Moving back to the US, I thought to do a film in Butte which I'd visited
a few hours once, and passed by numerous times. My interest was in part
owing to its economic circumstances - a small, once important city imploded
to a small town, and in part owing to its visual qualities. Butte sits
high in the Rockies, its turn-of-the-century downtown sitting on the
edge of a huge open pit copper mine . The relics of 19th century industry
- pit head elevator structures, train tracks, and the "railroad"
housing for workers, along with the splendid homes of the wealthy, all
backed with the ochre, yellow, and greys of the slag heaps, all caught
my eye. I arrived in town in June, headed to a suggested bar (the cultured,
hip, one I guess) and being asked what I was doing in town, I replied
I was there to make a movie.
I had a free place to stay within a few hours, and in short order a
little nucleus of new friends which included a Vietnam vet, a social
worker, local radio talk show host, a failed writer, a painter, and
others lacking any particular work. I spent the summer talking, hanging
around, looking and exploring Butte, and trying to get my volunteer
group to dream up a story to hang a film around, but aside from an all-inside-a-cab
story that Hal, the writer had already written and thought to cram onto
celluloid, nothing really came out. So I decided, in a little bit of
insecurity, to import Marshall Gaddis, who'd done his first acting in
Slow Moves. I seemed to need just one person around who I sort of knew
and could count on. And as well, as most of my filmmaker friends and
others had not liked Marshall in Slow Moves and had suggested I not
work with him again, my contrarian instincts surfaced and I thought
I'd "show them" how wrong they were. Truth was that I think
these people didn't like Marshall or people like Marshall, and instead
of measuring the acting by the acting, they measured by their tastes
in people, which aggravated me - my taste in people is real catholic.
On arrival I shaved off a scraggly beard Marshall had grown, left a
handlebar mustache, hennaed his hair and put him on a severe diet and
got him thin. Marshall isn't an actor, and I thought this kind of radical
workover would, as much as one might hope, change him and let another
character emerge. A few other tricks done on a hunch also got used.
Marshall in reality tends to swallow his words and be a bit hard to
understand (one of the Slow Moves complaints), so without telling him
why I told him his character always chewed gum. I thought it might unconsciously
help him articulate a bit more without me having to mention it. It did.
And, Marshall the real person tends to wave his hands about a fair bit
when talking though the movements don't seem too related to the talk.
So I told him, again not wanting to make him self-conscious, that his
character always had his hands in his pockets. The two tricks - just
intuitions on my part - worked like a charm, if ending with some oddities
like a character simultaneously chomping gum and swilling beer.
Story-wise, I decided that I better come up with a starter to get things
going, so using things I'd learned during the summer, I cooked up an
opening scene in which - for all practical purposes - the lead character,
Jeff and his wife split up. From there on the cast took it, scene at
a time, stretched out over a casual 6 or 8 weeks shooting period. Most
of these people either worked, or were unemployed but caught jobs as
they could, and our shooting was fully set around their availability.
At the start of the film I really had no money, though I'd applied for
an NEA grant which I was completely certain I would not get: in the
application I'd written only that I'd go to some place with high unemployment
and make a fiction with whoever wanted, period. I didn't think I'd get
very far. And then, well into working on the film, arrived the grant
and $25,000. I offered each actor some modest money and they all refused,
though I felt some of them thought I'd known I'd get the money all along
and had sort of tricked them.
We were maybe 2/3rds the way through shooting before Sarah, playing
the wife, cooked up the ending which is done so obliquely I am not sure
all viewers get it. To me it is a conditional "happy ending"
with both characters getting what they want, Sarah a child, and Jeff
his wife back. Though I suppose after a few more years it might get
On the completion of filming I returned to San Francisco and had the
film processed. The lab, Leo Diner, managed to trash the whole run,
with a processor that obviously went down with all my stock in the soup
(some is badly over-developed and grainy, some way under, all on the
same 400 foot roll, and in one section the emulsion was rolled off in
a liquid syrupy way, obviously sitting right in front of one of the
hydraulic jets that are in processors). They, typically, denied all.
I moved to another lab, and there on making the second print the worker
put on a reel incorrectly and ran sprocket marks through half an hour
of original. I'd shot the film on negative (unusual for me) thinking
if I did all my work right and it came out well it could be blown up,
but... So go the pleasures of independent filmmaking.
The people in Butte, when they got to see it
a year later, were sort of typically disappointed. The Vietnam vet said
he was hoping it would be more like Raising Arizona,
unconscious that $25,000 and a handful of when-you-have-time non-actors
is not the same as the Coen brothers. But I'm used to it. At a screening
in Portland a fellow came up to me after, saying he'd gone to the screening
because he was from Butte, and he said I'd nailed the atmosphere. For
me that is the best kind of critique I could hope for.
"Jost discerns emotions that conventional film practice misses.
Using nonpro actors he proves his integrity almost too well, surrounding
this desert of inarticulate, tight faces with some of the finest pictorial
representations of the working-class West imaginable - cloud filled
skies, cyclone fences, desolate factories, pipelines, old tanks. A
packing up scene between Jeff and Cathy and a confrontation with a
veteran's counselor are sharp on attitude and language. All this through
the intrepid pursuit of a different world and an alternate point of
- Armond White, Film Comment
"Jost's method of narrating his tale will not be to every taste,
for, though it's visually impressive, not one frame could be confused
with commercial cinema. Using real time, Jost links Jeff's story to
that of American labor history (in a brilliant sequence), ends with
delightful ambiguity, and generally adopts an edgy, improvisatory
style that reminds you of toned-down Cassavetes. This slow, quiet,
intense film held me in its sway - it has the power of reality."
- John Powers, LA Weekly