Slamdance ’11 Interview: Keith Miller on the Grand Jury Sparky Award-Winning Drama “Welcome to Pine Hill”

The writer/director of the drama that took home this year's top prize at Slamdance talks about letting reality spill into his story of an African-American man whose life takes...
Shannon Harper in Keith Miller's "Welcome to Pine Hill"

It was a long journey from Brooklyn to Slamdance for Keith Miller’s drama “Welcome to Pine Hill,” but the film follows an emotional one that’s far more arduous. Born in the most unexpected of places, it begins in Park Slope where a caucasian man (Miller) who took ownership of a lost dog is confronted in the street by an African-American man (Shannon Harper) who claims the pet is his and would either like to have him back or $250 for his troubles. That conversation actually happened in reality, truncated in the film from its actual two-hour length, and afterwards, Miller couldn’t shake the racial and social dynamics that shaped how they spoke about what right they had to the dog and how they related to each other.

As an artist in several respects – he also is a painter and curator of the Gallatin Galleries at NYU, Miller initially made a short about their encounter called “Prince/William” but has since expanded that into the feature that played in front of two sold-out Slamdance audiences this week and ultimately was crowned as the festival’s Grand Jury Sparky Award winner for best narrative. The feature delves further into Shannon’s life, following him into a new life as an insurance claims adjuster in the city after spending his early years on street corners presumably slinging dope, though his transformation is interrupted by when he learns he’s not entirely healthy. Some aspects of the story are taken directly from Shannon’s personal experience, but as Miller explains below, that isn’t the only reason “Welcome to Pine Hill” could be considered realistic since the director took an unusual approach in making the film that draws upon the spontaneity of the environment as much as the community in it to propel it forward. Miller took time away from a busy week in Park City to discuss how it he made it all work.

After making the short “Prince/William,” what compelled you to turn it into a feature?

I like working with Shannon a lot. I think he’s a great presence. I’d been thinking of a story similar to this in some form over the course of my filmmaking trajectory and once “Prince/William” happened, I thought this could work really well as a feature. The Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective members, which I’m one of them, all got behind it and after the first screening of “Prince/William,” everybody was like, “Oh, I loved that,” so I said, why don’t we keep going? So we did.

The film has been described as part-documentary/part-drama — how did that blend work?

I should say I don’t refer to it as part-documentary, part-narrative. What I tried to do in the movie and the process of making the movie was to disregard that distinction altogether and set up the conditions that reality could spill into it, both emotionally and physically by people or things or the way we moved through space. People like to say hybrid, so that’s fine too. I don’t mind any of these categories. They’re just not the way that I think of it.

So how would reality spill into a scene?

If you’ve seen the film, there’s a scene in the backyard with [Shannon’s] friends [hanging out] and then the long monologue. The way we shot that scene was we had three cameras rolling the whole time doing 45-minute takes. It was a very directing-heavy situation because I would steer things, but they were really hanging out. The whole situation gets so natural and so comfortable that the monologue at the end, that guy just walks in because he saw the reality of it as real. Those guys didn’t know who he was, but I knew who he was because he lived in the house [whose backyard we were using]. Those kind of moments were really what the movie was designed to do, to open up the space for reality.

That’s why I think people want to use “a hybrid of documentary and narrative” when really it’s kind of a different animal. We weren’t standing around and watching things happen, hoping for magic. We were pushing things in a lot of directions to open up spaces for those things to happen.

Having three cinematographers seems a bit unusual. How did they help you capture that reality?

The opening sequence has two different cinematographers and then the rest of it, we had Alex Mallis, Lily Henderson and Begonia Colomar and there was almost always three cameras. All the interviews were done [as part of Shannon’s job as a claims adjuster] with three cameras. We ended up using just the shot and the reverse shot, but the reason I wanted to do that is although we repeated certain lines that I really needed to have them say, I really wanted the kind of natural ebb and flow and cadence of conversation in a real spoken way. Not smart script language, which I love too, but I wanted to hear how people circle around and kind of repeat themselves and almost have verbal tics or stutters, which sounds really beautiful and interesting when you notice linguistic nuance.

The impression I got from the press notes was that you based this partially on Shannon’s real life, so if his life was changed since making the short, did your feature actually evolve as a result?

The story for the feature was made from a variety of different sources and the central ones obviously [were from] my ongoing conversations with Shannon.  There are a lot of themes that we were unwilling to touch upon because they didn’t seem appropriate for general consumption. Then there were other ones that came from other sources and a lot of times when we were shooting or when I was telling him the storyline, he would say to me, “Wow, this is weird. That’s exactly what I would do.” He always said, “Oh, you know me so well,” but it’s more that’s just what one does as a writer. You get a sense of things and you kind of walk them through. For example, the central plot point of him not telling anyone of his condition, when I told him that, that was the one that most freaked him out because he said, “Yeah, I would never tell anyone if that happened to me.” Because he wouldn’t want to be a bother.

Something that was subtle, but nonetheless fascinating was how the film moved from an urban environment where Shannon worked into nature as represented by the woods of the titular Pine Hill. Why was that journey important to you?

I’m glad that’s one of the things you felt most curious about because that’s, to me, a very central theme of the movie. One of the big underlying themes of the movie for me was how one is defined by external conditions, social conditions, personal history, stuff like that. Even against your will, you end up being defined by that and part of the process of [Shannon] going back to his former life with his mother, with his dealer friends, paying back those debts and the odyssey-like journey, the path to the woods is like a shedding of that history. So “Welcome to Pine Hill,” even though it’s a town, it was also meant to be an allegorical place that he sets up in his mind.

You’re also a painter, so how do you feel those mediums overlap or what did you think you could accomplish in film that you couldn’t on canvas?

I think everyone is secretly wanting to make a movie, whether or not they really do because of the implications of so many moving parts. My paintings got more and more narrative compositionally and character-wise and I’m a curator and a professor, so I was also orchestrating students and shows and I was always writing things, so it was a very fluid transition into that. Most people who make movies will say that it’s a very visual medium – obviously the sound is such a big part too,  [but] the visual storytelling part is often the way that I start movies in my head. This one particularly started with a number of scenes, like one was a scene of [Shannon] walking through the office [where he works as a claims adjuster] in the morning because the idea, based on real life, is that he started as a security guard but then they realized, “Oh, you’re actually good, so why don’t you slowly move up,” but you still have some of the traces of responsibilities from there.

What’s interesting about your use of the camera, however, is how you often wander off the characters to catch something else in the frame, which must’ve been liberating when you’re used to painting moments frozen in time and space.

I worked very closely with the three [directors of photography] and said specifically that. Let’s find the emotional center of the interactions, whether it’s the eyes, nose, mouth or the hands or a piece of garbage on the side nearby them. They’re documentary, handheld shooters in general –they’re all three directors [in their own right] — and I came to really trust that they could find those emotional moments. I totally know why they’re pointing at the guy’s hands when he’s got a cup in his hand. The cup seems to tell so much about who that guy really is, giving the monologue [in the backyard].

You may not know yet, but what are your post-Slamdance plans for the film?

Like you say, I don’t know yet. We’re trying to decide what’s the best way to get the most people to see this movie. This was not made as a monetary investment. It was all made with just love and sweat. My goal is to have as many people see it and respond to it and then move onto the next movie.

“Welcome to Pine Hill” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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