Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A conversation with the directors of The Atomic States of America

Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce directed the recent documentary The Atomic States of America. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012 and continues to run the festival circuit. I loved the film when I saw it at the Montclair International Film Festival. Its next stop is at the Seattle International Film Festival, playing at the Harvard Exit Theater June 7th and June 8th. More information can be found on the film's Facebook page, located here.

Bostonian on Film: Your production company, 9.14 Pictures, has been fairly productive releasing five feature documentaries over its first ten years. How do you keep that pace? Are you filming different stories simultaneously? Are you starting a new film while Demian edits the previous one?

Don: We’ve been busy, that’s for sure! We are very fortunate that we get to make docs for a living, so we’ve been able to put the amount of work out in a relatively short amount of time primarily because we’re always working towards getting the next film going. In the case of Last Days Here, we were working on that while we were making Two Days in April and The Art of the Steal. So, once we finished The Art of the Steal and were actively trying to get Atomic States off the ground, Demian was cutting Last Days Here. Sometimes it feels like we never stop working, and I guess we don’t!

Sheena:  As Don said, we know how lucky we are to be able to have a career making films, so we’re willing to do whatever we have to do to keep that career going.  We just want to work, so if that means maintaining a furious pace, well, then sleep be damned!  Practically speaking, we try to have several projects in development, and at least one, if not two projects in production.  Our roles overlap, so we’re able to cover a great deal of ground with just three people.

Bostonian on Film: Given that this is your fifth film together, why did Sheena first take on the role of director for The Atomic States of America? How did that change the dynamic of shooting and editing the film?

Sheena: As we were finishing Last Days Here, which Don and Demian co-directed and I produced, we began working on The Atomic States of America.  By necessity, I took an early lead on the project, but more than that, I felt a connection to the subject matter, to the story, and personally, to Kelly McMasters, author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From An Atomic Town, more than on any other project.  I felt strongly that this was a film that would benefit from a co-director, as it was probably the most complex topic we’d ever tackled.  Our dynamic shooting didn’t change much.  Don always does the filming, and I write the questions and conduct the interviews.  Don, Demian and I always fight in the edit room, but our disagreements help to make the film stronger, and we’re always still friends in the end!

Bostonian on Film: Your film has a very memorable title. How did the title come about and were there other possibilities?

Don: We had struggled with naming this film for awhile. Titles are funny, sometimes they come really easy in the beginning of the process and sometimes they take a long time.  You battle over them and you come up with them in the 11th hour. For this, we were about to submit it to Sundance and we still didn’t have a title and a friend of ours, Jen Utley, came up with the title months prior, and it was in the back of our heads. We had brainstormed a ton of titles and nothing was feeling right, then we threw out The Atomic States of America and everyone was like, yes, perfect!

Sheena:  Yes, we were talking about the movie with Jen, and told her we were struggling with a title, and kept coming back to a play on words, like Atomic States.  She suggested The Atomic States of America, and she was right—it was a perfect fit.

Bostonian on Film: What do you want viewers to take away from Atomic States?

Sheena: We wanted to let people see nuclear energy from both sides of the issue, and most importantly, through the eyes of those living in reactor communities. We really wanted to start an honest dialog about whether or not man could responsibly harness the atom.

Bostonian on Film: How has your film festival tour been going? What have some of the highlights been? Are you excited to show the film in Seattle?

Don: Sundance was huge for us. Sarasota, Maryland and Montclair were all great as well, really engaged audiences . With our schedule we can’t go to every festival unfortunately, but of course, we’re really looking forward to Seattle. We had an amazing time there with our first film Rock School. Eddie Vedder and Ann Wilson came out to perform with the kids.
Bostonian on Film: Do you have any further plans for getting the film to the public, or will that simply be in the distributor’s hands? How do you feel about releasing the film on VOD while in theaters, or on Netflix Instant Watch later on?

Don: We are currently working on securing distribution and figuring out creative ways to get this film out to the public. I think the distribution platforms are changing for indie films constantly, and they’re also changing how people are watching films. I think VOD and Netflix are great, specifically for smaller films, because the most important thing is that your film is available. The reality is that smaller films have a harder time in theaters, and are often overlooked, so these other outlets just make it easier for your film to be seen.

Bostonian on Film: What movies have you been watching lately? Do you go to the theater or how have you been watching movies?

Don: I still try and watch docs but it’s hard because we work so much. When I get home at 9 or 10pm, I don’t always want to throw a doc or a narrative film on. I tend to watch movies most when I’m traveling, so luckily we’re traveling a ton for this new film we’re working on, so I’ll get to catch up.

Sheena:  We watch a lot of films on VOD, and as Don said, spend so much time on planes, we can catch up on the films we’ve missed.  There’s nothing like going to the movie theater, though, and watching a film on the big screen.  Film festivals are a great way to see new films and support independent artists, too.