By Jude Warne.
Sandy McLeod is more than familiar with the art of documentary filmmaking. After all, she has worked with the great Jonathan Demme on the 1984 Talking Heads classic Stop Making Sense and the 1987 television documentary Haiti: Dreams of Democracy. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her 2003 short form doc Asylum, which followed the story of a Ghanaian woman seeking to escape genital mutilation. McLeod’s latest release, Seeds of Time (2014), is her first long-form documentary film; in it, she presents a compelling study of “crop diversity pioneer” Cary Fowler. Fowler is a man on a mission to inform the global public at large of our ongoing food scarcity issue. Climate change and increasing population rates, amongst other things, have brought the issue to a head, and an overall unawareness has resulted in an uninformed public.
Fowler’s ongoing work and McLeod’s film are attempts to make the unformed very informed. Fowler is the creator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, a “Noah’s Ark” of plant seeds that maintains a reset option for the human race, should a crop or two – or all – one day die out. He is a genius, and a much needed one for our age; just last week, President Obama announced his intention to make Fowler a member of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development. Despite his acclaim and renown, Fowler remains purely focused on his work.
In conversation with filmmaker Sandy McLeod, we learn more about Seeds of Time’s early stages, its production processes, its aesthetic inspirations and the all-too-familiar rocky road to obtaining funding for a documentary picture.
Congratulations on such a wonderful film. How did this project come to be? Had you been familiar with Cary Fowler’s work prior to the creation of your film? Was it a collaborative process between the two of you?
I was made aware of Cary Fowler by an article that I had read in The New Yorker, and it turned out, just by coincidence – it’s kind of a crazy story, actually – I was reading the article at breakfast one morning, while my husband was on a conference call on speakerphone, and by the end of the call I realized that he was on the phone with Cary Fowler. I asked my husband if he could make an introduction, and he was sort of alarmed – I mean, we both were a bit like “This is hard to believe.” He put me in touch with Cary, and I wanted to meet with him because his work really grabbed my attention. I didn’t really know anything about seed banks, I didn’t really understand the enormous pressure that agriculture was under. I wanted to interview Cary and just see if I could build a film around him. I read his book called Shattering, which is a beautiful book about a lot of different things in the film. It was 110 degrees in Memphis the day I interviewed him, we were on his back porch, and I made him sit with me for eight hours, because I was so taken with everything he was telling me and I wanted more and more information. That’s what really got me started.
How did you find it working with Cary over the course of filming, and during pre-production?
He was great. He suffered through not only the 110-degree weather with me that day, but he let me tag along with him to all kinds of places. He saw the importance of getting some attention for his subject. He had been traveling around the world with his subject for thirty years but had not been given enough attention. So he was very game.
Was Cary excited about the film’s release? I’m sure he’s seen the completed film by now.
Yes, he has seen it many times by now. I think he’s pleased with it. But he’s a little bit embarrassed by it, I think. When I screen the film and bring Cary out afterwards, he inevitably gets a standing ovation. But he soon directs the attention towards me, so I think it makes him uncomfortable. He’s a reluctant subject of a film – well, perhaps that’s not the best phrase. He loves his work, and loses himself in it, gives all of his attention to it.
That’s so admirable, to put one’s cause above oneself, and above everything else.
It is, and it has consequences, as we see in the beginning of the film.
How did you devise the form of the film? Did you create it ahead of time, prior to production, or did it happen naturally?
Francois Truffaut (as Ferrand in his 1973 film Day for Night) had this great quote about how, in making a film, you make all these preparations like you would before going on a stagecoach ride, you pack your bags carefully, plan, think and re-think. Then you get on the stagecoach and hang on for dear life. That was kind of my experience with this film. There was so much information that was coming at me. Dozens of interviews are in the film and a lot of their inclusion was decided upon by how much could viewers handle. What was too much? So I knew that I wanted to hang the film on Cary, because otherwise I would’ve included more kinds of information that was interesting to me particularly. That decision helped me to narrow down some of the information.
How did you plan the logistics? I know it’s such a global film, with footage from South America and Europe and the US – that must have been a big project.
Well, it was a difficult film to raise money for – the film industry doesn’t think agriculture is the least bit sexy. And people who are in that world and understand the issues in the agricultural world are putting in every dollar they’ve got to sure it up. So it was a hard film to fund, and I very quickly became aware of what a global picture it would be. I kind of had to take the most important places first – I knew I needed to go to Russia and to Svalbard. Peru came later, but I wish I had had the money to go there right up front, and could’ve paralleled the stories a little more. So it was, shoot a little bit of film, raise some more money, shoot a little bit more film and so on.
How did you put your production team together? I thought that the work of cinematographer Henrik Edelbo was impeccable, and quite an aesthetic asset to the film. And I liked your use of animation and visual effects; I thought the balance was even. Did you target certain people who you wanted to work with?
You know, I found Henrik, I needed him for a shoot in Copenhagen, and right away I liked his eye. Unfortunately, I had already shot Svalbard and New York – I had shot quite a bit before I found him. But Henrik is a skateboarder who used to shoot skateboarding tricks; that’s how he got involved in film. He has that Danish eye, and it’s so great to find someone who has an eye that you love.
How did you feel about the transition into feature-length documentary film? I know previously you had mainly directed short form docs.
Yes. Well with this particular subject, I couldn’t possibly have done it in short form. I’d always wanted to do a feature but never had the resources. It was so challenging for me actually, because it was a lot of information and took a lot longer, and I felt like I wanted to make a film that would lead people to want to know more and maybe go to the website and look. There are a lot of interviews on the website that didn’t end up in the film. And it was fun for me because I got to spend so much time on the subject. If you love your subject, researching is really fun. I welcome that stage.
Yes. Albert Maysles said “Love your subject” and “Get close” in his advice to documentary filmmakers.
Yes. It’s excellent advice.
Can you speak to the USA’s involvement in these agricultural resource issues? From the film, it seemed that the US was one of the least cooperative, while Norway, home to the Seed Bank, was so willing to delve into the issue.
You know, you would have to ask Cary that question. I don’t know exactly when the US came into the picture. Dr. Henry Shands was one of the people who Cary first brainstormed with about the idea. And I know that the seed bank in Fort Collins, which is our national seed bank, has had ten percent of its funding cut in the last year. It remained with some politically unpopular ideas. And those funding cuts really do result in pretty serious consequences that I don’t think politicians really understand. Hopefully, this film will help.
Do you have a favorite documentarian from film history? Is there anyone you model yourself after style-wise, or who you look up to in some way?
There’s so many that I love, but I guess early on, Fred Wiseman was somebody that I really admired. I love the way that he edits his films. This film, Seeds of Time, is more an educational film. But I would actually love to do a film more along the lines of what he did. There’s something about allowing things to unfold that he does, that’s so much more informative than micromanaging the audience. I love that form, and I’m sure it’s full of surprises for him as well; he can actually spend some time allowing things to happen, waiting for them. He has the ability to know when and where to look. To find The Moments, you have to have good intuition.
What’s up next for you, project-wise?
It’s not fully formulated yet, but I’m very interested in neuroscience and the brain, and some important things are happening in that realm right now. So I’m looking to do a film about that, but it’s still in the research stage. I’m meeting with people, finding my way. I haven’t met my Cary Fowler of the field yet.
Jude Warne is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.