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Why Breakout Documentary ‘The Biggest Little Farm’ Didn’t Sell to Netflix, from Poop to Nuts

Molly and John Chester thought he left filmmaking behind when they bought the farm, but it taught them another way of seeing instead.

“The Biggest Little Farm”

Neon

John and Molly Chester’s 200-acre Apricot Lane Farms is a rousing success. But the Emmy-winning wildlife filmmaker (“The Orphan”) and traditional foods chef did not see that bright future eight years ago when they were evicted from their cramped Santa Monica apartment (their dog Todd was a barker) and decamped to Moorpark, Calif. to try their hand at organic farming.

When they launched the farm, John thought he was chucking his directing career. “I quit the film business with no intention of making this film. It repulsed me,” he said, “because what were we going to say? We had no experience farming. What was the story going to be? Would it work out? Was it a pipe dream? Was it real? Was it plausible to farm with a restored ecosystem?”

Molly and John Chester at their Apricot Lane Farm.

Anne Thompson

However, making three popular short films about farm animals for Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Shorts — the Daytime Emmy-winning “Saving Emma,” “Worry for Maggie,” and “The Orphan” — lured him back. Emma is the one of the stars of “The Biggest Little Farm,” Chester’s movie about their eight-year odyssey. “She’s a survivor,” said Chester. “She’s going to live a long, happy life. She’ll be carried away by buzzards.”

When he realized that “a wide grouping of audience was interested in these animal stories,” the filmmaker decided to expand them into a broader feature that became “The Biggest Little Farm.” “I got eight years to figure how to tell the story and anthropomorphize the animals in ways that didn’t discredit the great biological story,” he said. “There is a real farm here.”

Vista at Apricot Lane Farms.

Anne Thompson

Rather than pitch his idea to investors, Chester decided to shoot the movie he wanted to make, without talking heads or scientific research, which he didn’t think anyone would want to support anyway. “Most documentary films about any farm or environment are fear-based,” he said. “The enemy is a human corporation or greed. The victim is always the planet. And at the end the audience leaves feeling fear or despair or depression, their eyes are more tight, not more wide. I wanted to show there’s something different going on, there’s an incredible experience that awaits us if we fall in love with it. That will be the cure. We won’t let what we love die if we understand it in a deeper way that connects to us like a parent for a child with potential, who we won’t give up on. Fear does not get you through that; love does.”

After playing to raves on the festival circuit, “The Biggest Little Farm” just opened in theaters, fulfilling the current trend of documentary breakouts. Like last year’s “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the movie built buzz at festivals like Telluride and Toronto (and launched a bidding war, won by Neon) because it’s a forward-thinking, problem-solving heart-tugger that shows how human beings can happily and sustainably commune with nature.

As the Chesters tried to reclaim dry, brown, infertile ground, they turned to agricultural savant Alan York, who taught them about biodiversity. They planted wide varieties of stone fruit (cherries, peaches, plums, apricots) and citrus trees (oranges, lemons, limes) as well as avocados, strawberries, and kumquats. They fought off pests and intruders, by siccing owls on gophers, ducks on snails, and rifles at coyotes. They now have a staff of 60 managing a farm with over 850 animals including chickens, sheep, ducks, cattle, and pigs.

A single investor came in around the five-year mark to finance “The Biggest Little Farm,” which came in for under $1 million. New cameras allowed Chester to create more hi-def professional shots. He kept a 4K Arri Amira in the back of his pickup truck, ready to go, along with some $200 consumer wildlife cameras.

He knew how to apply his nature-cinematography skill set, using a specialized thumb-size Innovision macro lens on a probe snoot to shoot bees and snakes low to the ground. He kept an Inspire1 drone in his living room and deployed it to catch a deep fog rolling in over the house and the orchard. He also used the fancier Sony F55 along with the occasional iPhone (“what you need there is a good colorist”). For the Infrared cameras to film night predators like the bobcat, he used a Sony A7S with its IR filter removed, so that the camera would only record in black and white.

“The one thing on my side was time,” he said. “The more time I spent, the more aware I became of opportunities to illustrate very simple things in very cinematic ways. I didn’t want the film to look like a documentary, but like fantastical cinema. I never told anyone in the business I was making the film, until literally, the editing stages.”

Producer Sandra Keats reveals the heart of Apricot Lane Farms.

Anne Thompson

Visit Apricot Lane Farms and you will find a verdant utopia of trees and gardens and pastures, as sheep and cattle graze on grass (they are rotated around the farm to munch, trample, and poop), protected by solar-powered fences that deliver a nasty shock. Shaggy Great Pyrenees live with and guard the chickens and livestock, alert at night, sleepy during the day.

The secret of the farm’s success is poop: not only from the animals, but from worms. A long, narrow shed shelters a moist worm bed in a deep compost bin. On a recent tour, the film’s producer Sandra Keats, who works on the farm, shoved her hand into a freshly set batch of compost. “The worms eat what we feed them and poop it out,” she said. “The worm castings are the gold of fertility. This is super-rich, dense worm poop. They have microbe-rich gut bacteria. As the worms eat the compost, their gut biology infuses it with more microorganisms. We take the worm poop and cut a two-inch layer off the bottom, and put it in the brewer. Any time we’re irrigating, we inject the brewed tea straight into our irrigation system and spread this all over farm.”

Sheep at Apricot Lane Farms

Anne Thompson

Not only are the animals enriching the fertile soil, but lemon leaves are also a natural dewormer. When parasites crop up, the animals instinctively lap up diatomaceous earth from a rolling blue shed dispenser.

While other farms lose a high percentage of their rain, top soil (and nutrients) in run-off to the ocean, Apricot Lane Farms held onto much of it; 24 inches of rain this winter replenished their aquifer at the rate of 27,154 gallons of water per inch per acre, sequestering as much as 139,462,940 (or nearly 140 million) gallons of water. Apricot Lane Farms is not only a visually stimulating place, but they sell mountains of produce at local farmers’ markets and pricey Erewhon.

Avocados heading for market.

Anne Thompson

Not that nature is easy. The movie shows the biodynamic farm still threatened by wildfires. “We got lucky we weren’t in the path,” said Chester. “We can’t evacuate the animals; they have to stay; there’s 850 here. We’ll put them in a big open field where there aren’t trees and if we have power, we can turn on the irrigation. We can take the dogs, and that’s about it. And that’s a risk; it involves us leaving and getting caught in traffic on a one-lane road.”

Sheep at Apricot Lane Farms

Anne Thompson

There’s far more of John in the movie than Molly, who disappears in the second half in order to tend to the less dramatic orchards and gardens as well as their young son. Molly was delighted to see that in the film, John gives her credit for pushing the farm forward when he was still harboring doubts. Realizing that he was an early antagonist was an epiphany. “I had to get out of way of feeling shame about not being as optimistic as my positive hummingbird wife,” he said, “high on nectar, looking for possibilities in the next tree.”

“To see John cut this together and shine a light and honor that part of my spirit,” Molly said, “was healing for both me and us.”

“The Biggest Little Farm”

While her husband nabs more screen time as he tracks the livestock and their predators with his cameras, the director denies that the movie is centered on their story. “It would have been so easy to make the film about us,” said John. “The film is really about the ecosystem and the rich experience of the animals, their stories.”

He and his editor spent a year and a half whittling down over 800,000 clips, or 90 terabytes of footage. At the start of the editing, they brought in docu-fixer Mark Monroe, who looked at Chester’s 600 3×5 cards pinned to four 4×8 cork boards and told him about a quarter would make it into the film. (It was closer to 85 percent.)

The Telluride reaction inspired a Toronto bidding war with offers from Disney, Sony Pictures Classics, NatGeo, and Neon, but  the Chesters admitted it was hard to resist the offer from Netflix. However, Neon won them over with a wide-ranging vision for the movie including social outreach.

“They showed up in the room with their entire team,” said Chester. “They were energetic and excited about the long game. I could feel it was not going to be shotgunned out. We needed to create the possibility for it to be seen as a classic movie. That required theatrical, where the most magical impact for people would have the most profound, everlasting effect.”

In short, not unlike the effect of the Chesters’ farm.

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