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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.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


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

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.