(Chris Ordal and Brad Roszell, photo by Dan Lybarger)
Independent filmmakers often have to double up on jobs. This might explain why writer-director Chris Ordal couldn’t meet me one-on-one for an interview at the Planet Sub on 75th. Although he’s a KU alumnus, he’s currently living in Los Angeles and needed to a ride from Lawrence. He’d been staying with Brad Roszell, who drove him to our meeting. Roszell edited Ordal’s latest movie, and the two also shared producing duties with Brendon Glad.
If their operation is modest, the two have a lot to be proud of. Earthwork stars Oscar-nominee John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) as Kansas-based crop artist Stan Herd. For decades, Herd has been making artwork by growing crops into pictures that can only be seen from above. He can reproduce van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” or poke fun at pollution in “The Ottawa Beanfield Cola War.”
Herd knew the filmmakers, who convinced him to let them make a film about an incident that happened to him in 1993. Landing Hawkes, who also had a major role in Deadwood, was another boon to the fledgling filmmakers.
“John took a huge risk in doing the film in the first place, “ Roszell says. “One, he’d never really carried an entire film on his own. He was on every single, freaking page of that script. And Chris, no offense to him, was a nobody, a first-time feature maker, and didn’t have much to show John.
“We were a young producing team without a lot of experience. He came all the way from L.A. He drove. Some days I said, ‘Let’s just take his keys, so he can’t leave.’”
In Earthwork, Hawkes plays Herd at a challenging point in the artist’s career. Receiving little financial reward for his unique work, he offered to develop some land that real estate mogul Donald Trump owned in New York at his own expense. While working on the project, Herd teamed up with squatters on the land whose temporary homes on the project were about to be demolished to make a new skyscraper.
According to Ordal, Herd’s eventual achievement is easy to take for granted. The area could only charitably be called “land.” He says, “(It’s) possibly the most ungrowable soil in the United States. That is literally years and year of garbage that New York has literally spread out to widen the Island.”
Adds Roszell, “It’s a fill in. It’s not even part of Manhattan. There was an oil spill there. If people knew how bad the soil was, they would be blown away. I don’t even think Stan knew. Hopefully, they didn’t eat a lot of what they grew.”
Viewers might also be surprised by how little of Earthwork was actually shot in New York. Although Ordal did spend a day in the Big Apple, much of what happens in the film couldn’t be filmed there. The land was gone. The area Herd developed then had to be completely recreated in the Sunflower State outside of Lawrence, something that took Herd by surprise.
“He smacked me on the shoulder and said, ‘How the fuck did you do that? That’s not just where I was. That’s exactly where I was,’” Ordal says.
Roszell adds, “We had the money to shoot in New York, but there was nowhere to shoot in New York.”
A Little Patience
Because of the unique nature of Herd’s art, Earthwork tries to replicate the deliberate pace it takes for him to create it.
Says Ordal, “It wouldn’t be fair to tell the story of a crop artist, who has to literally grow things, if you didn’t pace it in a way that reflected what it takes to grow things. There are so many reviews that said, ‘If you like watching plants grow…’ But that’s what it’s about!”
He also says that Herd, while driven to make his areal illustrations, is not the stereotypical tormented artist.
“What we set out to do was tell the story of an artist that way more people can relate to,” says Ordal. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, and then he went to rehab and then he had this very public affair.’ No, this was a guy who had a passion burning inside of him and needed to do it, not because he was going after money or fame or anything like that. There are a lot of people out there who have songs or paintings or photographs or sculptures, anything. It’s like a drug. Creating your art is like a drug, and they have to exorcize those demons.”
Roszell adds, “Imagine being his family having to deal with that. It’s not like he was a Pollack, where the guy’s a crazy, alcoholic maniac. He’s just got a one-track mind where sometimes he gets steamrolled over.”
To Trump or Not to Trump
Ordal and Roszell recruited Hawkes in 2008, well before the Missouri-shot Winter’s Bone put him on the map. They also debated about whether to include the story’s most famous participant. No actor actually plays Trump, and the star of The Apprentice was willing to play himself in order to boost the film’s chances at the box office. The filmmakers, on the advice of their actors, chose not to, even though there were no marquee names in the cast.
“People gravitate toward celebrity and the stuff that’s so cheap,” says Ordal.
After his ill-fated flirtation with a presidential run, it might be tempting to make Trump a type of antagonist. Neither filmmaker felt Earthwork needed a flesh and blood villain. “It was important for me that this story not have a villain. I’m intrigued by stories that can have this much conflict without meeting a character that you blame everything on,” says Ordal. “The antagonist here is time.”
Despite their paltry resources, Ordal and Roszell have scored some accolades along the way. Their movie played at the Austin Film Festival and at the Kansas International Film Festival, and Herd’s unique title sequence took the top prize at South by Southwest in Austin, even though the rest of the film couldn’t be shown because the festivals in the Texas capital don’t show each other’s films.
The award was earned because Herd’s titles were difficult to make. “He was working on those simultaneously while we were in preproduction. In the last shot with John and the sunflowers, we planted those sunflowers about 12 to 16 weeks ahead of when we needed to shoot it,” says Roszell.
“We knew we had a short window with sunflowers. It turns out that window is six days. The day we were going to shoot the sunflowers, we were walking over to the side of the set, and they’re all dead. They looked amazing when they were in full bloom.
“We didn’t have the money to wrap production just to shoot the title scene and keep these people on for another two days.”
Fortunately, 200 cans of yellow spray paint fixed that problem.
If it didn’t take much in money to make Earthwork, Ordal says he still had high ambitions for the movie.
“If you leave the movie, and you’re done thinking about it. And you’ve got nothing but your time bided, that’s a huge disappointment in my mind. That’s a huge loss of your life. Movies are supposed to last forever.”
“Especially when you consider how expensive they are,” says Roszell.
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@efilmcritic.com.