Director Robert Persons on General Orders No. 9
Much can be made of duration. The long stretches of time presaging the releases of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut or, more recently, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, lent each film a preordained measure of value. Yet, those films were helmed by directors with celebrated careers and reputations for being perfectionists. So it comes as an anomaly that General Orders No. 9, premiering at the reRun Gastropub Theater on June 24th, took first-time filmmaker Robert Persons 11 years to make.
General Orders No. 9 is a person-less documentary about Georgia’s ongoing process of urbanization. A synthesis of voiceover, music, maps and imagery, the film considers the possibility of finding meaning in a time of growing disorder. Starting with the establishment of one of Georgia’s centermost towns and ending with the urban sprawl to which it gave way, the film grounded by an occasional narrator who speaks in a slow, Southern drawl. Whether he addresses the cosmos or the viewers themselves, he engenders a nostalgia that surely transcends the space in which the film exists.
Filmmaker spoke to Robert Persons on the phone from his home in Atlanta, and discussed the details of his eleven-year process, the possible interpretations for his film, and the endeavor of filmmaking itself.
Filmmaker: So you’re doing press today?
Persons: Yeah, this is my first press call today, and my first press call in my life.
Filmmaker: So where on earth did you come from?
Persons: I’m from Middle Georgia. I moved around the country, going to different colleges, slacking around a lot. I finally settled down in Atlanta and got married. About that time I started working on the film. But I haven’t been to film school. What I know I taught myself. Although I have a background in writing and art since I was very young, after a certain point I sort of discovered film and realized that’s what I wanted to do.
Filmmaker: So am I right to understand that this was an eleven-year process for you?
Persons: Yeah. I was messing around with it a good bit before I got married, but it was a long period of collecting material and trying to figure out how to put it together, and not really knowing what I was doing, and not knowing what the next steps were. After about five years of that, I realized I needed to start engaging the help of other people. So I found a few other people here in Atlanta, and we started working on it together.
Filmmaker: How did you pitch the project to them?
Persons: I wrote this essay that pitched the vision of what I wanted, and talked about the various influences that inspired it. And I just stood there and talked off the top of my head. Sometimes when you’re excited about something you can exude a degree of charisma. And I was mostly working with people who did a lot of commercial work, both in video and motion graphics. And they were excited to work on something that was purely creative. They were excited to work on an art project.
Filmmaker: What were some of your influences making the film?
Persons: Gosh, I’m sort of all over the place. But there were certainly a lot of films that we used to reference — a lot of Tarkovsky films, Herzog films, Chris Marker, John Grierson docs, the British Film Unit, David Lynch and Harry [Everett] Smith. There were also a number of novels and books. One in particular was this bit of naturalist writing from the 18th century, William Bartram’s Travels. He was a Philadelphia naturalist who travelled through the southeast and was really the first to write about it while drawing pictures of plants and animals. His writing is very effusive, and has a lot of sense of wonder in it. I liked the idea of someone going around recording things. And I saw my film as an updating of that in a sense.
Filmmaker: There is definitely a naturalist touch to General Orders No. 9, a real reverence for the natural world. Having never been to Georgia myself, I was shocked by its beauty and majesty. Have you seen the state undergo a rapid process of urbanization over the years?
Persons: I think so. I was born in 1965, and I grew up in a small town about an hour south of Atlanta. It was one of those towns that had a courthouse square, the town was in the middle of the county, and the county was mainly populated with dairy farms and farmers. But overtime Atlanta has grown so much. It’s no longer the city of Atlanta. Atlanta is almost 22 counties that have gone to the city limits. Before the economy crashed, those counties were some of the fastest growing counties in the United States. And part of what initiated the film was trying to reconcile the difference between what is Atlanta and what some people call the “other Georgia.” Because you leave Atlanta, you go other places, and things haven’t changed in fifty years. Many people other than myself are very invested in talking about how Atlanta is growing and changing, and how to get it to grow smarter. We got a big traffic problem here, a big sprawl problem here. And to me, that’s the future. The cities are the future of mankind. That’s what we’re told. But I miss the country.
Filmmaker: How did you go about making a film about a place rather than a person?
Persons: I had ambitious goals for how to present a place in a film. I was really trying to present a cosmology, so to speak. Cosmology is an image of the world that exhibits a pattern of meaning, and has a center. It’s a primitive, old world way of looking at things. Now we know there is no center. We don’t even know where the center of the universe is. So I started studying this kind of map called a Mappa mundi, which is a very old style of map that had all the topographic features of a map, but also included the elements of the cosmology. So these [mapmakers] were trying to create an accurate map on geographical terms, but they also imposed their metaphysical or spiritual beliefs on it too. These people were unclear about where was heaven, where was hell, where was the holy land and so on. And they would also include what the mapmaker himself was preoccupied by. So in trying to create a tableau of a place, which is about the first third of the film, I tried to show that in a way. And I tried to answer, “What should the new map look like?” If these are the old maps, and now maps have become kind of ubiquitous and perfectly accurate…Any time you need a map you just pull it up on your phone, and it tells you what you need to know.
Filmmaker: It’s true. There’s no spirituality involved in entering the “from” and the “to” addresses in your iPhone.
Persons: I’d like to make a map that really showed where we are. And it may not be where we are geographically.
Filmmaker: There are times when the narrator assumes an objective voice, serving as a stand-in for larger humanity, and times when it seems more personal, seeming to speak on your behalf. How did you determine the function of the narrator?
Persons: I had two phases in the narration. I essentially created a character that I could speak through. I didn’t end up doing the voice over myself. I brought in someone else. I wanted there to be some distance between the director and the persona in the film. But the first part of the film is sort of like The Plow that Broke the Plains. It’s sort of a pedantic and dramatic old-school documentary making pronouncements about the land and so on. But it does get very personal. It was important to me that after this epic story is told in part one — going from when the Europeans first came to North America to the city evolved — everything after is kind of the narrator contending with that story and trying to find his place, trying to find meaning, trying to make peace with the loss of things. It becomes partially a confessional, personal meditation. I think the character is in some cases addressing God or whomever you want to call that. And there are no answers there. And I felt that these were things that hopefully everyone feels. It’s not just Georgia. I felt that these were universal concerns.
Filmmaker: How do you think the film will be received in Georgia and the South?
Persons: During the festival season, we screened it in Atlanta, and we screened it in Macon, Georgia, which is a small town south of Atlanta. These were not shopping festivals with a lot of film industry people, there were just a lot of people off the streets. And I think the regional focus held people who may have not otherwise been held. We had good Q and As and no walk-outs. We always have one or two. (Laughs) I definitely wasn’t expecting it to get co-opted by the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce or anything.
Filmmaker: With all due respect, I think the film is a little too abstract for that.
Persons: Yeah, it’s not for everybody. When we started thinking about how to get the film out, we were thinking there were primarily two audiences for it: film buffs or the art crowd. So when we took the film to other cities around the country, we often had a better response there than we did in the South.
Filmmaker: As you said, the film is about Georgia, but it also portrays Georgia as a last stronghold against a growing consumer culture. These are ideas that your film conveys visually, poetically, but not through standard documentary techniques. Did you ever consider taking a more linear approach to the material?
Persons: The form came out of the content. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of choices. There were a lot of things I didn’t want to do, like use normal documentary film language. I didn’t want to have a narrator explain what you’re seeing, and have him talk continuously throughout the show. The film is a balance of visuals, voice and music. It’s kind of a dance back and forth, and nothing really carries the day.
Filmmaker: How did you determine the relationship between the voice, images and music in the editing room?
Persons: My friend Phil [Walker] edited it, because I knew that I could not finish the film if I was responsible for editing. I didn’t know enough about Final Cut to get it done. I needed someone who had a production background to manage the material. There was an awful lot of footage. The script was not a conventional script. I wrote it out on an excel spreadsheet, and I pasted it in columns to a bulletin board. So the progression of the film moved from left to right in sections. And we knew that certain sections had certain purposes, and contained certain shots and set-ups. And we started billing that out first with music, to get the mood and the dramatic tension and the flow and so forth.
Filmmaker: There are beautiful passages of the film that are almost like meditation. Did that restive quality apply to your own experience working on the project?
Persons: It was a learning experience, but it was in no way meditative. (Laughs) It was work, stressful work. I will say that when I was out shooting, I got to have the experience that a lot of people have when they’re doing their thing–athletes, artists, whatever–you kind of get lost in it. I really enjoy shooting because you can just get so extremely focused on where the sun is, on the camera, the iris, and just make a shot. I didn’t have the pleasure of editing it; my friend Phil Walker edited it. I would just walk into the office and be like, “My god. When you put music to that, it’s magic!” It’s literally magic. Magical things happen. A lot of the production work was like being a librarian — keeping up with things, looking for things, making lists and so on.
But in terms of motivation, I believed that there was something there worth doing. And I wanted to make something beautiful. I’m just one of those people. I wanted to make something beautiful, and serious. And I believed that it was possible. And I had nothing else to do. On a personal level, I feel like that’s what I’m here for. So whether it crashes and burns or what, I felt like that’s what I’m here for. The alternative was to get a job working for somebody else doing something that didn’t mean anything to me. So to be able to make a film — people say it’s such a privilege and so forth. It is! It’s a fantastic, fucking incredible experience. And I think the other thing that pushed it along was having children. I’m just an artist, poet type, dreamer-slacker who doesn’t have any marketable career skills. So you look at your son, and you go, “What am I going to tell my son that Daddy does?” So I wanted to make something for him. Not only so that I would have some kind of craft, but so that some day when he’s older he can see what was important to me at that time.
Filmmaker: So now that it’s done, and you’ve spent upwards of ten years kind of harboring it for yourself, what effect do you hope it will have on audiences?
Persons: What I’ve always hoped for — this is pretentious shit here — but there are films I rented on VHS tape here in Atlanta at a really small, little rental store that changed my life. You know? I saw these films, and read everything about the directors. And learning about them as people and seeing their films gave me support and encouragement. I’m not alone. There are other people like this. What I’m doing is not that unusual. It’s been done. It’s okay to make films this way. I hope my film does that for other people. You can go into a store — now you just go into Netflix — but some kid somewhere is going to find a copy of Herzog’s Fata Morgana, somebody’s going to see Even Dwarves Started Small. Somebody is going to see Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. And it’s going to mean something to them. And my highest hope for the film is that it’s going to be on the shelf too. I just want it to be on the shelf so that it can become part of the conversation.