In North Dakota with the Neo-Nazis: Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker on Welcome to Leith
Chances are that if you’ve heard anything over the past few years about Leith, North Dakota, it was related to infamous white supremacist Craig Cobb’s attempted takeover of the micro-sized city. Self-proclaimed as “one of the most famous racists in the world,” Cobb descended upon Leith’s unassuming community (population size: twenty-four) in the summer of 2013, attempting to purchase as much land as possible to morph into a haven for fellow white nationalists and white supremacists. What first sounded like a deranged urban legend ultimately became a reality, as families with similar points of view moved in with their swastika flags displayed proudly. All the more unsettling was the fact that this was all frighteningly protected under our country’s constitution, as Cobb was keen on being as antagonistic as possible without slipping into illegal activity. Leith’s long time residents would either have to put up with their aggressive new neighbors or move out.
Premiering at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Welcome to Leith, a comprehensive and encompassing documentary that investigates the tumultuous saga that took place in the title city, begins its theatrical run this Wednesday at the IFC Center in New York. I spoke with directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker about how Cobb’s takeover of Leith first came to their attention, how they crafted a documentary with the help of other people’s footage and how small-town politics and specific legalese ultimately took Cobb down.
Filmmaker: Before this story came to your attention, had you both been planning to work on a project together?
Nichols: Chris and I were definitely planning to work together, as we’d been working at the same production company, Blowback Productions, for a couple of years in Manhattan. While there, we made the documentary Flex is Kings. I was one of the directors, and Chris was the producer and editor on it. We really liked working together and were really good friends (that helped), and so we began looking for a follow-up project. There were other projects that we had been pursuing at the same time as Welcome to Leith, but after calling people and trying to figure out which made the most sense [for us], we thought this one had the most potential.
Filmmaker: How did Craig Cobb’s involvement in the city of Leith come to your attention?
Walker: Mike had read about it in The New York Times when the story broke, so we were hearing about it at the same time as everyone else. We thought we’d track the story for a little while and see what happened, thinking that it might just fizzle out because of how ridiculous it sounded. It wasn’t until a [white supremacist] family moved into Leith that we realized that this might have legs both in a story sense and in what Cobb was trying to accomplish. Mike then called the Mayor of Leith, Ryan Schock, and asked if he’d be open to two guys coming to town with a camera. He was very open to it and was very fired up, and so Mike and I bought our plane tickets. The Mayor reached out to the extremely small community of twenty-four people to let them know that we would be around and that they should speak with us. Mike also called Craig Cobb, who wasn’t in town the week that we were there, and he told us that we should speak with Kynan Dutton, one of the family members who moved into Leith.
Filmmaker: How many times did you visit Leith? Were you stationed within the town itself?
Nichols: We made three trips to Leith. Each trip varied between two to four weeks in length. There were no places to stay in the town, or so we thought. We found out later that we could have stayed above the local bar. There had been a room to rent there, but we found that out later, once we had become friends with the bar’s owner. We would stay in Bismarck, which was about seventy miles away from Leith. While there were closer places to stay, we wanted to be in a place where we could keep our gear and go to an electronic store if we had to. If we were to get back late, we wanted a place that would have a restaurant nearby that would still be open after eight or nine ‘o clock. For our first trip, we actually stayed in South Dakota in a town called Lemmon. That was pretty difficult. The only place open after eight o’clock at night was a gas station, and so we’d just eat food from the gas station for that whole first trip. From there, we decided that it would be better to stay in a bigger city with the resources that a bigger city has. Another reason we decided not to stay in Leith was because we didn’t want to be seen as hovering over everyone in the town. We wanted to respect them and give them space. We’d be there when we needed to be.
Filmmaker: Was there ever any fear that by the time you set up shop in Leith and entered the story, that the most significant events may had already taken place?
Walker: Yeah, our first trip was really about getting a recap on everything that had happened. What really helped us out and what we’re so thankful for was that a lot of people in town had documented what was happening. Gregory Bruce, who’s in the film, was somewhat of a citizen journalist, ready to record almost anything he could regarding the activity in Leith. A lot of the national media covered the story too, and so in the edit we tried to put together a first act that really set up a sense of place. It was both a process of trying to play catch up and to appear as seamless as possible. We wanted to have the audience feel like they were there while we were there, and our biggest savior was that the townspeople were documenting things on their own.
Filmmaker: Were you given access to all of the footage? I’m reminded of Kynan’s wife, Deborah Henderson, who, while feeling that her family was being harassed, had taken cell phone footage of everyone who was coming up to her house. Did she also make you aware of the footage that she was taking and did she give you pretty easy access to it?
Walker: She did make us aware of it, and the funny thing is that about a week after we made our first trip, that patrol happened [involving Cobb and Dutton walking through the city with their firearms fully exposed]. Half of her footage popped up on YouTube and we checked it out. When we returned to Leith, Deborah Henderson gave us all of the raw footage that she had, including things we hadn’t seen before, like the incidents of vandalism. We asked her for the footage and she said yes, as she saw it as evidence and that it would help her family’s case.
Filmmaker: Several times in the film, you expand your story outside of Leith to illustrate the prolific clout of Cobb’s arrival. Each time you place the viewer in a North Dakota city other than Leith, you make sure (via a simple establishing shot) to indicate just how many miles away from Leith we are. The white supremacist takeover’s wrath echoes throughout the state.
Nichols: Part of that was to give viewers a sense of the geography of the state and how spread out everything was. Once Kynan and Deborah resettled in Underwood, we wanted it to be clear that they were a certain distance away from Leith. There had been a lot of fear that they would try to do the exact same thing again in Leith, and so we wanted to show that they were a great distance away from that city. We wanted to show that they weren’t a looming threat to the people of Leith anymore. They were over a hundred miles away now.
It was also a very practical choice, as we hadn’t really heard of a lot of these towns before and so we didn’t assume that viewers would know the geography of North Dakota very well either. We wanted to show the relationship between each place. In a lot of ways, it served as a very practical device.
Walker: We originally didn’t want to branch out all. Through editing, however, we realized that we really needed to provide more context regarding Cobb and the people surrounding him. Luckily, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) broke the story, and so it made sense to visit their office in Montgomery, Alabama. We didn’t just want to cut to an expert interview if they didn’t have anything to do with the story. If they had a complete and direct connection, however, then we would include it. So while at first we had wanted to keep the film in the county and in North Dakota specifically — to show the isolation of the area and what they were going through — it made sense to include the SPLC.
Filmmaker: Had you been aware of the existence of the SPLC before you began filming?
Nichols: We had heard of them before, but I don’t think either of us had much of a sense of what they were involved in. The New York Times, with the SPLC’s Ryan Lenz going to Leith and outing Cobb, [brought our attention] to the Southern Poverty Law Center. We went to Montgomery on our last trip for the shoot, and that was our first time going to SPLC and meeting a lot of the people there. It was pretty illuminating, both that this organization existed and that, as a person says in the film, after 9/11 many of the U.S. government’s resources shifted from Far Right domestic terrorism to Islamic extremism, often times abroad. The SPLC thus stepped in as the premier group that was actively reporting on these organizations, and it’s a pretty incredible resource for these groups, who they are, what they’re doing, etc. Anything that we asked for they were incredibly willing to do for us. They let us film inside the building even though it’s a completely closed building. The organization had been fire-bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980s, and that building had been destroyed. They had to build a separate one across the street where they’re housed now. They’re a pretty brave group of individuals. They all have cameras outside of their homes and a lot of the reporters and journalists who work there receive constant death threats. They put themselves out there by reporting on these groups. I’m sure they view their participation in the film as something that would shed light on the organization, but it’s also what they do. They have all of these resources and they share them with the press. We’re kind of the press, I guess. We’re filmmakers, so it’s a little bit different, but they were very generous with their knowledge.
Filmmaker: One viral internet clip of Cobb is from a talk show appearance he made in which he took a DNA test to prove his Aryan heritage. As it turns out, he goes on to discover, live on air, that he is 14% Subsaharan African. It’s a funny moment in a rather dark film. Did you struggle with the idea of where to place that scene, as it is very much a tonal shift from the rest of your story?
Walker: We basically cut the entire film chronologically. That specific clip’s placement goes right along with the timeline of events that lead up to the patrol. When we visited Leith for the first time, Cobb was doing that talk show on the east coast. He taped that and then a week later they released that little teaser clip online. Shortly after that was when the patrol happened. It is a tonal shift, but I think that by that point in the film you’re due for a laugh. That’s always helpful, and it really was a matter of this is what happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.
Filmmaker: Had you met Cobb by that point? What was your first encounter with him like?
Walker: Our first encounter with Cobb was when he was in jail [toward the end of the film]. We met him behind the glass, without cameras, and he wanted to feel us out a little bit. Mike had spoken with him on the phone numerous times beforehand, and by that point, after everything bad had gone down, he was getting a little worn down. We then received permission to do a one hour interview with him. We showed up and luckily he walked out of the cell and did the interview, and that was our first meeting, face-to-face.
Filmmaker: Rather than merely serve as a cinematic depiction of one man’s desire to begin world domination in a small Midwestern town, the film quickly becomes both an argument for freedom of speech and a warning of the consequences our First Amendment holds. Much of this becomes apparent in the numerous Town Hall meetings depicted in the film. Did you guys shoot any of those yourselves?
Nichols: We only shot one Town Hall meeting, and that’s the one where the ordinances were passed. Cobb wasn’t there for that one, as he was away at the time. It became very clear that Cobb was aware of the laws, more so than a lot of the people in the town of Leith, and he was doing everything very much within the boundaries of the law. The people in the town didn’t really know what to do, and that was a big reason why they hired the lawyer that’s in that Town Hall meeting. He had to find a way to counter Cobb’s plans, and so he came up with the idea of updating the ordinances which hadn’t been changed since the early 1900s. It became this sort of legal jujitsu between Cobb and the townspeople. It’s pretty fascinating actually, as you started to have these elements of a Western playing out, as it became more about using laws against one another rather than guns (even though it does eventually become about guns as well). It was pretty interesting to us how this happened, how this lawyer came up with this idea and how it seemed like this was going to be the thing that thwarted Cobb’s takeover attempt. Even when you see the sequence of Cobb and Kynan’s armed patrol walk, Deborah Henderson was filming that to show that they weren’t trespassing on other people’s properties. They wanted to show that they weren’t, in their view, being threatening to anyone, although I think that can be argued when noting the confrontation with the minister. I think the idea of law and what was legal in that town was very much on our radar and very much on Cobb’s as well.
Filmmaker: The film also develops distinct, unsettling characteristics and signifiers of a genre film, whether it be the roaming camerawork that takes us through the ominous, unwelcoming woods, or the drone-like whirling score that spirals into an undeniable sense of unease. Could you speak a little about those aspects? I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a horror film, but there’s definitely a dark and unwelcoming ambience throughout.
Nichols: I’m a huge horror fan, and I had been wanting to use tropes of horror and very suspenseful films within a documentary [for a long time]. It’s obviously very hard to make a horror film out of a documentary. Once we arrived in Leith and saw what the town looked like and what the people were going through, everything reinforced the aesthetic of this quintessential horror movie town, with a horror movie outsider who had these nefarious motives. We definitely wanted to play with that a little bit, and we definitely were trying to construct a genre documentary.
Filmmaker: As you’re listed as co-directors of the film, how do you divvy up the responsibilities? The credits list Michael as the cinematographer and Christopher has the head editor, but what else goes into directing as a group? Were you more accepted into the community because there were two of you?
Walker: I think only having two of us there in Leith worked toward our advantage. It was less threatening and overwhelming to people who aren’t normally in front of cameras. Even the camera we shot on, the 5D, was very small and almost disappeared sometimes. From the beginning, Mike and I divvied up tasks, especially in terms of pre-production. We made our contact list and then divvied up who was going to call who, who was in charge of producing which subject and keeping in contact with them, etc. This pertained to trying to set up an interview, trying to set up a meeting, and more. When we were on set, Mike was shooting and I’d be rolling the sound, and we’re both directing at the same time. I’ve worked longer as an editor and really love editing, and so in the edit room Mike and I have a very collaborative process. It really all blends together, especially in documentary and with both us serving as producers. When it’s just two people in the field, no one is going to say, “Oh, I’m not going to do that. That’s not my job.” It’s very organic how it comes together, and at the same time we make sure to have an even workload of things going on. We’ve never really had a big crew before. We’ve always worked small.
Filmmaker: The film was shot on the Canon 5D MK III, the Canon 5D MK II and the Hero GoPro III. How did the GoPro come into play?
Nichols: We thought that would be a useful tool. I guess we only really ended up using the GoPro for a couple of driving scenes, trying to get B-roll and trying to capture how vast North Dakota is and the distance between places, where you don’t really see any other cars. We had suction cups that we would stick on the outside of the windshield to get some footage.
Walker: We also stuck it on the airplane window as we were coming into North Dakota.
Nichols: Right. The GoPro’s great for sticking in places where you don’t have a sophisticated camera rig. You can use this little tiny camera and put it in multiple places. We always pack a GoPro with us for whatever we’re shooting.
Filmmaker: At a Q&A I moderated with you both at a screening back in July, you had mentioned that Cobb had yet to see the film (but that’s he elated by its festival success he reads about on the internet). Are you still in contact with him? Will he ever get the chance to see the film?
Walker: We’re opening for a week in Bismarck on September 25th. He can certainly have an opportunity to see it then.
Nichols: We’re not really in much contact with him anymore. I had to be in contact with him recently because Nightline is doing a piece on the film and I think they were actually out in North Dakota this past week. I wanted to ask Cobb if I could give his number to them, and he was fine with that. We haven’t heard much from him since the Sundance premiere. That was the last time he would call pretty frequently, and it will be interesting to see what happens once we’re back in North Dakota and he sees the film.