Elaine McMillion Sheldon on Reaching Higher Plains in “King Coal”

Elaine McMillion Sheldon has made a career of making documentaries out of her home in Appalachia, stories that inevitably touch on the despair of a region locked into a vicious cycle of poverty and drug abuse for generations when economic opportunity has been limited to the dwindling business of coal mining, but radiate the pride of a community that looks out for one another when they know no one else will. A devotion to tell these hard truths has curiously prevented the filmmaker from pursuing a film about one of the central realities in the mountains, the mythmaking that has thrived as both an artform and a survival mechanism when families can bond over ancestral stories to carry them through hard times when they believe their forebears might’ve had it harder.

The truth shines through “King Coal,” which illuminates both the beauty and danger of all the stories that have emerged from coal country, challenging long-held claims that there may be no alternative than to stick with fossil fuel production when it has provided a living wage for decades by tapping into the imagination that gave rise to that myth among others. While the fresh perspective is inherent to every aspect McMillion Sheldon’s bewitching approach to capturing the soul of Appalachia, it is quite literally embodied by a young girl (Lanie Marsh) who wanders through the woods and the rivers, enchanted by its natural beauty and increasingly made aware of the area’s tortured history where an honest living has come by way of a big lie. Upward mobility has been hard to come by and those that work in the mines have a habit of getting black lung among other workplace hazards, but nonetheless the mineral is celebrated in pageants, schools and museums by the people who are really deserving of the props.

While there’s wonder abound, there isn’t any question of how a community could fall under the spell of a prevailing narrative in the region when “King Coal” brings out its charms so readily that you wouldn’t think to question it, but McMillion Sheldon is equally adept at raising doubts as stories that might speak to resilience can start to sound like cautionary tales that no one should have to endure and when a funeral processions serve as the backbone to the film, the director elegantly puts to the rest some narratives that have had their place in time while inspiring new ones to flourish. Following its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, Sheldon is taking “King Coal” out on the road on a journey to rival the one in the film, sharing the magic and mystery of the place she knows so well with the world on a theatrical tour that starts this week at the Firehouse DCTV in New York and will continue on across the country in the months ahead and recently, she kindly spoke about how the film came to be, working with some elements more traditionally associated with dramatic work in a nonfiction film and allowing for a more transcendent truth to emerge.

From what I understand, this looks a whole lot different than what it started out as. What was the initial spark?

Well, it is very different from where it began, but where it began was truly just documenting coal culture. Having having grown up in the region, I was really aware that there were a lot of these coal cultural things like pageants and 5K [marathons], so the first inclination is we should document these because they’re fading and it’s interesting that they happen. Then the whole idea of the things that we do around [coal] became their own myths, so we started thinking about myths and that just expanded to [the idea] if we’re going to tell a new story about the region, given that people have pretty set preconceived notions about coal and Appalachia, how can we tell that in a new way? So it was about allowing the forms and choreography and sound — all that stuff — serve to tell a new story in a new way.

Do you actually know what form one of your projects will take when you start out? I know “Hollow” became interactive and you probably have had some decisions to make when certain shorts could grow into features.

This one felt like I was just holding on for the ride. The version that you know as “King Coal,” that’s a feature-length documentary and I’m happy it exists because there were so many versions of this film. And I’m sure this is true for many documentary films, but in terms of its mood and tone and style and what it could have said and what direction it could have gone, it just felt overwhelmingly endless when we were making it because my previous work is strictly observational and verite. I don’t stage things, I don’t tell people to do things, and I really broke all my own rules in making this film, with casting two young girls to be at the center to be these dancers in the film — and their stories are real, they’re not scripted in any way, but the situations are ones that they’re put in.

I did that because it was in response to the stories that I was seeing reflected on the ground, and I just knew the film I wanted to make couldn’t be told with sit-down interviews or with facts and figures. It was more about the psyche and soul of the people, and how do you get closer to that. So I was seeking this lesser seen, more internal truth, and it totally broke open the way I make films. This film required me to do a lot of challenging things and I credit my team to really helping me do that and I have no clue what’s next, but there’s a lot of things that didn’t make it in to the film that I’m working on for an exhibition version, so it’s just exciting. It’s exciting to be able to find a story and then find the best way to tell that story, which is what we did with “Hollow” too. Spend an entire summer there, follow the lead of the community and come out with something that feels original to what they want to say.

Was the idea of having this story told from the perspective of a young person foundational or did that come with the process?

It came with the process. COVID had a pretty big impact on this film because we filmed these coal culture scenes and then COVID hit and I was spending time with [the footage we had] and really reflecting on what is the role of kids in this story. So many of these culture things are targeted to kids and [I wanted to] let [the audience] know early on who they are and where they come from, even if it’s not their story and one of the first scenes we filmed was kids in a classroom or a science fair, telling stories about coal. That felt really interesting and a new way into the story to me and the documentary footage itself led me to start thinking about what role kids could have in this very hyper-politicized topic of coal and how they could bring us in through humor and irony and movement? Two girls that are in the film, Lanie and Gabby, are also both 12 and 13 years old and thinking about their future in a region that has an uncertain future, so it all felt much more meaningful and textural to see it through the kids’ eyes.

I was also watching a lot of films where kids and teens were at the center of things, and that coming-of-age uncertainty was a part of it. I started thinking about those films and I really decided that dance would be a part of this — not necessarily acting. We didn’t go look for actors. We looked for real kids that live in West Virginia, but have movement expression and able gracefully move and ignore the camera.

I was fascinated to hear Lanie and Gabby both came from a ballet school. Was there anything that actually about them specifically that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Yeah, it changed everything. I mean, they made the film. We went to the dance studios. My co-producer Molly Born first went, and then we did Zoom interviews with about eight or nine girls. And then they all wrote something about their lives, and we wanted kids that had a relationship to coal in some way. Lanie’s relationship was very clear. She comes from generations of miners and Gabby’s was less clear, but the reason we loved Gabby was she is a completely different personality than Lanie. Lanie’s very quiet and pretty reserved, but she has an incredible presence — and she’s also got very pale red hair. And Gabby has a very bubbly personality and brings out a more talkative side of Lanie. What was incredible about Gabby was on our second shoot day, I met her grandma and her grandma said that she grew up in a coal camp, and I [asked], does Gabby know that her grandpa was a coal miner? And she [told me], “No, we’ve not talked about it,” and that just blew my mind because then Gabby was already this really meaningful character that we were following, but then she had this incredible family history that she wasn’t even aware of.

All these things were like unknown when we cast them. We were just hoping that their chemistry would work, so in that way, it felt very nonfiction and none of the scenes with them are scripted in the sense that anything they say is what they chose to say in that moment. The homework scene [for instance], that’s very similar to our homework assignment that kids are given in the coalfields and we just gave it to them and had them make the project. The coal memorial scene is something that happens every year. We just had them go and saw how they reacted. And we had them make friendship bracelets and they started talking about what they want to do when they grow up. These are not things that we knew were going to happen. The situation was one that we were [always thinking], “Let’s get this moment.”

It is both literally and figuratively a sensational film and the sound design in particular is extraordinary, especially the idea of breathing that underlines the film. How did that get in the mix?

I knew I wanted sound to be important because like I said, I’m already breaking all my rules with what’s truth, what’s honest, what’s real scene and what’s felt and I knew that I wanted this to be an experiential film because being in this place, it’s not just something you see, it’s something you hear and feel. I wanted to transport people and the sound is also part of igniting. It’s more hopeful, right? It’s alive. The world of “King Coal,” when you think of this film before you see it, you might think of a very different film when you hear the title. But this is a film that is full of hope and aliveness. It’s not one of just death. And we had an incredible sound team led by Alexandra Fehrman, who was on “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and Billy Wirasnik, who I’ve worked with since my “Hollow” days. He has an incredible Appalachian Sound Library because we’ve been working together for 10 years, so in terms of rushing waters and birds, he was making sure everything was as rich and lush as we could have it.

Then I just went to Big Ears, a music festival in the town where I live in Knoxville, and I heard Shodekeh Taliaferro performing and he did this insane breath art. I didn’t know breath art was a thing, but I went right up to him afterwards and I was like, “I need you to be the voice of King Coal.” I didn’t even know what that meant, but [I told him] “I have to have you in this, what I just heard in my film.” The forests in the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains are referred to as the “lungs of the East coast,” and I’ve heard that if we didn’t have these very green, rural, lush places that the East coast would be swallowed up with its pollution, so I loved that metaphor of breath and lungs and life in a place that you hear more about black lung disease or health problems than you do hear about life. So we brought Shodekeh out to the forest and he created a sound library for us. He makes the sounds of crickets and oceans and thunders.

You alluded to this earlier, but I’ve heard you talk about the funeral march as being something where the artifice you set up – the march itself – brought out these real reactions from the participants, and when you’ve been this verite filmmaker, what was it like considering how you could capture a reality?

I think it just expanded my whole idea of purpose of cinema. I previously thought of films as having an impact once they were finished and packaged and out in the world. What this taught me is that the actual making of the film can have an incredible impact on the community that you’re working with. That [funeral march] scene is one of those. I decided I wanted to hold a funeral for King Coal that came from a very long thinking process of how do we grieve, how do we mourn, what’s the next step? I didn’t want to provide false solutions in the film about replacement economies or energy. That’s just not the film I was making. So what’s the thing where we put our foot forward and moving forward together.

That’s my own grandpa in the film. He’s a real gravedigger in real life, and when I was thinking about the burial rituals, how you take something from the very far past tradition and actually bring it into the future? We contacted about 80 people and got on Zoom with them and told them this idea. No one had seen the film and about 90% of the people we talked to just got it [immediately] and they were like, “We need to do this. Thanks for actually thinking of this. It seems crazy, but it makes total sense.” And all they were directed to do was to show up at a certain time on top of this mountain and wear black. You might have recognized Jan Rader — she’s from my short film “Heroin(e)” – we got her to be a pallbearer. And anything that the people said, they said from their own hearts. They wrote it. Some of them would write poetry and send it to us beforehand so we would know what some of them were saying, but a lot of people we hadn’t even met until that day.

Heather Hannah, the woman that gives the final speech at the end, I had no clue what she was going to say — and she wrote her speech 15 minutes before we walked up the hill, and it’s this incredible speech that finishes the film saying things like, “We’re in an extraction state. First it was the trees, the coal, the gas. Now they’ve come to mine the memories, something to keep the fires going.” And this whole film’s about memory and how it’s so important to decide what memories are the ones that we’re going to hold up. She just wrote the end of the film, and that’s why she became a contributing writer. But I had not met her before that day.

And what was incredible is, yes, the scene was set up. Yes, we had costumes. Yes, we had a casket built. I did have a ballad written specifically for that day, which is sung by Lady D, one of West Virginia’s most famous singers and also a coal miner’s daughter, so the community practiced the call and response before we went up the hill. But once that drum hit and they started walking up the hill, we did not stop them. It was a two-hour long take with three cameras where we were just capturing real emotion and it was truly incredible. We were hanging on to the edge of our seats as things were happening and when Heather started speaking — and her speech is much longer than it’s in the film — I was crying because I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It just taught me a lot about what cinema can do in a moment, not just later on in the edit, but how it in some ways it is an event that can bring people together to actually feel a sense of grief release and mourning. That’s very important.

“King Coal” opens on August 11th in New York at Firehouse DCTV and will open across the country in the weeks ahead including the Laemmle Glendale in Los Angeles on August 25th, the Floralee Hark Cohen Cinema in Charleston, West Virginia on August 31st, the Zoetropolis in Lancaster, PA on September 1st and the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio on September 8th. A full list of screenings can be found here.

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