I did!” What was I going to say? They’re going to know I’m lying. I’d say, “These are scenes that we would do on your farm. Are they accurate? How can I make them more specific? What would you do to make this go deeper?”
We would up driving all over the state to find farms because the farmers were wary. They have no idea who you are. The reality is, once people come in with cameras, you could say you’re one person and then you’re somebody else. If you’ve got the footage and you have the release, you can do whatever you want with it. It’s really important to build that trust. And it definitely helped that I was from Kentucky.
What were the unique challenges associated with shooting on a farm?
Well, you have these highly dramatic narrative scenes that are carefully choreographed and rehearsed that you plunk down into an environment. There’s chaos that comes from shooting in a place where you’re trying to do this highly structured thing inside of this incredibly chaotic environment. My take on it was just to embrace that. I think it gave us a certain kind of energy and authenticity. For instance, in the hog scene, you have these 400 pound animals all around you that have their own will, that have their own needs, that have their own desires, and you can’t control that. So, [Betty’s husband] got into the hog pen to do an injection scene. At first, he kind of has to chase after them. They keep running away from him and he’s literally sliding in shit. And with each take, they start circling him, almost like sharks. Then they’re biting at him. They have giant teeth. I could tell he was scared, but he’s still trying to do the scene. Then, in the middle of one of the takes, one of the hogs clamps down full force on his side. It bites the heck out of him. He starts screaming, waving the injector gun around. It’s the only day that the Humane Society showed up on our set. I’m trying to tell the Humane Society lady, “Don’t worry!” By the way, more people are attacked by hogs every year than sharks. They will eat you alive and leave nothing. A farmer told us after, “It’s a good thing you didn’t fall down, because the first thing they’ll go for is the ears.”
What did you learn from your debut that you’ll take into your next project?
It’s maybe that. That there will be a next film! It”s very challenging making an independent film. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of passion, surrounding yourself with fiercely honest people who can keep pushing you to refine, refine, refine and make the film better. You lose a lot of sleep. Personal hygiene is definitely sacrificed. And raising the money… every aspect is a real challenge. There are a lot of times when you’re asking, “Why am I doing this? How can I do this? How can I go on another day like this? This is crazy! It’s not possible.” I think that one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that I have the ability to weather that desire to make another film. I’m super excited about making my next film. I’ve already started working on it. I’ve learned I have it in me and I haven’t lost passion. In fact, it’s sparked it even more. I’m stubborn and I don’t understand the word “no.”