Noah Collier & Emily Mackenzie on an Endearing Tale of Rugged Individualism in “Carpet Cowboys”

“It was my early twenties and thirties when I realized there was more to the world than just carpet,” Lloyd Caldwell of Caldwell Carpets in Dalton, Georgia confesses in “Carpet Cowboys,” having grown up in the business that his father Doug had started a half-century earlier and still working alongside him today. The two are hardly alone in Dalton, which is said to manufacture over 90% of the world’s carpets after becoming a base of operations for the industry in the 1890s, but they are part of a dying breed when like so many other industries, the business has shrunk to a select number of conglomerates, leaving the thousands that flocked to the area for steady work in the carpet mills now departing in equal numbers and abandoned factories made redundant sit empty and scattered across the town of 35,000.

When Dalton resembles a frontier town with tumbleweeds rolling through, it is no wonder that co-directors Emily Mackenzie and Noah Collier gravitated towards the fella always donning a Stetson in Roderick James, somehow the least American person living in Dalton by birth with his Scottish brogue still sneaking into conversation since arriving in the U.S. in 1985, and the most American when he still sees it as a land of opportunity with his imagination extending into his passion for textile design, creating ornate patterns to sell to the rugmakers. He ends up laying far more groundwork than usual in the enchanting documentary, opening up the weird and wonderful place where Mackenzie and Collier lovingly detail how much care and attention go into the carpets we walk all over every day, but is subject to a stress test as an entire community when industrial progress comes with few moral considerations for the people that poured their lives into the work.

With “How to”’s John Wilson as an executive producer, this tragedy in slow motion is recast as a disarmingly charming comedy, getting to know the citizens of Dalton who have become used to a certain pattern in their lives after staring at them for so long professionally and the unnerving effect of disruption. Mackenzie and Collier go beyond depiction, richly evoking the unease that’s pervaded the area with floaty camerawork that is equal parts dreamy and eerily unnatural at times but some of the most surreal elements occur organically when a “Shark Tank” entrepreneur from Dalton becomes the town’s great hope at the age of 10 and considerations of a post-carpet future for some of the film’s subjects leads to truly unexpected places. On the heels of its recent world premiere at the inaugural New/Next Fest in Baltimore, “Carpet Cowboys” is riding into New York this week at the Metrograph to start its theatrical run and Mackenzie and Collier spoke about what led them to Dalton, how it tells a larger story about the globalized economy and how far they had to go to make the film – and how much further they’ve had to in order to show it to some of its participants.

How did the two of you come to collaborate on this?

Emily Mackenzie: We’re old friends and we’ve done a lot of documentary work together, so we’re always traveling and a lot of the time traveling, you live in a hotel and you have downtime in the evenings. There’s nothing to do but sit in the lobby and chat, so over many months, we started speculating on the hotel carpets because they’re interesting, they’re elaborate, and it was kind of a joke like who would make these? What kind of a brain would create these psychedelic, wild, swirling patterns? Where on earth do these things come from? Some time later, Noah called me up and [said], “Hey, I’ve been been doing research on carpets, and it turns out there’s one town that makes all of the carpets for all of the United States and most of the carpets for the world.” We [both] were like, “Ah, we’ve got to go.” So it was kind of like a curiosity joke lark that just kept going and we realized it was this fascinating world to wander into.

When you get to Dalton, does Roderick immediately stand out as someone to follow or did he gradually come to the fore?

Noah Collier: Initially, we were really interested in who was designing the carpets, like what brain came up with this? And we found this completely insane GeoCities page with thousands of GIFs and moving images that Roderick had built of his design work. Then Emily did some Facebook deep diving and we found this Facebook page of him heroically riding horses through rivers, just this wild cowboy figure that we hadn’t anticipated. So Emily sent him an e-mail and he suggested that we meet him at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, which is a very dramatically re-envisioned train station in Chattanooga, Tennessee. When we walked in, he was sitting in complete silhouette against a window with John, a friend of his who’s in the film. They were both wearing matching cowboy hats in profile and we just became obsessed.

Did you know how much the tale of Dalton could actually reflect so many industries in America?

Emily Mackenzie: That emerged as we filmed. They started to understand how the industry has changed, namely around how sort of economics works, [which] is consolidate, consolidate, consolidate, which we didn’t know at the time. But in filming and meeting more people, [we] realized that people like Roderick are like relics of the past. You can no longer be a hired gun freelance designer the way that he once was because it’s now huge corporate structures that make all the carpets in Dalton. And Dalton still makes all of the carpets for the country, but instead of being 300 small companies, it’s five huge companies. In seeing that, it wove into bigger themes that we were personally navigating like “What is the future of our country? How do we feel about our economy? How do we feel about our American identity?” And then this person who is not American, though Roderick has lived here for so long, deeply embracing this Americana to this extreme level, felt like a mirror to look at. So it was this interesting combination of American culture and masculinity with the economic evolution of consolidation and that was converging with these questions we were asking ourselves in our personal lives. It came out really organically, just based on hours and hours of the two of us sitting in minivans, waiting for someone to show up to film, discussing what we were seeing around us.

Noah Collier: It was a sort of discovery. You have these assumptions about an industrial town in America. You think about a post-NAFTA outsourcing of labor. So we had assumed that that’s what we were walking into, and there is some degradation in the town, and you assume that this is things moving overseas. But actually, when we found out it was a consolidation, it was very surprising to us that all of that stuff is still being made in Dalton. It’s just a consolidation of the wealth into these five major companies.

Did this take any turns you really didn’t expect?

Noah Collier: We were initially supposed to go to China for all of these giant trade shows, and then a little thing happened in early 2020 that interrupted our ability to do that. [laughs] We were maybe just past the halfway the point of filming and in the Philippines in February of 2020 when everything started shutting down while we were shooting. It was like, “Okay, how do we pivot?” Not even realizing we wouldn’t film for another year, but taking what we had and then having to look at it and say how do we make really smart editorial choices to create a story with less footage than we thought we would have.

I also loved how there’s a sense of mystique in how this is structured – you don’t know everything about the main subjects of the film immediately, and questions are generally answered in time. Is that difficult to decide upon?

Emily Mackenzie: That was actually a really difficult point in the edit where we were worried that people wouldn’t know who was who, but we also really didn’t want to be expository at all or too prescriptive. The idea of someone’s identity and personality kind of creeping up vis-a-vis what they say, how they gesture, or how they look felt way more important than giving some upfront lower third thing, but we did need to root them a little, so each person has a tiny lower third [infograph], just enough to punctuate them. But it was very, very intentional to just let their identities emerge out of what you actually see on camera.

Noah, I didn’t know until after the fact you shot Liza Mandelup’s “Jawline,” but you have perfected this really distinctive camera style that seems best described as smooth verite – it’s unobtrusive but still very fluid and cinematic, so you really get that understanding of how Roderick carries himself. Is it difficult to pull off?

Noah Collier: It’s all pretty instinctive. For this film, we didn’t do a lot of lighting or positioning, it really was pretty naturalistic. And in many ways, our characters are wonderful and eccentric, but those traits make them almost completely undirectable, so it was really just following what they were going to do, no matter what we told them and I think you really do get a sense of that in the shooting. It’s really just trying to respond to what was happening as quickly as possible in a strategic way.

It isn’t just the image, but the music as well where there’s this sense you’re capturing reality, but you’re in this dream when there’s something wonderfully unnatural about it. Was that exciting to think about stylistically?

Emily Mackenzie: Yeah, it’s very Noah, [who] kept saying from the beginning, “This is a tonal film,” and that was largely the point – to embrace the subjectivity and be impressionistic, and letting emotions lead. If it is all about the American dream, what does that feel like and look like? And how is that affecting all these people but [especially] this main individual [Roderick], it felt important to lean into his fantasy and this more fantastical, dreamy way of thinking and therefore looking.

Noah Collier: Yeah, and our interaction with Kara-Lis Coverdale, who did the score, was also [thinking of this] being in a dream state. She came to this with prompts that were like, “Think about this scene and what color it is. and then let’s move in layers of removal from that color and think about the logic of how we got there,” so that process was not like sending over the film and getting back a series of clips. It was a very interactive and beautiful process.

At one point that I hope I don’t spoil too much, Roderick puts on this remarkable suit entirely comprised of carpet in what looks like a dream sequence. What went into that moment?

Emily Mackenzie: From pretty early on, we had this thought that we’d find a way to visually interpret Roderick’s emotional state in a different way than just having him explain it. We wanted people to feel it in some more specific way. Then we started thinking about what Roderick’s dreams might be like and I think that was relating back to the original question of who dreams up these carpets? Whose imagination is this? And how can you express that imagination? So the carpet suit is actually an actor and we reenacted all of these situations that we never wanted to be prescriptive. We’re not trying to tell you what Roderick is thinking but just present some different imagery that reflected the mood that we were getting from him. And Noah moved down to New Orleans for four or five months to start the edit at the end of 2020 — we were in a pod and just lived in this little tiny secluded life — and we came up with that idea and just really could go ham with building a suit because no one had jobs [during COVID]. So it was like, “These people who normally are unavailable, let’s build a suit and we can do this whole elaborate shoot.” It was one very creative thing that came out of that downtime isolation.

You actually do followup with everyone in the film. What was it like to revisit people post-pandemic?

Noah Collier: Yeah, we recently went back to Dalton to screen the film for a lot of the folks who were in it and even that was such a wild experience. Showing the film to Harry, who’s the mason in the film who works with rocks, required us to go to a remote property in the woods where he’s building a home that resembles a seashell from above. Taking an off-road vehicle down a dirt path to a relative’s trailer who lives further down into that property and watching the film via a laptop plugged into a TV with a house goat sitting in the living room and a family of welders covered in soot, it felt like bringing this film into the real world has been an amazing experience.

Silly question, but did you end up with a favorite carpet design? You see so many in the film.

Emily Mackenzie: I almost wanted to show you the piles. [turning the camera towards a tall pile of samples] I have this huge pile down here. I would say the Mason rug was my favorite, which is a rug made of carpet, but disassembled in a bunch of pieces. I’m going to put it on the wall when I have time. [laughs]

Noah Collier: It’s a great question. It was such a visual overload that I think I really came to appreciate a low pile beige rug.

“Carpet Cowboys” opens on August 25th in New York at the Metrograph and on September 15th and 16th in Los Angeles at Brain Dead Studios.

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