Sundance 2021 Interview: Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara on Learning How the World Works in a Single Day in “The Field Trip”

In the age of the coronavirus, post-production has become something of a nightmare for most filmmakers used to working in close collaboration, but given that longtime collaborators Mike Attie and Meghan O’ Hara have been based in separate parts of the country for some time, they were better prepared than most for editing process on the “The Field Trip.”

“The whole sharing project files system, working on Google Docs, we’ve been doing that since 2007!” laughs O’Hara. “One funny thing is Mike and Rod have never met in person.”

Rod would be their co-director Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck, O’Hara’s talented colleague at Cal State Monterey Bay who previously partnered with Robert Machoian on such films “When She Runs” and “God Bless the Child,” and his involvement would speak to the surprisingly complex undertaking of the 13-minute short about a fifth grade class outing to a simulation of commerce in a city in which the students assume adult roles.

“There’s always a few moments where you really wish you could be in the same space, but we just got used to it, especially on this film,” says Attie. “The experience of co-directing a film with someone and not having actually met them in the flesh is really weird to me, but I do feel like I know [Rodrigo] as a friend too because we’ve spent so much time together on this interface.”

“The Field Trip” was actually filmed in 2017 over the course of just one day, yet there was a lot to unpack then, as there is now with the final product. Following various threads from students processing bank deposits to arranging pet adoptions, the film reveals quite a lot going on in these mundane interactions about society at large as the kids’ capabilities at fulfilling their duties already appear to be touched by certain ideas they may have picked up from their parents and the communities around them, and their pure adherence to sticking to the rules laid out for them to handle transactions exposes potentially unnecessary levels of bureaucracy. Although a cheery host asks at the start of the day, “Raise your hand if you want to be successful today” to a sea of outstretched arms, you realize even in this controlled exercise that there are likely some students who have more of an opportunity to be than others and “The Field Trip” gives an all-too rare chance to audiences to see where the seeds are planted for some of the most seemingly immoveable conflicts in American life.

Shortly before the film’s premiere at Sundance, Attie and O’Hara (naturally) jumped on Zoom to talk about how they honed in on “The Field Trip” as a way to explore larger issues and the challenge of unbundling everything that happens over the course of an intense day of shooting.

How did this come about?

Meghan O’Hara: Mike and I made a feature film [“In Country”] about Vietnam War reenactors and we continue to be interested in places where people play out fantasies. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Kidzania, the amusement park where it’s all set up for kids to play adult roles, but I always thought that was really interesting. There isn’t a Kidzania in the U.S., but there’s these series of miniature small towns set up in warehouses run by the organization Junior Achievement, set up to teach kids about financial literacy and how free-market capitalism works. We started looking out for ones that had more elaborate towns because we thought it would be more visually interesting and we ended up at Biz Town at Junior Achievement Oregon and Southwest Washington, which is located in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

We made clear this was an independent documentary, not a promotional film and [they] helped us get in touch with a lot of the schools and found schools that were willing to have us film and helped organize all the permission slips needed. We met the kids at school the day before and and told them what a documentary filmmaker was and let them look through the lens of our camera and the next day we were at their field trip. We had two camera crews and we just split up the town and just tried our best to capture really intimate moments.

Mike Attie: Yeah, the whole process of shooting was such a whirlwind because you have the structure of the day and the kids have this nebulous goal of having the business succeed, but you’re trying to run around and determine where there is visually interesting scenes and where the drama is unfolding. Trying to weigh the consequences of staying in one place and leaving and going somewhere else I found to be very stressful and you’re questioning yourself a little bit, but you also just don’t have time because we worked so fast. I don’t think either of us had ever done a film where we shot everything in such a short period of time. That was a really significant challenge, but having two crews, we were able to do a lot with that.

Meghan O’Hara: Mike’s my favorite verite shooter and we had worked together before, so we have a working relationship to do that, but it was definitely a challenge to do it and see what you could get in four hours.

Mike Attie: It was a really intense day.

You actually filmed this some time ago. Did it take some time to figure out what was important once you got back to the edit?

Meghan O’Hara: Maybe you pay for doing this firehose shooting on the post-production end. [laughs] It’s an all-verite piece. We did shoot some interviews that we did with the kids prior to seeing them work that we did not [ultimately] include, but it was a really fun challenge to do that Frederick Wiseman-style create-the-drama-through-the-action. We went on a big learning curve as to how to tell that story. We had about a 20-minute cut and earlier on and showed it to our grad school adviser, the filmmaker Jan Krawitz, [who’s] one of the best in terms of giving you feedback on your edit. I will always go back to her, but man, she tore it apart. [laughs] But she was right and we really went back to the drawing board and that’s where Rodrigo came into it. I work with Rodrigo at California State University Monterey Bay and we’ve become really good friends through being colleagues. I’m a huge fan of “God Bless the Child” and he’s a really sensitive editor, so it just started with showing what I was working on and getting his feedback. then pretty quickly I realized that he could really help us find our way through this material, so he’s listed as a full director because he really helped us find the shape of the film and became as much of a director as the two of us.

Mike Attie: He really saved us in the process of it because it was such a difficult edit. We were having to construct so much in these verite scenes that I think us having been there, we might’ve been bringing a little too much of that baggage of having been on site. It was great to have Rod there as somebody with fresh eyes to really see what was in the footage. And it was a really fun collaboration. It was exhausting, but because Meghan and Rod and I are all just real fans about cinema, so much of the time we were working, we were talking about films that we liked, sharing ideas back and forth, and especially this past summer for me personally, it was a real relief with all the stresses of the pandemic to go every weeknight and work with everyone to just get excited about cinema again.

It’s interesting that it was an escape, but I found it to be really timely as far as seeing what kids take on what roles in this activity. You really leave it up to the audience to draw their own conclusions, but how much did you want to set the film up as far as exposition and was it interesting to you to see how certain dynamics related to gender and race played out?

Meghan O’Hara: Yeah, that was a big question in the edit because we really felt the meat of the story was in these interpersonal relationships, almost what it’s like to work with other people and the roles you get put in in these different jobs and how that dynamic plays out. In terms of how they got their jobs, there’s a couple different schools that are there at the same time and they had different processes. Some were really elaborate where the kids apply for jobs and they have job interviews and some of it is assigned where the kids pick what they want.

What stood out to us in the footage is it’s that Michael Apted [“7 Up” series premise], “Can you look at the seven-year-old and see the man?” and how much it felt like these roles already felt predestined and how you saw these stereotypes play out. I don’t attribute any sinister individual action to the teachers, but I do think all of the biases of what we select for ourselves and what people select for us were all at play and it’s hard not to notice. I don’t think we have any grand conclusions, especially at this short length, but one of the things about the simulation part of kids playing adults is it denormalizes it and makes you see it for what it is a little. And that’s one of the great things about the fantasy element of it because when people play out their fantasies, you get to see a lot about who they are, what they dream of, and how they see the world.

Mike Attie: At the very least, we thought it would be interesting to watch how children played these roles or how they’d inhabit them or that maybe some civic interactions would be there. But it was a lot in the ways that the children were speaking to one another that were really fascinating. I remember after shooting those moments, I reflected upon those more and the way they seemed to reflect back the conversations that we have in our day to day.

What was it like getting into Sundance?

Meghan O’Hara: It’s wild. We met all the people in our program when we prerecorded the Q & A and some of those films have been out in the world, and when we did a feature film, we had work-in-progress screenings and we knew what we had. With this film, we’ve just been in our little cave working on it, so I remember when the programmer called and he was like, “Oh right, before you go, is this a world premiere?” And I was like oh my God, you’re one of five people that’s seen it. It’s almost a shame in this online environment that we don’t have any Q & As because we genuinely don’t know how people are going to react. We’re very eager to see what anybody that sees the film reacted to and what they think about it because it is so new.

Mike Attie: We’ve only done one little screening with a small, informal group of friends and even that was a really enriching experience to see how everyone felt too because everyone has such a different relationship to the subject matter, just a different experience of working, so I’m excited to see what people have to say about it.

Meghan O’Hara: It’s always so egotistical to say, “Oh, just watch it.” But it’s hard to summarize. There are so many layers at play that you don’t want to lead the witness. You don’t want to tell someone what to take out of it. We obviously crafted the film around certain emotional moments and we hope they resonate with people, but what that ultimately means to people is really open.

“The Field Trip” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the Documentary Shorts Program #2 beginning January 28th at 7 am MT. It is also available to watch on the New York Times site as part of their OpDocs at Sundance series.