Sean Dunne has reaped the benefits of going to the places in America that are often overlooked. If he hadn’t wandered into the archives of record collector Paul Mawhinney in Pittsburgh while on assignment for the History Channel, he wouldn’t have an Emmy nomination for the resulting short and yet ironically would likely be on the career track of a television producer rather than a documentary filmmaker. Then if he hadn’t ventured to the Insane Klown Posse’s notorious Gathering of the Juggalos for his follow-up, he might not have been able to strike up a conversation with a stranger in Oceana, West Virginia that would ultimately lead to what has become his feature debut.
“We were going to spend the night there and the first person we met happened to be a juggalo,” Dunne recalls about meeting a man named Jason, who appears in the resulting film “Oxyana.” “He had been to the Gathering and within 15 minutes, he was like, here’s what really goes on here and he told us the ins and outs of the place.”
What really goes on in Oceana isn’t too difficult to discern since its residents will plainly tell you that the only two ways to make money there are coal mining and the selling of prescription drugs such as Xanax and Oxycontin. However, the magnitude of the problem and the difficulty for the community in breaking the cycle is considerably more difficult to convey, which makes how eloquently Dunne does so with “Oxyana” a way for people to take notice of a place that so many would rather look away from.
Full of dentists who wear Motorhead t-shirts to work and ATV aficianados, the citizenry finds itself on the edge of civilization and sadly at the end of the economic spectrum, couched in the verdant beauty of West Virginia’s rolling hills, but with little else to look at or look forward to. “Oxyana” allows for the community to speak for themselves, their stories unbelievably tragic and inextricably tied together.
Shortly before the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Dunn spoke about the emotional challenge of capturing Oceana, finding the inherent beauty there and how he first got into filmmaking.
How did this come about?
It was something that was put onto my radar by my friend Colby, who actually ended up becoming my executive producer on the film. He asked me, probably a year and a half ago, “Have you ever heard about the Oxycontin Highway and Pillville?” It was a world that I vaguely knew existed, but I didn’t know the ins and outs of it and that sounded like something that I would one day document. We got that in the back of our heads and one day we just happened to be traveling with a friend, Johnny Fritz, the country musician, going from Virginia to Nashville and we came across this town of Oceana, which had been nicknamed “Oxyana.” With a few minutes of being there, we met some people and as their stories started to unfold, a really dark portrait started to emerge. Shortly after, we decided to go back there and make a film.
Is it hard to come into these things without judging these people? Between this and “American Juggalo,” that seems to be a particular gift of yours.
Each situation’s different. This one I’m particularly sympathetic to the issue. My dad struggled with prescription pill addiction for a nice chunk of my teens and early twenties and it was really horrific to watch what it could do to a person and what it did to our family and friends. It doesn’t really discriminate and I learned that from seeing my father go from a really functioning part of society – baseball coach, great job, everything – to being reduced to next to nothing. Going into this, I was drawing on some experiences and just remembered that they are people, they’re just like me, they just happen to be in a shitty situation.
And you really focus on the people. There are a couple people you’d call authorities at certain points, I’m thinking of the county prosecutor and the dentist – but mostly it’s simply folks who have dealt with oxycontin addiction firsthand or through a loved one. Why did you feel that was the best way to go?
When we went into the film, my main note to everybody was we’re not going to interview any experts. It’s going to be from the voices of the people that are living there and going through it. If they can speak articulately about it and come off as experts, great, but I’m not going to speak to the state senator. It just wasn’t the type of film I was making. A lot of documentaries fall into that trap of having a great subject matter, but they don’t let them have their voice and the way they don’t let them have their voice is by having other voices drown them out with their analysis of it. I didn’t want any of that. If they wanted to analyze their hometown or Mike the dentist wanting to pontificate about how this problem started as an insider, I was going to include that, but I wasn’t about to do any hired hands or “expert testimony.”
One of the conflicts that arises with a film like this is that it’s literally beautiful to watch and yet it’s about such an ugly subject matter. Was that a challenge to negotiate?
It was something I experienced going into the “Juggalo” film actually. I knew the subject matter and what we’re actually looking at on camera was going to be raw and dirty and I wanted to cut through and show the beauty beneath that. That’s why we shot [“American Juggalo”] anamorphic and really drew attention to the cinematic quality of the Gathering of the Juggalos. That worked so well in really bringing out some beautiful honesty in the subject matter that when we set out to make this film, it was a no-brainer to approach this the same way, really embracing the natural beauty [of the area]. That way when you’re hearing our subject talking about these [tragic] details, that makes it all that much more heartbreaking and immediate — look at this place that these people are in, look how beautiful the scenery is and look at how this shroud of darkness has come over it. Mike the dentist even says it in the film, it’s even affected the natural beauty of this place. That was something that we really wanted to bring to the forefront.
It’s also brought out by the score, which was created by your friend Johnny Fritz, who originally traveled down to Oceana with you. Since he was there from the start, was the music too?
Totally. I had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted the music in this film to be before we even went down there in the first place and Johnny’s music was influential. He was really there at the beginning part of this process, so I really wanted his take on this whole thing and to kind of counterbalance that we reached out to John McCauley of the band Deertick, who I’m a huge fan of and he’s a friend of Johnny’s as well, so we all got together for a week in Nashville and got the two different ends of the spectrum. John brings a really raw, emotional, gritty type of beautiful ugliness to it and Johnny’s music was the opposite end of the spectrum, more folksy, almost more what you would expect to hear, but in a more haunting way.
I read an interview you did about a week after you started shooting where you said the conditions in Oceana were much worse than you thought it would be – was it difficult to keep your spirits up and not lose sight of the film you were making?
It was more the former. It was actually really tough to keep your spirits up. I didn’t ever kind of lose focus of the goal and what we were down there to do, but because I never lost focus on that, I feel like that’s what fucked with all of our sanity. Talking to these people off-camera and spending our whole time down there with them off camera you get really emotionally swept up in it. That’s what makes it so emotional when you leave there, knowing that their lives are just going to continue to be that unless something really drastic changes. It wore on all of our psyches in a really profound way. I thought I was just going to go down there, keep my head down, make the film whenever we were shooting and then kind of get my mind off the subject. This is the kind of thing that sticks with you and it stuck with me all through the post and still does until now. It’s just now that I feel like I’m getting the burden of that area off my shoulders now that there’s a complete product that kind of speaks for it.
How did you get interested in film in the first place?
I never really gave myself another option. I was 15 or 16 when I just decided I’m going to be a director and I gravitated more towards documentaries just because I liked the films that depicted something real, something I could relate with. I wasn’t seeing that a lot in narrative films and I love narrative films. I didn’t go to proper film school. I just watched a whole bunch of documentaries and I fell in love with the medium and when I finally had the chance when I was like 25, 26 years old to go and make one of my own short documentaries, I took the opportunity and I never wanted to do anything else since, so I want to just keep trying to keep getting better at it and challenge myself. Whether this film succeeds or not, I feel like this is the only thing I’ve ever been good at, so I’m just going to keep doing it and keep talking to people and keep getting great stories, hopefully.