With over two feet of snow piled upon the driveway, I spent this past Christmas Eve with my wife, Cinema Femme founder Rebecca Martin Fagerholm, binging holiday perennials at her parents’ cozy home in Holland, Michigan. Well into the evening, we decided to watch a picture that I hadn’t seen since my childhood, John D. Hancock’s 1989 classic, “Prancer,” which was filmed less than 80 miles away in the quaint town of Three Oaks. The last thing we expected was to have tears streaming down our faces by the end of the movie, but that is precisely what happened, thanks in large part to the brilliant performances by Sam Elliott as gruff apple farmer John Riggs; Cloris Leachman as the reclusive Mrs. McFarland; and especially young Rebecca Harrell as John’s marvelously resourceful daughter, Jessica.
The story revolves around Jessica’s efforts to rescue a reindeer that she believes is the one and only Prancer, yet Hancock infuses the picture with a chilly realism that causes the hard-earned warmth, when it arrives, to be all the more glorious. My wife and I couldn’t resist paying a recent visit to Three Oaks, Michigan, and we were delighted to find that the key film locations look practically identical to how they did in the late ’80s. After reading RogerEbert.com contributor Donald Liebenson’s wonderful interview with the movie’s leading lady, now with the married name of Rebecca Harrell Tickell, I was inspired to explore her acclaimed work as a documentary filmmaker.
Co-directed with her husband, Joshua, Tickell’s non-fiction efforts tackle such vital topics as the BP oil spill (“The Big Fix”), regenerative agriculture (“Kiss the Ground”) and the transformative activism of modern-day youth (“The Revolution Generation”). Now the power couple has helmed their first narrative feature, “On Sacred Ground,” starring William Mapother in a superb performance as Daniel, a war veteran-turned-journalist recruited by an oil company to publish a slanted take on the controversy regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline running through North Dakota’s Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Only once Daniel begins to befriend the indigenous people protesting the pipeline’s construction does he awaken to the corruption in which he is complicit.
I recently had the great pleasure of speaking at length with Tickell for Cinema Femme about her extraordinary career, the lessons she has learned along the way and her achingly personal documentary short, “Regenerate Ojai,” which is embedded in its entirety below.
I must start by saying that your portrayal of Jessica Riggs is one of the greatest child performances in all of cinema.
You’re going to make me cry! I’m going to need to take you around with me and have you do all my introductions from now on! [laughs] I love “Prancer” and am so proud of the film, though it actually took me many years to come around to that. As a kid, I loved it, and then there was a period of time where I kind of suffered over it for a while. Growing up in a small town in Vermont, I was really challenged by how my peers responded. I was bullied, kids threw rocks, and I had some other issues going on at home, so it was really stressful.
As soon as I was able to leave, I went to New York first before coming out to Hollywood. I knew that I couldn’t let my biggest success be something that I did when I was eight years old, so the pressure and the stakes were really high. There was a healing journey that I had to embark on, which was combined with the realization of how the roles in which I was getting cast were the opposite of what I wanted. These were films that I wouldn’t even watch, so I had to get to the point where I quit. I reached my breaking point, hilariously, when I was cast as a succubus in “Saint Sinner,” a movie executive produced by Clive Barker.
I’ve actually done some recent remembering around how that whole thing went down. What I experienced would never happen today, and if it did, it would be on the news, just because it was so exploitative and crossed so many boundaries for me. That definitely left a scar, even though I love movies so much. I’ll watch a good movie and it will rearrange my cells to the point where I’ll come out of it a new person. That’s what I wanted to participate in, and I realized that my agents didn’t really care about that. The projects I was being offered just weren’t what I signed up for, so I quit.
After that, I felt like such a failure. I had to reinvent myself and put all of that behind me. Miraculously, it brought me to the beginning of this path where I got to do exactly what I wanted to do, which was make movies that help people transcend consciousness and open their hearts. For me, filmmaking and art provide access to the great beyond, and that’s what I’m trying to tap into. That’s what Josh and I have been trying to do with our films. Sometimes we’ve done it really well, and sometimes not so well, but the whole thing has been a huge learning journey.
Once I found my calling, I saw how “Prancer” had lit the way for the path that I’m on, and I am so grateful for that. My memories from that experience shaped who I am, and I’ll never forget each one of my encounters with those legendary people, including all of the people that I got to meet after that, like Sammy Davis Jr. I realized later on how lucky I was and how extraordinary that experience was for me.
Has it always been important for you to maintain a connection with nature?
I grew up in a very stressful family environment, so for me, going outside was where I could find peace. I am so grateful for that now, because I feel like that’s how I could connect to god, to my spirituality, even as a young person. It grounded me and helped me to have the strength of character within myself to not take on all of what I had been dealing with at home. I loved building forts in the trees, creating caves in the snow and paddling on my canoe.
I was very lucky that I had the outlet of living on over a hundred acres in Vermont. That was my saving grace, really, and it’s funny because when I played the character of Jessica, I just felt like I was her. I didn’t even really have to act. I had to get over being in front of a camera while being around all of these people, but really, what John Hancock helped me do was just be myself. That’s what came through, and like Jessica, who spent a lot of time in nature and connected deeply with it, I had that similar opportunity as a kid.
There isn’t a false note in your performance. I love the scene where she’s too excited about the reindeer to acknowledge how angry her dad is at her.
I have dyslexic tendencies, and in fact, I learned to read while filming “Prancer,” because I had memorized the lines, so it was on the set where I sort of put it all together. I remember there was a conflict on the set between the writer, Greg Taylor, and John Hancock. Greg was very attached to the words that he had written, and though John would do it as written, he would then have us do two or three more takes that were completely improvised. For instance, in the case of that scene you mentioned, part of it was scripted and then the other part of it, where I’m walking away and talking back to him, is all me. I just sort of threw that out there.
I was also improvising when I messed up the line, “History is gonna love you for this,” which I say to Abe Vigoda. I always tend to butcher famous expressions, and that was an example of me doing that with a bit of my dyslexic tendencies. There was a weaving together of what was written with the essence of what was written. The script had been printed out, and then there would be these moments where we could just be together and sit inside of the emotion of what the scene embodied. That’s what John captured.
Unlike the “Saint Sinner” experience, here you felt empowered as a performer to help bring the script to life.
We worked all hours of the day and night, and I loved every second of it. I’ll be on a set doing something now and I’ll be recalling things that I had learned from my experience of making “Prancer.” All those lessons that I received at that early age have sort of infused into my being.
Do you sense a through line between what Roger Ebert defined as Jessica’s “gumption” and your own?
I feel like so much of that character became infused in me, so I’ve had some emotional moments in rewatching “Prancer” where I’ve felt like that little girl has become combined with me. I’d like to think I’ve done her right. I’ve followed in her spirit, her gumption and her persistence in believing that it’s not all bad and we can find the good. If we all just do the right thing and take action, there can be healing at the end of that.
What are your memories of the late Cloris Leachman? My sister and I were obsessed with the Canon Movie Tales production of “Hansel & Gretel,” which she filmed two years prior to “Prancer,” where she plays one of the greatest witches ever put on film.
I haven’t seen that film, but it doesn’t surprise me. I’d say that Cloris is one of the greatest real-life witches I’ve ever experienced! She was a witch in the best possible way. For me, she was this empowered woman who had no shame. She bragged about all of her husbands and she was also a Method actor onset, so she kind of fused her own outrageous personality with the character that she was playing. I never knew if it was her or if it was Mrs. McFarland. Actually, there was a whole section of the script that got cut where Jessica is talking with her friend, Carol Wetherby, as we’re going over to sled down the hill behind Mrs. McFarland’s house. Carol tells me about how Cloris’ character killed her husband and that the bones were in her attic.
So that is actually Jessica’s motivation for going up the stairs once she’s in the house—to see if she can find the husband’s bones! It was an extra bit that they tested and found that it was too scary for kids. In the original film, all of the kids thought that Mrs. McFarland was this evil person, so it took Jessica even more courage to go knock on her door, and that’s really where the fear came from, not just the fact that she had plowed over her floribundas—just one of many adult themes you’ll find in “Prancer.” [laughs] Obviously, it was eventually revealed that Mrs. McFarland is not a murderer. There was a scene where she comes up and we have a conversation about it, and that ended up getting cut as well.
For me, Cloris was this liberated, powerful, free woman who didn’t apologize for who she was, and I thought that she was beautiful—a little bit scary, but I think that she was trying to be in character with me. She was also hilarious and just really authentic. It was wonderful to work with her. I definitely shed some tears when she passed away recently, and I do credit her with being a great model of an empowered woman who refuses to apologize for herself.
Director John D. Hancock—who recently directed my wife’s friend, Tori Titmas, in the film she wrote, “The Girls of Summer,” which was also shot in Three Oaks, Michigan—grounded the film in a certain authenticity that made the sense of awe and wonder even more impactful.
The scenes set at Jessica’s home were actually shot on the farm where John had lived with his family in Indiana. That was his family’s house and those were his trails, so for him, it was deeply personal, and he didn’t hold back any punches with me. The same was true of Sam. I guess, looking back, one might say they were pretty gruff. At one point, someone had said their methods were tantamount to child abuse, but that had never occurred to me. I saw them simply as real people who were fully committed to bringing out a great performance from me, but I did get upset sometimes.
If I wasn’t delivering the performance that they wanted, John would make me run laps, and they’d all be standing there—the boom operator, the sound guy—waiting for me. I’d get back onset, John would say, “Action!”, and if my performance wasn’t what he wanted, he’d yell, “Cut!”, and go, “Do another lap.” He wanted real emotion from me. Sometimes I would come in and I wasn’t delivering it in the way that he needed me to, but I was open to it. As a child, it left such a huge impression on me in showing the lengths that I was willing to go to create art that touched people’s hearts, and I am grateful for those experiences.
Do you have any memory of filming your emotional conversation toward the end of the film with Sam Elliott, which moved both my wife and I to tears?
I definitely remember running some laps for my close-up in that scene. Then Sam picks me up, carries me to the window and he says something that’s supposed to make me laugh. I remember during the first take, I did the laugh and Sam was like, “That was terrible, you’ve gotta do better than that.” The laugh is still kind of mediocre, looking back on it. I think he was right about that. [laughs] I think they accepted it because it was a nervous laugh that she gave after having gone through so much, so it kind of fit the moment.
Too big a laugh would’ve felt fake because both characters are so emotionally drained at that moment.
Whatever the laugh was that I gave, it was because Sam told me that the laugh I had done previously was terrible. But he was holding me in his arms and I didn’t feel judged or demeaned in any way. I do specifically remember that candidness from him, and just wanting to meet him where he was at and rise to the occasion. I really wanted “Prancer” to be an amazing movie. I remember my mom reading the script to me before I auditioned for it, and I remember just weeping while feeling so connected to that character. I also remember when they sent us a VHS of the film before the premiere. I was about to go on a big tour to promote “Prancer” and they wanted me to see the film before I went out and started talking about it.
I just remember that I got so engrossed in the story that I didn’t even know it was me. It didn’t even feel like I was watching a movie, it just felt like I was in it and it felt so real. It wasn’t until the end where everyone was like, “Good job, Rebecca!”, that I came back to the realization that this was me acting in a movie. I credit that film and the people with whom I worked with really helping me find the thing that lights me up in this world at such an early age, and the staying power that film has for continuing to keep that alive and for putting me on this path that I’m on today.
I learned so much from the film’s producer, Raffaella De Laurentiis, who is Hollywood royalty. I loved her and my mom would let me have slumber parties with her. At one point, she gave me the diamond earrings that had been worn by her mother, Silvana Mangano, who was a famous actress. She died the year that “Prancer” was released, and here Raffaella was passing these earrings onto me. I remember one night, Raffaella was smoking and she actually caught the hotel on fire. She was asleep and her assistant, Hester Hargett, who was the film’s associate producer, dragged her out of the room because the bed was on fire. It had been the end of a really long week, and I was so tired that I didn’t even wake up until the fireman was holding me in the hallway, putting his mask on me because the smoke was all the way down to the floor.
We were in the lobby at the Holiday Inn in LaPorte, Indiana, and everybody was in their pajamas. The next morning, I ran up to Raffaella’s desk in the production office She had her feet up on the desk and was smoking a cigarette. I said, “Raffi, did you see the fire last night?”, and she said to me, “Darling, I started the fire.” Nobody got hurt, but for me, I was again struck by another powerful woman who was running the show while not apologizing for herself. It was an incredible thing to see in 1989, an era that was not at all about being real. There was a lot about Hollywood that was fake, so for me to get to see Cloris in her element, and then to watch Raffaella exude this big boss energy, it definitely left me thinking, ‘I could do that one day.’
I put this film on par with one of the great Disney classics, “Pollyanna,” which also has a startling darkness and is enormously moving in a way that is devoid of easy sentiment. Both films portray the transformative power of a child’s perspective in the lives of those she touches, such as a reclusive woman, played in “Prancer” by Leachman and in “Pollyanna” by Agnes Moorehead. After suffering a fall, all that positive energy the young girl puts out into the world ultimately comes back to nurture her, as in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Yeah, I grew up in Vermont and we certainly didn’t have cable—maybe we had one good channel with the bunny ears and whatever VHS tapes we owned—and “Pollyanna” was one of the films that I watched over and over again. I loved that movie and I hadn’t even thought of that until now—I had totally forgotten about that movie—but that definitely would’ve influenced me before going on the set of “Prancer.”
I was so glad to have introduced you to the “Siskel & Ebert” review of “Prancer” in which both critics praise your performance [at the 12:41 mark in the video embedded above].
I was so moved to hear Roger say, “I liked Rebecca Harrell.” I felt so seen by him.
You told RogerEbert.com contributor Donald Liebenson that you had framed Roger’s review of “Prancer.”
My mom had saved a bunch of articles and they were tucked away somewhere in box. While recently remodeling our storage room, I pulled out all these old boxes that contained tapes of me on “The Pat Sajak Show” and “The Today Show.” In one box was this review from Roger Ebert, and the way in which he described me as “a plucky schemer, always working an angle” really resonated with me—my husband says that about me today. [laughs] After having been so beaten up in Hollywood and deciding that acting wasn’t for me anymore, to reread those words meant so much to me. I just really appreciated that he had given the film that kind of attention, and that he had specifically called out my performance.
I also framed a photo of him and I together when we met at the 1998 Virginia Film Festival. I was on this little plane with him and he was just so kind. He was somebody that I would’ve normally been afraid of because I knew that he would be reviewing my work and I was scared about what he had to say. Even though he didn’t really like the film, “A Piece of Eden,” that I was in at that festival, he liked me. He took the time with me that night to make sure that I knew that he believed in me, and that always stuck with me, the fact that he did that for me. He really gave me that gift of believing in myself.
It’s funny, I really grieved him when he passed away. For somebody that I had only met once, the emotion that I felt was sort of disproportionate to the amount of time that I had actually spent with him in person, but because he was such an important part of how I view myself, it was a real loss for me. I had always hoped to get to go back and show him the work that Josh and I are doing now. I thought of his wife, Chaz, too, when he passed. I’m such an admirer of her’s and how she is keeping this legacy alive is just incredible.
You cited “An Inconvenient Truth” as a key inspiration for you. It’s a film that Roger said audiences “owed themselves to see,” and the same could be said of the films you have made with Josh.
I don’t even remember any documentaries I had seen prior to that one, but I just remember it being crystal clear that moving forward, my life was going to be about this now. I had that sort of feeling I described earlier where you watch something and suddenly, you have a new purpose. I sat there, the lights had come up, the theatre attendants were cleaning up the popcorn and my jaw was on the floor. I do feel so deeply connected to nature, and it has always baffled me to see how we have industrialized our world. After growing up in the nature of Vermont, it was a real shock for me when I came out to New York and California.
Something about those environments felt so disconnected and off-balance to me, and so when I saw that film, it helped me really root down into the core of what I feel my purpose is here in this life. Everything that I had done had led me to where I was in that moment. I have these tools, I know how to make movies, I love movies and I love the environment and I declared that I was going to make movies that healed the world and restored our connection to the environment. I had no idea how I was going to accomplish that, but what was really obvious to me in that moment was that this was going to be my future. I had met Josh in 2005, a year before “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, and he and I knew each other for about a year and a half before we started dating.
You’ve mentioned how you had seen Josh on the news with his Veggie Van, powered by clean-burning biodiesel fuel.
Yes, but I didn’t connect all of the dots at first. I had actually met Josh while doing something called the Landmark Forum, formally “est” training, which is a transformational workshop about having breakthroughs in your life. I kind of went in there thinking, “Oh god, this is like a cult and they’re going to try and brainwash me.” Instead, I got these incredible tools to get out of my own way, and to create my life from nothing, really, which is what the workshop is all about. Josh and I had both been taking workshops, and I knew right when I saw him that he had this spark. I actually hid when I saw him because I thought, ‘Oh my god, he’s the one, and I’m not ready for the one! I’m a mess right now!’ I was like goo.
It was in 2007 that I went over to his house and he showed me some footage of what became our first film, “Fuel.” The Veggie Van was parked in his backyard, and all of a sudden, all of the pieces came together. I already had chemistry with Josh and so, needless to say, a month later, I had quit my job and sold my car. I had a beautiful 1968 Volkswagen bug and I was actually doing quite well in real estate. I had bought a house and was getting a corner office—I had a little niche in selling fixer uppers in Beverly Hills—but I just traded all that in, and everyone thought I was crazy. They were like, “You’re going to give all this up for a man?”, and I told them that wasn’t at all the case. I knew and he knew that together, we would be unstoppable.
I remember he asked me what I thought when he showed me the footage, and when I finally could say something, I said, “Every free minute I have I will give to this.” In his mind, my words meant, “Every minute I have,” and he was right. Very quickly, we got engaged, moved in together and raised our first million. A version of that film, entitled “Fields of Fuel,” premiered at Sundance and won the Audience Award, and then we actually had to go and reshoot the whole film because the moment that it came out is when the biodiesel movement collapsed. We actually had to cross picket lines to get to the film. People were calling us “bio-fools.”
Of course, for Josh, who had come from Cancer Alley in Louisiana, and who had spent his life trying to create this closed loop system of taking used cooking oil and turning it into a renewable resource of biodiesel that burnt much cleaner, it was a hard pill to swallow. But that was only the first time I had to cross a picket line to get to one of our movies. [laughs] So we re-shot the movie, and that was where I really sort of cut my teeth on producing a film with him. We put all of that backlash right into the film, and what actually came from that dark night of the soul for Josh was what we called the New Green Barrel. It was a barrel of solutions such as wind, solar, bicycling, biodiesel, renewable energy and composting, and we turned it into a curriculum that got taught in schools.
It was one of the first green curriculums that went into schools, and it went far and wide. I barely graduated from high school, and here I had played a major role in developing this curriculum. Today, I meet people who learned that curriculum over a decade ago, and are now in the fields of renewable energy, solar, wind, regenerative agriculture and things like that. They’ll come up to me and be like, “That put me on this path,” and so if it hadn’t been for that backlash, it wouldn’t have changed the film and it wouldn’t have turned into this other thing. That’s sort of been the lesson along the way that each time it seems like we hit a hardship and it’s really painful in the moment, we often find that it led us to the big thing that really mattered.
In your powerful TED Talk, you convey the indignation that you felt watching President Obama reassure the public that the environment had recovered from the BP oil spill, while your own irreversible medical condition caused by the water’s toxicity directly contradicted his words.
The second film that I made with my husband was called “The Big Fix,” and it was about the BP oil spill. I got exposed to a lot of oil and chemical dispersant, and the combination of that is even more toxic, so I’m still on the path of wellness and healing. At one point, I didn’t think I was going to be able to have children and fortunately, through coming to the Optimal Health Institute and all these other healing modalities, I’ve been able to be a healthy human. While filming “The Big Fix,” I went out on a boat, and though I had a full face mask on, my neck and chest were exposed, and so I now have an irreversible skin condition that causes my skin to burn terribly when it is exposed to the sun. I get these big red rashes and it’s really uncomfortable, but I cover it up with makeup and I can live with that. It’s not very pretty to look at, but it’s not the worst thing in the world.
If it’s sunny, I have to take precautions by covering up that area with a scarf and putting on sunblock. The big thing that scared me was the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to have kids. Here Josh and I had just gotten married, we go off to film our second movie and then I ended up really sick for the better part of two years. I had blood coming out of my ears, and then I did end up having a miscarriage. When I gave birth to my daughter, she had a birth defect with an umbilical cord. She had a one in three chance of being severely malformed or being stillborn, so thank god that she was okay. What Josh and I realized during that time was that we are willing to put ourselves out there to get the story, to illuminate something that we feel is important, but we also have to moderate that with our own well-being in the process.
I think I tend to be a bit “Pollyanna”-ish. I do tend to see the glass as half full, and I think for me, the misinformation that was spread about the BP oil spill was a pretty dark reveal. It definitely shattered my trust in our regulatory agencies and in our government to protect us. It made me question what I see in the media when they’re saying, “Oh it’s all good, come on down, the water is safe,” while I’m standing on the beach and I’m seeing that it’s not safe and that people are being hurt. I feel like I got away with being pretty healthy compared to so many people that I know who were exposed in similar ways that I was and were misled and told that it was safe and it wasn’t. One of the statistics that I learned was that the lawsuit issued by victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was dragged out for such a long time that a huge percentage of the people who were exposed to the oil and dispersant had died by the time they finally came around to settle.
I sued BP back in 2010 and my lawsuit is still pending—and I feel like I am one of the lucky ones. I feel like I have access to so many great healing tools, so I am able to live a great life, but when you are in Louisiana, there is no place for people to go. I still love “The Big Fix,” though. I co-directed it with Josh and I learned so much about making movies during that time. I loved the darkness of it and the grit of the cinematography. It was all so personal because it was about my husband and me as well as all these people that I fell in love with down there and this epic journey that we had together.
Daniel’s story of disillusionment in “On Sacred Ground” seems like the perfect material for you and Josh to tackle in your first narrative feature effort as co-directors.
It all started when we made a short film that aimed to spread awareness about world peace and Prayer Day, and we got to meet some of the most prominent elders within the Lakota community. My eyes were opened to a whole new culture, and one that linked to my own identity as a descendent of the first white settlers in Indiana. I’m a descendent of the survivors of the Pigeon Roost massacre, and I have a whole book about that gory tale. I guess I had some ancestral healing to do, and my knowledge around indigenous rights and indigenous sovereignty was very limited. So when Josh and I started to dive into that subject in 2014, we realized that environmental justice and indigenous justice are linked. When we see the rights of the environment being trampled, usually the rights of indigenous people are being trampled as well.
It was a big eye-opening journey that we had been on with this, and from day one, when we were asked to use our skills to help bring attention and awareness to some of these human rights violations, we weren’t sure what the way in was. I actually was the one who wanted to go to Standing Rock because we knew that there was footage being destroyed that documented the crimes that were happening against the indigenous people and the water protectors. Because it was cold and wet, there was so much footage that was just getting thrown away, so we reached out to some friends at G-Tech, and they gave us $50,000 worth of hard drives. I was eight months pregnant and our contacts at Standing Rock told me, “We don’t want you to come, it’s way too dangerous here. If something happened to you, it would be really bad.”
So I volunteered Josh to go, and he was there during some of the most violent parts of what happened during that protest. At one point, he disappeared for four days and I didn’t know where he was. I called the Morton County Jail and was looking at everything I could find on social media to see if I could locate him. I went through all the different stages of worry and anger, to the point where I was over it by the time he finally called me and I was like, “Oh you’re alive.” That line actually ended up in the movie. Josh and I could have gone in many directions with our first narrative feature, but instead, we could just feel instinctively that this was the story that we wanted to tell.
So upon talking to the leaders, the water protectors and the big activists, we settled on that the only way to tell the story was from the perspective of a war vet with PTSD who goes to the reservation. William Mapother had read the script, and we knew that we wanted him to be our lead. We had wanted to work with him ever since we met him in 2010. We had loved him in “Another Earth,” and when I heard the story about how they made that for only a few hundred thousand dollars and that William played a pivotal part in making that happen, we knew that we wanted him to be in our film. After we sent William what we had for the script, he said, “I want to do it, let me write this with you.” He is a brilliant man and I am so grateful that he went through hell with us. It was really cold when we filmed that movie, and everybody there really wove into it a little bit of magic and hope that it was going to make a difference down the road.
As we were working on the script, we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if William’s character actually goes in and it’s the opposite of white savior-ism, in that he goes in and betrays them?’ He’s covering what is occurring at Standing Rock from the oil company’s perspective, which Josh and I know so intimately well after having made all of these films about oil, so we’ve heard all of the perspectives on these issues. We all drive cars that are fueled by something, and if it’s not oil, then it’s most likely coal. Our eyes had also been opened to fact that the Constitution says that we have to uphold these treaties. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1980 that the land does belong to them, and then they refused payment for it.
My dad is a farmer from the midwest and very conservative. We filmed the movie on his farm in Ohio just like John Hancock shot “Prancer” on his farm. I thought we could reach a different audience with this film than the choir that already know the story. We were looking to connect with viewers who value the Constitution like it’s the Bible, to a degree, and by showing both sides, we thought we could create an opening for people who don’t necessarily align with this per se to get interested because it touches on their values too. My dad actually loves the movie and I can’t tell you how many conservative people have come up to me and told me how they didn’t know about these issues, and how enlightening it was.
We touch on other important things, like the fact that there are murdered and missing indigenous men, women, and children who get stolen. There’s also the fact that the pipeline is still flowing and they don’t even have a legal permit for it. It’s now up to a million barrels a day, which has been upped from 500,000 per day, and there have been oil spills since then. In “On Sacred Ground,” we take people on this journey with Dan, and help them to learn like we learned through our journey about how these issues effect us all, not just people who are indigenous. Our hope with this film was that in some way, it could contribute to the process of healing and restoring our integrity as a country, as Americans.
I was impressed by how you and your longtime cinematographer, Simon Balderas, go about conveying this story visually, such as with the superb 360 degree effects shot that takes us within Daniel’s psyche.
Thank you! We wanted people to feel like they were him. Simon is also indigenous and everybody who worked on the project really bled for that film. People hold it to a higher standard that, in some ways, is an honor, considering what we had at our disposal to make this film in terms of resources and how people were donating their time. Josh and I ended up paying to make the film. We had a one million dollar budget, and we received over 100 million media impressions when the film came out. It has been shown at Standing Rock and in schools. We’ve had over 150 schools request to do in-person screenings, and that was actually two months ago, so our numbers have probably jumped way up. I know that this film will make a difference and certainly, for me, it’s made a huge difference in terms of expanding my awareness and showing us what we plan to infuse into future films.
I’m really excited for you to see “Common Ground,” our next film, which is aiming for a fall release. Laura Dern is one of the narrators, and the narration itself is like a love letter to our children. It explains how we got ourselves into this mess, affirms our commitment that we are going to fight like hell to fix it and shows how we can fix it. I am so excited about how we have woven in the indigenous perspective because so much of regenerative agriculture is based on indigenous practices. With this film, we are retelling the history of agriculture in a whole new way that no one has ever seen before. We also had a decent budget for this film, and it is just, hands down, the best thing we have ever made. And it’s coming up next.
I loved that you and your husband appear on the second season of Laura Dern and Mike White’s great HBO show, “Enlightened.”
I am such a huge Laura Dern fan! I was awestruck when she showed up at the theater in Santa Monica where “The Big Fix” was playing in 2011. She showed up with Ben Harper, and after the screening, she came up to me, gave me a big hug and said she’d help out in any way that she could. Then she invited us to be ourselves on her show where we were dubbed environmental heroes. The whole thing was so surreal.
I remember when we went to the “Enlightened” premiere, she sat us next to David Lynch. David said that he had loved “The Big Fix,” and then he leaned over to me and said, “You’re as good as gold.” I will never forget that. We had paid a big price for making that movie and I still love it, but to have him say that was really rewarding, in part because it had a hard time getting distribution in the United States. The film was shown all over the world, but we couldn’t get it shown here. I wonder why? [laughs]
Lynch’s work invites us to slow down and drink in the details we normally overlook, so it makes sense to me that he would connect to your work, which causes us to think of the ramifications of our actions.
You should check out the little documentary that I made on my town called “Regenerate Ojai.” We just came out with it because we figured that we can’t be making a film about global regeneration and then ignore what is happening in our own country of Ventura, which has been referred to as the last plantation. It has some of the most horrific field worker conditions, and Cesar Chavez basically gave up in Ventura County because the farmers were bullies. Farming practices in our town are harming people and the planet. Ojai contains the most toxic pesticides and herbicides in the closest proximity to residences and schools, so we’ve been on this journey for the last six years of trying to encourage our local farmers to make the transition. We’ve even met with some surprising resistance, including having our property trespassed onto and asphalt being left in our mailbox just a couple weeks ago after our town hall.
Laura Dern narrates the film, and her mother, Diane Ladd, who is in “Enlightened,” is also in the film. Diane’s dog Ginger, who was featured in the show, died from exposure to pesticides in Ojai. It’s just crazy to me that Josh and I could be having such an impact on a global level, and yet within our own hometown, we are faced with such challenges. I love farmers. My dad’s a farmer and I come from a long legacy of farmers, so my need to continue raising these questions comes from a place of love. There’s an article where they said I was a “Hollywood newcomer spreading non-science-backed fear-based hysteria,” that I needed to calm down, and that I’m not an activist, I’m a terrorist. I actually highlighted each one of those lines and I framed them on the wall above my toilet. [laughs] Rachel Carson was called hysterical too, so I consider it a badge of honor. What I’m doing must be working, so I am going to continue to come from love and ask the hard questions.
How fitting that your co-star in “Prancer” was Ariana Richards before she made “Jurassic Park,” and now her “Jurassic Park” co-star, Laura Dern, is one of your biggest champions.
It does feel like things have come full circle. I got a nice note from Raffaella too when “On Sacred Ground” came out, and she said something along the lines of, “Good job, kiddo. You’re starting to make it in one of the hardest industries.” It was really touching to hear her say that.
Was it a goal of yours to empower your indigenous actors, just as you were while making “Prancer”?
Oh a hundred percent. From day one, we had sections of the script that were just blank because we didn’t want to put words in anybody’s mouth. We had so many people at Standing Rock who were on the set advising us all along. I stole John Hancock’s model of doing a scene as written, and then having the actors improvise. So much of the film ended up being written on the spot, and some of the best moments in “On Sacred Ground” were because of that counseling and the ideas that our indigenous cast brought with them. When we were recreating the water cannon scene, it turns out that it was two years to the day that it had happened. Many of the people on set were there that night, and so they were coming up and saying, “This didn’t happen, we wouldn’t have said this.”
At one point, somebody started making a war call, and they were like, “Stop that! The women wouldn’t do that, only the men.” So we were very much in the hands of the people whose culture this is. From day one, we went in wanting to learn, and I continue to. After a recent screening, we had a Zoom with some of our indigenous stars and the people at Standing Rock. They were like, “You know, the term ‘Wašíču’ is pronounced ‘wah-see-shu,’ not ‘wah-see-chu.’” We didn’t get it all right, though we did make sure to listen to our cast. The scene between Kerry Knuppe and Irene Bedard where they are talking about strong warriors was improvised by them. We had to put a lot of trust in our cast and crew that we would all pull for it and do the best that we could. I don’t think that we got it a hundred percent right, and if we had more money or more time, we would’ve been able to have done much more, but I’m proud of our first scripted film.
It has been brutal to read the reviews by people who just don’t know what the journey has been. I can respect that that’s their perspective since it is absent of that context. Honestly, I have just learned so much through this story. I have learned about how much I don’t know, how much there still is for me to learn and how interested I am in being a participant in helping to heal some of these injustices. Hopefully the film, as perfect or imperfect as it may be, will be a part of that. It definitely will have a long life in terms of how it influences my filmmaking and the stories that we tell.
The truth is, we all have so much to learn, and the beauty of your work is that invites viewers to educate themselves on these vital topics.
Right, and it’s painful sometimes. We almost didn’t release “On Sacred Ground.” A year ago, we were thinking of just shelving it and it was actually our indigenous advisors and friends who encouraged us to release it. They said, “This film has an important message, and you are going to reach people who need to hear it. You did all the right steps,” and I knew that. David Midthunder told me that you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t here. And so, at the end of the day, after some deep soul searching, we felt that we owed it to all of the people along the way who participated in this and who led us to this to come out with the film in the hopes that it could make a difference in some way, and I’m glad we did. It’s been brutal, but I’m grateful for the lessons that I’ve learned.
It’s a good movie and I think that it’s going to lead to some other good things. The end of the movie is not a happy one. When Daniel is standing at the gas pump and looking at the fuel as he fills up his car, I can’t tell you how many times that’s been me. How can I know what I know and still be participating in the world in this way? I was hoping that we could give people a taste of that feeling. It’s one thing to be at Standing Rock, but it’s another thing to come back to your regular life and then try to assimilate with what you now know. It changes you, and that’s what we tried to capture with that film. Making “On Sacred Ground” changed me, and I’m so grateful for those lessons. It’s been like jumping through a ring of fire, I guess you could say. It’s been a spiritual journey—one that’s not a public one, but a very private one—and I am a better human being for it.
I truly believe Roger would be proud of the work that you and Josh have done.
That means a lot to me. I feel him up there, still guiding me with his words. Movies do have magic. They call it movie magic because when you are infused with that magic, there are no bounds to what can happen from that. I think it is a timeless film that will hold up ten years from now. It is a bit of a sensitive topic right now, so I am not surprised by the immediate response, but I stand by the message of the film. It’s getting reviewed, which is a miracle for a little, tiny, low-budget indie film that we made for a million dollars. That’s a really big deal, and the fact that all of these people trusted us to tell this story causes me to feel responsible for them and protective of them, because I know what went into making it. It’s a miracle that the film got made at all, and I’m grateful that six years after Standing Rock, we are bringing attention back to it. We are letting people know that this injustice is continuing to happen, and hopefully from that, some good can come.
There are so many young people right now, as evidenced in your documentary, “The Revolution Generation,” who clearly have the gumption of Jessica.
That’s right, there’s a sea change happening, and it’s time for it. I think young people are done feeling apathy and they are ready to roll up their sleeves and fix what has been broken by previous generations. It’s time for women to feel empowered, it’s time for these human rights violations to end and it’s time for us ultimately to take care of our home. We all come from that home, and if we can’t take care of her, then she can’t take care of us. Hopefully our films can turn the tide, and in fact, on Earth Day last year, our film “Kiss the Ground” was shown to the entire USDA, including the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. He watched it and said, “This is the way forward,” and he’s somebody who had previously been a big supporter of Monsanto. Then they created a congressional committee and started by saying, “The reason that we’re here is because we watched the film ‘Kiss the Ground.’”
The USDA allocated twenty billion dollars to climate smart agriculture and soil health, and we have been credited with being some of the glue that brought that whole thing together. It shows how film has the power to bring unlikely partners together, and “Kiss the Ground” did that. It also happens to be King Charles’ favorite movie. “Common Ground” will be the second film in this series, and the third film, “Groundswell,” will be about how we can restore entire ecosystems, and on a planetary level, draw down enough carbon to stabilize the climate in time. Right now, “Kiss the Ground” is free for schools and organizations. We made a free version for farmers, so it doesn’t have any of the politics in there, and then we made a free version for schools and we left some of the doom and gloom out of that one.
About 46,000 classrooms have had in-person screenings of “Kiss the Ground,” and we had over a billion media impressions in the first ninety days when the film came out. It’s made a big difference, and I think honestly, compared to what “Common Ground” is going to be, we’re just getting started. Maybe we’ll make another feature film one day—I’m not racing out the door to do that right this second [laughs]—but I love storytelling and I think Josh and I ultimately just have to be inspired. When the subject calls us, we’ll rise to the occasion.