Irregular Beats: Roberto Minervini on Stop the Pounding Heart
The third film in Roberto Minervini’s “Texas trilogy,” Stop the Pounding Heart, is his first to get American distribution. His debut feature, 2011’s The Passage, followed a terminally ill woman driving through the state in search of a faith healer, while the following year’s Low Tide focused on a mother and her solitary son in small-town Texas. The three films are realized by Minervini in collaboration with his cast, non-actors whose characters and story lines are drawn from their own life experiences. Sara Carlson was a supporting player in The Passage, while Colby Trichell had a bull riding scene in Low Tide; here they’re promoted to lead status.
Stop the Pounding Heart observes the faintest suggested possibility of a romance between home-schooled, evangelical Texan teenager Sara and the considerably more rough-and-tumble Colby, an endearingly mumbly successor to his family’s bull riding tradition. An inspiringly proficient goat farmer at an early age, Sara’s tentative exposure to a new circle of acquaintances is destabilizing. In the film’s wrenchingly extended final scene, mother LeeAnne pragmatically reassures her that being a “good Christian” doesn’t mean an end to emotional troubles or ready happiness.
The repeated encounters between Colby and Sara were arranged by Minervini, whose trilogy can be slotted in the recently much-discussed “hybrid cinema” category: events and conversations that would occur are initially observed by the exploratory documentarian, who slowly fashions and stages a narrative around what he’s seeing. It’s a strong entry at the forefront of a distinguished recent wave of films including Robert Greene’s Actress, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana, and Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA, which became the first nonfiction film to win the Golden Lion at Venice last year.
A confidently slow-moving handheld camera captures two archetypally Texan modes of life’s congruencies and diversions in sometimes painful but irrefutable detail. The cowboys have their religious side, expressed in rodeo ringside prayers, but their reflexive devoutness is entirely different from the Carlson family’s carefully self-contained world, leaving room for afternoon keg stands and casual firearm practice.
Leeanne’s tough words of comfort are in line with a steady dose of instruction about women’s biblically intended role as man’s subservient companion, with unnerving talk about finding strength in weakness. There are gender-binary pressures bearing on the men, too, discreetly observed rather than cartoonishly foregrounded; at a rodeo, Minervini records a dad telling his young boy to eat his hot dog and be a man. There’s fervor, but no aggression, in his voice as the perceived male necessity of stoicism and brute strength is transferred from father to son. It’s a drama with an empathetic, nonexploitative anthropological lens magnifying inner frailties that can barely be expressed, suppressed as they are by teenage inarticulacy, the boundaries of propriety erected by religious constraints and the restrictions of perceived gender norms passed down by well-meaning parents.
Currently shooting his new film in West Monroe, La., Minervini walked me through his unorthodox path to filmmaking and Heart’s thornier moments. Stop the Pounding Heart is released in theaters by Big World Pictures this summer.
You’re from Monte Urano, and you’ve said your parents were into theater and literature. Tell me about your childhood. I’m from Italy. I grew up in a small town, mostly industrial, where we’re all supposed to go to work and show up at the factory at the age of 14. That’s what most people do, but my parents took a different course, mostly because they were involved in the arts. They had their own theater company, and they toured the region. I remember a lot of Ionesco and some Italian playwrights.
My mom and dad were both actors in the company. Around the company, there were a lot of musicians, so I got exposed to jazz music at a very early age, when I was only 10. I didn’t know if I really wanted to go to school, but at the same time I knew that I wanted to pursue different avenues. I started spending summers abroad, doing odd jobs, mostly in England and then Spain. I did everything from construction work to cleaning jobs in restaurants. Finally I did go to college. My family couldn’t afford to send me to art school, and I needed to get a job, so I studied business and moved to Spain to work at the Italian Chamber of Commerce. There, a long journey among odd jobs started. It brought me to America as an IT consultant. After Sept. 11, I lost my job. I took it as a sign that I needed a change, so I enrolled for a master’s in media studies at the New School University in New York. I graduated in 2004 and never looked back.
How did you then become a filmmaker? I’m a late starter. Living in a small town where there weren’t any cinemas, I took advantage of TV at night. I have memories of the films of Pasolini from a very young age. I quickly learned about Glauber Rocha and the marginal cinema of Brazil, people like Rogério Sganzerla and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, and mostly Ozualdo Candeias, with The Margin, a film that deeply touched me at a young age. I remember reading that Candeias used to be a truck driver and lived in the slums of São Paulo. I was deeply, deeply struck by his cinema — he told stories about his own people.
My own reality was a tough one — a little town full of drugs and alcohol and uneducated people, a lot of violence and abuse. It wasn’t an ideal upbringing for me, and I witnessed a lot of hardship. I always recorded — if not with a camera, I mentally took notes and recorded the stories around me, and that influenced the way I make films today.
And what influenced your thinking about documentary? I studied with D.A. Pennebaker at New School. At the time, I had a more conventional idea of documentary. But D.A. was always against the use of talking heads and interviews in documentaries. He let the images narrate the story. He believed if you were able to tell the micro story, a macro story would emerge. He believed in the self-narrative of the film: once you focus on a few people the story will emerge. What I learned with Pennebaker is that if I approach a film as documentary, I have to observe the gestational period more than “looking for a story.” Once I do that, I just wait for the story to be born.
Jean Rouch is another big influence of mine, another filmmaker I discovered very early. His concept of “shared anthropology” fascinated me. His role as the auteur was to observe, but he had the characters involved in the filming process collaborate constantly. There’s a two-way feedback process that is also in place in my films. For me, to be an observer, that implies letting go of control and giving creative power to the other people involved. So the characters are contributing these stories in complete freedom while you observe them do that.
What kind of images of Texas did you grow up with in Italy? My family was heavily politically involved, and I was as well since my early teens. More than images of Texas, and of the United States more generally, I had concepts, ideas of it. Obviously, Texas was supposed to be politically constituted as the land of conservatism. I had preconceived ideas of how it would be, and those terrified me. So, in a way, moving to Texas was more about overcoming the stereotypes and preconceived ideas I had rather than reinforcing them. That’s how I got to actually love Texas.
How were your earlier films, the ones before your Texas trilogy, different from what you’re making now? I did a series of short films, mostly in New York City, but also in Central America. They’re different in their aesthetics and poetics. When I was younger and a New Yorker, I think my films expressed the anger of struggling to be part of the reality of America and being an immigrant. I had to go through a lot of hardships when I first came to America, and I think the films reflect that kind of emotional realm. The approach was still the same; I’ve always worked in a very intimate way. But there’s some brutal force in my [early] work. It shows in the editing; it shows in the language; it shows in the topics. As my relationship with the country, and with my own self, as, now, an Italian-American, became more harmonious, so did my work.
What were some of these earlier films? [My short] Voodoo Doll was shot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when Williamsburg was not developed. It was a junkyard at that time. It was about a child who always wore a mask, as if he had no identity anymore, and who was seeking revenge over his abusive father. There’s also work that I did in the Dominican Republic, about an older woman not finding the strength to live anymore. So it was a lot about solitude, which reflected my feelings at the time. As a southern European, I rely heavily on having a sense of community around me, and I did not find a sense of community in New York. I come from a 7,000-person town. I had a lot of friends and they were all part of the community. In New York, it was different living with a lot of people without really interacting. It’s very strange to live in solitude among a multitude of people, and I really struggled with that, though I had a few isolated friends.
New York City was the place where I decided I wouldn’t make films anymore. After a couple of short films, the pressure, the attitudes, the pace at which people worked made me think that production was not something that I wanted to do. I switched to pursuing an academic career. I wrote a Ph.D. in cinema history in Spain, and I moved to the Philippines to teach directing and screenwriting. I started producing and making films again by pure accident, I’d say.
What made you change your mind and return to filmmaking? Everything happened very organically for me. Not necessarily smoothly, but spontaneously. I started producing films again by chance, when my mother-in-law became ill and had to get treatment in Texas. I was lecturing in a few universities in Manila until 2007. My mother-in-law suddenly fell ill, so I quit my job teaching, and my wife and I moved to Houston to support her. The terminal illness lasted longer than we thought it would last, and she passed away in May 2010.
I had found employment with a local real estate company and was put in charge of a [real estate] project in Alabama and some developments in suburban Houston. That’s how I slowly got to know people. Again, like my childhood, my friends were construction workers, blue-collar people. One of my best friends was Mean Gene Kelton, a blues man and biker from suburban Houston, and he became the access point to a lot of the community. Gene was featured in my first film, The Passage, and then he died in a car accident. By then I was already very well connected in the local community.
For The Passage, I was shooting in Baytown, about half an hour east of Houston. The Passage is the story of a woman dying of cancer who travels in search of a faith healer who could potentially save her. That was the concept, and then we embarked on a journey around Texas in search of the healer. That’s the first work done in a similar way as I do today, what I call “the cinema of life,” this experiential way of making films.
Was it difficult for you to get funding for that project? I have always self-produced and self-financed, with the exception of some contributions from the Austin Film Society. I never quit real estate. I went on from working for a company to starting my own company, building eco-friendly homes. I have won more awards for buildings than I have for filmmaking. For the film I’m shooting now in Louisiana, I finally have co-producers and financiers in place, so I don’t have to spend my own money.
Stop The Pounding Heart brings together characters from your first two films. How did you decide to reunite them? I met the Carlson family in 2009 by chance at a local farmer’s market where they were selling goat cheese. I was working in a hospital in Houston, which is a concrete jungle, and I thought that I would like the seriously ill woman in The Passage to find hospitality and peace at a farm that would allow us to live there for a couple of days. That’s how I found the Carlson family. Then we continued to develop our friendship and stayed in touch until the time to make a film around them came.
The Trichell family — the cowboys, the bullfighters — I met them through Mean Gene Kelson. I started to follow Colby’s amateur bull riding career, traveling with him and his family to rodeo events. I sponsored Colby, although we’re talking a minimal amount. That’s how we became very close.
What happened when you brought these families together? When I started filming, I was filming them separately, working on different aspects of a different picture. I wanted to make a film about differences in becoming a man in Texas, so I was going to work with Sara’s little brother, who had a passion for bull riding, and with Colby. Bull riding would be the connecting point, and I was going to work separately until I found some points of convergence. But after about three days, I realized I wanted to work with Sara. The families knew about each other because of me, so I proposed a meeting. The patriarch and the matriarch of the Carlson family were concerned that Sara’s inner balance could be broken because she was going to be in a different emotional realm, meeting a younger teenage boy. It took about a month before the Carlson family felt ready to meet with the other family.
Something that I learned to love that I didn’t know was that there were these microcosms that convulse Texas. Texas is a very diverse sphere — topographically, geographically, and anthropologically. At a three-hour distance [between the families], I found two completely different worlds, completely different countries. Not to mention that the differences are exacerbated in Stop the Pounding Heart because I concentrate on male and female energy in different contexts.
At the rodeo, there’s a father with his son, and he’s telling him, basically, “Eat your hot dog and be a man.” It seems like a moment that someone who didn’t like Texas very much would consider archetypally Texan. Usually, trusting the observational process, using the microscope, something will emerge. I was operating [the camera] that day and was around various people. That was just something I saw. I don’t view it as stereotypical. I find a little bit of small town Italy in there, that way of behaving to become a man, to be stout, to be strong, to stand tall. It’s important. For the small boy to eat the hot dog and be a strong man also means to be a strong bull rider.
How do you feel about that conception of masculinity? Feel? I lived all that. I grew up in a place where to be physically strong and show no fear was essential for a lot of young boys. It was almost a matter of life and death. But we can agree to disagree about a society that relies on this division of gender, division of strength. There are people who find the men [in the film] too physical; strength is something that’s become so archaic because it’s also very primordial, very animal-like. I do understand how it is in societies like that, and how hard it is to put on the mask of the strong man. I have a lot of empathy for these people. It’s something that’s experiential and has to be lived to be understood, as I did in my childhood.
There’s a scene where Colby and Sara are walking through woods at night and come across a burning cross. How did you conceive that? Twenty minutes south of Houston, in the city of Pasadena, there’s a prominent KKK headquarters. The presence of the KKK is highly felt in suburban Texas, and what interested me in that in that scene are the semantics of that symbol, which is extremely controversial in the landscape of conservative Christian America. Burning a cross is clearly a sacrilegious act, but for the KKK, and especially KKK Christians, they call it “lighting the cross.” For them it signifies the light of Christ in a world that is full of darkness. It carries a strong and frightening lesson, and it symbolizes for me some of the contradictions you find in contemporary America — contradictions of forgiveness and punishment, contradictions about color and narrow-mindedness, of good and evil, or even love and hate, faith and fear. It’s a fascinating and controversial symbol.
What did you tell your actors when shooting the scene? The Carlsons wanted no part of it because for them that is a symbol of hatred and racism. When I told the Trichells, their attitude was very loose and open-minded. They were happy to cooperate. I did it without a permit.
As a viewer, when you’re watching the film’s final scene, you slowly become aware that it’s going to be the climax. Were you shooting for a while before you got to the moments we see on screen? And did you know the mother and daughter were going to be having that conversation about faith and Christianity? As you can see throughout the film, the mother, LeeAnne, is the one [Sara] talks to most of the time for spiritual guidance. I told Sara I would love to film with her when she felt ready, when she had some doubts and [would] discuss what it means to be a Christian. The reason why she [wonders if she’s] a good Christian and what her doubts arewere not clear. I never asked her what she meant by that question; that’s something that belongs to her. When I shot it, I was just there with the sound person. The first nine minutes of the shot — it lasted 27 and a half minutes — were silence. I thought perhaps the shot was going to be a silent one. After Sara asked a question about the meaning of being a good Christian, we then had about 15 or 20 minutes of very profound moments between mother and daughter.
I understand that you’ve been sending the Carlsons to the screenings rather than yourself. Their main concern was that I would portray them in a manner consistent with their beliefs, and that [the film] would not endanger the spiritual, emotional, and moral integrity of their children. They took a leap of faith and knew that I would represent them fairly and faithfully. The film is my authorial view on them, but it’s still representative of their life. It’s not my interpretation. I don’t want to play with semantics, but it is nonjudgmental for a reason. I put together a picture of them. I sought their approval through the editing process so they were involved throughout. In a way, they made the film with me, and I think it is perhaps more interesting to hear their insights on the film. From the beginning, I thought it would do an injustice to the film if they remained silent, so I think it’s a gift for the film that they can actually talk about it to audiences. They travel on my behalf a lot, not to mention that I would rather not travel and be in the public lens. I would rather stay home and let someone else talk about my film. So that was just fine.
Tell me about the new film you’re currently shooting. I’m working in the north of Louisiana. Again, the challenge here is how to make it a story — this is not a story about drugs, but the background will eventually bring up drugs and poverty and unemployment. So again, it’s another story with a strong political and ideological undertone, but at the same time, it is a story of another archetype of America in the South, where blue-collar people struggle to make ends meet, totally disconnected from institutions that they hate and blame for their misery at times. It’s another very difficult project. I’ve been here [for] four months, and I’ll be here until the end of July.
How do you feel about the rise of discussion of “hybrid films”? Has it helped your work achieve more exposure? It’s complicated. In a way, it’s become a trend, a genre that has become fashionable, and I’m not too happy about it. I never thought I would be classified into a genre, and I’m a little baffled about the need to classify this sort of film. Jean Rouch did it already, a more theatrical narrative and montage. Before, there was a huge socially and ethically relevant debate about the legitimacy of [this kind of] documentary work, but today I feel it just comes from a marketing perspective. I think I may have benefited from this surge, but in a bad way. I’m being classified as “documentary” as opposed to “fiction film,” but I feel this difference is irrelevant, and I wish my work wouldn’t be classified one way or another.