Calgary Underground 2014 Interview: LOVE AND TERROR ON THE HOWLING PLAINS OF NOWHERE
One of the unheralded diamonds in the rough on the documentary circuit this year is Dave Jannetta's documentary on the denizens of Chadron, Nebraska, evocatively titled Love And Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere.
The film is an adaptation of Poe Ballantine's memoir of the same name and involves Ballantine's amateur sleuthing of the great crime that occurred in his communit: a math professor went missing in the freezing winter of 2006 only to be found in the spring burned alive, bound to a small tree.
If, like me, you are inclined towards a little bit of doc-genre mashing, this Love and Terror is a kind of catnip of the form. It is an idiosyncratic autobiography slash character study commingled with true crime investigation and liberally sprinkled with the regional specificity of an episode of This American Life or Twin Peaks. If you are lucky enough to be in Calgary at the moment, it is screening in the Calgary Underground Film Festival CUFF.Docs sidebar.
It was a moist day in Toronto back in May when I had a chance to sit down with Poe and Dave in a basement watering hole on John Street that is somehow both airy and labyrinthine simultaneously. We drank hoppy (but not too hoppy) beer and watched California Chrome smoke the competition at the Kentucky Derby via a tiny TV set at an odd angle to our booth. The thoroughbred would go on to join that small club of horses who almost won the Triple Crown; almost in defiance to the sports narrative that everyone seemed so desperate for. We all cannot be Seabiscuit right out of the gate.
We were not aware of any potential or sketchy metaphors at the time of our talk and libation. The conversation ambled around the town of Chadron, and the delicate balance of crime, mystery, sensitivity, and ownership of narrative in a small community seven years after the strange circumstances that saw the demise of Dr. Steven Haataja just a short distance away from the college where he taught algebra to undergraduates.
Poe is affable, charming and an enthusiastic font of words and thoughts. Not surprising if you have ever read any of his books. Dave is quieter, letting his star of sorts, do his thing, but gets a few words in edgewise occasionally with his pragmatic and empathic approach to filmmaking. They make an interesting, symbiotic team, simultaneously thoughtful and casual. Below is a highly abridged, nay, wrangled, transcript of the '3 pints of Barking Squirrel' conversation that featured a lot of hand waving and interruptions and regular 270 degree swerves in subject matter.
Kurt Halfyard: Were there any surprises in watching the audience watch your film?
Dave Janetta: There were some big laughs throughout the screening.
Poe Ballentine: Raucous laughter. If you can show a very serious true-to-life movie and people laugh heartily, then I think that is a triumph.
Dave: I think some people may or may not be sure if they were allowed or able to laugh.
I found the movie to be very funny. Humour does not necessarily obliterate empathy; in many ways they go together. It is a morbid laughter, but it seems like approaching it with humour seems like the only valid way to process things. Outrage isn't enough. Pure group hug isn't enough. Humour is the maybe most powerful weapon. And yet, it is so hard to see what a joke is, whether writing or editing, until you see someones reaction to the thing, a contrast or an observation. When you are telling a story, where do you draw the line?
Poe: It wasn't any kind of design, but we were highly conscious of drawing out the humanity of everyone in Chadron to offer some relief.
Dave: You are right. You never know when you are in these interview situations. Some of them, individually, were an hour and a half long. A lot of people will tell you to steer the conversation, you're a film crew and you save time and money. It goes against what you would normally do. But to make people feel comfortable - to let people feel comfortable - and say things that are funny, unintentionally funny, but still accessing that sort of tragic human element. I have a very deep affection for everyone in the film, on a human level. I think then it not going to an exploitive point. There are certainly juxtapositions that could be funny, but if they weren't there in the first place, or they weren't sympathetic, then I didn't want to go there.
Sheriff Karl Dailey, talking about Moby Dick near the end of the film is brilliant. There is no easy way to corral or force something like that. It says interesting things in and of itself.
Dave: [Laughs] When I walked out of that interview, I felt that that was going to be the last line in the film. It's not quite the final word, but that is an absolutely valid reading of Moby Dick.
Poe: It's reductionist, and represents the whole law-enforcement view on the world.
Occam's Razor? But really, nothing involving people is ever simple. And time passing makes things less simple.
Dave: Karl's actually from Long Island, he's a really nice guy. Everyone laughs at that line because it is funny, but I think some people might argue with him. But that is the way he feels. It's reductive, but it's not invalid. He said he reads the book every year, and that it is his favourite book. I suppose you could equally read my film in a reductive way, and I think the people who dislike the film, or who have the most ambiguous reaction, as in we don't learn enough about the crime, or that there is no ending, are sort of the people who think Moby Dick is book simply about a whale. Maybe that line is for those people. It's OK.
Another character, Abner Violet, is only gets a sliver of screentime in the film yet is quite energetic and compelling in his few moments on camera. In Poe's book, there is all this ghost hunting and other stuff he is involved with. How difficult was it to pick and choose between what to put in the film and what to omit?
Dave: That was Richard Dabney, the guy shown on screen with all the radios behind him.
Poe: Dave didn't have room for ghost-hunting! I called Richard by the name Abner Violet in the book because he asked me to change his name. There were many people who asked me to change their name.
Dave: It's funny because he didn't want his name in the book, but had no problem with it in the film.
Poe: And now he is leading ghost hunts all over town. He had been asked to do official ghost tours for the town, various different sites, even the library. Chadron is an old town with a lot of ghosts. Even though we changed his name, really, there is not a lot of retired NASA electrical engineers in town, now he has become locally famous.
Dave: When I was interviewing people, I was interested in letting it go how they wanted it to go. Let people talk about what they want to talk about. With Richard, I had some really great stuff, it just didn't fit thematically.
Poe: Also, Richard came in at the tail end of the whole affair, although he moved into the house of a guy who I think was instrumental, he couldn't get into that either. He is certainly an interesting fellow though.
You guys were both working on the same narrative in different mediums at the same time. It's an interesting feedback loop. Both use different ways to tell the story. You get more information and, poetic is not the right word, perhaps 'theatre of the mind,' in novel form, but you get a more immediate, tangible look-into-peoples faces in documentary form.
Poe: It gives me some room to do some philosophizing and asides, but we really did collaborate quite a bit. I know nothing about film, but compositionally we shared some sentiment. It really was a beneficial relationship in that respect. To be able to share these views on distinctly different media.
Dave: When I got there, the book was on the shelf, Poe said to me hoped the book would be published posthumously, because he was concerned about what kind of stuff we were going to stir up. He also felt couldn't get it quite right.
Poe: I had fallen out with my publisher too. I was up in the air in ever getting the book published.
Dave: So I didn't read the book for the first year. I didn't want to form any conclusions before I started working fully on the project based on what he may or may not have concluded...
You can definitely see parallels however, such as the structure around those fantastic "Police Beat" newspaper pieces and other textual exceprts shown on screen. And the weather, of all things. Poe's home videos of weather events, the hail and the big-fire footage, there is a portentousness on screen. It's very visceral.
Poe: His film is really validated. My book is mostly conjecture. Could these people be this kooky and crazy? Could the police be that inept? When you watch the film, you go, yea, Loren Zimmerman could really be the killer.
He has dangerous eyes!
Dave: I didn't touch on any of the relationship between Zimmerman and Poe's wife, which is prominently featured in Poe's book. I didn't know any of that at the time I did the interview. The conversation never went that direction.
Did the book help inform wrangling film-structure together?
Dave: We shot and I went back and edited, and then I read a version of the book. I was having all sorts of structural problems and I showed Poe a rough cut, and he said that these were some of the same problems he was having structurally, so then we talked about story, and how we could make it work, and although I wasn't ever setting out to re-create the book, it did end up a lot more like the book.
Poe: I don't know how much choice there was, you cannot just tell the story of Steven Haataja on its own without the rest of the town.
There is a battle in the film between narrative and texture. And the lack of closure in story makes the texture a kind of life-line...
Poe: It is imperative. That is what I was after from the beginning. You want to make something beautiful, but how can you with such a horrible event in the middle? That is the challenge. That is also why the laughter is so valuable. But also, these beautiful shots that Dave captures.
The contrast to the apocalyptic weather is the tranquil shot of the train yard. A cat wanders through the frame of trains going about their business. It is the most mundane of images in contrast to the horrific weather events earlier.
Dave: The texture of the town is a counterpoint to the narrative. As soon as I landed in Chadron and spent not even 15 minutes there. It became, how can I capture this and do it in a way that is still relevant to the story, to set a mood, but isn't indulgent. It is funny that a number of people in town that have watched it, a cut of the film shown in Poe's living room, had the reaction, "I don't even know that I live in THIS town." I think that is what makes it valuable however, from the perspective of an outsider. It easier to see the beauty coming in. Any place you've lived for a while you take things for granted.
Poe: By concentrating on those things, a Zombie Removal Truck, a train yard, it denormalizes things. What people might think is a very ordinary place to live, with a Walmart and McDonalds and so on becomes something more.
Dave: If you look at the most poignant and sharp critiques of American culture from early Hollywood films, it's from guys like Billy Wilder who aren't American, and can see it better than 'we' can.
How much have the book and the film affected the town? There is a line of text at the end, asking if anyone has any more information regarding the crime to call a phone number. What, if anything happened since the film started to screen in front of audiences?
Poe: I have had a lot of people come forward with theories and circumstantial evidence. We're still in the same place however. I had the idea that I'd publish this book, make a lot of money and then move to an island in Greece or something, but it didn't work out that way. That's good for me, to have to confront people I've made accusations about, or who I haven't portrayed favourably. People I have suggested who might be a murder candidate in death of Steven Haataja. Most people who read the book are not in the book, and there is a human pleasure in seeing other people getting broiled, but some of the people in the book are angry about it. Threats of lawsuits, physical violence, and my house was vandalized. I had nothing but nightmares at the time about Loren Zimmerman. He just lives right around the corner from me, and there is no doubt in my mind that he is a psychopath.
I find it surprising that Zimmerman lost his job at the university by trying to help with the investigation. That is weird.
Dave: It was the straw that broke things, in that situation.
Poe: He was not going to be rehired anyway, because of all kinds of shenanigans. But long story short, it has been difficult, but mostly favourable. I'm actually doing something useful for a change. Normally I write about how miserable my life is, and crack wise about it, because life is tragic. But here, I am actually trying to straighten out something that got tangled up, early and badly, and was not going to be untangled. Some people prefer the easy story.
There is a whole gradient of difficulty here, where one can almost pick where you want to fall on the scale of Haataja's own personal responsibility and all the way down to things possibly completely out of his own control!
Poe: The book had to be written, and I had to face the consequences. I still have to face the consequences. Time is filtering and slowing things down, but I am always on guard with how I view people and how I deal with people. I used to be totally open and unafraid, I was like Dave. Forthcoming, free of enemies, Dave's a friend of man. We're probably so compatible because that is the way I used to be. But now, its different. I have a family, I'm worried about my boy at school, and how he might be affected by a family who I've suggested might be involved.
Do you feel that has filtered down to his school?
Poe: Not yet. He's an isolated young man, and that is to his advantage at this point, but it won't be to his advantage later.
Dave: I don't know if the film will make things any worse or any better, but I do hope to release it at the small theatre there, The Eagle. Ultimately it is one theatre the film will definitely play at. The idea is to shake the tree a little bit. The film is not intended to be a journalistic effort, despite my interest in Poe's life bringing me to the film, and that was my primary interest going in, but if there was someone to come forward, or another important bit of evidence that could put more pieces together, then, that would be great. I'm not sure that will happen.
Poe: My feeling is that this film and the attitude that the town will have for it will be twofold. First of all nothing has more power than a movie. The guy who wrote the book is just that one guy, and you can go burn his book or run him out of town. But if there is a movie about some misdeed, you're screwed. Everybody understands that.
Dave: I'd be sort of flattered if my town was described as Twin Peaks, and being such a quirky and an interesting place.
Poe: Chadron is happy to be non-existent in the worlds consciousness, but I also think there will be people delighted to be involved in a book or a movie. I actually think it will be a party of sorts. I really do. Now if something does happen to these people or the college. Here is a quick story, the college wants the case gone, the police want the case gone, pretty much all law enforcement agencies want it gone. It is an impediment to a very difficult economy in the town. If the college wasn't there then the town would blow away, so they shut things down internally, immediately. The thing is done. It is really too bad that over seven years have passed.
Dave: The state patrol just evaded us at every turn. Three law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction there. The Town Police, the State Police and the County Sheriffs Office.
Poe: I chased [County Attorney] Vance Haug for 5 years. We chased him for months while Dave was there.
Dave: Two days before we left, I went to his office, and convinced them that it would look worse if he wasn't in the film.
Poe: Look, the Chadron police department are good at what they do, but this thing was just far out of their scope. They just presumed he left town. What is the point of chasing after a guy who just blew town?
Dave: And they don't have the resources, manpower, expertise.
Poe: There was only one other murder in the last 27 years. And that was a clear cut case of some guy who got knifed in the park. It was fate coming in to ruin Chuck's life. He retired shortly after the event. He had a heart attack too.
Dave: One thing that I did not get into the film is the circles of misfortune that surround everyone that gets involved with the case. The guy who was the lead investigator of the State Patrol was a guy named Matt Fitzgerald, and he investigated this thing, went all over the country, spent thousands of dollars chasing ghosts, and he ended up attempted suicide, leaving the force, and is now ranching somewhere outside of town. In part it was the case, but probably other things as well.
Poe: To me it was that he knew something about the crime that he was not allowed to reveal. Perhaps he was good friends with the rancher who discovered the body and didn't want to implicate him or his brother. That's what I think. Small town stuff. He found something and he had to quit. He broke down. He recently had a stroke. There are some strange stories. There was a lot of stress on this guy.
Dave: Chuck James as well, right after he retired he had the heart attack. He also found religion, and bankruptcy...
Poe: ...Loren Zimmerman, who lost his job. And here I am, the fourth guy in line. Is this some sort of karma thing or what? We do want justice, though.
As an objective person coming in with no personal relationships or fore-knowledge whatsoever, I see the film as being exploitive. It is a story that allows anyone to experience certain emotions and ideas in an interesting way. And is it better in some ways not to have a solution? Lifes mysteries, as horrible as this sounds, knowing the truth can be weirdly empty. It can be mean. Sometimes not knowing is a valuable lesson in itself.
Dave: That is part of the struggle from the outset. I didn't think I would solve anything that had been going on for years, but my challenge was to make a film that felt complete without having an ending. And the success or failure of that is how well you can bring in moods and themes. For a dramatic or reality television purposes, the first question would be, do you have a conclusion? Did you solve the case? Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line is obviously absolutely amazing, but, here, this is not that story. I had thought about what this film would be like if I got to that conclusion, how would it have affected the film, if we had gotten to the bottom of it. It would have been more commercially viable...but...
Poe: But not chance to discuss life! Why is life tragic? If you have a solution it is a journalistic piece. If you have no solution, its an aesthetic piece. There might be less laughter, because it is hard to be funny if the film becomes about getting to who murdered this man. This extremely vicious crime. I don't want to be disrespectful to the person in the middle of this thing, what he went through. I don't want to ever forget that, but from a purely artistic point of view, the mystery is the thing. Some of Steven's family were not pleased with the book or the film. They were after me wherever I went at times, but at the same time, it's not their story, it is their brother, but it is not their story.
Dave: They're private people. That's OK. As much as you disagree with this project, I really think that it has potential to make people think and positively affect peoples lives, and what more do you want to do after your gone than that? If their brother is helping people in some way, as corny as this may sound, but if you've ever been depressed, which everyone has, you can watch the people in the film, and I think in a way, that helps.
But this is the story of a town, and a town has history. If it is causing friction and struggle, then there must be something there and it is worth doing. It cannot be the simple thing of 'just forgetting about it.' And this is as much a documentary about Chadron, Nebraska as it is about Poe or Steven or anything else.
Poe: This was the greatest crime in this towns memory. And it was so badly handled and told when it was reconstructed, it begged for others to come in to make some kind of sense of it all.