The Feedback: Derek Hallquist's 'Denial'
Since IDA's DocuClub was relaunched in 2016 as a forum for sharing and soliciting feedback about works-in-progress, many DocuClub alums have since premiered their works on the festival circuit and beyond. In an effort to both monitor and celebrate the evolution of these films to premiere-ready status, we reach out to the filmmakers as they are either winding their way through the festival circuit, or gearing up for it.
In this edition of "The Feedback," we spotlight Derek Hallquist’s Denial. We caught up with Hallquist via email while he was touring the film on the summer festival circuit. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Synopsis: Every day our changing climate pushes us closer to an environmental catastrophe, but for most, the problem is easy to ignore. David Hallquist, a Vermont utility executive, has made it his mission to take on one of the largest contributors of this global crisis-our electric grid. But when his son Derek tries to tell his father's story, the film is soon derailed by a staggering family secret, one that forces Derek and David to turn their attention toward a much more personal struggle, one that can no longer be ignored. With stunning access to intimate family moments and behind-the-scenes energy deals, and with unique humor in the face of overwhelming events, Denial manages to present an important topic through a funny, informational, and enormously compelling personal narrative.
Documentary: There have been many docs about energy and climate change over the years. How is Denial different?
David Hallquist: As a teenager, I was fascinated by the power of the camera as a tool to incite change in the world, and I was also curious how electricity impacted our environment. Why did the world think using electricity was the answer to fossil fuels? Especially in the late ’90s, when most of the electricity was from fossil fuels! Why were even the brightest people not looking deeper? My dad worked at the local electric utility company and invited me to film him at work. The documentary began as an inside view of how our electric grid works, so right away we were already giving a different view of a climate change story.
A decade later, Dad would take me through a completely unexpected journey to find the answer.
D: Was it always your intention to insert yourself into the film?
DH: I never wanted to be in the film. In the early years, I was always taking extra care to cover scenes as they unfolded in a way that we could easily tell the story through my dad’s perspective. It was not until my dad took my family on a deeply personal struggle with truth that it became apparent I had to tell the story. Once Dad told me he felt more natural as a woman, everything changed.
D: Was it difficult to balance being a part of the story as your father’s son and being the filmmaker?
DH: It was a terrible experience balancing my life in the movie and being a filmmaker. I lost focus of technical things often. My scene coverage was often terrible and I struggled to understand why some of the personal things were important to the story. It was only because of the team of amazing filmmakers who worked tirelessly to make it possible. The team decided, if I set up another camera, or even two when possible, then I could worry less about technical things and focus on interacting freely with my family. The process of making the film was in many ways more difficult than dealing with dad’s true gender identity.
D: The film takes a turn when your father tells you about his identity. Was it always your intention to include that aspect of his story?
DH: It was a surprise to find out my dad was a transgender woman in 2011. Even then, there was not a lot of public discussion of what being transgender meant, let alone acceptance. On a personal level, I pushed it aside and forgot about it. Professionally, I was very concerned. Dad was well respected around the country as a leader in the electric utility world. I had attached [Executive Producer] Eugene Jarecki and [Executive Producer/Producer/Writer] Aaron Woolf to the insider perspective of the electric grid climate change doc. As time passed, it became apparent that my dad and I were both hiding from this seemingly scary truth, the same way our world is hiding from a seemingly scary truth about the climate. I finally told Aaron and Eugene the truth about my dad a year after I found out. As seasoned filmmakers, they immediately knew the personal struggle had to be the main thread of the film. The world’s struggle with climate change and my dad’s job to deal with it would be the backdrop.
D: How did you plan the structure of the film in weaving the stories of the energy grid and your father’s transition?
DH: We did not plan the weaving of the stories. I often worry about the state of documentary. It seems like most movies are now pitched, written and then photographed structurally within a few months with maybe a six-to-eight- month post schedule to edit them exactly as they were originally written. When I was alone, I filmed events for days, hundreds of days. When people were with me, we’d film everything with multiple cameras. We gathered all the material, even after we knew the two stories would be weaved together. It was really when Anoosh Tertzakian joined the team that it started to come together. She is an amazing editor, and we decided we would take the important days and turn it into index cards. Then we played with them and organized two paths, one for personal gender story, the other for the climate change crisis. We had my dad as the main thread to go between, but we wanted to take extra time to also emphasize a timeline for both. I wanted us to be very strict about not manipulating things. It created a lot of extra editing work, but I was able to have a copy of the movie on my Avid at home and Anoosh worked on her copy in the Charlotte Street Films office in Soho. We could send bins to each other with rough sequences and have Skype screen-share sessions to collaborate on our work. After nearly a year of this, we had a rough cut and a path to weave them together. It is subtle, but the climate change story leads the personal struggle in the first act of the film and the during the second act, they intertwine and inform each other, then in the third act, the personal story leads us to the answer for both.
D: Were there any voices/experts that you wish you had included?
DH: There were so many people I wanted to have in the movie. I spent many weeks following and interviewing Bill McKibben and spent a lot of time trying to have him in the movie. There was even a scene where Bill and my dad discussed the concept of a decentralized grid, but the film worked better on a deeply personal level. It became more of a movie about psychology, rather than a facts-and-inside-information movie.
D: Was your father open to having his transitional journey captured on film? Was there ever any reservation from you or your father about including that aspect of the story in the film?
DH: I think because of the nature of how the movie began, there were no reservations from my dad or the family about documenting the transitional journey...at first. I’m getting a little meta here, but once the journey of documenting the journey became serious with funding and more filmmakers, then it got sticky. My sisters would worry, and Dad would worry once and a while. When I finally asked during a family counseling session if I could continue to film, everyone said they trusted me. My family all said, "We know you will tell our story honestly." This trust from the family made things worse for me. It was too much pressure and it affected me badly on a personal and professional level. I was worried I would screw it up. I still feel like I failed everyone in many ways. The movie was not a clear-cut, confirmation bias movie, so it did not ever find an audience. I think I had imagined with all the efforts from so many people including the IDA, that success would be a wide audience and perhaps changing some perspective. Maybe just telling the truth and having support to do so is success.
D: With regard to your screening at DocuClub, what were your expectations going into that screening?
DH: It was an honor and such an amazing gift to have a screening at DocuClub. We were expecting people to give us some notes and maybe a couple new ideas.
D: Was DocuClub your first public screening?
DH: DocuClub was our first public screening. I was extremely nervous. Anoosh and Aaron could tell and we went over to Whiskey Tavern so I could have a drink and chill. I was so uncomfortable being in the film anyway; this was so much worse. Now, I had to sit in a room with amazing filmmakers and film fans as they watched me stumble my way through most of my life on the big screen. Yuck!
D: What were the central challenges in your film that you felt could benefit the most from the DocuClub screening?
DH: The central challenges to the film were many at that point. I felt the screening could at least let us know if we were headed in the right direction. We were struggling with how to tell the story. Was it from my perspective? Was it from my dad’s? Should it be a third person? Was it making any sense?
D: What audience observations did you find most surprising and unexpected?
DH: The audience observations were very surprising. They agreed with me and did not like me as a character in the movie. They did not like my technical comments, or any of the meta filmmaking techniques. They also surprisingly got the weaving. They all agreed it needed work, but they loved how each story would lean on the other and inform the other. We knew on a bigger level we were headed in the correct direction.
D: When you went back to the edit room, what were the key changes you made?
DH: Once we got back to the edit rooms after the IDA screening, we were sprinting for the first time. We knew where we needed to go. It was exciting. I was able to cut a lot of myself out of the movie, with the support of strangers, as an argument with the rest of the team. We had a clearer path on how to tell the story because of the screening.
D: What were the key factors that determined that your film was ready for your festival premiere?
DH: Honestly, I think I pushed the team too hard to finish. I wanted this arduous experience to end. We had run out of funds, I had a second child and I come from lower, middle-class income and could not focus anymore. I definitely failed by choosing the now defunct LA Film Festival. The people who ran the festival and the Film Independent people were amazing, but the festival only showed your film once and it was difficult to get it out there. Don’t get me wrong; the festival was a lot of fun and a great experience, but it was the wrong place to premiere Denial. That was my call; the team wanted us to wait and maybe even shelve the movie for a couple months, but my personal life got in the way. If we had more time to create a marketing blitz, or find a festival better suited for docs with tons of subtlety, I think there would have been a better outcome for Denial.
D: What were the most valuable takeaways from the screening?
DH: After the screening, the most valuable takeaway was confidence. We had spent so much time in our dark edit rooms with only a few people to watch it and all of them were too close to it. It was great to know the things we thought were working worked. It was constructive to know many of the things we thought were amazing were absolutely meant for the Avid trash bin. Most importantly, it was amazing to have new ideas and questions from an audience of complete strangers willing to take the time out of their day to shape a very personal story.
Denial was the first film to screen at the DocuClub reboot in April 2016. After touring the festival circuit, the film aired on Independent Lens in 2017. Denial is now available on Amazon.
Lauren Giella is an editorial intern at the IDA. She is a senior journalism major at The University of Southern California.