“I Realized This Was a Film Not Necessarily About Things Seen…But Things Felt”: Elaine McMillion Sheldon on King Coal
Like many Filmmaker readers, I first encountered the work of Elaine McMillion Sheldon a decade ago, when the West Virginia native landed on our annual 25 New Faces of Independent Film list in 2013. She’d just completed Hollow, which began as a documentary about her home state’s struggling McDowell County, and ultimately transformed into a sprawling interactive project; and per Randy Astle’s profile, “a community portrait that includes about three hours of video — including a lot shot by members of the community — audio recordings, text, photographs and user-generated material via Instagram.”
Sheldon then popped back onto my radar two years later when I covered FilmGate 2015 down in Miami, where the multidisciplinary artist was working on another interactive piece (and doc feature) about the Sunshine State’s most colorful resident predator (pre-Trump), the insatiable and destructively invasive lion fish. Since then of course, Sheldon’s become much wider known as the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker behind Netflix docs Heroin(e) and Recovery Boys, both of which drew her back once again to her West Virginia roots.
And now fans old and new can look forward to the director’s latest (Sundance-selected) feature King Coal, a Central Appalachia-set tour de force that uses both archival imagery and a fictional narration to explore the complicated legacy of living in a once thriving, now dying, fossil fuel monarchy; ruled capriciously by a sedimentary rock determining the fates of generations from deep underground.
Filmmaker caught up with the artistic coal miner’s daughter (and granddaughter and great granddaughter) just prior to King Coal’s August 11th theatrical premiere at NYC’s DCTV Theater (with a national rollout to follow).
Filmmaker: Learning that you collaborated not only with local kids from a dance studio, but even with choreographers and breath artists, made me quite curious to hear how the film’s hybrid structure came about. Did you develop the cinematographic and sound and music aspects simultaneously?
Sheldon: The film started in 2019 by documenting coal culture, seen through coal dust runs, pageants, coal shoveling contests, and coal education in the classroom; some of these things which have been around since I was a kid in the coalfields. Co-Producer Molly Born and I sought these traditions out, as documenting a living archive. It quickly became clear these coal-related rituals were dying traditions, and many of them traditions born out of people’s fears of “the king” dying. So I started to ask, what new rituals do we need, in life and in film, to help us live? This led us to think about the role of cinema in the process of grieving, as well as the already blurred lines between myth and reality when it comes to life in the coalfields.
Documenting coal culture was just the beginning. What the observational form lacked was the tension that lies beneath. I realized this was a film not necessarily about things seen—the facts and figures of life today—but things felt: grief, fear, and hope. So for the purposes of play we just began to allow ourselves to think of coal in a way removed from our highly divisive and politicized view of it, and more into the way a fable might frame the specter of coal. It was through these playful questions that I started asking what would happen if a film models life as we want it to be, and less as it “is.” Through hybrid filmmaking we could explore and co-create the real and imagined rituals in the kingdom, and through ritual we can learn how to move on.
Early on in the process of making this film, producer Shane Boris and I decided that if the goal was to tell a new story about the region—the region being one plagued by stereotypes and shorthand stories—then we needed to tell it in a new way. We didn’t exactly know what form this would take, but the film and the filmmaking process was instead a call and response. The film and the community told us what it needed to be, what it needed to say. For example, when children became central—which was a response to the actual documentary footage of children learning about coal—we decided we would cast young dancers to take us through this journey. The film partially centers the experience of two girls, Lanie and Gabby, who are non-actors, West Virginia kids with coal ties in their family. We cast them at local dance studios. They represent in many ways what it is like to be a kid in the coalfields; while also allowing us a new entry—through humor, new life and irony—into this old story of extraction. Through them we are left to ask, what is left for them in the region?
Very early on we knew experiential sound would play a role. We wanted this film to be immersive and transport people, using as many senses as we could draw upon, to a place the average audience member will likely never visit. But I didn’t even know what “breath art” was until I attended Shodekeh Talifero’s set at Big Ears. Once I heard him, a magical human, make the sound of wind, thunder, and crickets, I knew he had to be a part of this cinematic experience. So part of this process was being open to many ways of storytelling that I had not previously explored. This was central to the process—looking outside the medium of documentary for inspiration. We looked to fables, folklore, ghost stories, dance, poetry, sound art, installation art, photography, magical realism novels, creative nonfiction essays, percussion, and the land itself.
From an image point of view, our DP Curren Sheldon also grew up in the region, and is the most stellar cinematographer because he’s not just looking for a pretty shot. He’s looking for the tension that the film walks the line of, between beauty and pain. He wakes up earlier and stays out later than everyone else to be present when the natural light speaks to the camera. He understood and sought visuals that served the vision to show this place in a hopeful, yet heartbreaking, way. Ultimately, it became a bittersweet love letter to this place I’ve called home, but it did not start that way. The film taught me so much about the creative process and embracing the idea of not knowing.
Something that also needs to be said, about being afforded the time and ability to take creative risks, is a thanks to our funders. Without the support of Drexler Films and Narrow Vision Endeavours, as well as grants from Tribeca Film Institute, Sundance Development Fund, Field of Vision, Catapult, WV Humanities Council, Creative Capital, the Guggenheim Foundation and The University of Tennessee School of Art, we could not have had such rich collaborations and talent on this team.
Filmmaker: The film’s child-centered narration certainly brought to my mind Malick’s Days of Heaven, which makes me wonder what some of your artistic touchstones are.
Sheldon: Yes! Malick’s Days of Heaven was a reference, as well as Badlands and Tree of Life.
A few more standout touchstones: The grit of Barbara Loden’s Wanda, the magical journeying of Maya Deren’s At Land, the myths and mysteries of Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts, the movement and play of Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach, the fantasy elements of Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, the haunting grief and sound design of Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, the poetry and writing of Robert Persons’s General Orders No. 9, and the gentle boldness of Mark Cousins’s I am Belfast. I actually made a full list of the films I watched while making King Coal.
Filmmaker: Initially, I was much more familiar with your interactive work (through your 25 New Faces 2013 profile and then seeing you speak at FilmGate 2015) before I thought of you as a filmmaker. So how do you decide which medium—immersive or short form or feature-length—makes the most sense for any given project? Do you just jump into a subject and decide as the story unfolds?
Sheldon: I am a medium agnostic storyteller, but I do consider all of my work to be a form of cinema or film. My interest is finding the right form based on the story that needs to be told. Unless it’s a commissioned piece of work with a directive (i.e., “make a short film about…”) I enter every project with the openness of listening and discovering the needs of the story.
With Hollow, it was important to have a level of interaction and participatory storytelling. The co-creation of the story for the community I was working in was just as important as the end product. For King Coal, I knew I would need the time length of a feature-length narrative to say what I needed to say, but I never could have guessed hybrid elements would have made their way in. I never imagined working with a breath artist, choreographer, or narrating this film myself—but these are the things this story called for. Form follows function in my work; I am always open to new possibilities of storytelling.
Filmmaker: As a longtime fan of filmmaker Iva Radivojevic, your editor on King Coal, I have to ask how that partnership worked. Did you send cuts back and forth remotely? Did she join you in Appalachia?
Sheldon: Iva was such a central collaborator because of her past work and her spirit. She understood this film and what we were trying to say even before we could articulate it.
We did a remote edit from April to December—she in Alaska and Greece, me in Tennessee. Then we got together for two weeks in Tennessee and West Virginia where we finished the film. We passed visual cuts back and forth to one another, as well as references. I sent her books and poetry about the region. She sent me films to watch. I sent her writings of things that were keeping me up the night before. She sent me edits of those musings. It was a lot of hard work to find the structure and climax of this film, which resists a typical hero’s journey. But Iva is a master at the poetics of mosaic structures, and the gentle yet powerful tool of narration. She taught me so much, and I’m grateful her mind was on this challenging project.
Filmmaker: How do all the participants feel about the final film? Did you consult with the community on rough cuts throughout the process?
Sheldon: The film has been embraced by the participants. We did several private screenings after picture lock, and one public screening in West Virginia where we sold out The Culture Center to 400 attendees. (On a side note, you can read some audience feedback here. We asked them what scenes stuck with them the most—and also how they would describe this film to someone else. It’s written by people who were featured in the film.)
But unlike other films I have made, we did not show community members rough cuts along the way; as this is not a film that follows one central person or people, but was an archive of many moments, and made up of my own personal memories. The two girls, Lanie and Gabby, saw the film before we finished, and we were open to their comments and notes. There was a touching moment when Lanie’s father—who still works in the coal industry—was so moved that all he could say was, “You told the truth.” It was the greatest compliment someone could have paid to me at that moment.
Since then nearly everyone in my family has seen the film. But what’s great is that people see this film as not just my story, but their story. They appreciate the complexity and messiness of the film. That we walk the fine line of condemnation and praise. But this film, maybe more than any film I have worked on in the past, was really made quietly and in a bubble with my core team of producers, Diane Becker, Shane Boris, Peggy Drexler; along with co-producers, Molly Born and Curren Sheldon, and editor Iva. It required a level of personal excavation that was very different from the work I’d done in the past, which was more consumed with depictions of the external community. Because so much of the personal writing and story wasn’t locked in and discovered until the final weeks and days, it was a film that kept us all on our toes.
Since the film premiered at Sundance I have received messages from people back home in the West Virginia coalfields, and from as far away as the Ukrainian coalfields. I’d actually like to share this message from a young person who saw the film: “I’ve been absolutely gutted since moving back to WV. Constant beatdowns and failures, especially in my field of political work. I watched King Coal this weekend because I needed a reminder of why I came back. Watching took me back to my complicated but really great and unique childhood. I spent so much time in near solitude exploring the land. The ghost power of coal influences my day to day work. Its presence is always felt in more ways than I wish to count. Your poetry reminded me that I’m not imagining it. I’ve not really seen my experience in WV represented until now.”
Ultimately, I made this film for my family, my community, for myself. To move through the loss and process the impact coal has had on us. I used this film as a way to grieve with my community. Plenty of films have reckoned with the past, but what about now? Who is dreaming for today, for the future? What will be our next story? I want this film to make way for our dream of what’s next.