The Big Story Behind Small-Town Documentary ‘Rich Hill’

The new documentary Rich Hill explores the lives of three middle-school-aged kids (Andrew, Harley, and Appachey) living in an impoverished Missouri community. The film tracks their disappointments with parents who cannot find work, are in jail, or are just unable to deal with their temperaments. There is also boundless love and joy in all three of them, captured with great care by co-directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo.

After winning this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, the film is finally out in limited release, opening in more theaters every week. We caught up with Tracy to discuss some of the ins and outs of crafting such a compelling story, her closeness with her young subjects, the process of getting a film funded, and some of the other features (both documentary and narrative) that inspired her unique approach.

Shutterstock: Where on earth did you find your three subjects?

Tracy Droz Tragos: It’s my family’s hometown. I was very familiar with the community, and spent a lot of my childhood there. Of course I didn’t know these three families in particular, but we knew it was increasingly becoming a harder place to live in. We wanted to understand what was going on, and we wanted to tell these families’ stories.

We met Appachey in gym class and we had a conversation with him on one of our first trips. He was incredibly thoughtful, and we could see he had a lot going on. He talked about being hungry. It was the middle of winter, and his face was chapped and his clothes were not zipped up. We met Andrew in the park acting like the tough guy. We went home with him and were so drawn in with the love he had for his mother and sister; also, it was kind of shocking how little they had. The camera doesn’t really pick up spareness. They were so welcoming of us, and shocked that anyone wanted to talk to them.

How did you make your subjects comfortable enough with the cameras to be open and natural, as opposed to mugging for the camera?

Surprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of that. When we went to the school, there was more of that, but there wasn’t the instant gratification of seeing themselves on television. They kind of got bored with us and realized it wasn’t that kind of deal. Plus, our crew was mostly the two of us. For scenes like the 4th of July, we had a sound producer, but otherwise it was a pretty lean crew.

Were the subjects just wearing lav mics?

For the most part they’d wear lavs and we’d have a camera mic. I would talk to them, but we wouldn’t have strict interview or observation times. We were in and out of conversation, and that helped with a casual approach. We wanted them to be who they are and do what they were doing. They were very, very patient.

As a documentarian, how did you maintain a distance from your subjects to obtain as much objectivity as possible?

The short answer would be that I don’t. On the one hand, we wanted this to be a film about the kids, and not about us filmmakers coming in to make a film. At the same time, we were much more involved than the final film would indicate. We were talking to Harley when he was walking out of school and asked him to turn back around and go back in. We had a lot of interaction with them. I think it’s inherently subjective and collaborative.

Is it hard to see people living in these situations and not interfere? When Harley was looking for a stamp I would have said, “Oh, I’ll get you a stamp. Don’t worry!”

Some of that it’s like, “Okay, he’s gonna find a stamp!” I suppose the hardest time was when really bad stuff was happening and not being able to fix it. A lot of their challenges are hard to fix, so there wasn’t a magic wand that could be waved. Our way of helping in some way was bearing witness and making sure that we told their stories. We talked a lot with Harley about what he was gonna reveal and asked him if he was okay with that. He told us again and again that he wanted to do that; it was something he needed to get off his chest that would come up in conversations with us. He wanted to say, “This happened to me.”

The sound design in this movie is very dynamic. There’s a tapestry of ambient sound as opposed to lots of music. What was your approach to that?

We were so excited and fortunate to work with Pete Horner from Skywalker Sound. We started a conversation with him over the summer, before we were finished with our edit. We didn’t have an opportunity to participate in the Composers Lab at Sundance, but Pete had done that with other projects. One of the things we took away from that experience was collaborating with a composer, an editor, and a whole team. We tried to recreate that as best as we could on our micro-budget, which meant that we brought everybody out for four days and had these intense spotting sessions, talking about where sound would take the lead, and where score would.

So a lot of it was foleying or rerecorded later?

We did also do foley, but we didn’t know that we would. What Pete really wanted to do, which we just couldn’t afford, was to go back to Rich Hill and do field recordings. We had done a lot of recordings of just trains and crickets — he had a lot to pull from, but he made us do foley too. We wanted it to be immersive and to put you in the headspace of these kids. The way Harley would use his hands and touch his shirt — we wanted you to notice some of those really small gestures.

The film feels very similar to David Gordon Green’s George Washington in terms of tempo and look. Did that inspire you to give this doc a more cinematic look?

That’s a high compliment — thank you! That wasn’t the only narrative we looked at. Ballast was another film that was inspirational for us, and there were documentaries like Bombay Beach and Only the Young.

You hold shots a lot longer than in typical docs. What was your methodology in editing?

Part of that is that Andrew, my co-director, is an amazing cinematographer, and he has this ability that I’m so deeply appreciative of. Not all shooters necessarily have those chops. We really could linger longer, and with the score, it all kind of fed into each other to hopefully allow our audiences to experience this place and what it was like to be in these homes, and to notice small elements and contemplate what was happening. We wanted an emotional experience.

What did you edit on?

We edited on Final Cut 7. Andrew and I were both familiar with that program, and we started cutting on that as soon as we started shooting in December 2011. He and I would cut scenes and imagine where the story was going. We had a three-hour assembly we handed over to Jim [Hession], our editor, in May 2013. We were able to hand it over because we spent so much time with it and were so familiar with the footage. Our editor also went back to the raw footage, but the three-hour cut helped focus him on what we wanted him to pay attention to.

Aside from your subject interviews, you intercut a lot of locked off shots, and even dolly shots of the town, in a kind of tone-poem fashion. How did you structure filming those shots?

The dolly shot you may be thinking about in the grocery store was actually a grocery cart! At the beginning, we wanted to set a context. We wanted to invite you to this place before going home with these kids. The moments between the kids often were really about a mood. One of the things we didn’t want this to be was reality television. We didn’t want the fast cutting that these families often get, where you’re in and you’re out.

How was the film funded?

This is an independent film in the truest sense. The first year of production was funded on my credit cards. I’m still paying off the camera. After a year, Sundance came on board with a production grant, which was a huge saving grace, as we would have had to have stopped making the film. Then MacArthur gave us a grant, and that saw us through production and the first several months of editing with Jim. Then we had to raise money for post, our composer, and finishing funds. The money for this came from an IDA Pare Lorentz grant, a Cinereach/Sundance grant, two amazing Executive Producers, and, finally, a Kickstarter!

Were the kids compensated?

We never told the kids they’d get paid, and certainly during the filming we couldn’t do much to change their circumstances, as we didn’t have the funding. We could buy meals and birthday presents, but that was about it. Since the film has been out, we’ve been able to help out some more, giving them money whenever we can, because they’re in our lives now, and we’re not in the middle of the expensive process of making a film.

Once the cards are paid off, we’re hoping to share any profits with them. We’ve also started a for them, in case audiences are moved to contribute directly to them — and audiences have. In Traverse City, we were talking about how Appachey wants to be a photographer, since he’s spent so much time around a camera in the making of this film, and a man in the audience gave him a complete package: lenses, batteries, backpack, Nikon camera, the works.

What material were you sad to lose from the final cut?

So much. It’s really hard to cut scenes and people and stories and backstories, but some of these cuts have inspired other projects. Ultimately, I feel like our film succeeds in all the ways we intended. We wanted it to be emotional; we wanted audiences to be taken to Rich Hill, and to enter these homes and these kids’ lives on a very intimate level. You can’t stay up close like that and cover everything. To be spare is better.

Your film won a major award at Sundance. How important was the festival circuit?

I think the festival circuit was very important. It’s hard for an indie film — and a documentary in particular — to rise above the noise so folks can know about it. Festivals play a vital role in building an audience and regional awareness. And it’s also pretty great when you win an award. I mean, I never expect it, and am usually kicking off my shoes or doing something else when it happens. I still am so floored and honored.

Was there a lot of politics or finagling in order to get it considered for Sundance?

There was no politics to get considered for Sundance. They were aware of the film because we’d received a production grant and attended a few Sundance labs, including the Edit & Story Lab, but they swear that the Film Fund is totally separate from the festival, and I believe that’s true. At some point, the film has to stand up on its own legs and that’s all it’s about.

Would you consider doing what Michael Apted did with the 7-Up series and check in on them every few years?

I’d really like to consider something like this. Maybe in 10 years or so, to see what’s up when they’re parents themselves. We’ve talked about making a film from the perspective of their kids perhaps. It’s hard, because their lives have changed so much in the making of the film. We’d have to include that aspect, and it would be a very different treatment.

You actually have a background in video games. How did that lead to what you do now? It seems worlds apart.

Well, after film school — I have an MFA in screenwriting — I got an offer to work at DreamWorks, when it was just starting up. I mean, they were working out of the Oakwood apartments in Burbank. I couldn’t refuse. Even though I wasn’t and am not a gamer, I got a chance to work as a producer on several titles, several of them narrative-based. Goosebumps: Escape from Horrorland was a live-action adventure game, and I was one of the producers on a 21-day green-screen video shoot starting Isabella Rossellini and Jeff Goldblum. It was like making a movie, my first time on a real grown-up set. It was great experience, and a really good job right out of film school. Ultimately, though, I wanted to make my own films and tell my own stories.

So what’s your next project?

Oh boy — this is a very full time. I’ve got several projects I’m developing on my own, including a long-form documentary on Sarah and her son, who we did an Op-Doc on earlier in the year. I’m also writing a narrative and have been approached to do two other documentary projects that have shorter timelines. I’m really excited about what’s next — and hoping I can also find the time to go to the dentist!