Meet the Slamdance Filmmakers: Theo Love, Director/Producer, and Trenton Waterson, Producer, 'Little Hope Was Arson'
Editor's Note: As the doc world braces for the annual pilgrimage to Park City, we at documentary.org will be spotlighting some of the films that will be premiering at Sundance and Slamdance. Filmmaker Michael Galinsky, a longtime contributor to Documentary magazine, whose film Who Took Johnny will be screening at Slamdance, has interviewed a plethora of the Park City Class of 2014, and we'll be posting these interviews over the next ten days.
Here's an interview with Theo Love and Trenton Waterson, whose Little Hope Was Arson premieres January 17 at Slamdance.
When Theo Love and Trenton Waterson set out to collaborate on a film about a string of church fires in East Texas, they knew that the film would turn on ideas related to faith. We talked to them about faith and Little Hope Was Arson.
Documentary: How did you come to be involved with Little Hope Was Arson?
Trenton Waterson: Theo Love and I had mutually respected each other as short filmmakers at the time when we came across this story that had been published in the Texas Monthly magazine. Theo and I crossed paths not just as mutually aggressive, ambitious filmmakers but also as filmmakers with faith-based backgrounds. We instantly connected with this story's themes and layers, and we knew that this was a film that would shake audiences of faith, or of no faith.
It was the perfect story for Theo and me to collaborate on for our venture into feature-length storytelling.
D: What was your process in terms of gaining access to the story, and when did you start your work on it?
TW: This was a process! We know there'd be a road ahead of figuring out the story rights and, more importantly, gaining the trust of the locals in East Texas who might've considered us "Hollywood wackos," for all we knew.
We wanted to approach gaining access to the story in a way that relayed our sincere intentions as filmmakers not to exploit this story (from any perspective)—rather, to tell this story through the perspectives of all involved, even though conflicting faiths, world views and opinions are evident throughout the film.
To gain access to the story, we initially reached out to Christy McAllister [the sister of one of the arsonists]; it just felt right to do. As anyone who has seen the film can tell you, Christy was stuck between a rock and a hard place in the film. Our hope was, if we could talk with her and earn her trust, she would help us connect with the families of those involved, in addition to the law and firefighters. Our first conversation with Christy turned into a three-hour phone call! We quickly bonded with her, and we were lucky to earn her trust.
Our research trip was early spring 2012, and Christy helped us meet all the right folks in order to set up our interviews and filming. Filming took place in April 2012.
D: Did you have a cinematic model in mind when you set out to make the film?
Theo Love: I was heavily inspired by the great documentary The Thin Blue Line, even though we didn't have the budget to do the re-creations that Morris did with his film. I loved the fact that through traditional talking-head interviews, he created a huge sense of suspense. I wanted to give our story that same feeling. In many ways our budget restrictions dictated our stylistic approach, as we only had 10 days to shoot the entire film. We returned to Los Angeles with only 29 hours of interviews which, compared to other documentaries, is quite low.
D: What was the process of structuring your film?
TL: Because our initial intentions were to create a screenplay based on the story, our documentary was inspired by traditional narrative structure. There were three main components to this story: the crime/investigation, the churches and the arsonists. At that time, the State of Texas was not allowing us to interview the arsonists in prison, so we were left with a difficult task of linking these three angles together without our main characters present. About halfway through post-production we started to see a through-line emerge in Christy McAllister, who surprisingly had a huge part to play in the actual investigation. We had always been fascinated by her story, but when we realized that she was the key to unlock the story, it was a big breakthrough in the edit bay!
D: If you set out with a plan of action, did that plan change as you got into editing, or did you script it out in advance?
TL: Our first idea was to tell a story of church arson from the perspective of the one lighting the match, but due to a lot of red tape, we didn't have access to the arsonist. At the time this was heartbreaking to me, but I soon realized that this limitation forced me to learn more about the churches themselves. I grew up in a very religious environment as the son of lifelong missionaries in Southeast Asia, and I have always struggled with western Christianity's obsession with large church buildings. I have to admit that my first reaction towards these burned churches was more judgmental than sympathetic. But once I began to sit with the church members and hear their stories, my perspective changed. While I still have many strong opinions about pop church culture, I tried to create a film that reflects their complexities instead of just another over-simplified portrayal of faith. Ironically, it was because of the completion of this draft of the film that the State of Texas reconsidered our request and allowed us to interview the arsonists in prison. In many ways, their voice is presented as an epilogue to the story.
D: When James Ellis [a Youth Minister to the arsonists] said, "Getting slapped in the face by your hypocrisy hurts like hell," what did you think?
TW: Yeah... such a sweet, sober moment in the film...
James Ellis is an incredibly honest, sincere and vulnerable man. We hadn't initially planned to interview James, and it was a chance meeting that we could sit with him and hear his perspective.
The way that these arson fires changed James' life is phenomenal, and it's a brave moment in the film when James' is willing to humble himself in this way, noting his own hypocrisy hurt so much. When you go into shooting a film, especially a documentary, your footage is always bound to surprise you, but we surely hadn't prepared for any of the local pastors to be so honest and dig so deep into their hearts as James did for us with his interviews.
It's James' openness and vulnerability that ultimately supported most of the themes and questions Theo and I hoped to raise through producing this film. We are grateful to him for his honesty.
TL: In many ways, James is the only character in the film who truly changes. His perspective on ministry and his life's purpose was radically altered by the fires, and you can see it in his eyes and through quotes like this. Hypocrisy is a word that is often thrown around in conversation about religion, but what is truly inspiring about James is his humility in turning the word on himself. It's a lesson I think we can all learn from, especially those of us who call ourselves Christians.
Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. Their film Who Took Johnny premieres January 17 at Slamdance. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.