Not many people have ever been to Uncertain, a border town in Texas with a population of just 94.
“You’ve either got to know where you’re going or get lost to find it,” says a sheriff early on in Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands’ stirring feature debut.
The filmmaking duo didn’t know exactly what they were looking for when they stumbled upon the place, a burgh that draws what life it has from its proximity to Caddo Lake, which for generations has offered catfish to feast on and an attraction for tourists who take in the natural beauty of the tributary, a haven for fireflies ensconced by exotic shrubbery. (It’s unique situation between Texas and Louisiana has also made it a hiding place for criminals between state lines.) However, when McNicol and Sandilands arrive, the lake is being suffocated by salvinia, the floating fern that depletes oxygen from the fish, putting the entire ecosystem, including that above land into jeopardy.
Still, “Uncertain” finds a lively trio of characters to follow, each perhaps undaunted by the potential devastation to the lake because they’ve been to hell and back already. There’s Henry, the river guide whose wife has died after 53 years of marriage and has settled into a quiet life after a violent past. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Zach, a young man who suffers from diabetes, but experienced far worse in the care of a demented mother and itches to leave town. And finally the filmmakers leave room for Wayne, a former addict who reconnects with his Native American roots after being in and out of prison for much of his son’s life, now spending his days on the hunt for an elusive wild boar he’s nicknamed Mr. Ed.
McNicol and Sandilands resist sentimentality in relaying these stories, yet they summon the richness within them, with no small amount of help from “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” composer Daniel Hart and McNicol’s stunning cinematography, making a film that doesn’t ignore the past yet feels immediate as their three central characters keep plugging ahead in spite of great personal struggle. Although it took a while for the Seattle-based directing duo to find their footing for “Uncertain,” it seems like fate that the two happened upon it since their partnership was born out of similar serendipity when the British-born McNicol’s father, a photographer, was assigned to work with Sandilands, then working primarily for ad agencies, and McNicol came along as an assistant. Since then, the two have fused together commercial work with loftier filmmaking ambitions through their company Lucid and without the stability of that particular combination, they might not have been able to have to patience or the freedom to make “Uncertain” the sumptuous, enveloping experience that it is.
Shortly after the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival en route to Hot Docs in Toronto, McNicol and Sandilands spoke about venturing into unknown territory with “Uncertain,” earning the trust of the community over an 18-month shoot and the film’s surprising sense of humor.
How did you get to Uncertain, Texas?
Anna Sandilands: We were in Lafayette, Louisiana for a few days, making a short documentary called “The Roper” about a calf roper. We actually thought that it might be a feature-length film. Then we saw on the map that over the border in Texas there was this town called Uncertain. It was about four hours away and we thought, well, this is amazing. How does a town get a name like Uncertain? We did a little research and saw that there didn’t seem to be any clear answers. No one was certain how it got its name, so we thought we could make a short film about how a town gets a name like that.
We just carved out a couple of days and drove over there. The first day we were there, we were struck by this extraordinary lake and we spoke to some folks at Johnson’s Ranch [a lakeside property] and they said, “We love [for you to] see it.You’ve got to go with Henry, he’s the best fisherman out there.” We met Henry and it was that gray, misty morning – the first shots you see of him that was the first day that we were there. He just seemed so extraordinary to us, kind of otherworldly. He looks like Charon, the ferryman that takes you from purgatory. We were just so incredibly taken by him and felt like we had slipped back in time.
We went on a boat ride with him, then the next day we met Wayne, the hog hunter. We went out into the woods with him and asked why does he shoot with these powder rifles? We thought maybe it was good sportsmanship. He said, “Well, I can either tell you what I tell everybody else or I can tell you the truth.” He told us there and then that he was a convicted felon. We had a moment of panic because we’re out in the woods with this guy with a very big knife.
Ewan McNicol: Yeah, I don’t think I would do very well against Wayne with his knife and his pistol. It was only a split second. [laughs] But that day he told us why he used his weapons and he was in tears. From the first time we met them, we realized both Henry and Wayne were just so open and there was just something about the community, a sort of gracefulness but also this openness. They weren’t holding anything back. We realized that between these two characters there was something much greater than a short film about how a town gets a name.
Anna Sandilands: Yeah, besides the lake, just the activity that we saw at Johnson’s Ranch in our first few hours of being there, everybody is so good to one another. It’s a town of 94, so they all know each other very, very well. The other thing we were struck by was how they are all much more reliant on the land and much more appreciative of the land. The sense of community and being so tied to nature are things that so many of us have lost, or at least we felt we have, so to spend time with people that still had these beliefs and these strong connections was really fortunate and really enchanting for us.
You also spend a lot of time with Zach, a younger man dealing with his own issues. How this group of three focal points encompass what you wanted to show for this community as a whole?
Ewan McNicol: There were these three generations of men and Zach was the younger guy who is, in some ways, just about to or going to repeat what Wayne and Henry have done, so having those three generations was really important. And as Zach says, there aren’t that many women in town – there was a period of time we were filming a younger girl that who is a daughter of the shopkeeper, but the story wasn’t really developing. Then we realized that these characters had a connection. They’re all fighting their demons or looking to better themselves and find forgiveness and it pulled those three people together. With the lake story that came into the weave, that just seemed to tie everything together.
Anna Sandilands: We always knew it would be those three, we just didn’t know if there would be somebody else accompanying those three. I think we knew because besides their fantastic personalities – they are so candid and funny and incredibly bright – their almost immediate willingness to open up was really so startling that we knew there was something there to follow.
Ewan McNicol: We’re complete outsiders and then me, with an English accent, they’re wondering, what the hell are you doing? There were a couple of people that weren’t sure of us, but when we kept coming back and they realized we are invested in them, at that point, I think they felt like they could trust us. Wayne hadn’t revealed these stories from his past to anyone else apart from his recovery group, so we had to build that trust over time.
And you’ve said you didn’t really know how this would all add up a year into filming…
Anna Sandilands: That’s right.
Was there a moment where everything snapped into focus?
Anna Sandilands: When the Salvinia started really [developing in the lake]. We knew it was there when we first got there, but it was tiny and that was a moment finally where it tied their stories [together] and we really started to feel this sense of limbo for the lake and for each of the three of them. As we were thinking about their themes of redemption and forgiveness, we started to think about the lake’s ability to be redeemed and could nature redeem man’s mistakes? That was the first moment where it started to really feel like it was clicking.
Ewan McNicol: It was definitely a point during filming where we thought, “What the fuck are we doing?” Because we were a year in and we’ve got great characters. Mr. Ed [the boar Wayne covets as a prize to mount on his wall] appears, so we knew with Wayne’s return to his Native American roots, this was definitely a very strong story thread. We were just relying on the hunt and the [other] characters that will lead you to on a real good story and the story came out.
You also capture the environment so well, particularly the shots that use the tributaries to drift along and take in the town. Were there specific aesthetic choices made right from the start or did they develop over time?
Anna Sandilands: We knew we wanted the lake to be a character right away because it is just so glorious and because the town is so tied to it. We carved time out to film it like you would another character and we wanted to see it over the seasons and mornings and nights and that it would often play the role of reflecting the men’s stories and touchstones throughout the edit. We spend a lot of time recording the sounds of the lake as well too because it’s not just how it looks but how it sounds, which is just so enveloping. We earned a lot of mosquito bites doing that.
Ewan McNicol: Also, there’s a lot of mystery and mythology around the lake. All the locals are telling you these stories of people getting lost and never returning.
Anna Sandilands: The lake knows it all.
Ewan McNicol: The lake knows everything. There was this sense of a myth behind it. We decided we wanted to capture it in a grand way, almost otherworldly. When you go out on the boats, we would just have them cut the engine to get the sound and it would just drift for ages. It’s so calm. At that point, you see that’s how we should capture it, so that came about quite naturally.
Anna Sandilands: Yeah, it was an instinct to film the lake the way that we did to make sure that it felt very cinematic, but that instinct served us well later on to lift all three of their stories to feel like something larger than their individual parts.
Did you spend a lot of time in the county’s hall of records as well? Even though there are only a few documents you linger on, it seems like an incredible amount of research went into this.
Anna Sandilands: We visited many halls of records.
Ewan McNicol: Yes, quite hard to get hold of them actually, especially the mugshots of Henry because they were from 1970…
Anna Sandilands: And people in town still know the story, but [some] were misremembering, so we spent a lot of time with the folks in Marshall, where the courthouse is, and where they took him after he was arrested. Then with Wayne, he had a fairly illustrious arrest record career, so it was a matter of dotting around to all the places he had been to see what could we get. So much of that stuff is not digitized. We had to fly a scanner in with us and went to the Shreveport Police Department and sat with a couple of detectives all day drinking coffee.
Ewan McNicol: They loved it because they were talking about their favorite movies…
Anna Sandilands: And we scanned images.
Ewan McNicol: We asked Wayne, “would you be willing for us to delve into this?” Some of it is public record, but some of it we needed him to actually write a letter for approval for it.
Anna Sandilands: Another act of bravery on his part.
Ewan McNicol: Visually, there’s so many different layers in the film. There’s that the game camera footage that captures the nature. There’s the infrared camera with that green footage [at night of the hunt]. Then you’ve got the variety of observational staff which is more classically cinematic and [videos Zach would post of himself on] YouTube, and it felt like all these different layers and textures reflected these characters that were all very complex. One minute they’re making a joke, the next, it’s something really quite dark or disconcerting. So as soon as we realized that there were these stories from the past, we had to bring the past somehow into the present. We didn’t know if bringing a new aesthetic of the crime scene photographs would work because how do you pull that into observational style of film? But we seemed to weave it in in a way that felt natural.
You also just mentioned the humor, which I think is a little unexpected, perhaps even for you since you get these great little mise-en-scene things happening in the frame such as a bucket falling from the ceiling when Wayne is describing a possible encounter with a UFO. Did you know this could have that in it while you were shooting?
Anna Sandilands: Of course, the bucket we were conscious of it on the day.
Ewan McNicol: We didn’t laugh at the time, but actually Wayne watched it back and he was in hysterics when the bucket fell, so it was all right.
Anna Sandilands: He gets the joke, yes.
Ewan McNicol: When you spend so much time with these people, those accidents happen and with this kind of filmmaking where you take a-year-and-a-half with these people, it’s the beauty of real life, it’s so unexpected. They were also less self-conscious. Like half the time with Henry, he didn’t know we were filming even though we were saying, “We’re filming, Henry.” He was like, “Do whatever you want to do.” Being in the rural area like that, they’re just not concerned about how they act in front of a camera. When you film in a city like New York, they’re so knowledgeable of media that it affects the way they are in front of cameras.
Was it a different experience making a feature?
Anna Sandilands: Very much so, though in a lot of ways, the people and the town and their circumstances dictated the amount of time that we spent with them and when was the time to be finished filming. With Wayne, the hunt for Mr. Ed has its own natural arc, but Henry’s [story] not so much because these things happened in the past.
Ewan McNicol: Scientists have also built a weevil farm now on the lake, so that they’re trying to test how many weevils do they need to be able to find the salvinia or to eat the salvinia, so there was a continuation of the story, but then at the same time what we loved is [for a film called “Uncertain”] we wanted to leave you in limbo.
Anna Sanidlands: We were back a few weeks ago to share the film with them in Marshall, which is the town next door because they have a theater there. It was incredible and I kept saying to Ewan, I just I think we could do more. We could film more. They’re still making us laugh. They’re still doing incredible things.
What was the premiere like in New York?
Ewan McNicol: It was beautiful. It was really special because Henry, Wayne, and Zach were all there and Henry’s daughter told us that he had said that before he leaves this Earth, he had wanted to make it to New York, so it was a really poignant thing to have him here.
Anna Sandilands: They all tell such personal stories and they’re so brave to have decided to do that, so to have an audience full of people really embrace them after they’ve laid themselves there is an extraordinary experience. It was for us. Then for someone like Henry, who don’t think has quite forgiven himself for what happened, having that moment [with his daughter there] and being celebrated as a good man has maybe gotten him a few steps closer to forgiving himself.
“Uncertain” opens in New York at the Museum of Modern Art on March 10th.