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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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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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