Pull Focus: Heather Courtney

Pull Focus: Heather Courtney

Lauren Donia, Katie Bieze, and Fatemah Shahkolahi

Heather Courtney is a filmmaker and cinematographer based in Austin, Texas. She has produced several films for PBS, including “Letters from the Other Side”, which premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2006 and screened at the South by Southwest International Film Festival (SXSW), as well as other film festivals. Heather also organized over 20 grassroots screenings with churches, schools, and community centers all over Texas. In Fall 2006, LETTERS was broadcast on over 60 PBS stations across the country.

Her previous film, “Los Trabajadores/The Workers”, won the Audience Award at SXSW in 2001 and an International Documentary Association award, and was broadcast nationally on the PBS series Independent Lens.

In her most recent film, “Where Soldiers Come From”, Heather returned to her hometown in northern Michigan to follow the lives of a group of 20-year-old friends before, during and after their National Guard deployment to Afghanistan. The 2012 Independent Spirit awards recognized “Where Soldiers Come From” with the “Truer than Fiction” honor.

(Photo and Biography adapted from New Day Films)

How did you choose the characters you followed in, “Where Soldiers Come From”?

Courtney: For “Where Soldiers Come From”, I went up to my hometown, which is in the northern tip of Michigan in the Upper Peninsula, and the main motivation at the time was to make a film about rural America. I wanted to tell a story about growing up in a small town that was more universal and countered some of the stereotypes out there in film and television about rural America. I think a lot of portrayals tend to be somewhat simplistic and with stereotypes.  I was looking for story ideas in the local paper and I read about the local National Guard unit, so I went to one of their monthly trainings, and that’s where I met Dominic, the main person in the film. We just started talking at the monthly training and he said he joined after high school. He was nineteen when I met him and he said, “I joined last year after high school and these are all my friends from childhood and we all joined together” and he pointed to this big group of other nineteen year old kids and I thought that it would be really interesting to follow this group of friends at this time in their life where they’re trying to figure out what to do next and trying to change their situation without a lot of resources. So, the film started out as a coming of age story in that way. We didn’t know they were going to be deployed to Afghanistan. At the time, there was no talk of that, it was in the background as a possibility but we didn’t really know, so it just started out as following their normal lives as teenagers, kind of trying to figure out what to do with their lives. So in that way, it’s a real portrayal of them as kids, a sort of coming of age story and a portrayal of them and their families in this small town. Then about a year and a half into filming, they found out that they were going to be deployed to Afghanistan, so then the film became something else. I still think it’s a coming of age film but now it’s a coming of age film in the context of war.

What parameters did you set for yourself in terms of the story you wanted to make or share?

Courtney: I didn’t really have any parameters. When I first started, I didn’t really have any funding. I had a small amount of research and development money from some grants I applied for, so the first two trips were short trips, when I first met the guys and did the first interview. At that point, I didn’t know what was going to happen, if it was going to be a film, but I was able to get some footage and put together a sample tape I then used to apply for funding. I didn’t really realize it was going to be a film until my third trip there. I stayed a whole month but I wasn’t funded yet at that point, I was just using savings, a little bit of research and development and I borrowed a friend’s camera. After that month, is when I met and filmed the families and the kids in their normal lives. Several of the scenes in the film from that third trip during summer 2007 are in the film, the jumping off the lighthouse, Cole at the party with his mom there, a lot of the really interesting scenes about small town life and these kids at this point in their life and they’re trying to get out, were in that first full month of shooting. So, that’s when I realized I probably had something. I submitted a sample tape and proposal to ITVS (Independent Television Service) and was still planning to go back even though I didn’t know if I had funding. I found out in November 2007, before my fourth trip back, that I got funding from ITVS, and I was like, okay this is happening. We still didn’t know if they were going to be deployed but there was a lot of other stuff happening in their lives that I thought was really worth filming, so after that, my trips up there would be for months at a time. I took many trips up there over the next two years before they went to Afghanistan, then went with them to Afghanistan, and then filmed them for a year after they came back. So, long answer to your question, but I didn’t really know what the story was going to be. After the first few trips, I didn’t know if I was going to film yet but I went ahead and planned a third trip and it wasn’t until I spent a whole month there that I realized I probably had something, even though I didn’t know what it was going to be.

How did you decide what you would shoot? Were you filming twenty four-seven? Or were they calling you if something interesting was happening?

Courtney: I guess, it was a little bit of both but most of it was that I was just there all the time. I would just stop by their houses. They don’t necessarily realize what’s interesting to film. And most of the stuff you catch doing a verite film is them just hanging out and talking to each other. So, a lot of it was just me showing up at their house with a camera and hanging out all day or all night and filming what was going on. There wasn’t too much planning. Obviously their training, when I would film their national guard training, that we had to get permission for and planned out, but them in their lives was pretty much just me there all the time. But, I wasn’t always filming. I’d have my camera with me but I didn’t always film. A lot of times I just would hang out with them, because I think that’s important too, to spend a lot of time with the people you’re filming so you really get to know them and they get to know you so that you build up a trust and a comfort level. There were certain things that I’d plan, like parents who work, I would plan, like “Can I come tomorrow and film you at work?”, so there were some things I would set up a bit ahead of time but a lot of it was just being there. One other thing that I planned more than other things, was we did shoot some 16mm, because I happened to have some in my refrigerator, and because we wanted to show the beauty and texture of the winters especially and I had a lot of black and white, so I thought it would be interesting to show the beauty and the desolateness through the 16mm. The kids sledding was something we planned, since we shot on 16mm.

At Silverdocs, you presented with your editor about how the story came together in the editing room. Any pro-tips on finding your story in the editing room?

Courtney: Actually the person I presented with at Silverdocs was my finishing editor, not the main editor, my main editor was Kyle Henry and we worked on and off together for three years. My finishing editor, Tom Haneke who worked basically the last four weeks of the film, made some changes and brought the film to another level as the finishing editor, which is different than being the main editor. Kyle Henry and I were co-editors. I think every director works differently. Some hand their footage over to the editor and don’t partake in the editing process, but for a lot of reasons, some was budgetary, we also had a lot of footage, and were editing while I was shooting. It was such a long project there was no way I had money to hire a full-time editor for three years. We would co-edit, he would come in and work for a month or two at a time and leave for a few months and I would edit when he wasn’t there. He would come in for a half day and I would edit the rest of the day. We really kind of tag-teamed with the editing, two co-editors and for me that was really useful as well because, a lot of times, you don’t find your story, if you’re doing verite where you’re shooting so much footage, in the end we probably had upwards of 650 hours of footage. A lot of times, you find the story in the footage. I knew what the story was, it was a chronological story from when they were nineteen to when they were twenty-three, and it was from before they went to when they were there to after they came back. But, there are a lot of different ways you can tell that. Even after we’d been editing for two and a half years and I was almost done shooting, I had one more shoot left, it was the summer of 2010, I still wound up looking back at old footage that I had forgotten about and I found amazing stuff that we made new scenes out of.  For our film, it was really about connecting with the characters and for our first full rough cut, we realized we were missing footage that helped people connect. I went to the Sundance story and edit lab for a week and at the lab they said you need to make the film that you were shooting and not the film you’re editing and it made me realize that I remembered from when I was shooting three years earlier that there was this great moment with Cole’s mom or this great moment with Cole and Domonic. So, I went back and found that footage and we were able to make new scenes from footage we’d forgotten about. It was all about about connecting with the characters, a lot of the scenes in the first third of the film are to help you get to know the characters and like them and that was a big lesson that a lot of times you get sucked into. You have a sample tape and your sample tape has a very specific purpose, like with voiceover, it really talks about the issues and there’s a lot of voice over because you’re trying to get a lot of information into ten minutes but you can’t make your film like a sample tape, you have to go back and create these whole scenes where you get to know them based on whatever happens in that scene. That was a big lesson and it really saved the film in a lot of ways, to really take the time with your characters, and not have a lot of voice over. You don’t’ want to tell your characters what to think and feel, but if you can just show it it’s much more powerful. So, a lot of the editing process involved going back and finding the footage that made me connect with the characters in the first place. In terms of logistics of editing what helped us a lot were transcripts, just because we had so much footage. We had interns from University of Texas who did most of our transcripts. We had every interview transcribed over the course of four years. In Afghanistan the camera would just be running all the time, in case something happened, I had to have the camera running, even if nothing was happening and no one was saying anything I had the camera running. Sometimes we would be out for ten, twelve, fifteen hours on a mission and we had those missions transcribed because there’s a lot of great banter while these guys are driving around for ten hours and nothing is happening. Their job is very weird, in that nothing happens, and then a bomb goes off and everything happens. They had a very surreal job and a lot of those boring hours they would have these really funny conversations. That was important to me, to humanize their experience and humanize them as people and not as soldiers, so having those transcribed was great so I could find when they were saying something funny or interesting and just staying on top of the footage and making sure everything was logged and digitized as I was shooting. From the transcripts and from other things we would make selects and from selects we would make a rough sequence of the selects and then we’d make a scene and put scenes together. That’s another thing we learned at the Sundance edit lab, was not to be so stuck to chronology. My film is chronological but you can arrange the scenes not exactly chronologically, so it makes sense for the narrative arc. There were a lot of wonderful things I learned at the edit lab that were really helpful.

You showed how difficult it was for the soldiers to come back from Afghanistan. What was your experience coming back from Afghanistan?

 Courtney: I wasn’t a soldier, so I didn’t have the same pressures as a soldier. Everyday they went out they knew they were responsible not only for their own life but for the life of their buddy or best friend and if they weren’t doing their job when they were on a mission, it could lead to somebody’s death, so they really had much more stress and I think that lead to a lot of their silent war wounds, PTSD, the combat stress, Cole gets an ulcer and he gets breathing problems and Dominic gets TBI from the bombs going off. I didn’t have those same stresses. I was never in a truck that got hit by an IAD. I was in the convoy. We would go out in convoys of ten or twelve trucks but I wasn’t in a truck that got hit. If I had been I would maybe have more problems. My problems were just trying to get the footage of the guys when we came back. It was hard because they were having a lot of problems and they didn’t want to talk about it. Dominic says in the film “We don’t even talk about it with each other”. So they didn’t want to talk about it to me on camera. The first month or so they were back everything seemed fine. It really didn’t hit them until two months after they came back. That was hard to realize they were having so many problems. I think just having a lot of patience and being there, eventually they did talk about it to me. Having a lot of time to put in was really important. I didn’t have any problems myself. I had dreams about IADs. I had one dream while I was staying at a friend’s house; I thought it was real. I thought that a house in the neighborhood had exploded. I asked if they had heard the explosion and they said no but I totally expected to read it in the paper, that their was a gas explosion, but nothing had happened. It was totally a dream but I thought it was real, so I guess I had residual, but it was mainly I was just worried about them and unsure of how to approach them about it. It took a while, a lot of waiting around and having a lot of patience.

What kind of equipment and crew did you bring to Afghanistan? How did you capture what was going on in Michigan? Did you have crews in both places? 

Courtney: When I went to Afghanistan it was just me basically, I didn’t have a crew. I thought about a second cameraperson but in the end it was too expensive. If you hire someone who does that a lot, who shoots in war zones, you have to pay them a lot of money. I didn’t want to hire a friend or a colleague, because I would feel terrible if something happened to them. So, I decided to do it alone and in the end I think that was the best thing. Also, the Army doesn’t want you to have a huge crew, unless of course you are CNN and then they’ll give you their own truck, which I discovered while I was there. “60 Minutes” came and they got their own truck and their own driver and gunner. But that’s beside the point. They really want you to be as small a crew as possible, because you are taking up space in the truck. In the end, it was good I was there alone. I had already worked up a relationship, not only with the guys in my film who I was focusing on, but also with the whole unit. They were used to me because I filmed their monthly trainings and I filmed the training they do right before they leave. So, they all knew me and I think that was really helpful. If I had brought a stranger in at that point, it could have messed up that dynamic. So, it was just me, and a camera. I had wireless lavalier mics. We wear these headsets and they would record all of the talking, the lav on the headset, that was really important. I would often put a lav on one of the guys, Dominic or Cole or Body, whoever’s truck I was in.  Then I ordered a bunch of helmet cams, because when I got there I realized I had to sit in the back of the truck, and I was filming out the window in the back of the truck and the guys were most of the time, driver’s or gunners and I couldn’t really film them. So, I got these helmet cams that we attached to the dashboard. So, that’s a lot of the footage of them driving.  We put a helmet cam on the gun turret on the outside so that you get those outside shots of driving through villages. That was how I was able to capture a lot of the explosions, was with the helmet cams, they were really important. In Michigan, I filmed most of the stuff too. I took trips to Afghanistan for a total of five months, over the course of three trips. In between, I would go to Michigan. One time, I hired someone that had been with me to Michigan before and when we did the Skype stuff. He shot with the families in Michigan, while I was in Afghanistan. That was the only time someone else shot in Michigan.

What kind of camera did you use in Afghanistan?

Courtney: This was years ago when I started the film, in 2007 so I had an HVX200.  In Afghanistan, I didn‘t have crew and it was before P2 cards were really big. Where you could fit hours on a P2, they only had 8GB or 16GB and we’d be gone for ten or fifteen hours on a mission, so I shot a lot of SD. I shot SD in Michigan as well, because I usually didn’t have crew there either, so it was better to shoot on tape when you’re shooting on verite. I wouldn’t do that now because there are so many options for cards that last a long time. But at the time, there weren’t a lot of options for shooting HD for hours and hours. I did shoot P2 for certain things and then of course 16mm. In Afghanistan, I would shoot HD for slow motion, some P2 for that. The HVX200 is pretty outdated now, but at the time it was all the rage.

How did you get access to some of the places where you shot?  Did you encounter any roadblocks to getting that access in Afghanistan?

Courtney: I had permission from the US military to be embedded with that unit and because I had been filming that unit for so long the commander was open to me going on all the missions. I had to sign something that said, if you were ordered to turn off the camera, you would turn off the camera. That only happened once. Otherwise, I could pretty much film whatever. They were pretty restrictive of me when an IAD would go off. The whole convoy would stop. They would send the bomb people out to investigate. Sometimes they would chase a triggerman, if they saw one. Most of the time they would be set off by a triggerman that was 500 yards away. They have these wires that are attached to nine-volt batteries and a light switch and they can set it off from far away. So, sometimes they would not let me get out of the truck if a bomb had just gone off because fear of a secondary bomb. Often, one bomb would be to get the guys on the ground and then they would set off a second bomb. But, that didn’t matter so much, because I was mainly filming those three guys and they were usually drivers or gunners and they would usually have to stay in the truck when a bomb would go off and I would stay with what they were experiencing. But, they were pretty open to me. I dismounted and got to film a lot when we were in villages walking around, which was much more interesting than being in the truck. Because I had gotten permission and because I had been filming them for so long, I was pretty much left alone. I think it’s a little bit harder if you’re a journalist filming a major offensive in like Kandahar or something, there’s a lot of military public affairs people handling you. But because my guys were National Guard unit looking for bombs, the public affairs people didn’t care, so they left me alone, which was for the best.

Do you keep in touch with the guys from the film? 

Courtney: Yes, I just saw them about four weeks ago. I went to Northern Michigan for two reasons. Dominic had an art opening at a local university, so I went up for that, which was really great. He had a whole exhibit. I also went up to shoot some footage for this award I won. They wanted me to shoot footage, of me and the guys talking about the film, and then they cut it together with footage of the film and they played it at the Independent Spirit Awards. I won a documentary award there. Dominic is still doing his art. Body is living with his girlfriend and they are running her Mom’s business because her Mom is sick, so they are running her Mom’s bar and he’s got a lot of responsibility there managing that. Cole is working part time and I’m trying to encourage him to go back to school, so we’ll see. But they’re doing ok. We did a lot of touring around with the film together last summer. We went to film festivals and then in the fall, it premiered theatrically, so I saw them a lot and we traveled around a lot together for weeks. The Q & A’s after the screenings were really great. People loved to meet them and they loved talking about their experience. That was really great, for me to see that it was a really great experience for them talking about the film. They talked about how it was therapeutic to show the film and to talk to people about it after. That made me feel good, to know that it was helpful. At the Silverdocs screening, there was an Afghan boy in the audience and he asked them a question about what they wanted for Afghanistan. They answered really sweetly and it was very positive. I think he was maybe twenty. He came up afterwards and they were talking and taking photos. Then they were friends on facebook and he put up pictures on his profile page and put a caption underneath that said something like, “me and the directors of, “Where Soldiers Come From”. It was really sweet. The Silverdocs screening was one of my favorites actually. It was a really great Q & A.

What weren’t you taught in film school that you wish you had been taught?

Courtney: I found in film school we learned by doing. We weren’t taught a lot in film school. I learned the most when I was making my thesis film, which was a documentary about immigrants in Austin. I don’t know if there’s anything I wish I were taught, because I was sort of self taught and learned by doing. But, I did have a thesis adviser who was extremely helpful and he taught me a lot towards the end when I was editing my project. He was a narrative filmmaker and not really into doc. But, he taught me that it doesn’t really matter if it’s doc or narrative. It’s about telling a good story. He really opened my eyes to the fact that you can tell a good human story and it can affect people and make change on issues without you being blatant about the issues in the film, it’s more powerful if you can make the audience care through human story, rather than telling a lot about the issues in your film.  He really helped me a lot in that regard and it’s really influenced my filmmaking. I always really try and focus on the human story and not the issues. The issues are always there in the background, but I feel like each audience member takes from the film their own thing. I think it’s because he was a narrative filmmaker. He also taught me how to shoot a whole scene. Don’t’ just shoot B-roll and interviews. You have to think in terms of scenes. Each has a beginning, middle and end and should be able to stand on its own. You should shoot your own films in that way and not worry about getting the right B-roll, but to tell a story with each individual scene and that was really helpful. I went to shoot a scene in Mexico that was going to be really difficult with the family with an immigrant that had died and the advice he gave me was to not shoot a lot of B-roll and interviews but to shoot scenes. Those were things I learned towards the end of my film school that I wish I had learned earlier, but I did learn them in the end.

What have been some of your biggest obstacles as an independent filmmaker? How did you overcome them?

Courtney: The biggest obstacle for any documentary filmmaker is access. Access is everything. If the people in your film want to be in them and want their story told and want you to film them, that’s half the battle.  I’ve been fortunate that the people I’ve chosen to film have been very open. Although, with the case of “Where Soldiers Come From” it was a four-year process, so sometimes they were really into it and sometimes they weren’t. How I would overcome that, would be to spend the time I needed just hanging out and being there and being patient and not pushing too much. I was only able to do that because I got funded by ITVS; that’s another obstacle, getting funded. So thank God for ITVS. They’re amazing and I wouldn’t have been able to make the film without their funding because it allowed me to put in the time necessary. For a verite film, you really need to be able to put in the time and be there and not have to work another full time job.

What has your festival experience been like? Do you have any strategies or suggestions?

Courtney: I had a great festival run. It can be exhausting and expensive but it’s a really amazing experience especially if you can bring the people in your film, which is what I chose to do. Which is why my credit card is totally maxed out but it was worth it. For them and for the film and the audience members it was worth it, so I highly recommend it.