James Moll: Documentary Filmmaker

With nearly every major award already won, producer-director James Moll heads for wide-open spaces.


With an Oscar, a Grammy, and two Emmys already in the bag, where is a triple-threat filmmaker and producer to turn next? Look to the land says James Moll. Acclaimed for his films on World War II, civil rights, and the Foo Fighters, Steven Spielberg’s go-to documentary filmmaker is breaking new ground with his latest to-be-named project, which showcases the lives of young farmers and ranchers. Profiling five agricultural workers in their 20s, each of whom have or are about to take over their family farms, the film seeks to provide “a very broad idea of what farming and ranching looks like in the United States today.”

Broad ideas are Moll’s specialty. Tackling enormous paradigms through the lens of narrow characters—a woman struggling to make peace with her father’s history as a Nazi commander, three ultra-athletes breaking cultural boundaries as they attempt to run across the Sahara desert—Moll has made an art out of capturing the macro with the micro. Here’s his take on keeping the bigger picture in mind while focusing on the details.

Get In Media: What interests you specifically about ranching and farming?

James Moll: People have been asking me that, especially given the subjects of my previous films, and it’s something that has interested me for quite a while. It’s such an important topic. It affects everybody and I don’t think there’s a lot of information out there. We see things in the media about farming and ranching, but often I think there’s a certain agenda attached to what I’m hearing and seeing and I’m interested personally in hearing from the farmers and the ranchers about what it is they do and what their feelings are about some of the issues that are raised these days.

GIM: Would you mind speaking about your research process? What happens before trying to film?

JM: In this case, I wanted to learn everything I could about farming and ranching today, the pros and the cons, the upside and the downside, everything I could and then the finding the people to profile. There are two things I was focusing on. One was learning as much about something that I had no virtual experience in. I grew up in the middle of Los Angeles, so farming and ranching is very foreign to me, hence the fascination.

GIM: When you say you wanted to learn everything about it, what does that actually entail?

JM: A lot of reading. I worked with a researcher as well. She did a lot of interviews; she spoke to people on the telephone. Yeah, so speaking to people directly and reading as much as possible. The usual. Nothing exciting. I didn’t start a farm or a ranch.

GIM: Was there anything specific you were looking for in your subjects? There are a lot of ranchers in their 20s.

JM: Each one of them has a different personality. Each one of them has different characteristics, has a different family situation. They’re all different types of farmers and/or ranchers and they’re all in different parts of the U.S., so we will get a very realistic, a very broad idea of what farming and ranching looks like in the United States today.

GIM: Your films tend to focus on very big subjects, civil rights, World War II, etc. How do you know where to stop in terms of profiling the larger issues behind the characters in your documentaries?

JM: It’s an interesting question because I think it’s one of the pitfalls of documentary filmmaking that first-time filmmakers fall into, trying to tell too big of a story. I know I only have 90 minutes, for example, to tell my story and so I focus on what’s most important to me, or [rather] what I think is most important to the subject matter. Once I have done all the filming and all the research, once I have all the interviews done and I know what the big picture is, it’s just a matter of trying to distill it and focus it so it still maintains its integrity. I’m not losing the essence about what’s true about the story but it’s done in a condensed way.

GIM: Is that difficult to do when you’re that buried in research and these subjects? When you’re in the heart of it, I’d imagine it must be difficult to step outside and say, “Well this is how we’re going to shape this.”

JM: Sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes it doesn’t come immediately, so I tend to start with a slightly longer first edit and little by little work on it and bring it down. If I go too far too fast, I don’t want to lose the soul of the piece.

GIM: With a documentary, you don’t know when a story is over a lot of times until you’re in the middle of it. How do you set a budget?

JM: You don’t know…I never know up front what I’m going to find in a documentary. I don’t script my documentaries. I have a general outline of the direction I’m going in but I never know exactly what’s going to happen nor do I know how long the shooting will ultimately take.

GIM: How do you work that out with a production company?

JM: Very carefully. [laughs.] Like everything else, negotiation. When I was filming Running the Sahara, we set out to film an 80-day expedition, Senegal to Egypt, and it turned out to be 111 days and there was a chance the runners wouldn’t even make it and that’s documentary. You have to work it out and think on your feet. The producer and the production team, as well as the director and storytelling team, need to work together. They both need to be flexible and ready for anything.

GIM: When you’re setting up a film, do you take any specific steps to make sure you have options later if the documentary is running longer?

JM: Yes. Absolutely. In budgeting, you have to assume that there are going to be additional days on the end and that’s based on experience at this point. In the case of this film, the producer, Christopher Pavlick, is trying to pin me down on how many shooting days I need with each farmer because he needs to set up travel and how many crew people to take to each location, yet he’s also an experienced documentary producer so he’s discussing with me contingency plans and contingency plans are very important in documentary.

GIM: You’ve stated before that Peter Weir [Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World] intimidated you as a director.

JM: When I saw Witness, I was sitting there watching the screen thinking, “Can I do that? How did he know where to put his camera? How did he know to go in for the close-up? How did he know to end that scene?” For the first time, even though I had already wanted to be a filmmaker, I started to look at the technical side of filmmaking and I did question whether it was something I could ever do. I remember leaving the theater feeling overwhelmed and then thinking, “Yeah. I could do that.”

GIM: There’s an argument that we’re in the best of times in terms of documentaries because there are so many out there, but there’s also an argument that we’re in the worst of times because funding is such an issue.

JM: Funding has always been an issue in documentaries. I think these are very good times for documentaries because there are a lot of outlets for them and there’s a lot of audience demand for them and, frankly, they ultimately can make money for those people who are able to invest in them. I think there’s always that question, whether it’s a scripted film or a non-scripted film, investors wonder whether it’s a good investment.

GIM: What mistakes do you see young filmmakers make?

JM: What we were talking about earlier is a very important one, which is not trying to tell too big of a story. You can’t tell everything, and it is hard. You really hit on something. Once you become an expert, you think everything’s important. Every detail’s important, and they are. But I hope, and I felt this way about every film I’ve made, I hope it encourages people to learn more about the subject apart from our film, to read more about the subject, to immerse themselves. And I hope that I can inspire them to want to do that. I can only tell so much story in 90 minutes, but I know there’s so much more out there to learn about every one of these subjects including farming and ranching. I still have a lot to learn about it myself.

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