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Director Keith Miller on Welcome to Pine Hill

Welcome to Pine Hill

Keith Miller readily admits that when he first tried to make a film he didn’t really know how to talk to actors. He wasn’t quite sure of himself. He thought he was doing a feature; he ended up with a film that was a half-hour long. But over the next few years he kept writing, kept shooting. After a time, he gained his footing, thanks in no small measure to the fellowship he found amongst the directors, writers and actors of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. These days he’s confident enough in his vision — and his collaborators — that he doesn’t hesitate to employ unorthodox methods. Forty-five minute takes aren’t unheard of.

Welcome to Pine Hill, his first feature-length film, is the product of a fully realized set of narrative ideas that were inspired, Miller says, by “accidental encounters, intuitive leaps, and heightened realities.” Shot in bars, offices and open spaces in New York City and Upstate New York, the movie centers on a brief but crucial period in the life of a young man named Shannon (Shannon Harper). He has two jobs — insurance claims adjuster by day, bouncer at night — but Shannon and his coworkers don’t mix in the same social circles. He used to mess around on the wrong side of the law, and his decision to go straight has left him isolated from some of his old friends. Reclusive, introspective and potentially intimidating — he’s big and strong, well above 200 pounds — Shannon, it seems, is a loner by choice. His status as an outsider is only heightened when, early in the film, he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. He keeps it to himself, determined to die on his own terms.

Miller, who also works as an art professor and a gallery curator, met Harper by happenstance. Both claimed ownership of a dog Miller happened to be walking one night in Brooklyn. They argued, but their disagreement wasn’t just a case of pet politics — Miller, who’s a white man in his 40s, and Harper, who is African-American and in his 20s, talked as much about their differing perspectives and experiences as they did about the dog. The next day Miller asked Harper if he wanted to make a movie that used their meeting as a leaping-off point. After several weeks of discussions, they made a short. Then they expanded it, drafting other actors who, like Harper, would be making their first onscreen appearances in Welcome to Pine Hill. The film, which has already collected top prizes at Slamdance and several other festivals, opens Friday, March 1 at the IFC Center. A few days before its release, Miller sat down for an interview with Filmmaker at a diner in Manhattan.

Filmmaker: You were trained as a visual artist. When did you start making films?

Miller: When I was in grad school at Stony Brook. I got there in ’98, graduated in 2001. I started doing video art pieces, and I’d always written and organized shows. So in 2005, I think, I made my first attempt at a movie. It was supposed to be a feature. It ended up 30 minutes.

Filmmaker: Tell me about that film.

Miller: It was a piece called Cookie (a portrait of a betrayed woman on a journey). The funny thing about that is I had a full script, a longer script than I had for Pine Hill. I really wanted to shoot something in the style of Pine Hill. I just didn’t know how. The first day I shot that was the first day I was ever on set. I didn’t want to say “action.”

Filmmaker: You felt a little self-conscious.

Miller: Yeah, I would say things to the actors like, “Just go.” And they’d be like, “What are you talking about? I don’t know what to do.” I meant to do what I did with Pine Hill, to let reality flow into it, but I didn’t have the language for it essentially. I had to write a script, but then I would say (to actors), “Don’t worry about the script.”

Welcome to Pine Hill director Keith Miller
Welcome to Pine Hill director Keith Miller (Photo by Jesse Dittmar)

Filmmaker: How did that prepare you to make Welcome to Pine Hill?

Miller: I shot three shorts over the next year (after Cookie), just rounding people up. And then I got more and more serious about it, started trying to figure out how to make a feature. Then I became part of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. My language, the actual production part of it — I was developing that. Developing my practice as a director — knowing what the relationship to the d.p. needs to be, for instance. And I think I’ve become stronger talking with actors. That’s what I would say my strength is as a director, because that’s the kind of person I am in my classes and my curating — very one-on-one, trying to understand someone so you can work with them. Some directors, I think, want to trick actors into good performances. I want them to surprise themselves, to find a part of themselves that’s more real than they thought they had in them.

Filmmaker: About four years ago you met Shannon Harper by chance. How did that lead to him starring in Pine Hill?

Miller: In 2007 or 2008 I started making short films that very actively disregarded the documentary frame, or the narrative frame. And in July 2009 I was walking home one night, and three doors down from my house, at a house that I knew people had moved out of, there was a four-month old dog there, on the steps. I knocked on the door and no one answered. Then I walked away, and the dog just stuck to my ankle and walked with me. So I took him home and I put up signs around the neighborhood. I knocked on doors. I asked people I knew. Nobody responded. I took the dog to the vet, and by September I’d fallen in love with the dog.

One night, at 11:30, I’m walking the dog and out of that house comes Shannon. The only difference between the movie and the real situation was that the real situation was an hour-and-a-half, with a lot more detail and a lot more repetition. But we worked through it. At the end we said I’d pay him for the dog. So I go there in the morning with the money, and I say, “This is really interesting — race and class and ownership and all this stuff. You want to make a movie about it?”

Filmmaker: This was the very next day?

Miller: Yeah, at 9 in the morning. Shannon was suspicious: “What do mean, a movie? Who’s going to watch it?” He asked me a lot of questions. He was not like, “Yeah, I always wanted to be famous.” We agreed on it, and over the next month or so we met a bunch of times and got fairly close and talked about what was going through his mind, what was his experience. Because one of the things I said was, “Why didn’t you go knock on people’s doors (after losing the dog)?” He’s like, “Come on, I’d be stopped and frisked in two minutes.” A lot of the dialogue is straight from the night we met, or our conversations after that night.

We shot that probably six weeks to two months after the original incident, and then it screened at Rooftop. We’d been friendly since we made it. He was really into it when he saw it. And I really liked working with him. I thought he was a really amazing presence on screen, more complex in silence than a lot of actors can be through dialogue.

Filmmaker: So you decided to expand the short into a feature.

Miller: Yeah, I wanted to work with Shannon on a longer piece. Then a very good friend of mine got the disease that Shannon’s character gets in the movie, and died from that at the end of July 2010.

Filmmaker: That was René Peñaloza-Galvan. The film’s dedicated to him.

Miller: Yeah, I took René’s illness and other things and kind of mashed them together. It was really like René, Shannon and me overlapping. And when I first told Shannon the premise of the story — “You get this disease and you don’t tell anyone” — he said, “That’s weird.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because that’s what I would do. I would never tell anyone.”

Filmmaker: At the start of the film Shannon’s character gives voice to one of the film’s main themes when he reminds your character that you guys are “from different worlds.” You see “different worlds” throughout the film — at the bar where Shannon works as a bouncer; in a cab when Shannon’s talking to a driver from Ecuador; in a rural bar where Shannon seems to be the only minority customer. Did you consciously decide to make a film that explores these sorts of culture clashes, or did it just happen?

Miller: Yeah, that was the idea. From the dog short to the whole movie, the reason that I liked the story is because those are the big issues that are of central import to my thinking in general. But really what I sought was the journey of a person who is on the outside of different situations — even in his own social milieu. So it’s kind of an existential journey, but constantly informed by these things that are outside of his control — whether it be his economic situation, his history, or race and class in a larger sense. He’s in a bad situation sometimes, but a lot of the decisions were his. So he’s not a victim — he’s a complex character.

Filmmaker: You wrote a piece for the Huffington Post titled, “Who Am I to Tell This Story?” which explains how you, “a not-young white man,” came to make a film about a black man who’s in his 20s. Why did you feel compelled to write that?

Miller: The issue of representation is always fraught. The least complex way to go is, if you’re a 35-year-old woman, make movies about 35-year-old women. I did not do that, and I think particularly white director/black story is a loaded thing that has been so poorly done in cinema so often. Not that it’s always poorly done, but often. It can end up being like a weird version of blackface or something, and it’s offensive. I thought it was important to start a conversation. Part of the idea here is that I don’t know about his experience, and I’m not trying to fake it. This is an engagement with being outside — for myself and for the character in the movie.

Filmmaker: In a director’s statement that accompanies the film, you talk about how you allowed “reality to bleed into the story.” How does this happen?

Miller: The direction that I give to the crew and to the cast is, “Reality doesn’t stop, so we don’t stop.” I tell the actors, “Never ask me for a line. Never break character. If something weird happens, that’s OK.” Working with non-actors that generally works, because they don’t have the self-consciousness of actors. They often gain it in the process, but in Pine Hill and the new movie that I shot this summer we did up to 45-minute takes, with three cameras rolling. Things happened that were totally not expected.

For instance, the woman who comes and collects the cans. (A supporting character, making a very brief appearance, gathers refundable cans during a scene midway through the film.) She came up to me while we were shooting — there’s three cameras, an AC, a sound person, an AD, a producer and a PA, all there — and she comes up to me in the middle of a take, we’re about 20 minutes in, and says, “Do you have a cigarette?” I was like, “No, but go ask Shannon.” Because I wanted to mix it up, throw things in there all the time.

Filmmaker: What kind of script did you work from? What did you hand to your actors?

Miller: I didn’t. The actors didn’t know the story. The crew knew the locations. The first day we shot in the office (where Shannon’s character works) I said, “I want 360-degree camera ability. We’re going to do some interviews.” And that was it. After like two days the crew was like, “Oh, we’re going to get a location and figure out how it works.” Because the lighting situation is just hard; 360 is just hard.

Filmmaker: And you did this with three cameras?

Miller: Yeah.

Filmmaker: Three cinematographers — everybody’s shooting simultaneously?

Miller: Not every scene — the taxi, obviously, was one camera; the second bar scene has two; the first bar scene has one — but most.

Filmmaker: Almost all of the actors in the film are non-professionals. As a director, what was the key to getting the kinds of performances you needed?

Miller: I guess I tried to pull away the artifice. I think good acting is not about artifice, but to get there you have to somehow construct something. I try to peel back and have a conversation about the emotional situation that’s going on. With Shannon, for example, the rehearsals were sometimes going through the blocking and what we’re going to say — but it was mostly going off-set and having a beer and talking about the set-up and where we go with it.

Shannon was really able to do that thing that great actors do, which was “Alright, I’m there now,” and then when it’s over: “OK, I just went through that.” In the doctor’s office scene when he gets the diagnosis, that’s a pretty hairy scene for an actor to play and pull off, to go through the complexity of a death sentence.

Filmmaker: That’s one of the scenes where he does a lot without talking. He’s sitting there holding a piece of paper as the doctor tells him he’s dying. He just silently folds the paper, doesn’t say a word. Was that scripted?

Miller: Yeah, that was pretty specific.

Filmmaker: You did a Kickstarter to fund the film?

Miller: We did two. We did one to shoot it, which was $4,000, and one for post-production and festivals, which ended up being $20,000.

Filmmaker: What did you learn about that side of things?

Miller: I hear a lot of people say, “I would do this, but I don’t have that.” And I always feel like if you have an iPhone or you have a million dollars, it’s just what you have so you work with that. In terms of this movie, I was ready to shoot it with much lower-quality cameras than we used. Everybody has a 5D, so it would’ve been easy to do DSLR shooting. But after doing camera tests we decided this was actually a better look for us. (Most of the film was shot on the Sony EX 1 with a Letus adapter and a nanoFlash.) In terms of budget and money, my feeling was: “This is what we have, so let’s do it with this. If you give me twice as much, I’ll do it differently.” So the locations were essentially, “Can we use your apartment?” “Can we go to your bar?”

Filmmaker: You mentioned the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. How important was the creative community in which this film was made?

Miller: The Collective started before me. It started out as a place to workshop films and it got to be a place to collaborate on paid gigs. Little by little it became more and more of a community — “Hey, you want to shoot together?” — and then when I said I want to do this film, we kind of rallied together. The movie would not have been made without them. I could’ve made a very different movie, but having three cameras and getting all these locations and having the gear — it was a very mutual-aid-support kind of feeling. There was very little to no money exchanged. The original shoot was eight days. Then we shot two or three hours over five or six days over the next year. And we pulled off a feature film in a very short period of time.

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