By Gary M. Kramer.
Daniel Patrick Carbone made a splash at the Tribeca Film Festival back in 2013 with his feature debut, Hide Your Smiling Faces, a largely improvised drama about two brothers growing up in rural New Jersey. The film depicted the characters’ coming-of-age, but the palpable mood and atmosphere Carbone created was more important than plot.
Carbone returned to Tribeca this year with the World Premiere of his largely observational documentary feature, Phantom Cowboys. This film also chronicles young men coming-of-age as its three subjects are introduced in their teen years and then revisited a few years later. Nick lives in Trona, California, a small town that he says he wants to escape, but also knows well; Larry is from Pahokee, Florida, where he hunts rabbits for food in the sugar cane fields; and Tyler races cars on dirt tracks in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Carbone immerses viewers in the lives of his subjects and never judges them; he simply presents them as they are. The impact of this is quietly powerful as the film toggles back and forth in time and between the subjects to paint a gritty portrait of their realities.
At the festival, Carbone talked about making Phantom Cowboys.
What were your criteria for selecting the subjects you did? You must have had an agenda for the kind of lives you wanted to present. How did the three protagonists meet your needs?
We found the towns first. We knew the kinds of towns we wanted to film. We were familiar with Pahokee, FL, we’d seen a photo essay on that and the rabbit hunting, and we knew we wanted to include that. That was the jumping off point. We wanted to find towns that mirrored it in one way or another. That usually involved a pretty small population, and then built up around an industry or factory, or single business – where all the men in town traditionally for generations, went to school, leave, and go to the factory, or the mine, or the sugar cane fields. We looked for other towns that fit that general criteria, and of course, in America, that’s a large number of towns. So we tried to find places that had an interesting – we called them “rituals” at the time, but a sort of pastime for the young men in town that also mirrored the rabbit hunting; something kind of unique, and regional specific. That lead us to the dirt football field out in Death Valley, out in Trona, and the dirt racing in Parkersburg, came last. We found the towns and zeroed in on subjects once we got there. We interviewed some young people, and did research, shot the landscape. We saw an agenda after we started filming. We recognized similarities and differences and leaned into that with our questioning and what we filmed. From the beginning, we tried to find the most engaging young men in these towns. We let their story unfold as we filmed them. It was an experiment to make a film about just your average guys and see where that led us over time, and having faith that inevitably, something compelling will come out of any life if you dig deep enough.
Your feature, Hide Your Smiling Faces was a slow-cinema coming of age tale. You adapt the same style to Phantom Cowboys, which is also a slow-cinema coming of age documentary. Can you talk about changing your format to doc, but your interest in the same theme?
I think I have a bit of a documentary approach to narrative inherently. The interesting thing is that this film began before Hide Your Smiling Faces was even a script. The transition from one to the other, but they were projects in parallel for 9-10 years. I am interested in both formats. I try to surround myself with people who are very talented and interesting and then stand out of their way. I’ll guide them and keep them on the rails. That workflow lends itself nicely to documentary, because a lot of it unfolds in real time and you decide how best to capture these moments and get the feeling across you are experiencing in the moment. Hide Your Smiling Faces was similar. It was all about casting the right guys, giving them the general idea of what they were doing or going through, and then getting out of the way, stepping in only between takes to tweak things here or there. I’m a firm believer in shooting on location and casting real people who lived the role rather than force a role on to someone who is right for it. So there’s a bit of a documentary approach to my fiction.
What I like about your films is how you linger on your subjects. I also appreciate how you parse meaning out of juxtaposing time and editing between characters in Phantom Cowboys. Can you discuss your approach to telling these stories and creating meaning?
This was a film I knew would live or die based on the editing. It’s not a puzzle to figure out what’s going on, but it is for us putting it together thinking in this non-linear way from Scene 1 how to best order these scenes – not only are we teaching the audience what this film is going to be, how to watch it, and what your expectations should be – by jumping around early, showing there are multiple protagonists and time periods – but also trying to pull out themes that aren’t really spoken very much on screen, with bits of voice-over, or when we catch them in a more reflective moment, but a lot of the meaning and a lot of the themes are pulled out of juxtaposing this shot with this shot or this scene with this scene, and creating similarities and differences in these places that get the audience to consider how these lives can divert in such drastic ways, how being brought up in one low-income part of the country can be so drastically different from another very similar on paper town. A lot of that came from the editing. What material do we have? What emotions are on display in this scene? And what does it mean to this other piece of footage if we juxtapose them together. So much of the earlier footage had been shot and sitting in a messy rough cut. Once we started shooting the updated material, to hard cut to them five years later, suddenly that older material has all these new stakes to it, because you know where they end up. You see the innocence at the time versus the reality they are about to experience. It came alive when we were able to flashback to it. We had no idea what we were getting into when we started filming. Larry was 13. It’s a miracle they let us stick around for as long as we did.
This film, like your previous feature, places an importance on father figures. Ty is very happy to have a father and be a father; Nick appreciates his dad and hopes to have a family; Larry is less grounded and wants to be there for his little brother because he understands the need for guidance, which he suggests he didn’t quite have. Can you talk about this theme in your work? I’m also interested in the ideas of masculinity in the film, and how you think these young men feel entitled, empowered or even powerless.
That’s one of those things that kind of surprises me a little bit. With Hide Your Smiling Faces, I noticed as I wrote it and we started to shoot it, some thematic links I wasn’t aware of at the time of writing it. I was trying to write realistic scenes of being that age and in that place. I have a great relationship with my father, but it is something that I think about all the time. Also, as someone at the age where I’m starting to think about those things for myself.
I knew that I wanted to zero in on male centric themes. In these places where men are in the old true sense of the phrase, where they are the head of the household and make all the money, that when you are in these more blue-collar towns, where men are expected to fall in line in a certain way, they all have to work with their fathers, and truly follow in their fathers’ footsteps. It’s an unavoidable relationship that you see everywhere. In this film, you do get three different versions of it. The lack of it for Larry is noticeably different than the other two, but there is this strange competitive nature between Ty and his father, which I didn’t get to explore in my last film; where there is this mutual respect, but also this understanding that the younger generation is coming up on its heels. You can feel the tension between Ty and his father as competitors. Nick and his father have a sweet, traditional relationship, which was a nice juxtaposition between the three. It’s difficult to make a comparison between Larry’s upbringing and the other two. It became a balance of how do we continue this running theme of fathers, and following in the footsteps of older generation of men in Pahokee, where there’s a lack thereof. I was happy Larry recognized that as he got older.
There are some interesting observations about economics and poverty in Phantom Cowboys, some of which is discussed. I like that your film showcases three parts of the country that are rarely seen in cinema. What are the pressures of representing these worlds and treating the subject with respect?
My number one concern and focus was not to be [condescending]. This was my first time putting real people and real lives on screen for a real audience. It’s a different experience than putting a work of fiction on screen. It was constantly a fear of mine – exploiting the lives of these guys inadvertently. It was my goal from Day 1 to find some towns that were interesting, a theme that we like, and some pro and con arguments towards that idea and then stand out of the way. We wanted to make it feel like we were asking questions and not putting a spin on these things.
I think the best line in the film is Larry’s friend Trent, who says, “We adapt to our environment.” He speaks for all the folks who are stuck in situations not necessarily of their making and do the best they can with what they have. What are your thoughts on his remark?
That was one of the last times we shot in Pahokee. We went back to each town to update things. We caught up with Trent, and it was real eye-opening. I hadn’t seen Trent in a long time, and to talk to him and be reminded how much growth has happened to these guys in a couple of years, to hear that out of Trent was really heartbreaking. I was surprised to have a character in the film distill the reason we were there so clearly in one line. It has become the theme of the film. It was a perfect example of crossing our fingers and putting ourselves in the right place at the right time and hoping to coax these themes out of these guys in a way that felt organic.
What are your thoughts about the directions their lives took, which you could not have foreseen when you met them originally?
I think it goes back to that idea that if you do enough to cast – it’s not quite casting in the film – correctly for the film you are trying to make, whatever happens after that should in theory fall in line, and these guys will sort of become the characters that you want them to be.
I wasn’t super-surprised about Nick, because it’s such a common story in Trona. Larry, it was a surprise in a sense in that we weren’t expecting it or assuming it would happen. It’s become a part of the conversation down there; there is such a lack of opportunity down there.
We didn’t go into the film thinking what happened was a possibility. Ty, he was more successful than I anticipated. Unexpected in a positive way. That was almost the most surprising of the three.
There is a concept of Home shared by each subject. They are proud of where they are from. Larry closes the film with the line “If I leave, I’ll come back because this is where I grew up at.” Why is home so important to each of these young men?
There’s a bit of a romance to the outside world, that Nick says, but we cut it down a bit in the film. He has a nice monologue with his reference points for the outside world. He wanted to come to New York to see the Statue of Liberty, because he’s only seen the small statue in Las Vegas. Or go to the ocean, which is the polar opposite of where he lives. There’s a romantic view of the big city, or more iconic parts of the United States that are famous in films. It comes from a place of having everything you sort of need where you are. To move is such a drastic change, and a new start and that’s scary to a lot of people. So, it comes down to the fact that when you have everything you need and are comfortable and more or less content where you are, it’s hard to move and give up everything that you’ve got. And in that age, you spend so much time to be who you are at that moment and figuring yourself out. It’s a such a scary age. They end up finding a comfortable job and life sort of just happens.
What were you like at 17 and 23?
[Laughs]. I was in hardcore bands and I was a good student, but I was a bit rebellious. I came into [New York] every weekend to see punk shows. We were skaters who got good grades. We wouldn’t fully commit to the lifestyle we wanted. At 23, I was in Abu Dhabi, at NYU’s campus. I was a teaching assistant in the Middle East teaching film to a very diverse group of international students. Could not have been more different. That would have a been an interesting jump cut in my life like the ones we do in this film. I spent a lot of time thinking about that. I started the film when I was 23, 24, and finishing it now – obviously, I’m a different person; 10 years in anyone’s life changes them – but I feel like a different filmmaker so it’s been interesting to edit footage I shot when I had a different eye, a different aesthetic, a different appreciation for pacing and speed and all the things that you develop over the course of making films, and hone in on, or let fall by the wayside. It was kind of like editing someone else’s footage at times. It was like, that was an interesting decision that I made at one point. I don’t know that I would have made that same decision today. Leaning into that and embracing that. There are edits in the film where I see my own life jumping forward seven years, so it’s been a kind of therapeutic exercise to finish this film, because I’ve come a long way.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.