“Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman”Susan Froemke
is a four-time Emmy winner and non-fiction filmmaker with over thirty films to her credit, including Academy Award-nominated HBO documentary film “Lalee’s Kin,” “Grey Gardens
,” and “Wagner’s Dream,” which had a U.S. theatrical run before airing on PBS. Froemke recently co-directed “Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare
.” She was formerly principal filmmaker at legendary Maysles Films more than two decades.
“Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” will premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival on January 20. The film is also directed by John Hoffman
. Beth Aala
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
Sf: This documentary tells the story of four men who become unlikely conservationists when they see the natural resources that have sustained their families for five generations become threatened and depleted.
Filmed on the majestic Rocky Mountain
Front, the vast Great Plains of Kansas, and in the shining Gulf of Mexico waters, these men, who work the iconic landscapes, formed alliances with friend and foe to save their homeland. It’s a film that captures the enduring frontier spirit of America. It’s a film of hope.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
Sf: I read a draft of Miriam Horn’s book, “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” and fell in love with her characters. These families, who are descendants of homesteaders, frontiersmen, and fishermen, have fascinating stories that told a history of the United States that I found intriguing.
What I love about making documentaries is that you get invited into people’s lives that are completely different from yours and I thought that by filming these people on these extraordinary landscapes, I might be able to reconnect with some of the great American values.
I wanted to ranch, farm, and fish. I also care deeply about conserving land. These men and their colleagues show how it’s possible for humans and nature to co-exist in beneficial ways. This inspired me and I wanted to bring that inspiration to a wider audience.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
Sf: I’m hoping that people will have their faith renewed in the democratic process that built this nation. To see that change is possible, but it only comes when people come together and work for change.
The film shows men with true grit who found consensus within their communities to affect change but it took time — 30 years in some cases — and not giving up is the key.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
Sf: Documentary filming on the Gulf of Mexico and on the Rocky Mountain
Front was a challenge. These are unforgiving locations. In the Gulf, I shot with Thorsten Thielow
who convinced me to let him bring the Movi, which would keep the water’s horizon level so the footage would be smooth and beautiful.
We filmed in a rough sea on a fishing trip — luckily no one got seasick — but it was hard to even keep standing at times. Despite this challenge, the footage looked terrific.Beth Aala
, our co-director, shot with Thielow with the Movi for the packing trip in Montana. They could only bring a very limited amount of gear on mules, as there were no vehicles allowed. It’s the very reason why that area is so stunning — time really stood still on those trails, looking exactly the same for generations.
It was a little bit of choreography to maneuver between the animals on a very narrow trail, alongside those steep canyons. Thielow had to ride backwards on horseback part of the way to get some of the shots you see in the film, which gave the Crary family a big laugh.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
Sf: This is a film that we were developing together at The Public Good Projects, a non-profit focused on using media to enlighten audiences about some of our nation’s most complex problems, which John Hoffman
was running before he came to Discovery.
We had commenced shooting in all three locations and had put together a sizzle reel. When John started speaking with Rich Ross
about joining his team at Discovery, the fact that we had this film in early production was part of those conversations.
When Rich saw the sizzle, he decided that it was a perfect opportunity for Discovery to demonstrate its commitment to telling solution-oriented environmental stories.
W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at Sundance?
Sf: For a documentary, I think having your film premiere at Sundance changes everything in the life of the film. The important national press is in attendance, programmers for the other film festivals see it with an enthusiastic audience, and most wonderfully, many of your documentary peers get a chance to screen it and spread the good word!
There is no way to underestimate the reach Sundance provides for a film. It’s the best birth a documentary can have.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
Sf: The best advice I received when I was just starting out in film was to learn to edit first. If I could learn documentary editing, I’d also be learning how to direct because I would know what I needed to bring back into the edit room. I followed that advice and it’s been invaluable.
I feel lucky that I’ve never received any bad advice.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
Sf: First, you need total support while filming so only work with crew members that show respect and are willing to collaborate equally.
Second, follow your intuition. Never doubt it!
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
Sf: Some of my favorite women-directed films areLina Wertmüller
’s “Swept Away
,” Sofia Coppola
’s “Lost in Translation
,” and Kathryn Bigelow
’s “The Hurt Locker
,” because they are beautifully crafted works of art. But I’m going to write about “Gimme Shelter
” and Charlotte Zwerin
, who directed the film with David and Albert Maysles
Zwerin’s name is almost never included when “Gimme Shelter
” is written about, but she created the brilliant structure for the film and is responsible for the doc’s “film within the film” concept that’s realized by filming the Rolling Stones in the editing room long after the Altamont concert.The Maysles Brothers
always credited Zwerin as a director, but in the early 70's, it was never honored by the industry. So I want to give a shot out to one of the earliest documentary female directors and honor her work.
W&H: Have you seen opportunities for women filmmakers increase over the last year due to the increased attention paid to the issue? If someone asked you what you thought needed to be done to get women more opportunities to direct, what would be your answer?
Sf: We are fortunate in the documentary world: Women have always been at the forefront of nonfiction film making. It is a wonderful community and continues to thrive through changes in technology and societal issues.
Sundance 2017 Women Directors: Meet Susan Froemke
— “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.