Sundance 2022 Interview: James P. Gannon on Finding Himself at a Crossroads with “Deerwoods Deathtrap”

Being part of a big family, James P. Gannon hasn’t had to look far for amazing stories to tell, though having made a few now it’s allowed him to go deeper. With his brother Joseph, he found a sneaky way to ask what his parents Jack and Betty would do if they were in his shoes as they grow older and he has to consider what life might look like without them in “Three Envelopes” followed by “Betty Feeds the Animals” in which his big-hearted mother’s habit of placing dishes of food out for stray animals on her block, running the gamut from raccoons to wolves, sometimes to the chagrin of her neighbors. In the hands of others, these heartfelt shorts might could run the risk of being overly sentimental, but beyond the warmth of filming in endearing Super 8 film recalling home movies that Jack and Betty might’ve made themselves, a wry sense of humor has been clearly passed down from one generation to the next, allowing in Gannon to make memories last as long for audiences as they do for his own family.

“Deerwoods Deathtrap,” Gannon’s latest, recounts one of the more remarkable events in their history as Jack and Betty recall a drive they took 48 years ago that saw the former fly out the windshield of their car when it was stalled on some train tracks. With the couple arguing now over whether music was playing and what speed Betty was driving on the trip from their home in Pennsylvania to New Jersey, with two of James’ future siblings in tow, you may wonder if another collision will occur as the duo describes facing the threat of an oncoming train, but that quickly shifts to trying to imagine how they survived, even with Gannon going so far as to recreate scenes of the accident. Having good humor about it seems as good as explanation as any and the film charms as Jack and Betty turn a potential devastation into a delight. With the film premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this week where it will be available for anyone to watch online as part of the shorts program from January 20th-30th, the director spoke about why he no longer needs to coax his parents in front of the camera, giving such an inviting feeling to the film’s aesthetically and how getting into Sundance has made his place an absolute mess.

How did these movies about your parents start?

I had made a narrative film called “Cochran” that did well in some festivals in 2009 and coming off that, I was trying to figure out what to do next. I’m one of seven kids, second to last, so my whole life growing up, I was thinking like, “Oh, I don’t know how long I’m going to have my parents in my life.” I contemplated how they dealt with the deaths of their parents and just decided that I should make this movie [“Three Envelopes”], asking them these questions, but I felt if they heard my voice asking these questions, it could alter their reactions, so my brother and I came up with the idea of giving them these envelopes and not telling them what the movie was going to be about. Then they would just have to answer these questions while we were filming. We ended up going to the graveyards by happenstance — we filmed with my dad one day when he decided, “Hey, do you want to go visit my mother’s plot,” which we did and he didn’t know the film was going to be about death, so that was happenstance and then when I went to go film with my mom the next day, she had heard that he took us to his mother’s plot, so she wanted to do the same thing, still having no idea the questions she was going to be asked. It ended up having a very funny segment, but it was more of a personal movie that ended up coming out the way that it did. It didn’t really end up getting into any festivals at all, but had a little bit of a life online.

Originally with “Deerwoods,” I made “Betty [Feeds the Animals]” and my dad I think secretly wanted a movie about him as well, so I had thought about making a train movie because I had always heard that story growing up, so I decided that I thought that would be the thing to make with him because he was the one who always told me the story. I always saw those slides of him looking like beat up [after the crash], so when we went out to film that first time, I was just filming my dad and my mom happened to just come along for the ride, I wasn’t even going to put her in the movie. Then I was having difficulty directing my dad with him being long-winded, so I decided I’m going to have to torpedo these scenes. I’m just going to throw Betty in there and just see what happens. They started having that banter on screen and I realized that was actually the path I had to go.

Is there a particular attraction to Super 8?

Yeah, that first film “Cochran” was shot on Super 8 because that was the cheapest way to do it back then. There weren’t really good digital cameras that were shooting 24 frames and I didn’t have the money for 16, so I shot it on Super 8 and I fell in love with the aesthetic then, but self-financing these things I didn’t really have the money to continue that, so I shot digital because it was easier. But I always found myself adding grain to the digital ones, wanting it to be film so then when it came time to film “Betty,” I committed to the Super 8 again and when I got all that footage back, I fell in love with it all over again. I decided to do the same thing for “Deerwoods” and I loved the aesthetic of it —it’s got a weird nostalgia [vibe] and it makes it feel special. I remember growing up and looking at family photos or even the slides [you see] in “Deerwoods” and just being fascinated by those things, so I just want to keep that organic element.

But it’s not easy to do. [For “Deerwoods” initially], I met up with my dad with a digital camera and audio hooked up to it and just had him tell me the story. He can be pretty long-winded, so the first time he told it to me, it was probably an hour-and-15-minutes of him explaining every detail, and when I had him tell it to me again, a shorter, more succinct version of it. And then we went and we filmed the scene where it happened and then COVID happened and I wasn’t able to film for a year. Once [my parents] were vaccinated and they felt safe, I went back out there for five days and I was shooting on Super 8, so one of the things that was a bit of a challenge is you only have two-and-a-half minutes before the film runs out, so my dad being long-winded, I just had to commit to rolling through so much Super 8. I ended up shooting 60 rolls because he wouldn’t get to the point. I’d have to stop him, pop in another roll, start filming again and through all that, I think we ended up with somewhere around two-and-a-half hours of footage. Eventually, that was edited down to the nine minutes it’s at now.

Even knowing the story beforehand, was there anything that surprised you hearing it now?

I had never really heard my mom tell the story because my dad’s the person who went through the windshield and did all the stuff, so hearing my mom tell it and hear her disagree with certain things — they had never been together telling the story like that, so I had never seen them disagree about those elements and that became another fun thing about the movie. I hadn’t been planning for how memories change over time and there was a lot of stuff that I couldn’t include that I loved. One of those things was my mom disagree about why they were going down to Cape May in the first place. My dad said it was for a vacation and my mom claimed it was because my dad bought some 2-for-1 suit deal and they were going back to get these suits, which seems so random, but I have footage of my dad going, “Suits?!? What are you talking about?” Later, he found out it was actually true — he found these suits in his house and for some reason, his brain had completely gotten rid of that over the last 50 years, so it was fun to see him who has a great memory be wrong about something and my mom be right for once.

Has making these films become easier with each one? It seems like you’re going to pretty vulnerable places.

I don’t know that it was really a factor. With “Betty [Feeds the Animals],” I wasn’t really sure where that doc was going to go and when [my mom] ended up talking about the ashes, that just happened and of course was going to be the climax of the movie. And then with “Deerwoods,” I asked my parents questions about how [the crash] affected them, trying to figure out if there was more sensitivity to what happened and there really wasn’t. I don’t know if they were more willing to reveal their feelings with both of them in the same room or in the same shot. And even when I asked them if it changed them, there’s that scene in “Deerwoods” where they’re like, “No, not really. It didn’t make us closer together at all.”

You actually film on a train as well – what was it like getting access to one to recreate this?

Because I live in Brooklyn, New York and my parents live in Pennsylvania, I actually was getting up at four o’clock in the morning and going to these commuter train stations and hiking up into the woods and trying to get shots of trains. I quickly realized there were a lot of signs saying I would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law trespassing and sometimes I forget I’m not an 18-year-old and I can’t just say to a cop, “Well, I’m just making a movie.” A cop’s probably going to be younger than me and just think I’m a weirdo out there with this weird old camera. So I got some shots before I got scared enough to get away from there, but I knew I needed something that was the train’s perspective. I did some research and found there was this train, not far from where I grew up that people can go on and you can just buy a ticket, so I got on that train with my parents. We got there really early. I made sure I got on the very back of the train and the conductor came back before we left and was like, “okay, everyone has to stay in their seats, nobody get up” and he left and then as soon as the train started moving, I got up and just started filming as much as I could for the next hour. I was just really lucky and happy I was able to get all that.

Besides the Super 8, part of the texture of the film comes from the score from Stephane Laporte, also known as Domotic, and with whom you regularly collaborate. How did you two join forces?

Back in 2001, I had heard a song from Domotic and it was exactly the kind of music that I knew I liked for my sort of movies. It just encapsulated the whimsy and the nostalgia and it had this innocence to it, so I had used his music for temp stuff a bunch, but I never reached out to him. He lives in Paris and like who am I? When I was making “Betty,” I had a different composer who was going to make the music and I was sourcing reference material for him, so I went to Domotic’s website and there’s this pop-up when you download an album that says, “Leave a message for the artist.” And I don’t know why I did this because I never do anything like this, but I wrote him a quick message like, “Hey, I’ve been listening to your music since 2001, and I use it for reference material for short films that I make. That’s why I’m downloading this one,” and he wrote me back within 20 minutes [saying], “Hey, I’d love to see what kind of movies you make.” I ended up sending him “Cochran,” and I believe he said, “I don’t really like anything, but I do like this and if you want, I would be interested in scoring whatever you’re working on.” I had to tell him no because I already had [this other composer], but it just wasn’t working with me and this other guy who I’m friends with and both of us just didn’t want to say it. I ended up reaching out to Domotic after that and I was just like, “Things have changed. I don’t know if you’re interested, I want xylophone and marimba and all these things. I don’t know if you can do that.” He really liked “Betty,” so when it came to “Deerwoods,” I told him about that and he wanted to do it.

This is something I rarely ask myself, but you’ve got one of the most memorable Sundance “Meet the Artists” videos I can remember. How did that come about?

I was getting so many e-mails from Sundance about what they need and somehow I overlooked that request for the Meet the Artist video. Then I got an e-mail saying, “Hey, these are due in two days,” and I was like, “Shit, what is this thing?” So I looked at the examples they sent over and they were what you would expect, just someone talking about their movie and I knew I could do that, but it just kind of felt boring to me and I was like, “This is going to go online and this is my only chance at Sundance maybe ever, so I just don’t want it to be this thing that’s like, ‘Hey, here’s my movie. I hope you come see it.’” So I came up with the idea that I should just be pelted with food the entire time, but keep a straight face and not draw attention to the fact that I’m getting food thrown at me. I was working a job where there was catering and there was a bunch of food left over, so I brought a bunch home and I had my wife help me out. It was just me and her in my apartment and we had one shot at it and that’s it. There’s still spaghetti sauce stains on the ceiling that I have to clean up.

“Deerwoods Deathtrap” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival, available virtually from January 20-30.