An award-winner at Sundance and a favorite at this year’s Hot Docs festival, Detropia hits Toronto screens this week under a cloud of hype that’s thankfully warranted. Over the last 10 years the city of Detroit has gone through an almost unthinkable downfall bordering on the apocalyptic (hence the doc’s title). The once thriving city has been abandoned by most of its population thanks to the death of the American auto industry. Huge buildings stand vacant and in decay (including what was once one of America’s largest and most opulent train stations). Thousands of abandoned homes must be destroyed each year. The city is so broke and in such disrepair that the mayor’s office is actually trying to move the entire population to the center of the city because they can’t afford to keep public services alive throughout the area. It’s a bit of a disaster zone and one of the US’ many dirty secrets, a major city that is a monument to the cost of America losing it’s manufacturing industry and a warning sign of what the entire superpower could easily become.
That’s where co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady come in. The Oscar nominated filmmakers behind Jesus Camp have built their reputation on being amongst the most non-judgmental and honest documentarians in the business. Their vision of Detroit is undeniably bleak (how could it not be?), following desperate auto union representatives and mayoral officials lost in a battle they don’t know how to win. Yet, there’s also a certain optimism to be found in the thriving community of artists who have made the space their home/canvas, and delightfully eccentric/hopeful residents like bar owner Tommy Stephens who are convinced (perhaps irrationally) that the city will bounce back. With Detropia about to open at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, we got a chance to chat with co-director Heidi Ewing about the origins, production, challenges, and self-distribution process about what is sure to be one of the finest documentaries of the year.
Dork Shelf: First the obvious question, what got you and Rachel interested in Detroit? I gather there was a personal connection for you specifically?
Heidi Ewing: Yep, I’m originally from Farmington Hills. My grandmother was a lifelong Detroiter. My parents left for the suburbs during the riots, so I lived about five miles outside of the city. But really my closest connection to the material is that my father had a manufacturing business. So I had a front row seat to the difficulty of keeping a manufacturing business alive, especially during the 80s when I grew up. Japan was rising. Global competition was starting to bite Detroit in the butt. A lot of my father’s colleagues went out of business and he was able to stay in business by continuing to reinvent himself and making new products. So really, I’ve always understood the importance of maintaining a manufacturing base because it put me through college, you know?
DS: Did you always intend to present Detroit as a kind of a microcosm of what’s going on in America in general or that come along while shooting?
HE: We didn’t intend to do that. We actually intended to make a movie about the phoenix rising from the ashes, presenting Detroit as a hotbed for innovation and ideas. So we actually went in with a completely different concept, which was like “shame on us,” because you should never go into a documentary with an agenda. We found something that we thought was way more complex and relevant. We did find Detroit echoing the nation’s anxiety or maybe the nation echoing Detroit’s long felt anxiety about the shrinking middle class. We started to find a lot of natural narratives and that’s what we decided to pursue.
DS: It’s interesting to hear you be so dismissive about going into a documentary with an agenda, do you normally try to approach your films as an act of discovery?
HE: We go in with a curiosity or a gut feeling. That’s about it. On all of our past films, 12th & Delaware, The Boys of Baraka, and Jesus Camp, we went in with a real sense of curiosity and a feeling that there was an interesting story to be told. Then we just make the movie from what we find. That’s what we should have done on this one. That’s what we ended up doing once we gave up on the phoenix story. Because the overall feeling in Detroit is not that the city is immediately coming back, it’s that the city is struggling to float. So we decided to focus on that.
DS: And I’m guessing being there in 2009 during the economic collapse helped push you in that direction.
HE: Yeah. [laughs] Exactly. It definitely played a major role.
DS: The images of the decaying city you shot are remarkable. Did having that environment to shoot in have a certain pull as well?
HE: I think we were more impressed with the people that interact with those spaces. Detroiters are in those spaces every day. You know, you can buy a coffee table book of photography and look at all those buildings with no one around them. Most photographs of Detroit for some reason cut out the people. But Detroiters talk about these buildings and interact with them. They love them and hate them. So we wanted to show those structures within the context of the individuals who stayed in the city. Of course we were very fascinated with what we saw, but we really wanted to make sure to present them within the context of the human beings.
DS: I really enjoyed the broad spectrum of subjects you were able to find. How did you find and choose all of those people?
HE: It took forever. It was a nightmare. It really was. We talked to so many people. We weren’t sure what we were looking for or what the criteria was. There are so many different ways you can go with a movie like this. It really came together once we found Mr. Tommy Stephens. He was referred to me by this old salty reporter I’d known since I was a kid. He told me to talk to this barkeep named “Honest John.” He owns a bar named Honest John’s in the Cass Corridor. He was the son of a prostitute and grew up there. He’s an alcoholic growing weed in his basement, an amazing guy. He was the one who told me about [Tommy Stephens’ bar] The Raven. That was about four layers into the onion. The Raven is about an 8-minute drive from the opera house, but no one has ever heard of it. You go off that main artery in Detroit and the city looks a lot like that block. It’s shocking, because you just stray a few blocks and you’d in an abandoned section of the city. But there’s this business and there’s this awesome, brilliant, former school teacher who is hoping the city will come back and is incredibly optimistic. He opens that place night after night and hopes that the plant up the street will bring his business back. In a very easy way, he showed the interconnectedness of the people and their reliance, still, on the auto industry. That old “one horse town” problem. He sort of grounded the film. Once we met him a lot of things fell into place. We went up to the street to the plant and found the union leader George. It all just started to fall into place after Tommy, luckily.
DS: Yeah, Tommy was an amazing subject and one of the things I wanted to ask you about was the scene at the auto show where he discovers the massive price difference between the American and Chinese electric cars.
HE: How awesome is that?
DS: I know. It nails down what the film is about so specifically that it just made me wonder what it was like shooting that moment. Did you have any idea that would happen?
HE: We knew there were Chinese automakers at the auto show and we knew Tommy went to the auto show every year. If he hadn’t stumbled across that booth, we might have told his wife, “maybe you should go in that direction.” I was curious to see how he would react, but he found it right away. Then we just followed it as it happened. We really didn’t have to do anything. It was like the narrative gods smiled upon us because there’s a confluence of so many things happening in that scene.
DS: Was it at all difficult to convince people to be involved with the film since the image of Detroiters has been manipulated by the media so many times?
HE: Yeah, the mayor’s office was really difficult. They are really paranoid about their image and the administration is very opaque in how they deal with the media. That translated into dealing with us as well. We just kept asking and showing up and bugging them until they finally allowed us a little bit of access. We never really had major access to the mayor’s office.
DS: I found Mayor’s concept of condensing the city into a concentrated area of focus resources quite bizarre. Do you think that’s a plausible solution or that it’ll happen?
HE: On paper it sounds good. If you’re an urban planner it makes great sense, but it’s not doable unless you’re going to pay people to move. People don’t want to leave their family homes. Sure it makes sense if you’re playing a video game or in some sort of hyper reality. But you can’t force people to move. So basically the city is cutting of services to portions of the city to try and smoke people out, in a way. They just aren’t asking anymore what the actual citizens opinions are. They can’t afford to keep all services running in all neighborhoods. The city is broke and co-managed by the state of Michigan right now. It’s got a budget shortfall of $30 million. 10% of the public workers have been laid off, including police and fire workers. They laid off 164 firefighters and then the department of homeland security had to come in and rehire 100 of them. It is a city on the break of needing to be bailed out. So I understand why they can’t seem to provide all of the services they need to, but it’s not a tenable situation.
DS: Since you shot so many different stories and people while trying to find the film, is there anything that you cut out that you were sad to see go?
HE: Oh yeah, our deleted scenes on the DVD are about 90 minutes long. They are amazing and almost like a totally different movie. There was this one band with bluesy Motown sound that we followed for a while. One guy in the band had his house taken away on Christmas. There’s one scene that really shows the violence problem in Detroit. There are more scenes in the opera house. We just didn’t have room for everything. But really, that one band called Woodward Avenue is the thing that I’m saddest about cutting and we have about seven scenes of them for the DVD.
DS: How relationship between you and Rachel Grady break down as collaborators?
HE: Well on this one I was on location a lot more than she was because she had a baby on the first day of shooting. So I mainly did the shooting on this one. But usually we take turns going out into the field. We don’t go out into the field together except in the beginning to meet people, cast it, and come up with an aesthetic. We’ll do all that groundwork together, but then one person will go into the field and one will work on other things. We do that because we think that give the other person a fresh perspective on the material from not being there. There’s no point in us both being in the field, it’s not efficient and we work on multiple projects at the same time. So it’s like having a fresh pair of eyes who can look at the footage from more of a cinematic perspective than what the other one sees through the camera. So I watch her material, she watches mine and we swap notes. That’s kind of how we do it.
DS: Can you talk a little bit about your self-distribution plan for the movie and how that happened?
HE: It’s working! It’s working really well. We’re self-distributed. We premiered in Sundance, won the editing award, and got four different offers for distribution deals. They all sucked. Two we didn’t like because they wanted to release the movie in winter 2013 and we thought it was really important to get this film up before the election. And the other two offers were just too limited in scope in terms of the number of cities. Plus we just really had a hard time giving up the rights to this movie after the blood, sweat, and tears of making it. So we did something crazy and went to kickstarter. We raised a total of $90,000 and we have been self-distributing. We hired a booker and a publicist. The reviews have been really nice, so that helped launch the movie. It’s been held over in New York week after week. We’re playing right now in 11 markets. We open this week in the Bay area and next week in LA. We’re opening in Austin, Santa Fe, Indiana, Miami, Toronto. We’re adding markets every week all through December. It’s really been great showing it to audiences. I think people are ready to have the discussions that this film brings up. I think we’re in a moment of great anxiety in this country and people are finally concerned about the same things that the people in Detroit are. That would not have been the case five or ten years ago. People didn’t used to be able to find any commonality with Detroit, but that’s finally happening. So, we’re really feeling good about our decision to go it alone on this one. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been worth it.
DS: Do you think it’s a viable distribution option for independent filmmakers in the future?
HE: Well, it’s a lot of work. It’s a second full time job. Our staff is spending about 80% of their time on this right now. You need an infrastructure. You have to be willing to work four more extra hours a day. It works, but only if you’re really committed. It also helps if you have a fanbase of people who have seen your last film and want to see your new one. It is definitely a viable option, just with caveats.