There’s a moment when a smile might creep across your face in “Phantom Cowboys” when Nick Reyes, one of its three main subjects, begins talking about a photographer who came to his hometown of Trona in the California desert, expressing how beautiful it is without considering what it might actually be like to live in such a desolate place for a teen such as himself.
“‘Isn’t it exciting here?’” Reyes recalls the photographer saying, with a slight eye-roll. “[I told him] I bet you’d think twice if you lived here.”
“He wasn’t talking about us,” director Daniel Patrick Carbone assures me with laugh shortly after the premiere of “Phantom Cowboys” recently at the Tribeca Film Festival, though he can see it through both perspectives, understanding the frustrations of Nick and fellow high schoolers Ty and Larry, who live in the similarly remote towns of Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Pahokee, Florida, respectively, as the future seems limited to the five miles directly in front of them in any direction. Yet he can also sense a tranquility and hard-forged individualism that’s been lost as much of the population coalesces around urban environments.
“I wanted to make sure that we did justice to these places and to the geography and landscapes of America and how diverse the people are in these places and how these stories are about on paper three very similar towns, but in reality there’s no such thing as two towns that are similar,” says Carbone. “Shining a light on these places that, especially in the current climate, are getting pigeonholed into being one or two things and showing people have all sorts of complicated lives and all the funny and absurd things that happen to us, [I was] just trying to create a more cohesive picture of small-town life in the 21st century.”
To do so in an eye-opening and deeply satisfying way, Carbone uses time rather than distance to consider cultural attitudes are formed, first meeting Nick, Ty and Larry in their teens and revisiting them five to seven years later to see how much they’ve been shaped by their environment. Shot before — and after — Carbone’s arresting fictional debut “Hide Your Smiling Faces,” which settled into suburban New Jersey with a pair of young brothers who are touched by the death of a friend in very different ways depending on their age, “Phantom Cowboys” follows a road taken by other filmmakers in comparing the young men’s aspirations with their realities upon hitting their twenties. However, it is how artfully Carbone and editor Thomas Niles convey their restlessness that is so engrossing, following Nick out onto the football field in Trona, getting inside Ty’s car to run roughshod on dirt racetracks in Parkersberg or trailing Larry out into the sugar cane fields of Pahokee where the controlled burn that farmers’ set to get to the essence of their crops might as well be a manifestation of the fire inside him, waiting to get out. Expressing that energy so fluidly, the film finds great drama in observing how the trio’s youthful exuberance runs up against the slow pace of life in their hometowns, in some cases creating the sparks needed to transcend their surroundings or adapting to it and pushing it forward while in others, backfiring when that spirit can’t find its proper place.
In showing both sides, “Phantom Cowboys” is an exhilarating cinematic experience, one that also marks an exciting collaboration between two filmmakers who made waves at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival as Carbone teamed with “Bending Steel” cinematographer Ryan Scarfuro to help capture the film’s latter day footage. As “Phantom Cowboys” brought the two back to Tribeca for a triumphant return, they reflected on a production that’s been in the works for nearly a decade, keeping their subjects engaged in the process and bring places that may seem far away closer no matter where you live.
Daniel Patrick Carbone: Annie Waldman, who’s one of the producers on this film, and I had made a short film together about homeless kids right after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans [after] I graduated from NYU undergrad. It had a very similar style and theme to it [as “Phantom Cowboys”] and it was quite successful, so we wanted to expand that thematically, not an expansion of the same characters, but to take that same idea [to film in] three towns. We knew about the rabbit hunting in Pahokee – we had seen a photo essay on it, and the dirt football field in Trona, and then Parkersberg, we did just a bit a research and found a town that’s a similar population and a similar working class that’s built up around a factory. Then we found the dirt track racing, which is really popular down there, so it was always] the town first and then the subject.
We let the kids come up to us and we started to talk to them and we started following them around a little bit. It just kept snowballing from there. We filmed them in each town, not necessarily with the idea that it’d become such a long-term project, but there was always a longitudinal element, like two or three years, just to get a proper deep enough slice of life into these guys’ stories. Then Ryan was here [at Tribeca] with a film called “Bending Steel,” and I was telling him about the film and it was half-shot at that point, so he came onboard as a producer and he’s also a [cinematographer], so he picked up DP duties on the second half.
Ryan, what’s it like for you to come into a project like this that way?
Ryan Scarfuro: That was interesting and because Dan had had a rough cut of the initial footage, I was familiar with the boys, so one of the strangest things was actually meeting them for the first time after I felt like I had known them just from the footage. Stylistically, we had some conversations about how we wanted the footage I was shooting to feel similar to the footage that Dan had shot, but also stand out a little bit. There’s so much slow motion in the earlier footage, I asked Dan should I try to match that or do we want to do something different and over time, it eventually evolved that I shot it the way I would’ve shot anything and that alone allowed it to stand out, not to mention the different cameras. From a story perspective, maybe having a little distance helped because I was able to ask questions or think of things in a way that you may have thought was familiar.
Daniel Patrick Carbone: Yeah, I ten years younger when I started this film, so it was really a much-needed like new blood into the project because you get tunnel vision. You think things are clear and when you get an outsider saying, “Well, maybe we should go back and shoot that,” or “We should ask them about…” or “My favorite part of the cut is this…”, maybe we should go and try to highlight that and focus the reshoots on specific themes. So it’s been invaluable to have Ryan being there to focus it a little bit. It was a bit of a one-person film there for a couple years, and it was something that was so personal to me for so many years that you lose the ability to judge what you’re looking at or how audiences are interpreting it, especially a film that jumps around so much. Clarity is pretty important.
Was there a plan from the start about this as a whole and when you might go back or did you reconfigure after you did the initial shoot?
Daniel Patrick Carbone: There were a lot of reconfiguring phases. It wasn’t [I said], “Let’s wait five years and go back.” The first shoot where they’re younger happened over the course of about two years and three or four shoots in each town. And then the film got put on hold because of “Hide Your Smiling Faces” and other stuff just coming up in life. Then when Ryan came onboard, we’d always wanted to do an update to see where they are before we finished the film, but we imagined it being a 15-20 minute coda at the end of the film. When we went down there, we saw not only how much they had all changed, but also [how] all the stuff that we had talked about with them as kids was either coming true or the opposite was coming true, so we’ve got this film where they’re all talking so much about what they want in five years, where they think they’ll be, and here we are five years later – let’s show it instead of telling it. So it ended up becoming the structure that you see today where it’s jumping between the two time periods.
Ryan Scarfuro: When we started shooting the second half, I don’t think we thought it would encompass that much of the film, but once we realized how significant it was and how we were able to interweave it, it filled it out a little bit more.
What was it like finding the scenes or dialogue that would speak to each other from the earlier shoot to the later one? One of my favorite scenes in the film is Pahokee is hearing the adult voice while you see him as a kid.
Daniel Patrick Carbone: Yeah, there were a couple things that we would be shooting and we’d look at each other and be like, “Yeah, that’s going to go right after he says this.” Because during the last year-and-a-half, we had a cut that was pretty solid, but we knew we wanted to fill in some holes and give people a little bit more context for where the guys are now. Some of the foundational edits in the film were there and we knew [a second shoot would] clarify who that is or what his dreams are or Ty making more money, story stuff that we knew we needed to beef up a little bit.
Ryan Scarfuro: And then some we didn’t find until the last version of the film.
Daniel Patrick Carbone: Yeah, it’s one of those films where every time we would watch it, we would be like, “Oh, that scene isn’t in the right place, but I don’t know where it should go.” And then in the middle of the night, you’re like, “Oh, there’s that shot with the smoke in the background and we can cut that in with the smoke at the racetrack.” Some [are] more obvious visual edits like that, but a lot of things that would be said in the older footage — when the film was only the old footage, they were a little bit more passive, like a funny one-off scene —suddenly had all this new relevance when you know who they’re going to going to become.
Ryan Scarfuro: It created a deeper context, and it allowed us to start to realize what juxtapositions were working and gave us more choices to tie some of the themes together.
Daniel Patrick Carbone: Yeah, or how to use a scene in the film. There are scenes that you could use as a bittersweet flashback to a different time in their life or it could be right at the beginning of the movie [where] we’re teaching you about Pahokee. Some of these scenes, if you put it here, it means this, or if you put it here, it means this, so there’s a lot of trial and error of what line or theme or shot from that scene do we really want to highlight and pull out and make it have a conversation with another scene around it.
Ryan Scarfuro: When it worked, it was very obvious too. There were moments where we were like, “Oh, we just unlocked that door.”
Daniel Patrick Carbone: [There was] a little bit of everything, honestly. My favorite is Ty in West Virginia. Five years later, you can drive up to the garage and be like, “Hey Ty,” and he’s like “Hey Dan.” He just has this lifestyle where people are coming in and out of his garage and he makes no plans. He’s just where he is and people have to find him. If you want to talk to Ty, you’ve got to figure out where he is and go to him. So that was like five years could pass, but it seemed like yesterday. And then it’s very different in Florida where Larry was in and out of prison. He was also quite a bit younger than Ty, so that relationship was quite a bit different. He was 13 when we were there for the first time, so it was just about building trust and letting them know we weren’t there to exploit their story. We’re not trying to say, “Oh, look at this small-town lifestyle.” It’s just real people doing their real thing, letting them speak for themselves, never putting words in their mouth and trying to edit in a way that doesn’t feel too directed by us, but just feels like the natural order of these scenes in their life that we were lucky enough to be able to shoot.
Ryan Scarfuro: There [was also], “Oh, you’re still working on that thing?” “Oh, so what is it again? What are you doing?” There’s an element of they don’t really understand it, but there’s a curiosity [like] “Wait, why are you interested in me?”
Daniel Patrick Carbone: That was the biggest question. It was like, “What is it about me that you want to film?” And it was hard to explain because what we like about you is that there isn’t a very upfront documentary narrative story in your life. You’re not trying to win the big football game. It’s just three ordinary guys — or the idea of is there such a thing as an ordinary young person — [so we thought] let’s just pick three guys who seem like they’re good on camera, they’re comfortable with us, and they each have an interesting pastime. Then let’s just see what unfolds. When you film with them for a long enough time, it’s inevitable that it’ll be interesting. Everyone’s life is interesting enough when you are able to really sit there and dig in and let the small details come out.
Ryan Scarfuro: And you filmed the first part with lots of different boys…
Daniel Patrick Carbone: Yeah.
Ryan Scarfuro: Was it only when you started editing that it really stood out? I remember there was a point even when I came on that [you] weren’t sure it was going to be those three.
Daniel Patrick Carbone: Yeah, we did about one shoot in each place where we stayed with this guy, this guy and this guy, and then as we continued to shoot, it started to be clear. It started out a bit more like here’s Trona and here’s the young men in Trona. Here’s Pahokee and here’s the young men [in Pahokee], and then over time, the themes became a little bit more relevant when we focused on one guy with one perspective and then how can we compare those three perspectives in each town rather than three over here and four over there.
Was this always envisioned as three men in particular?
Daniel Patrick Carbone: Yeah, it was. What initially started that was the idea of these industry towns that are traditionally the place where the men in town go to work and provide for their families. So their great-grandfather worked there, their grandfather worked there, their father worked there, [and they felt] I have to work there and because of that running theme and the father-son relationship, the passage from one generation to the next, we focused it on the male perspective on this story.
Since you mentioned you changed as a person over 10 years and the country has changed as well, does perspective factor into what you want to capture when you go back?
Daniel Patrick Carbone: It more changed how I think people will read the film because we weren’t shooting around prime election time, so there’s no real blatant “Make America Great Again” signage or anything like that. But you feel it just because we all think about it 24 hours a day. When people see football players standing for the national anthem, even though this is a high school in Trona, California eight years ago, you think of the NFL and all the stuff that’s going on, so I knew that it would change the way people viewed some of the scenes and that did dictate some of the decisions we made in the edit, what to include and where to include it. But the film doesn’t really have a political stance and the goal of every shoot and every edit day was to keep a certain level of integrity and show these guys’ stories in the way that they really happened and not force any judgment on anything that they do.
Ryan Scarfuro: It’s funny because I remember a specific moment where we realized, at least, me personally, that it had new relevance. We were watching it and thinking about it in a certain way when people started talking about these forgotten towns and people who felt disenchanted and were left behind. That conversation started to become more and more part of the national conversation through the election and at that point, it was like, “Oh wow, we actually already have so much of that stuff that people are looking for or are wondering about.” Incidentally, it’s gained a new relevance in that way, or it always had that relevance, but it’s maybe changed a bit.
What is it like putting a period on a film like this?
Daniel Patrick Carbone: Very difficult, honestly. I wouldn’t say that I’m sad about it. It’s been a really difficult production and post-production and just psychologically, it’s a totally different experience than making a fictional film. The weight of putting someone else’s real life is a totally different experience than actors and actresses who know what they’re signing up for. But what’s the cliche? You don’t finish a film, you abandon it and that’s what it feels like. It needed to be done for my own mental sanity.
Ryan Scarfuro: That’s where the period came in. [laughs]
Daniel Patrick Carbone: But look at Michael Apted’s films [The “Seven-Up” series]. We could shoot every five years and it would probably be really interesting. But at some point, when somebody watched it and thought it was good enough to play at festivals, I thought, “Okay, that’s a pretty good sign that there’s an ending to this movie.” But I would entertain the idea of revisiting them and doing some sort of update down the line.
Ryan Scarfuro: There was definitely a point too where we were like we don’t need to shoot more. Because of the nature of the story, we weren’t always sure about that. But there came a point in the edit where we were like, “Oh, we’ve got it.”
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting this?
Ryan Scarfuro: We were in Trona and we had rented a Mini-Cooper ragtop convertible and we decided to go down a road that was closed. It ended up being like two hours of me moving rocks off of the road as Dan was behind me driving the car. Not shooting, really. That was actually a day off.
Daniel Patrick Carbone: There were so many days like that. The day we caught the really great, huge burn [in Pahokee] was really surreal. That’s footage I watch now and I’m like, I don’t remember shooting this. It’s one of those things that feels like a dream you had. When I started the film, it was because it was really fun to go to these places and meet these people. I’ve never been to a dirt track, which I now love. We’d shoot some stuff with Ty and then we sit in the stands and watch some races and the race track is totally overwhelming. The sound during the race is weird, hypnotic, and so loud that it isn’t sound anymore. It’s in your brain.
Ryan Scarfuro: And it’s stuff that we wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. I had never been to the California desert prior to shooting. I had never been to Florida. I had never been to one of those races. That’s one of the most exciting things was to be able to experience these places and hopefully the film allows people to as well because I think a lot of people watching it will probably not have had those experiences either.