Interview: Chris Ordal, writer/director of 'Earthwork'

Chris Ordal is the writer, director and producer behind "Earthwork," which tells the story of Lawrence artist Stan Herd, who in 1994 risked everything he had to create a massive piece of environmental artwork on a pice of land in New York's Upper West Side. The film, which stars Oscar-nominated actor John Hawkes, was shot in and around Lawrence in 2008 and has received praise from Roger Ebert, Los Angeles Times and The Kansas City Star as well as many awards on the film festival circuit. This Friday the film opens at Liberty Hall, 644 Mass.

Ordal took time to talk about the film's reception, his process as a director and his definition of success.

Vimeo video

Trailer: "Earthwork"

EARTHWORK (2011) official HD trailer from Chris Ordal on Vimeo.

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John Hawkes, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Academy Award for his role in "Winter's Bone" plays Lawrence artist Stan Herd, who in 1994 attempted a massive earthwork on a piece of land in New York's Upper West Side.

TM: Considering all it's taken to get "Earthwork" made — three years of financing, on top of writing, producing, directing and now marketing the film — how does it feel to have it out there?

Chris Ordal: It's an incredible feeling of accomplishment. Most people don't realize how much time and energy and bits of money over a long period of time add up. So it feels pretty good to have it out there and have the response feel so positive.

TM: In what way has the response been positive?

CO: Every screening I go to, people just love the film. It's not the usual kind of movie you see in theaters, so I think people are really responding to that.

TM: What makes "Earthwork" different that the usual films we see in theaters?

CO: Well, it's very purposefully paced. It's not rushed and it's a much more considerate film than I think a lot of the entertainment that's out there and I think there's a lot of opportunities for escapism, but there aren't many opportunities for real catharsis within the movie theater. And I think people appreciate the fact that "Earthwork" really offers that.

TM: What made you want to tell this story?

CO: The very first time I heard it, I wanted to tell the story. One, I just though it was so fascinating and two, I just couldn't believe that no one knew about this story. I mean this was this incredible thing that took months and months to complete that Stan had done and it took a lot of guts on his part and a huge amount of sacrifice for both he and his family. It was just criminal to me that the story go untold.

TM: How'd you hear about the story?

CO: A good friend of Stan and I's [sic] Scott Richardson just casually mentioned it to me one day and from that moment on, I just couldn't get the story out of my head.

TM: How did you get in touch with Stan?

CO: I had known Stan. We had kind of traveled in the same film and art circle around Lawrence socially and it wasn't until I heard the story of his New York piece that I was motivated to get in touch with and learn more, not just about that story, but about him and how he created his art and why he created his art. It was just, I don't know, curiosity got the better of me and I just couldn't stop.

TM: Let's talk about John Hawkes, the actor who played Stan in the film.

CO: John is truly amazing. I'm very proud of the fact that I wanted John from the very beginning back before anyone knew him by name. I would go around Lawrence telling people how excited I was, you know, how perfect John Hawkes would be and no one would know who I was talking about unless I said, "Oh, the 'Deadwood' guy," or something like that.

It's just been the best experience to work with him on this movie and have him do such an incredible job of portraying Stan and then watch his star just skyrocket basically over the course of us getting this movie out there. There's nothing but positives.

TM: What are some of your favorite moments when looking back on the whole process?

CO: I liked a lot of the smaller moments, a lot of the funny comments that we'd share with the actors or the crew. There was a lot of camaraderie, kind of like a big family and there were so many moments of just hanging out with everybody, not the moments of shooting or getting a shot or anything like that, but just hanging out with everybody and having fun making the movie.

TM: While you were shooting it, was Stan present on set?

CO: Absolutely. The movie couldn't have been made without Stan. Stan did our opening title sequence, which we've won numerous awards for and people just absolutely adore. That was all done by Stan. The actual set itself that we built out by the Pendelton's Country Market where the Pendeltons actually let us use their land, which was another reason that made the movie possible and Stan was there everyday both working the fields — he spent a lot of time With John Hawkes, talking about things that had happened, how things had happened, thoughts that would go through his head — Stan and John really got along well.

I couldn't have written the story without the research I did with Stan and I couldn't have gotten the movie made without him being on set every day.

TM: How did John's time with Stan influence his performance?

CO: John very much wanted to authentically portray Stan as he was back in 1994. I gave John a lot of Stan's writings. I gave John a copy of Stan's book. And Before he came to Lawrence, John and I spent a little over a month just kind of talking about ideas and going through the script and really just spending a lot of time exploring and discussing Stan and his art and ideas like that.

I'd say John had about a week before we started actually shooting, where he then took all of that research and knowledge and then met the real Stan in 2008 and kind of created a hybrid of his research and the ideals he wanted to portray and the little nits and picks of the real guy, which I always get a kick out of when we were editing the film. There's just moment after moment of John taking these little details that if you know Stan you'll see big and bold. He really got Stan about perfect.

TM: As a director, are you more hands-on with your actors or do you give them room to come up with their own interpretation?

CO: I do most of my directing before we even start shooting. I just let each actor know what I'm really interested in and why I've wrote what I've wrote and how I want portray it. I do a lot of listening to ideas that they have. I would say that every actor had a lot of amazing ideas. All the leads had really amazing ideas for nuances in the script and I love incorporating those. In fact, when we started shooting, there were a number of scenes where the actors took the words I had written on the page and made them 100 times better by bringing their character to it.

I wouldn't say I'm a really hands-on director. I definitely know what I want, but really, it's the fun of collaboration. And I'm a first-time director, so on top of that, I have to remember that these actors have seen a lot more days on sets and they have a lot more experience to bring to the table. So I let everybody come in and kind of bring what they wanted to the table. Some brought a lot, some just kind of wanted to follow what was written, but for the most part, I thought everybody symphonically played well.

TM: Success is defined so many ways with film, what does "Earthwork" have to accomplish in order for you to consider it a success?

CO: Oh, I considered "Earthwork" a success long ago and it just kind of keeps piling on. Just getting the movie made for the money we had and the scale that we made it, that was one success. And then getting everybody paid, not calling in favors or having people work for free, that's another success. Getting the movie finished was yet another success, but that was all a long, long time ago.

Since then I've just been enjoying all of the responses from the audience, more than anything. People who come up after the movie and tell me how much it meant to them, sometimes in tears. People who Facebook message me or email me and say that weeks later they're still thinking about the film and it meant a lot to them. And then getting an honest theatrical release instead of just being spit out on DVD, that's another huge success, especially in this marketplace.

We've yet to make our money back and we weren't expecting to this early in the game, but when we do that, I can't think of any successes we haven't hit with this movie.

TM: Speaking of Facebook, how important was Social Networking in the marketing of this film?

CO: Social networking has been incredibly important. In fact, I got up and Skyped this morning with the Social Media Club of Lawrence. I had a conversation with them about how important Facebook and Twitter and all the social networking elements were to us because we don't have the money — the millions of dollars it costs to put billboards on buses, TV spots nationally broadcast — we pretty much have whatever the Internet can offer us for free and then the goodwill of audience members who are kind enough to write rave reviews on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, which is very helpful and then just tell their friends the movie's playing.

We have a website, but it took social networking to get people to the website and social networking is the only marketing power that we've got, so it's extremely important

TM: What's your next project?

CO: Oh, I've been looking that far since before "Earthwork" really got going. I've got tons of stuff I want to do and right now I'm just narrowing it down to a couple projects that are realistic and so I've got a project that I can do by the skin of my teeth and then I've got a project that I really want to do, but it's going to require a significant budget and a lot of energy behind it, so I'm just kind of working both projects in parallel and I'm super excited about both of them.

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