This issue, we’re doing a two-part interview with author Poe Ballantine and filmmaker Dave Jannetta who adapted Ballantine latest book into a documentary.
Transferring a story from book to screen is not an easy feat. Just ask Dave Jannetta, a Philadelphia-based filmmaker who adapted author Poe Ballantine’s true crime memoir into an intriguing documentary.
Jannetta wrote and directed his debut feature film, Rachel & Diana, in 2009 and currently is in post-production on his first documentary feature, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere based on Ballantine’s book.
Prior to founding 32-20 Productions in 2009, Jannetta served as personal assistant to Peter Jackson through North American production of The Lovely Bones, and spent a year abroad working at Jackson’s WingNut Films in Wellington, New Zealand.
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Lori: How did it come about that you would adapt Poe’s book into a film?
Dave: Where the Rain Belongs was the first Poe Ballantine story I read. Like everything he writes it scratches at underlying truths in a way that is inseparable from lived experience and impossible to write without it. I pretty much mainlined the rest of his work and although he’s prolific it didn’t take long to exhaust his catalog. So I turned to Google and inquired about his next offering. In an archived interview with the The Nervous Breakdown Poe described his then forthcoming memoir (Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere) centered on a math professor in his small town who disappears and is later discovered bound to a tree and burned beyond recognition. I knew right away I wanted try and make it into a film. But as anyone who’s ever tried to make a film, write a book, or compose a symphony knows, it’s a long road from that initial burst of inspiration to the final product. And the list of casualties far outnumbers the survivors. The first letter I wrote to Poe inquiring about the possibility of doing a project together was in November 2011 and his initial response wasn’t exactly encouraging. But he didn’t slam the door in my face either:
All these buzzards and tarts want to chat me up when I am trying to write, Dave, and so I apologize for lumping you in with them. Anyway, I agree that L&T would be a stunning documentary. All the suspects are still moping around town. Sheriff Dailey has been re-elected, the forest is still scorched, the mystery still gapes.
I admitted that I was more buzzard than tart and a few months later I was in Chadron with the cameras rolling.
“…as anyone who’s ever tried to make a film, write a book, or compose a symphony knows, it’s a long road from that initial burst of inspiration to the final product.”
Had you considered other ways of telling that story before you decided on the documentary style?
From the outset I felt like documentary was the best way to approach Love and Terror. The material is certainly ripe for a narrative treatment (and that’s something we’ve discussed) but the truth lurking in Chadron is so rich that I’m not sure you’d be able to capture it in a fictional universe. From a practical standpoint, documentaries are also less resource intensive (generally speaking) and that was important because my bank account couldn’t have supported a big production. Once I had my form, however, the hard part began. Was I going to take inspiration from the films of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog? Or the Maysles brothers and Frederick Wiseman? Talking head interviews or fly on the wall observation? It obviously ends up as a combination of all these things but a film needs to tell a coherent story and have stylistic consistency. Those choices mean a lot because once you start filming it can be difficult and very expensive to change your mind.
To what extent did you seek Poe’s input? Did you at all?
I think it would be nearly impossible for a kid from the east coast to land in an isolated Nebraska town with a camera and hope to get any sort of cooperation from the community. To this end, Poe became my liaison to Chadron. He introduced me to many of the people involved in the case, gave me the relevant geographical context, told me who to watch out for, pointed me to the best restaurants and always had a pot of coffee percolating. We mulled over the case but we also examined other documentaries, talked exhaustively about stories, art, and cooking, and managed to down a few bottles of rye whiskey in the process. He was also kind enough to correct me when I mixed up words like entomology and etymology. Though the whiskey may have been responsible in that case.
During my first trip out there, when I was still trying to figure out if the project was feasible, I did a short interview with Poe on camera so I could get a sense of his screen presence and create a short teaser for the film. He turned out to be that rare author who is as engaging on screen as he is on the page and I knew he would be an integral character. A mysterious, horrible death in a small, eccentric town is an magnetic premise – equal parts Twin Peaks and In Cold Blood. But if the story weren’t grounded in Poe’s struggles and search for meaning it would be one dimensional and potentially exploitative. By examining the case through Poe’s lens I try to get at some larger themes and questions.
I also made a point not to read a draft of Love and Terror until well into the process of making the film. I didn’t want the book to precondition me to any conclusions. In the end, some of the interviews we did together shed new light on certain details and individuals and Poe started to make minor changes to his book. I read the manuscript after about a year and at that point the book did begin to influence the film. They inform each other but I like to think that one enhances the experience of the other.
“… the difficulty of making any documentary is that you’re essentially writing the screenplay in reverse.”
What is most difficult about adapting a written work to film?
Because my film isn’t a straight adaptation that’s hard to answer. What I will say, however, is that the difficulty of making any documentary is that you’re essentially writing the screenplay in reverse: you compile visual/aural material and then try to make sense of it rather than write a coherent story first and then go film the material. In a narrative film the screenplay or actual content is the starting point, and your film will never be better than the script. With a documentary (although there’s intensive preparation, an idea of the story, a general direction for interviews, and ideas for scenes to film) the actual “screenplay”, so to speak, is the last thing that’s produced. So while you’re guiding things, you’re also trying to remain nimble and open to new ideas. You don’t want to get thrown off the trail but if the winds shift and you pick up a fresh scent it’s best to investigate the source. I ended up with about 50 hours worth of raw material and then had to cull that into a 90 minute story. All the words and images are there for my choosing but I’m limited by that finite pool of raw material. Of course, there are infinite ways to arrange it so the task isn’t any easier.
What’s next for the film?
I’m learning as I go, really. This is my first documentary feature and the landscape of distribution seems more fractured than it’s ever been. I’m in the last stages of post production at the moment: final sound mix, color correction, finishing the score, etc. A cut of the film has been submitted to a number of film festivals and I’m waiting to hear back. After that I’ll set up a number of screenings in different places, hopefully in conjunction with appearances and readings by Poe. And the film will eventually find its way to iTunes, Netflix and other online outlets. While making the film has been an immense challenge, it seems as though finding an audience will be equally daunting.
Lori M. Myers is a New York-based award-winning writer and Pushcart Prize nominee of creative nonfiction, fiction, essays, and plays. Her work has been seen in more than 45 national and regional magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. Her plays have been produced overseas, in Canada, and across the US, three are published, and one was a Broadway World Award nominee. Lori has a masters in creative writing from Wilkes University and currently teaches at Dominican College in New York.