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“The Pitch Is a Performance”: Emily Mackenzie and Noah Collier on Carpet Cowboys

A man wearing a suit with a retro '90s carpet design tilts his head down as he sits in a tropical-themed motel room. His 10-gallon cowboy hat covers his face as he gazes downward.Carpet Cowboys

A ten-gallon hat floating in the ocean and psychedelically patterned polypropylene western wear wandering empty hotel halls might not seem like images from a documentary about the changing nature of American commerce, but those costumes define the dreams at the heart of Emily Mackenzie and Noah Collier’s Carpet Cowboys. After becoming obsessed with the seemingly drug-induced carpet designs lining every banal conference room and casino floor in the United States, Mackenzie and Collier stumbled upon Dalton, GA, known then as the “Carpet Capital of the World.” The pair went in, Mackenzie holding the boom and Collier the camera, with little agenda besides finding a story. 

They took lessons from a young Errol Morris, who in making Vernon, Florida had tried to investigate the wacko and extreme insurance fraud of “Nub City” but instead found the oddball locals to be more interesting than intentional limb dismemberment. While ostensibly about the consolidation of the carpet industry as an exemplary symptom of the way American capital has shifted in recent decades, Carpet Cowboys’ story gets into the quirky weeds of the industrialists still trying to make their way in this anomalous 21st century factory town. There is the old guard embodied by Lloyd Caldwell, a clown-cum-aviator turned salesman, and his son Doug, still running a mom-and-pop carpet shop. Some have renounced carpets altogether, like Harry Ward, who made the switch from soft flooring to laying stone. And new generations have new ways of making fortunes, like 13 year-old Tripp Philipps, who made his money selling a non-permanent adhesive for playing with Legos on Shark Tank.

One man’s presence overshadows the whole town: Roderick James, the Scottish carpet cowboy. Commanding, compelling, kitschy Rod and his disillusioning search for the American Dream start to overtake the small town oddities of the film. When his ersatz reality stops living up to his persona, the film takes an unexpected journey beyond the US’s borders, like when the heroes at the end of a classic Western ride off in search of the still-wild frontiers, although Mackenzie and Collier don’t stop there, but go further, trying to see if there is anything beyond that horizon. 

Carpet Cowboys premiered on Sunday at New/Next Film Festival in Baltimore. From the screening in Theater 2 of The Charles, which was once upon a time home to the (now on hiatus) Maryland Film Festival, I went down to meet the filmmakers in Theater 3, a staging and rest area for volunteers that was being used an hour earlier for an overflow showing of the sold-out documentary on Baltimore’s youngest ever and current mayor, Brandon Scott. Ahead of their August run at NYC’s Metrograph and September run at LA’s Brain Dead Theater, we talked about small crew filmmaking, Rod’s American Dream, the nature of reality against performance and much more. 

Filmmaker: How did the collaboration between you two come to fruition?

Mackenzie: Noah and I have worked together a lot over the years. We knew that we were friends and worked well together. I usually work as a field director and Noah works as a cinematographer and is always super story-forward. So the two of us are really used to that choreography, and always said, “Let’s make a film together.” When the topic came up it was like, “Yes! This is the film we will make together.”

Collier: When carpets emerged…[laughs]

Filmmaker: How did the carpets emerge?

Collier: In doing that work we stayed in so many hotels and became obsessed with hotel carpet design, which is extremely psychedelic and almost drug culture-y. Nobody talks about this extreme aesthetic that exists in every space we go to commercially. We did some Googling and found the town of Dalton, which I didn’t even imagine could exist in the 2000s. It’s like an industrial town that’s still functioning—like 85% of America’s carpet and 45% of the world’s carpet is still made there, which is unheard of at this point. We went there with no real like objective to see what was going on.

Filmmaker: The character of Rod kind of emerges as this star. When did you realize he was becoming a driving force of the film?

Mackenzie: Pretty quickly. We had been emailing back and forth, I called him on the drive up and he said we’d be meeting this evening at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel in Chattanooga, TN, an old train depot turned into a hotel. And he said, “You know, I’ve been waiting my whole life for this call. I’ve been ready.” So we arrived at the Chattanooga Choo Choo and they were backlit, it was him and Jon, these cowboy hats, full silhouettes…

Collier: For the duration of our entire conversation I could only see them in silhouette, which was unbelievable. 

Mackenzie: And his life is interesting. He was really available to us and down to play ball and film and work with us. We also realized he had a story. A lot of the characters are looking at the past and waxing nostalgic, and Roderick is looking forward and trying to figure out “Where do I go? What can I do?” 

Filmmaker: Yeah and Rod being the Scottish cowboy, coming to America and following the American Dream starts to change, not over the course of the film, but in his life. He starts to look elsewhere for that dream, but Jon chooses to stay.

Collier: There’s a murkiness in Jon staying. We never quite understood. In talking to Rod and Jon, you never knew what was an unrealistic plan and what was, like, plane tickets that were going to be bought in the next two weeks. Every time we checked in with them there was a new plan for a giant international business that we were obviously there to follow. I spent weeks in New York at the Chinese embassy trying to get visas for things that never came to fruition at all. I think you hear it in the film, where Rod is talking about buying a 3-story house and talking about demolishing a beachside community to do that. Then you hear Jon tack on “And then we get the private jet!” and that’s a bridge too far [for Rod]. So, you never know what was real. When [Rod] actually went to the Philippines, that was surprising for us and we had to scramble and follow it. 

Mackenzie: It’s one of those things where some of things they said just never happened and then some would happen, so they all this sort of wild feeling where it was like “Is that really for real?” We tried to follow everything, and not all of it was real. 

Filmmaker: The nature of American industry has changed a lot since the big heyday in the ’80s for the carpet industry. There’s that generational divide where there’s the little 13 year-old kid going on Shark Tank selling his Lego glue. 

Collier: I think that Rod ends up being this weird middle ground in the evolution of the way that commerce works in the US. You look at the Caldwells and it’s a very old-fashioned version of what commerce is: “We own a store. We sell the carpet.” It’s very simplified. And you look at Tripp and he’s doing Facebook analytics and trying to move through social media spaces to sell glue. Roderick exists somewhere in the middle, where he kind of understands the social media concepts of branding and self-marketing without having any social media. He’s just living it. 

Mackenzie: It’s also just a different model. Everything is consolidating and the way the economy works is not quite the same. So the way that you strike out big is more ostentatious or extreme versions, like “Go on Shark Tank! Get the funding!” Not just getting an investor, you have to the whole performance of getting an investor.

Collier: At some point Rod and Doug met off camera, and they had never met although they had known about each other although they live in that town. Rod immediately tried to pitch him on some sort of…

Mackenzie: Collaboration.

Collier: Yeah, some sort of collaboration. Doug just said, “Rod, just picture me on a raft. All I have to do is stand up and not rock the boat and I’ll be okay.” And Rod said something dramatic like, “I’m trying to swim!” That really exemplified the differences. 

Filmmaker: Tell me more about the Caldwells.

Mackenzie: Doug’s daughter does not want to be a carpet person, so they’re probably gonna sell [the store]. But that kind of wholesaling just doesn’t exist in the same way where you have the brick-and-mortar because everything is online. So, you don’t need to come into a shop and look through all the carpet samples. It’s [gone] a little bit of the way of the buffalo. 

Collier: It was really great filming with Lloyd before he passed away, because he was really literally a performer. He was a clown in a previous lifetime as well as a pilot. He would fly the family around to different mason events or clowning events. In the scenes where we see him in that mode—he’s extremely aware of it. When we showed the family the footage of him smoking a cigarette and swimming, their only comment was that he used to do it with a glass of whiskey also. 

Mackenzie: He was a stilt walker and all the things…the joke about the penises inside the carpet sign, he was so aware of the joke he was cracking. He’s a performer. He has his stories and he knows how to be very clever and funny. I’d like to give us more credit for being like, “How do we find this interesting story?” but Lloyd knew what to do. 

Filmmaker: Were all these entrepreneurs performers at heart?

Collier: I think they were—

Mackenzie: Salesmen!

Collier: Yeah, they’re salesmen. I mean, a lot of them were actual performers—music, clowning. A lot of them were doing both. I think that’s why we were drawn to them as subjects: you don’t want to draw that out of somebody, you want them to be a part of the process. It was very fun to collaborate with people [who] wanted to perform in ways we thought would be exciting. 

Mackenzie: The pitch is a performance. If you’re a business sales person, you’re doing “the pitch.” Shark Tank is the titanic mountain of “the pitch” that everyone is chronically doing. Even to us.

Collier: We are still receiving pitches from everyone in the film. The number of proposals for Carpet Cowboys 2 is overwhelming. 

Filmmaker: Tell me a little about the formal influences for the film, filmmakers you were looking at to inspire the style or how it’s thematically structured. 

Mackenzie: Thematically, I think that was us in a minivan talking to each other about our woes, but the structure and filmmaking style was like early Errol Morris. Vernon, Florida was such a big deal to both of us. There’s an episode of Mr. Rogers in the crayon factory that I love. Christopher Guest is a huge humor reference—Noah and I both have awkward senses of humor and deep, affectionate curiosity towards people’s idiosyncrasies. So that was a thing: could we just give ourselves permission as filmmakers to spend time doing that and being in that space with people? 

Collier: I think in not going into it with this huge political thesis or end goal we were able to spend time in these weird mundanities and find a smaller film that reflected that back in a different way. 

Mackenzie: It’s about just letting ourselves be intuitive and playful. Because we’re both directing, it’s not like I’m telling the DP what to do, because the DP is the director. So, we’re both deciding what we’re doing and letting [our] sense of humor dictate how things are shot. 

Collier: The working relationship is, like, the requirements of a social situation, like Emily chatting with four people who are trying to get in my way while I’m running [in] another direction trying to film something I think is funny. 

Mackenzie: Yeah, I’m like, “Oh I see what he’s doing. Come over here, let’s chat!” We’re recording audio at the same time, then it’s like, “Bye-eeee!”

Collier: Often Emily is having a conversation with somebody while booming something else over their shoulder. 

Mackenzie: I would frequently hide behind Noah and see him giggling and know what he was filming. Like “Oh, he’s getting that moment, that is very funny.” The best way to make that happen is to get everyone else to walk over here.

Collier: You do a lot of corralling of people that are not in the film. There’s always four or five people hanging around when you’re trying to make things like this. You have your subjects and you know what you’re trying to do, navigating the people who are trying to give you business cards and ask you if you can make a music video for them while you’re doing something else. 

Mackenzie: I think that because it’s just two of us, it makes it feel very casual, which really serves us but also creates that space where we’re like, “No, we’re actually working right now.”

Filmmaker: Did that give you better access to the subjects?

Collier: It was a really casual social situation. We didn’t drop in with a grip truck or four ornery guys who are knocking over stuff in people’s apartments to set up lights. It was a fluid feeling where we would have drinks, have dinner and just take a walk. They would start talking and we would film it. 

Mackenzie: We were like mule horses [carrying] bags following people around, but it allowed us to be inside all kinds of small spaces and be low enough profile that people would be comfortable really quick. Part of Noah’s billing as a DP is that he quietly disappears, despite his height, and becomes part of the little universe of the people, and I’m Chatty Cathy in the corner. It’s a good dynamic for filtering into a group. 

Filmmaker: What were some of the spaces you wouldn’t’ve gotten into if you had a bigger crew?

Mackenzie: Factories. 

Collier: There’s this increasingly stressful dynamic where people ask us if we’re a student film. And at this point, I’m in my late 30s [laughs] and I’m making none of those claims and I think we’re really honest about not being that. The pitiful appearance of our two-person film crew does allow us strange access to things we’re not even asking for. 

Mackenzie: We were just taping a couple of lights to the wall, maybe, keeping it very natural, super vérité. 

Filmmaker: I think there’s a couple factory sequences where it’s sort of impressionistic, sort of a Frederick Wiseman thing, having it breathe…it’s really stunning. 

Mackenzie: I love the factory footage. 

Collier: That was the Mr. Rogers footage that Emily was after from the beginning. The factory footage was a bizarre experience in which we were just on a tour of the factory. We were allowed in and told we could film, but we had maybe 20 to 30 seconds at each space—the speed we were moving at was kind of alarming. You just try to make sense of it and move on. 

Mackenzie: That was one of those things where Noah kind of slips off, uses those 30 seconds so perfectly, then reappears. 

Filmmaker: Did that make it trickier in the edit, having very small tidbits to work from?

Mackenzie: I think it’s actually good when you have limitations, because then you have what you have and you’re forced to make it make sense. Limitless options, like 400 hours of footage, sounds like a nightmare. There’s moments of being like, “Oh, no! Didn’t get that one thing!” but… 

Collier: When you have 400 hours of footage, you have a responsibility to move through all that footage. But when you’re much leaner, you can live in the mundanities and these tiny moments and have space for that. You’re not having to cut four characters to have this moment where the drink falls on the ground. It was really nice that we had the footage we had, because we were able to really mine it. 

Mackenzie: I loved watching with the audience because the pause [when Jon doesn’t notice that his drink fell while posing for the camera], people would start laughing again, then stop, then start laughing again. And like the circle walkers [hourly workers who stress test carpets by continuously walking over circles of samples] was so…we kept pushing that and making it longer and longer and longer. Like, how far can we go with this?

Collier: I wanted it to be two weeks long. I want this to be real time. [laughs]

Filmmaker: Have you shown the movie to the people you filmed with?

Collier: They all actually love the film. Roderick was the person we were obviously the most nervous about. We really wanted him to like it and feel seen. I wasn’t sure exactly if that was going to happen—there are unflattering moments in the film that we felt were honest but you never know how a person is going to respond to that. We set up this elaborate live Zoom call and laptop screening. It was like too much for my internet in Los Angeles, and somehow it was able to work for him [in the Philippines]. But we watched him watch the entirety of it. I saw his face. He laughed, he cried, it was really dramatic. He set up this incredible Zoom backdrop with two blue guitars, and he was wearing this giant hat. Every time he would get emotional he would dramatically tilt the hat down and obscure his face, and you would just hear him sob. 

Mackenzie: Which is exactly what he does in the movie too. He just tips his hat…

Collier: At the end of the film, he again tilted his hat down and obscured his eyes—all we could see was his mouth—and he just said, “I saw the highs and the lows, but in between you told the story.” 

Mackenzie: Yeah, we said, “Do you feel like it’s honest to your story in life?” And he was like “Absolutely. This feels really good, I feel ‘seen.’” 

Collier: I should say that carpet designing is something that I realized, from watching Rod, happens in volume. You deliver hundreds of color options and it’s not this one singular moment, but it’s boards of people going through folders of 300 images to find one design that works. So, he’s been responding to the film at volume in the same way. We’ve received like 45 alternate poster images, ideas for stickers…

Mackenzie: Many songs. 

Collier: He just rewrote the classic hit “Rhinestone Cowboy” to be a theme song for us, and I’m excited to release it at a future screening. 

Filmmaker: He’s a third director, in a way.

Mackenzie: Trying to be!

Collier: I do think about it that way. Your subject is always a collaborator, and they are aware of themselves. They have agency in it. So, it is kind of like a third director in many ways. And in the end, you’re always telling your story. Emily and I edited this film, and it’s good to be honest with people about our point of view. But Roderick has agency and he is totally a free-floating character in this and a director in his own right.

Mackenzie: Totally. And even as we were doing the edit we still kept in touch. We would have these phone calls, and at some point it was like “Wow, this is about your American Dream not working.” That emerged as we were filming, but in the edit it became clear this was going to be a turning point, so we made sure we had this phone call recorded. I was like, “What do you think of the American Dream now?” We got into this whole conversation, and I was like “This is great,” because this is what we’re doing with the film. Getting affirmation felt really important. It would be weird to not have him saying “Yes, this is my story.” From the beginning he was this remote person that we couldn’t quite figure out what was actually real in his life, and by the end of it, culminating in him watching it, it was like, “Now we’re all on the same page. Now we all understand it.” 

Collier: He took off his boots and put on flip-flops, and we truly knew what was real.

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