For nearly as long as Robert Greene has been a filmmaker, the seeds of “Bisbee ’17” have been lurking somewhere in the back of his mind. Ever since first stepping foot in the beautiful, depressed desert town in Arizona where the locals give haunted house tours to make money, he became fascinated by the ghosts that were swirling around him, but not necessarily the ones anyone wanted to talk about as he eventually came to learn about July 12, 1917 when the town forcibly and violently evicted nearly a quarter of its residents, almost all immigrants from Mexico who worked in Bisbee’s booming copper mines and organized under the International Workers of the World for better safety conditions and to end the practice of wage discrimination. Since Greene could feel the past and present coexisting with one another, it was never going to be enough to simply retrospectively recount the Bisbee Deportation from the perspective of today, but he had to find a way inside of it, to somehow see the history shaping the moment as it was actually unfolding. This would be a considerable challenge and despite building up a reputation at the time for being a gifted editor, Greene had not yet directed a feature.
With issues of workers rights and immigration as hotly contested as they’ve ever been, it is extraordinarily tempting to call “Bisbee ’17” timely, but that would suggest that there ever was a time when it wouldn’t have been. In Arizona, Greene finds a story that takes on the very foundations of America, though he keeps his eyes firmly on the town of 5,000 and dwindling, putting flyers up on the streets to bring in locals to reenact the Deportation on its centennial. However, the recreation of the horrific event is a means to an end, as the filmmaker uses the artifice to open up a line of communication with the community that has likely been untapped throughout the years, reflecting on family histories and the culture of Bisbee from the remove of imagining themselves in character where how they say something is every bit as revealing as what they say and are living out the reverberations of the past, whether they know it or not. From following Fernando Serrano, who “never heard about the deportation” and washes dishes at a local restaurant, to Doug Graeme, whose family worked in the mines for decades, with his father rising to president of one of the top companies in town, you see how the entire societal order was dictated by the events on a single day a century earlier.
As much as Greene and a talented crew that includes cinematographer Jarred Alterman, camera operators Bill and Turner Ross and composer Keegan DeWitt may have seized upon exactly the right time to make “Bisbee ’17,” it’s arguably a film that the director only could’ve made now after becoming one of the most innovative nonfiction filmmakers around, constantly experimenting with ways to find new avenues to the truth. Over the course of five features in which it’s felt as if the subjects have gotten further away from the filmmaker personally, from tracking his teenage sister in his 2010 film “Kati with an I” and capturing the lowest rung of professional wrestling in 2011’s “Fake It So Real” to the portrait of working thesp Brandy Burre in 2014’s “Actress” and eventually 2016’s “Kate Plays Christine,” in which the director probed the on-camera suicide of TV news reporter Christine Chubbuck with Kate Lyn Sheil, Greene has actually brought audiences closer to what’s happening to those he’s training his lens on, able to summon emotional and historical nuance once reserved for literature penned well after the fact to suddenly appear in any given moment while taking on issues of greater cultural significance each time out. “Bisbee ’17” is truly special in this regard, erasing the disconnect between the parts of our past that we’d rather forget, either out of convenience or shame, and now, and as it rolls out into theaters, Greene spoke about how he seized the centennial of the Bisbee Deportation to finally make the film and the pressure that came with it, refining his interview process and the collaborations – both with his subjects and his crew – that make it such an unshakeable experience.
How did this come about?
In 2003, my future mother-in-law came and bought a mining cabin to have as a family place to go and I went there with my then-future wife to help her work on stripping the floors. I just fell in love with the place. As I hope you see in the film, it just has this strange vibe that you can’t really compare to other places. It’s a little like when you go to New Orleans and you know there’s something magical in the air, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. But then I immediately heard about the deportation, so I read “Bisbee ’17” by Robert Houston, the fictional novel version of the story, and I was blown away. I couldn’t believe it was real. And the feeling of walking down those streets was already unnerving, seeing those giant [mining] pits, so then to hear this happened, it was almost like, “Of course this happened here.” And I was, at the time, [slightly] obsessed with these lost radical stories of American history, reading Howard Zinn like a lot of people were doing in 2003 and I became obsessed. I wanted to make the film. My first thought was maybe I can reenact this with the locals, and this was five years before I made my first feature, so I had no idea what the fuck that meant. Then I was planning on taking a break during the “Kate Plays Christine” release, and like what often happens is right when I’m about to be done [with something], I get really excited about an idea, so I Googled, “Did anybody make the Bisbee deportation film yet?” I realized it was the 100th anniversary, so I called Doug [Tirola], my producer, and [said], “I think we have to make this movie now.”
Because it invokes all these different styles of filmmaking, was this something that you felt like you had to be ready for as a filmmaker in order to do it?
Yeah, because I wanted to make the great Bisbee film. I wasn’t ready, of course. I don’t even know if I’m ready now, but the last few films, we did figure out this method of using performance in a way that opens up all these other questions and other ways of thinking. Not that any of that’s new, but we’ve honed in on something that has a lot of possibilities to it. It’s not just “Actress,” and it’s not just the way it is in “Kate Plays Christine” or even the prior films [“Kati with an I” and “Fake It So Real”]. There’s something else here, so on a formal level, I felt like we were liberated to try this. Then on this scale, I’ve been working with Doug Tirola and Susan Bedusa at 4th Row Films for 16 years. Bennett Elliott, the other producer, was an intern at 4th Row, then ended up being one of the producers on “Kate Plays Christine,” and worked on all of my other films to some capacity, so we’ve been working together for many years. And I’ve known Jarred [Alterman, the cinematographer] forever and I’ve known the Ross brothers forever, and I had five or six students [of mine from Missouri who] were the other crew, so it was a group of people that felt like a family and I was ready to take on this bigger challenge.
Obviously, the students are getting experience from this, but do you actually get something out of their perspective by bringing them in?
Yeah, my students are incredible. They’re from the Missouri School of Journalism and to be a journalism student, you have to be really good already. Then at the Murray Center where I teach, we happen to get the kind of journalism students that want to try weird stuff and do interesting things, so we get the best possible students. I love them so much. As a crew, [there’s such] energy and excitement. They were all learning on the job, and we had a production designer named Ed Briggs, who lives in Bisbee and goes back and forth from Bisbee to New York to do things like “Law & Order,” and at the end of the day, he said it was like one of the best professional crews that he’s ever worked with. I don’t know what I learned from them except for just the faith that you can do something. As a group, we’ve made so many films together at 4th Row Films that we have this “it will work out” vibe and the fact that the students could just go right along with that was pretty incredible.
As small a town as Bisbee is, it still must be a pretty big undertaking to get an entire community involved in making a movie. Where do you even start?
There’s only 5,000 people in town, but like any small town, it was a place that we had to learn the language. I knew that language already having gone to Bisbee so many times, but when we started going [as a crew], it was just Bennett, Jarred, and I, and I had to teach them how to speak Bisbee and how to deal with something called Bisbee time, which is not just being slow, but a way of being yourself and sticking to what you want to do and damn everything else that’s going on if you don’t want to do it. We knew we needed characters and I loved the idea of the entire town speaking, playing a role [collectively] in itself. When you go there, it feels like you’re on a film set, like a lot of ghost town places in the West, so we wanted the town to be dressing up in its entirety almost. I think Sarasota plays a big part in “Kate Plays Christine,” Beacon plays a huge part in “Actress,” and Alabama and North Carolina play a huge part in “Fake it So Real” and “Kati with an I,” [respectively], but this was different to try to make it address an entire town.
I’ve heard Jarred talk about planning the shoot around the schedule of the daylight in town. What it was like capturing that sort of magical feeling in the air that you talk about?
I thought about it for so long that I used to have dreams about Bisbee that were very vivid of the oranges and blues and greens, very specific colors. Jared had never been to the desert, so what he imagined was just this flat desert town, but Bisbee’s not like that at all. It’s in the Mule Mountains and about 10 degrees cooler than Tucson because you’re going up, and it’s in this crazy valley area [where] the pale blues and the sunlight during the day are really particular. So when Jared rolled into town, he [said], “Wait, this is completely different than what I expected,” and we spent a lot of time just looking at the light, which is fun. He never approached this film like he was making some regular documentary, and he doesn’t shoot films that way [anyway], but playing with the light was always a part of the plan until we started shooting 16, 17 hour days where we just had to get everything. I think he wished he could have always been painting with that light, but it was a film that had to take place on July 12, 2017, so there were all these things that we were pushing against. The time constraint of the actual day was one of the most important things.
Something I’ve been wanting to ask over the course of the last few films, but stood out about “Kate Plays Christine” in particular was that you see how giving someone a part to play opens them up to discuss all these personal details that they’re using to connect to their characters. How has that process evolved over the years, specifically in this film where you’re are dealing with people that have no professional acting experience at all in most cases and their memories are being opened up by what you ask them to do?
In “Kate Plays Christine,” those actor interviews were a total revelation. We dressed them up in these purposely bad, ridiculous wigs, and they were being melodramatic in their acting. We told them these reenactments were supposed to be bad on purpose — they’re supposed to fall apart, which is a weird direction to give an actor, but nevertheless, [you had] the emotion coming out of those interviews, [which] weren’t planned. We were like, “Let’s just talk to them on the side.” I had no idea the emotion that would come out of those situations. That was eye opening to me because you realize the therapy of performance, the stepping in to the skin of something else. Those were all actors, and they really identified with the act of performing. Fast forward to “Bisbee,” [where] if the film is about trying to reconcile with history, with the story of this town, and even with the American mythologies that led to this history — the deeply embedded ideas we have about the West, about America, about good guys and bad guys, and immigrants and what it means to be American, then of course watching someone try to understand a role is a great way into the psychology of that.
That was what was so exciting. I’m completely done with mixing fact and fiction or blurring the lines of documentary and fiction. That’s just so fucking boring. What’s not boring is the actual process of watching people think and try to work through something. That’s what you’re seeing in the movie. You’re seeing people who have deeply held beliefs or a deep connection, and sometimes a very deep family connection and otherwise with what happened 100 years ago and trying to understand [the] character [they’ve been asked to play] and trying to understand motivation and in thinking through that, something else comes alive. That’s my favorite part of “Kate Plays Christine,” too, except for maybe the ending, is those actor moments, and this is why I don’t ever call my films semi-fictional. The best parts are always the documentary parts, the unexpected magical things.
On that note, was there anything unanticipated that changed your mind about what this was about?
It’s always changing. The only way these films work is that we go in with a plan and then we leave room for chaos, serendipity and reality. Otherwise, they’d be fiction films. In this case, we met Fernando during the first trip, but we had no idea about his story. We certainly didn’t know he would become the main character, in some sense. I had dreams of things like Doug Graaeme dragging Fernando down the street [to connect the present to the past]. Doug is one of my favorite people in town, he works in the mine tours and he loves the mines and he defends the deportation because his family has long defended it, so I just kept [thinking] if I can get him to agree to play a version of his ancestors, holding Fernando going down the street, then we’ve done something special here, and we did. The way the film had to work was all the structure [and other elements] you would have to [have in place] for a fiction film — dressing the set, getting people ready, schedules, locations, hair and makeup, all that had to be planned, and I drove my producers crazy because I couldn’t cast the people who were playing the roles or “write the script” until I knew the real stories of the people playing the roles, so we had to do the good journalism that it takes to learn people’s stories. So that was continuously unexpected and at the end of the day, just like the last one, what I like is that this is exactly the film I thought we were making, but it’s full of surprises that we could have never expected.
Do characters emerge during the edit or did you have to know who you were focused on during the shoot?
People emerged as we were shooting. We had five or six characters that are historical characters that were archetypes for specific people, so [we knew we’d focus on] Harry Wheeler [who led the deportation as Cochise County Sherriff], John C. Greenway, the head of these different mining companies, [then] the IWW organizer, and these sorts of characters, and that was the discovery process. For example, it took forever to decide that Richard [Graeme] should play Harry Wheeler and then to convince him to play the role because he doesn’t look like Harry Wheeler, but there’s something about his own turmoil that really spoke to that character. Then we had a Mexican miner because as well documented as this event was, and it really is, no Mexicans — basically, the deportees — were ever interviewed, not surprisingly. Everyone else was. So the Mexican miner was a purposely ambiguous role that Fernando’s playing, and it really was just Fernando [we could turn to]. But it was a continual process of discovery. There was a five-hour version of this film. There’s six short films that are online that you can go watch that are all filled with other characters [because] we ultimately had to whittle down to what’s in the film.
Because Keegan DeWitt is composing original songs for this in addition to the score, how early do you have to bring him into the process?
Keegan and I have worked together now on five or six films — he did “Kate Plays Christine” [with me as a director] and we’ve done “Her Smell,” “Golden Exits,” “Queen of Earth,” and “Listen Up Philip” [with Alex Ross Perry as a director], and we have an incredibly collaborative way of working. The entire film was so collaborative, but he gives me music and lets me shape it and then he re-shapes it in the end basically, [where] I was like, “Hey, this is the sound I have.” And he’s like, “Well, take a listen to a couple of these tracks that I’ve already done” and I was like, “These are perfect.” So 60% or more of the soundtrack was already what he had done before even the movie started, which tells you how in sync we were, and I got to edit to the temp track, which became the score. He added some pieces afterwards and we both worked on the shape of it to make it what it is, but it was remarkably in sync with what he was already doing.
Were you giving him the Workers of the World songs that are referred to in the film as inspiration?
Yeah, those [songs that are in the film] were sung by my former student Sebastian Martinez, a musician in his own right. I asked him to take those songs and turn them into the ghostly dirges that they are because they remain as relevant today as they ever were, but you can’t hear them in their original anthemic rabble-rousing sound. It’s almost like you can’t even hear the words, so we just tried to just rip them apart and turn them into haunting tunes. The really cool thing is that the final song “Bisbee” is an IWW poem that’s only in a rare IWW songbook — it’s not even in the main ones — and it’s about the Bisbee deportation. No one had ever recorded it, so Sebastian was the first person in 100 years to arrange that. He added guitar and turned that into the song that you hear in the credits, and to me, the way that Fernando’s voice and [Sebastian’s] voice play off of each other is one of my favorite things about the film that we did discover more in the edit than anything else.
You took the film back to Bisbee this summer once it was completel. What was that experience like?
It was incredible. I think at the end of the film you see this catharsis happen, beyond what we planned for and expected. The town itself took it on themselves to come together at the end of the reenactment. I’ve been wary from the beginning. Everyone always asks, “What do you think the town thought?” And for me, one of the central questions in the movie is, “Which is the better way of dealing with history — do you bury ghosts forever, or do you exorcise them?” I don’t have the answer. Obviously, we chose exorcism, but because I believe in complexity and that documentary filmmakers are often too proud of their own work and too idealistic about what they do and they need to be more self critical, I want to hold back from saying that this was cathartic. But then we go to Bisbee and screen the film, and people are crying. We had a two-day symposium, where we organized one day of talks around the film and around the deportation, and then we had three sold out screenings, and every single one of them was emotional. People were onstage saying this story can never be buried again, so I guess I have to accept that we did a positive thing. The film first opened in New York and instead of coming to L.A. first, it went straight to Arizona, [where] we had another sold out screening in Bisbee and sold out screenings in Tucson and Scottsdale. It was incredible to see people learning this history, but more importantly, watching people now processing what they’re watching. That’s the goal. Now we’re planning on bringing the film back every year on the anniversary of the deportation, and continuing this conversation until we don’t have to anymore.
Has that been a skill you’ve had to develop as much as any actual filmmaking skill? Having the conversation after?
I actually do think that the films are part of a bigger work. I write about documentary, I teach documentary, I love to talk about it. I did a panel here at Getting Real [in Los Angeles] yesterday, which was called “Reenactment Reconsidered” [about] thinking about reenactment as a continuum, rather than as an on switch. I do think of my films as part of a life mission that I have developed to get people to understand what we do better. I’m really passionate about what it is that we actually do, just because I want people to understand what I want to do as a filmmaker. I want smarter viewers, so that we can make better films, and I want better films to help make smarter viewers. Media literacy is the easy catch-all word for it, but it’s about communicating with an audience. It started, ironically, when “Kati with an I” was released and I didn’t know what I was doing. It was my second film. It was shot over three days about my sister, and it was a heartbreaking film to make and to watch, but then Eric Kohn said, “Kati gives one of the best performances of the year”, and then I realized from grade school, everything I’ve been attracted to as a viewer has always been about this tension between theatricality and authenticity. I remember learning Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage,” but it was a review that told me “Oh, that’s what I’m doing. That’s why Kati’s playing a version of a teenager, and that’s what I was editing her to do.” When you say development, it is true. It’s a language that I feel like I’m still developing and now I feel like I know how it can work, and I’m just excited about the future. I’m excited about trying new shit.
“Bisbee ’17” is now playing in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and the Pasadena Playhouse 7, among other dates around the country. A full schedule is here.