A Spirited Q & A With “Sweetgrass” Filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor

A Spirited Q & A With “Sweetgrass” Filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (photo)

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As a way of celebrating this year’s nominees for the Spirit Awards in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, we reached out to as many as we could in an effort to better understand what went into their films, what they’ve gotten out of the experience, and where they’ve found their inspiration, both in regards to their work and other works of art that might’ve inspired them from the past year. Their answers will be published on a daily basis throughout February.

Netflix describes “Sweetgrass” as a film that’s “raunchy, understated.” On its face, this is ridiculous statement: how could any movie be both raunchy and understated? But if any movie could fit those descriptors, it’s “Sweetgrass,” a quiet meditation on the last gasp of agrarianism in the American West and an unflinching look at some potty-mouthed cowboys. Some scenes do indeed combine verbal raunch and visual understatement. In one unforgettable sequence, a sheep herder calls up his mother to complain about his problems (“It’s miserable up here! This is bullshit, Mom!”). As he whines in particularly un-cowboy-like fashion, the camera pans across the unspoiled beauty of Montana Big Sky country. The vista is serene and gorgeous. And it’s completely lost on the herder, whose conversation is ugly and petty. Cowboys are people too, I guess.

So are the sheep who play a huge part of “Sweetgrass.” They are the last sheep to be taken to those Montana mountains for summer pasture, and we study their movements and behavior the same way we study the cowboys: with amazement and amusement. This film is heartbreakingly sad, both for the men who are losing their way of life and for the sheep who are treated like, y’know, cattle. And it’s also hilariously funny, both because of the men, who, yes, occasionally throw a tantrum to their mommies, and because of the sheep, who seem to have a comically lackadaisical attitude toward the herders. They don’t let anything ruffle their feather (or wool); they just keep on moving and keep on bleating. Always with the bleating. Sometimes just the sheer multitude of baaaaas make us laugh.

Screenwriters are often taught to “write what they know.” But a documentarian must seek out the unknown. Their job is to journey out into the world and then report back what they learn. As you’ll see from their Q&A, “Sweetgrass” filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor were working well outside their comfort zone on this film. They approached this world as outsiders. But an outsider’s eye is a curious one, and I think their fascination with what they found in Montana and the strangely symbiotic relationship between man and beast, comes across clearly in the finished film. To say that it was made with an independent spirit would be an understatement. And not a raunchy one, either.

Why did you want to make this film?

Many reasons. Sweetgrass County, where we shot the film, is one of the most beautiful but economically strapped areas of the country. Like much of the West, it’s a place of contrasts and contradictions. There are ranchers who’d been there for generations and then newcomer East Coast hobby ranchers, environmentalists and miners. We were living in Colorado at the time, as filmmakers and anthropologists, ready to start a new project. The cliché about anthropologists is that they are always looking for the last of some group of people in a remote part of the world to be doing some particular ancient ritual or activity. The cliché is decades out of date. But the fact that there were people in our own backyard, so to speak, who were of the last generation to be conducting this enormous summer sheep drive into the mountains, that had been integral to the culture of the place since homesteading times, was really intriguing.

What was the best piece of advice you received that applied to the making of this film?

To use a harness for the camera. It’s a great piece of equipment that not only holds the camera steady when you need it, but it also holds onto it when you don’t–or rather when you are not actually shooting. If you’ve always got the camera strapped to your body, and the eye piece near your eye, people see the camera as almost as a part of your body or identity so lose track of when you are shooting, and become less self-conscious about your presence.

What was the toughest thing to overcome, whether it applies to a particular scene or the film as a whole?

Well, we were total greenhorns — outsiders coming into a community where everyone knew each other, some many for generations. Lucien hails from England so his accent was so alien to them to be often unintelligible. Plus, he’d ever really ridden a horse, or been on a ranch. By the end of the summer he was shooting (badly) from horseback, packing a pistol and communicating (accent aside) like an old timer.

What’s been the most memorable moment while you’ve traveled with the film, either at a festival or otherwise?

It would have to be the Montana screenings. The Montana premiere was in Missoula at the Big Sky Film Festival. Lucien flew out to Big Timber and joined most of the people in the film and their families for a 30+-person caravan trek four hours to the screening. They filled two rows of a 1200 person theater… a couple of a dozen hardscrabble ranchers and hired hands and 1170 college-educated “tree huggers.” A few months later, on the eve of the Montana theatrical opening, we had a free screening in Big Timber for everyone involved in the sheep drive. One former herder wrote to us saying that she’d laughed so hard she spit popcorn all over the person in front of her. Pat’s mother chewed him out at the end of the screening for his cussing, insisting, “you didn’t learn to talk like that from me.”

What’s your favorite thing about your film that’s been largely uncommented upon?

The film is as much as sheep as it is about people. It’s about their overlap — how anthropomorphic sheep can appear, and how bestial humans can be. As such, we don’t delve overly into the personal lives of the people in the film; in fact, we maintain what we hope is a respectful distance. Sure, there are all sorts of things that we know about the people because of the time we spent there, but why should we reveal that to outsiders?

What’s been the most gratifying thing to come out of this film for you personally?

We’ve made some lifelong friends. Often when you make a documentary the relationship can be one-sided, film subjects reveal all, then the filmmaker goes away to edit and maybe or maybe not sends it back to the participants. When Billy Allestad got married, Lucien was asked to be the wedding videographer. And our whole family was invited. We’re all still in close touch. Our children have gotten a lot out of the relationships they’ve had with the ranch kids, seeing how hard they work to help their families.

What’s been your favorite film, book or album from the past year?

Lucien is reading “Moby Dick” now in preparation for a film about commercial fishing. Again, we’re interested in the visual and thematic threads of nature and work. Lisa loved Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible.” These may seem to be an odd contrast with “Sweetgrass” because they are so heavily character based, both exploring multiple points of view. We also both loved a recent Italian film by Pietro Marcello called “La bocca del lupa,” an extremely intimate and poignant love story. Again, nothing like “Sweetgrass.”

“Sweetgrass” is now available on DVD and Netflix Instant. The Spirit Awards will air on IFC on February 26th.

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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar


IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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