HISCOX FILMMAKER Q&A: TWO TRAINS RUNNIN’
What inspired you to come up with the idea for the film? Why did you want to tell this story?
Two Trains Runnin’ is about the search for two forgotten blues singers, Son House and Skip James, set during the height of the civil rights movement. The movie tracks the parallel journey of two groups of young whites in the summer of 1964. One was on a hunt for pioneers of old blues music and the other determined to join the surging voting rights movement of the time. And both, improbably, converged on a single day in Mississippi.
I wanted to make Two Trains because I love the subject–both parts of it, the music and the movement–and dislike the way they are so often treated singly, as in a vacuum. To tell both stories at once, though formally challenging and frustrating, would, I know, get at the texture of the 1960s and our own present moment better than most films. And while most music documentaries are premise-based, and tell us about a certain studio or tour or chapter in a performer’s life, etc. Two Trains Runnin’ has a definite narrative arc. It’s like a mystery or adventure story.
How do you relate to your characters or subjects?
I relate to the kids–the twenty-somethings–who risked it all to go down South during a dangerous time and rescue these musicians, whose songs were otherwise lost and destined to become nothing more than a collector’s item. Many of us at one time or another have done crazy, spontaneous, or stupid things because of our attachment to a certain kind of music; that’s one of the reasons why we love it so much, because it takes us where we aren’t necessarily ready to go.
But the civil rights activists in Two Trains, well, there will always be a distance, in some ways unbridgeable, between them and me. I think about this as I watch the news now, all the rioting, and imagine the strength it must take to oppose your own government. And not just the strength, but the cost it must exact. They all went through hell, and yes, we’re the beneficiaries, we live in a better America because of it, but they still went through hell.
What aspect of the story changed the most during writing and production?
The movie was originally titled The Blues House, after the informal name given to an old mansion in Newport, Rhode Island where all the blues performers lodged during the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. A compelling and unlikely scene, with all these old, Southern black men–great performers, like Muddy Waters and Skip James–suddenly being thrust into the palatial milieu of the Gilded Age. They had come out of a world of segregation and were now the toast of Beatlemaniacs who attended Ivy League schools.
But this scene, though laden with symbolism and illustrative of the ironies and reversals wrought during the 1960s, doesn’t really play on screen. It actually slowed narrative momentum. So even though it was the title of the picture and all during photography and the beginning stages of post we were pointing to it, as we refined the cut and moved the film closer to completion we kept cutting the section on the blues house, until now it’s no more than an interlude.
What was the most courageous decision you or your crew made during production?
Sam Pollard, the director of Two Trains Runnin’, is of course a legendary figure in the world of documentary, and I was grateful to be able to observe his working style. Sam always privileges the visceral; he constantly wants to find and isolate the moments most fraught with tension. With interviews or footage he alway aimed to cut away the clutter till there was just this essence of human emotion or response. The reason I think it’s courageous is because it betrays a desire–especially tonic in a time like ours–not to scant, not to overlook the violence and depth of cruelty some of us are capable of.
Were there any risks that you faced during production and how did you find a way to embrace them?
One risk occurred the day we filmed in Austin. Two Trains Runnin’ is important, as a title, because the train is the central metaphor of blues poetry. You hear it in so many songs of the 1920s and 30s, the train standing for escape or fulfillment, or both of these things at once. Think of Hendrix: when he sings I hear my train a-coming he’ll often answer, I hear freedom coming.
So when Gary Clark Jr. agreed to perform in the movie we were thrilled to learn the song he would do would be his own When My Trail Pulls In. An amazing song about fruition, fulfillment, destiny. No song could better match the strands of our film, of Son House and Skip James finally receiving their due on the one hand and African Americans of the South being let into the processes of democracy on the other.
But we couldn’t find a damn location to shoot him; one after another kept dropping away, until finally it’s 1:00 a.m. on Sunday and we’re taking cabs all over Austin to find a spot. Finally we ended up in the Deep Eddy Cabaret on Lake Austin, and on entering, at the very same time, I said “Oh no” and our DP, Natalie Kingston, said “It’s perfect.” She was willing to embrace the risk because she wasn’t sold on any particular aesthetic; she was willing to let the location and its possibilities determine what we could do. She was being what every good creative is, receptive. And it saved us.
What influenced the visual style of the film?
Dava Whisenant, editor and co-producer, mentioned animation in the very first conversation we ever had, before we met, when Two Trains was nothing more than the treatment I had written. There is no footage and only one known still of the searches for Son House and Skip James. So that left us with animation, reenactments, or degraded stills, slow zooms over landscape, and the like. Sam had never done animation in his films and generally dislikes it; but Dava was persistent and persuasive, and we’re so glad she was. Some of the drawn shots are stunning.
What risks did you take to tell your story?
Sam, Dava and I are reminded of the risks inherent in making Two Trains Runnin’ every day, when someone asks, is this a blues movie or is it a civil rights movie? Well, it’s both, I want to say, or it’s neither. You know what it is? It’s an American movie.
How would you encourage others to tell their story or manage through the process of screenwriting or film producing?
I would remind them that it’s worth it–inevitably it’s worth it. The pain of not finishing, of giving up or going on extended hiatus, is so much worse than anything else you might endure along the way. Even rejection. So remember that: there’s no pain like the pain of not doing it, of always wondering what might have been.
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