More often than not in this city, heated sidewalk exchanges end in a slew of expletives barked back and forth until one person is out of earshot of the other. But what if these interactions between strangers led to a sincere attempt to understand another person, race, culture, or class? And what if this attempt ended in empathy, curiosity, friendship, and ultimately collaboration?
Keith Miller, a white man, was walking his dog in Park Slope as he was approached by Shannon Harper, an African-American man. Harper angrily began accusing Miller of thievery—and as it turns out, Miller was guilty. The puppy he had found and thought to have rescued months earlier was actually the property of Harper, who had left the dog briefly unattended on his stoop. Their argument turned discussion lasted for nearly two hours, before an amicable solution was met regarding who could claim rightful ownership.
Miller, a filmmaker and curator of the Gallatin Galleries at New York University was so intrigued by the issues of class and race that fueled much of their discussion, that he asked Harper to re-enact their first encounter for a short film. This eventually became the opening scene in Miller’s first feature. In Welcome to Pine Hill, Harper stars as Abu, a reformed drug dealer, trying to settle debts and make amends with his past in the face of certain pending personal tragedy.
In constructing this project Miller explored his own brand of improvisational storytelling and filmmaking. With a rough framework for a plot inspired by both his life and Harpers, he took primarily non-actors and set them up in situations and settings that were not all that unfamiliar with things they might have already experienced in reality. To further enhance this staged realism, the film was shot by a documentary crew in real locations in the city, then upstate in the lush woods of the Catskill Mountains.
As he explains it, “The movie is a work of fiction, not a documentary. That said, it is also not untrue. Much of what is being done in the movie—either by the characters or the events—is real... The facts outside the frame bleed into the frame often and there are times when there really is no distinction between reality and the story on the screen.”
I spoke to Miller about Welcome To Pine Hill, which is about to have its world premiere at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.
Angela Wagner (Rail): Can you give me a little about what was going through your mind on your first encounter with Harper?
Keith Miller: When he first came up to me I was pretty sure he was trying to scam me. But the real thing was that I had fallen in love with the dog William and didn’t want to give him up. As we talked I realized he was telling the truth and that if I wanted to “live” my politics, I would have to talk this thing though.
Rail: How does this first scene set up the “character” of Harper and the film itself?
Miller: You see he’s a tough guy who has changed, at least according to him. At the same time you see his complexity: tough guy but sweet.
Rail: So much of Pine Hill is Harper, but what inspired the more fictional elements?
Miller: Ever since our first short film I felt like the social conditions that defined Harper were so limiting to him and everyone else, but it was impossible to break free of them.
Rail: So you wanted the movie to be a process of him shedding his cultural definitions?
Miller: Well the idea was that a lot of what defined him or anyone was external but a lot of it is internal too. One of the real challenges of the character is that his situation is essentially bad. But that doesn’t have to be what defines him. In the movie he makes a few bad decisions, but those are not externally imposed. Instead they are—I think—informed by external conditions. Which is different.
Rail: What are you trying to explore as far as narrative convention goes? Why not just script a movie in more conventional way?
Miller: That is probably the central question of this movie. Over the past few years I’ve gotten more and more interested in the natural flow of conversation and the use of language that is supposedly incorrect. I also began to really fall for cinematic moments with the pace of real life and not the standard abbreviated movie pace, which is amazing, too. I saw it in films like Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life where there are conversations that seem to do none of the advancing plot or character stuff but instead set a mood, which ends up being the real heart of the movie.
At the same time, I wanted to make a movie that bumped up against real life in more ways than just the subject matter, like concerned documentaries do. Again, I like those, but didn’t want to do that.
In any of those situations what I’m interested in is the human element. Who’s doing what? Why? What motivates these things and what external forces are there? Where are the politics hidden in everyday life?
Rail: There are a lot of social issues at play, like in a documentary, but also no solutions are offered; it’s more like just vignettes of real life.
Miller: Maybe like vignettes but I was hoping to push it outside the frame as much as possible.
I wanted to work with the real life situations of the characters to deny the clear distinction between what happens on the screen and off it. I felt like entering through the narrative door allowed for a bit more ambiguity on the facts versus fiction issue.
Rail: One thing that really struck me about your film was the lack of distance between viewer and subject.
Miller: Great! I’ve been really engaged with the idea of realism both historically and now, and what I wanted to do was disregard the line that often separates the representation and the thing represented. That’s been done a lot but I wanted to try it this way.
Rail: How much of Harper’s “character” is him being in a situation reacting as himself versus you directing him?
Miller: I’m not sure you would get the same answer from me and from him. To tell the truth, Shannon is an amazing actor and had the ability to embody those situations in a way that everyone on set—and now who sees him on screen—could tell that it was very real. I worked to set up the conditions for him to feel and react naturally. He often asked what was the big picture and we would talk about it, all that kind of stuff. It was different than when I’ve worked with actors in other situations but maybe like working with an actor who just hit the marks every time. Like he really got it. We had a pretty fluid back and forth.
Rail: Why use non-actors for this project?
Miller: I wanted the natural cadence of conversation, how circuitous it gets, all that. We did work with some actors but I wanted people to interact in ways that I wouldn’t have written. Specifically in the use of language and the distracted way the conversation flows.
Rail: All your efforts definitely seem to successfully blur the line between fiction and documentary.
Miller: Well that’s an issue I have because I don’t think we blur the documentary line at all, but it does blur the line between what is fiction and what is real.
Rail: Semantics, no?
Miller: I think documentaries “document” something that would be happening anyway. This may seem like semantics but I see it as a central difference and really the heart of the movie, or at least what makes it feel different than some other movies that are close to reality or are improvised or whatever.
Rail: What is the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective?
Miller: BFC is a group of filmmakers who get together about once a week and workshop one another’s movies. We have begun to work together in a bunch of different capacities. This movie is the biggest group collaboration with about 12 of us working on it, but there have been others. A lot of the members are really amazing, award-winning filmmakers, working in a variety of styles and genres. Docs, music videos, experimental, etc.
Rail: What is Harper up to now?
Miller: Since the movie Shannon has been working in Queens and Brooklyn. Working as a bouncer.