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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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