SXSW ’14 Interview: Jon Matthews on the Wild Ride of “Surviving Cliffside”

The West Virginia lawyer-turned-filmmaker talks about taking a break from the law to follow his rule-breaking relatives....Read More
Brandy Smith, EJ Huffman, Makala and Josey in Jon Matthews' "Surviving Cliffside"

One of the most calm and casual moments in “Surviving Cliffside” was one of the most nervewracking for Jon Matthews. The first-time filmmaker found himself hiding out in the backseat of his car, parked in the lot of a Target in Alum Creek, West Virginia, his hands shaking so much that he placed the camera on a box to make sure he captured his cousin EJ strolling out of the store nonchalantly with a shopping cart full of items his fiancĂ© Brandy and his daughters Makala and Josey couldn’t go without when finances ran low.

“I still get nervous when I watch that scene,” says Matthews, who was lured back to his native Appalachia after deciding a change of careers was in order after serving as the legal director of the ACLU in Connecticut and followed his passion to become a filmmaker.

It’s fitting that Matthews found himself at a Target. After all, that was where he first bought a camera to make the short film that earned him a full scholarship to NYU and eventually a position as a student assistant to Spike Lee at the University. But when filmmaking led him back to his hometown in West Virginia, it was a different place than the one he grew up in, ravaged by poverty and drug use that has picked up since the city’s main employer, a chemical manufacturer named Carbide, laid off most of their employees. For EJ and Brandy, that has meant placing their hope in Makala as she makes a run for Little Miss West Virginia, with the job of applying stars and sequins to the backside of her dress a far cry from the regular hospital visits they endured when she was severely afflicted with leukemia. Now that she’s in remission, the family’s social security payments have been cut in half, placing her in the unlikely position of being the family’s breadwinner in good times and bad.

Matthews makes sure to capture both in “Surviving Cliffside,” which at just an hour long is only a glimpse into the lives of EJ, Brandy and their two young daughters, yet runs the gamut from depicting the dire straits of a community that’s all but forgotten about and the stoicism that emerges from such circumstances where the hardships only strengthen the bond between those who live there. There’s also a rawness to the film, that’s both appropriate to the story Matthews is telling and may have taken root in the filmmaker’s unusual background in which not only his interest in making movies only came after achieving success in another field, but due to a religious upbringing, he only began to see films once he left for college. Shortly after SXSW ended, Matthews was kind enough to converse by e-mail about the nerve-jangling experience of seeing his first film, which happened to be “Pulp Fiction” and how it led to his own compulsion to become a filmmaker, the influence of “Sherman’s March” documentarian Ross McElwee and the responsibility of making a film his family and audiences could enjoy and understand together.

It was interesting to read “Pulp Fiction” was the first film that really changed your perspective on filmmaking and that you had a previous career in law, which all added to my intrigue about why your pursued a documentary as your first film. What was it about this that you decided to make your first project?

Yeah, “Pulp Fiction” is what started it all. It’s what made me realize what a filmmaker was. It’s what really sparked my interest in becoming a director. But I am also a huge civil rights activist. And that is a big part of who I am. So, I decided to go to law school, instead. And I practiced civil rights law for seven years. I’m actually glad I didn’t go to film school at an early age. I think I didn’t have enough life experience. And I would’ve made terrible movies.

“Surviving Cliffside” started as a short doc project for NYU’s grad film program. And later became my thesis film. Documentary isn’t my first love. But I just found the subject matter so compelling. I had to do it. The subjects in this film are, of course, my cousin and his family. The more I learned about their struggles, the more I wanted to make a film about them. They are survivors in every sense of the word. And that drive to survive is fueled by love. That’s what I think is so compelling.

Since the film is called “Surviving Cliffside,” being from the region yourself, did you feel as if you survived it and was living this parallel experience to those who stayed?

Well, it’s funny. Spike Lee asked me the same thing, when he saw the footage. He wanted to know why I was able to get out, when my family stayed. I don’t think I am any better than my cousin’s family. I’ve just had better luck. EJ has suffered a lot of tragedy in his life. And I think, given all he’s been through, he’s doing the very best that he can.

I’ve heard you say you got the impression that these people want their stories to be told – obviously, you have a personal relationship to the central family, but do you feel that desire to share gave you access in a way that you might not otherwise have?

I think it really did. My desire to share these stories really aided my access. EJ and Brandy would always say, “I can’t believe you find us so interesting.” I think this really made them open up to me. It’s like when you have a visitor in your hometown and you’re playing tour guide and showing them all your favorite spots and telling them stories about what happened there. EJ felt like that. And my interest made him want to show me more.

Was it an interesting idea to have this idea of a beauty competition parallel this obviously ugly situation? Many people talk about how beautiful the hills are while there’s all this desperation.

That’s why I think West Virginia is so interesting. The beautiful is mixed up with the grotesque. You’ll be on a gorgeous hike and see a rusted washing machine in the woods. Some are ashamed of that. But I think it’s sublime. It inspires me. Perfection doesn’t inspire me. I don’t want perfect characters or a perfect place. I want authenticity and complexity. I’ll take a complex West Virginia over a perfect Main Street USA, any day.

There’s dispassionate narration in the film that reminded me of Ross McElwee. Was he actually an influence and even if not, how you decided to include yourself in the film in that way?

I’m so flattered by this question, you don’t even know! Ross McElwee was a HUGE influence. I watched “Sherman’s March” over and over again, when I was cutting “Cliffside.” His style was a huge part of my vision for the film. I wish I could say I had this vision all along. But I hadn’t intended on making myself a character in that way. I originally wanted it to be a more objective doc. But the “Cliffside” folks kept talking to me, when I was behind the camera. And if I would’ve left those scenes out, the movie would have suffered. So, the Ross McElwee style became a necessity.

You may not have anything to compare it against, but did you find the lack of moviegoing in your youth or the fact that you came into making movies later in life create a different approach in making a film?

The lack of moviegoing made me hungrier, for sure. When I first started watching movies, I devoured them. I would go to the library and borrow stacks of DVDs. I watched all of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies.” And then read to reviews to see if my opinions were “correct.” It was a great precursor to film school.

As far as my legal background goes, I think it really helped me understand people. In litigation, you really get to know a person. Your clients and your opponents. For example, in a deposition, you get to ask whatever you want. And they HAVE to answer. You see sides of people that their spouses don’t even see. This really prepared me for writing characters and “casting” them for my docs.

What was the SXSW experience like for you?

It was like a dream come true. “Cliffside” was my very first film. And SXSW was my very first festival. I had no idea what to expect. I was afraid folks would laugh at my family or think the movie was like “Buck Wild” or something. But they really understood it. I think my love for my family came through in the tone of the film. My whole goal as an artist is to make people feel. And it was so rewarding when people told me how much they were moved by my film. I feel like my hard work paid off.

“Surviving Cliffside” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play at the Indie Grits Film Festival in Columbia, South Carolina on April 18th.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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