ON GREENING THE CITY: INTERVIEW WITH FILMMAKER IAN CHENEY

It’s no surprise that the construction of a new building requires an even larger portion of resources to be removed from the environment. A building’s frame alone requires tons and tons of new steel, not to mention the wood and other materials needed to finish it off. The green building movement uses primarily recycled and environment-friendly materials, including recycled steel, flooring made from bamboo (which is quickly renewable), and even dual-flush toilets, to conserve water use. A noble approach, green construction still has its issues, including material strength and quality, and probably safety hazards.

In “The Greening of Southie,” filmmaker Ian Cheney (writer-producer of 2007′s ”King Corn,” which was part of PBS’s Independent Lens series) documents the excitement and consequences of an environmentally conscious construction movement, through the perspective of one South Boston building. I caught up with Cheney after he screened his documentary and did a lively Q and A at Camden County College in Blackwood, New Jersey this month. An energetic communicator – he was part of the experimental study profiled in “King Corn” – Cheney has an intent look when speaking and listening: we see similar attention behind the filming of “Greening.”

You’ve mentioned how this documentary stemmed from making a time-lapse video of the Macallen building’s construction. How does a film like this evolve from such a project?

It was never clear what sort of movie we would be able to make out of the footage (of the building’s construction). We started with pretty modest ambitions. It was only after spending a lot of time on the site with these men and women (who worked on the building) that they became characters in front of the camera. Also, when the building started to have its struggles, then the elements of the narrative emerged. For us, this film really took us by surprise.

How did you conceive the bigger project during filming? Did you just shoot a lot of footage and worry about shaping it later?

(Producer Curt Ellis) and I haven’t been making films for that long, about six of seven years now. We’re still very much learning how best to make a documentary. But we seem to like to start our editing process before we completely finish out shooting. It starts to give you a sense of how things are coming together and what other footage you may need. You really need to start looking at it early. It’s a really important part of our process.

I think it would be wonderful to one day make a film that is a clean, three-step process – raise all the money first, shoot all the footage, edit all the footage. But we are raising money throughout (the production), shooting footage throughout, even editing throughout.

So you wouldn’t say you and Ellis had written this beforehand.

No way. How could we know how this building would turn out? I guess a person who knew more about construction than we did could have said, “Well, there’ll be things that will go wrong,” but we didn’t know that. The narrative emerged in the way documentary narratives should emerge – simply by hanging around long enough for something to happen.

In our case, we have some text onscreen, so we have some “writing” in that sense. We really didn’t feel this film needed a writing credit. But “King Corn,” our previous film, was a film that changed a lot in the course of making it. It did not end up (where we planned it to) when we started. We wrote a lot of narration and voiceover for that film. And we didn’t write any of it until after shooting. In the way we seem to make films, there is so much shaping of the story that happens in the editing process. With 300 hours of footage, you will play a big role in how that footage gets whittled down into one hour or so. There’s going to be rewriting, rethinking.

There isn’t any voiceover narration at all in “Greening,” which I thought was impressive. Voiceover can patch up a lot for a filmmaker.

Well, it’s appropriate for some projects and not for others. We didn’t think it was for “Greening.”

Did you think of interviewing any other people, besides Bill Gleason, who would become residents of the new “green” building?

We interviewed a few other residents for the film, but in the end, we mostly wanted to highlight the workers constructing the building, and their perspectives. We really liked Bill Gleason because he had a nuanced story. He is the face of how South Boston in changing, since he grew up in Dorchester, in the “old neighborhood,” but now has enough money to buy an expensive apartment there. Little moments like this really help a film keep an audience on its toes.

The tension between this building, with a new crowd moving into the old neighborhood, was evident right away. Of course, South Boston has a reputation that precedes it, as the home of legendary mobster “Whitey” Bulger, and most young people know it as the home of “Good Will Hunting.” It has a reputation of a rough, insular place, traditionally Irish-Catholic. We knew we wanted to explore this from the beginning. We shot a lot of footage about that confrontational aspect of the story that we didn’t include in the film, largely because it wasn’t unique to this “green” building story. It related more to neighborhood change, and not the issue of the building being green.

The price of these new apartments does price out the neighborhood’s current residents, so there is a social criticism going on here.

Yes – you think of Henry Ford paying his workers enough to purchase one of the inexpensive cars they are working on. But this is a far cry from that. The workers earn a good wage with the help of their unions. But these condominiums they may become enamored with while working on, they are obviously out of their range. There is a percentage of the units that has to be less expensive by law – something like 20 percent of the units – costing something around (pause) $300,000. If I had $300,000, I don’t know that I would buy an apartment in the city – I’d probably build a cabin in the woods. A pretty big cabin, at that.

Did you know early on that you wanted to finish the film with a scene focusing on Wayne, the Trinidadian laborer?

It was a natural choice to end the film with Wayne. He became such a strong, engaging voice in the film. I thought he was a thoughtful man. He had sort of a transformation over the course of the construction process, from being pretty skeptical about environmentalism to feeling, by the end, that it was something he wanted to share with his daughter. We felt this was worth capturing and sharing.

He seemed like the only younger worker who was skeptical about the project. The others skeptics seemed to be old-time workers of another generation.

Well, there’s plenty to be skeptical about with this kind of project.




Posted on October 26, 2009 in Interviews by
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