Poet brothers Kai and Anders Carlson-Wee hop freight trains across the country.
Interview with Director/Producer Kai Carlson-Wee
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
I wanted to make a film about writing poetry and hopping trains. My brother and I have been hopping freight trains together for years, writing these poems, but there are limits to what you can do with language. When you’re riding a train it’s a very personal experience, but there’s also this massive industrial scale. You see the dirty backyard of the American West—the burning oil fields, the bone yards of barns—and the scope is better communicated through film. Apparently, the first film ever made was of an approaching locomotive (audiences thought it was real and ran), but outside of a few documentaries and Westerns, there isn’t too much about trains.
People tend to think of Jack Kerouac or Jack London, but as far as the characters you currently meet on the road, the experiences you have in jungles and freight yards, the feeling of cruising at 80 miles an hour down the mountains of Western Montana—those stories still haven’t been told much, especially not on film. Partly, this is due to the difficulty of riding trains and trying to do anything practical. It’s all guerilla tactics and improvisation. Batteries run out. You get thrown off in the middle of nowhere. It rains. The train stops and swaps cars for hours, sometimes days. It makes for a drifty, inconclusive feeling and there’s not much of a beginning-middle-end.
The experience of riding trains is more about motion than it is about arriving anywhere, and most rides lead to an elliptical hallucinatory sensation that doesn’t make sense as a traditional narrative. The goal of the film was to explore this experience, and see if we could blend the visual landscape with the narrative impulse of poetry.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
If you’ve ever been curious about riding a freight train, this is a good introduction. The film is trying to capture the spiritual side of the experience. There have been a number of down-and-out traveling kid documentaries made, but we wanted to show the aesthetic side. The thrill and beauty of it all. I don’t want to sound nostalgic, but riding trains is one of the last remaining American experiences that hasn’t been sold out and commodified. It hasn’t been wrecked yet. It hasn’t become a theme park parody or a reality show on MTV. It’s just as weird and wild as it was in the 1920’s, and we wanted to make a film that spoke to that lineage.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
The story is about two brothers riding trains and writing poems. Very simple structure. We started with the poems and then built the imagery and soundtrack around them. On one hand, the film is about these two brothers traveling together, but on the other hand it’s about the spiritual poverty of America, the ways we’ve traded our beautiful landscapes for money and corporate interest. In one of the poems in the film there’s a line, “The Lord gives us trains and we waste those distances transporting coal.” In the other poem there’s the line, “You can feel it going before it goes.” The thematic structure is somewhat symbolic, and there’s a tonal shift from innocence to experience, dream to existential nightmare.
At the beginning of the film there are clean bright shots filled with sunlight and American images (flags, McDonalds, farms) and at the end of the film there are darker shots filled with strange angles and surreal fragments. The romantic adventure gets broken down over time, and you can see the dirt and fatigue accumulating on our faces. The film is about these two things at once: the brothers on the train, and the corruption of the country it carries them through.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development and production?
It’s funny because my brother and I tried to make the film two years earlier. We caught the same train and tried to get the same story, but everything went wrong. We ran out of water. We ran out of battery power. We got stormed on and the mosquitoes were unbelievably bad. We also got caught and thrown off the train in the middle of the Okanagan desert. We had to walk four miles to the nearest highway. We ended up with some cool-looking footage, but we didn’t really have a story. Two years later we tried again and everything went perfect. The weather was good. The train just gave us a million opportunities. The evolution of the film was more about tenacity than it was about any particular development. The production decisions all strengthened the film, but the larger evolution had more to do with luck.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
People have been overwhelmingly positive about the film. It’s been a real surprise. I was sure only a handful of poets would ever watch it, and I never imagined we’d get accepted at festivals. By far, the most gratifying thing is when people say they liked the poetry in the film. This really means a lot to me, because poetry is sometimes met with resistance and I was worried about boring people or turning them off. So far, everybody seems to dig it.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
More than anything it’s humbled me. It’s made me realize how journey stories like this help shape community. At all the screenings I’ve met countless people who have told me about their adventures. They’ve ridden Amtrak, they’ve hitchhiked across the country, hopped freight trains when they were young. It’s connected me with so many different people and made me grateful to be able to share this little story of my own.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on We Are Moving Stories?
I’m hoping more people will be interested in exploring the connection between poetry and film. I think most people see poetry films as arty experiments, rather than legitimate, more intuitive approaches to storytelling. So often, films are constructed to manipulate an audience into feeling something. If you study screenwriting, the requirements for producing a positive audience response are very specific—on page 3 the central conflict needs to be established, on page 15 the protagonist needs to be faced with an obstacle they can’t overcome, etc. It gets very prescriptive. My experience of life is nothing like this and I find reality to be more elusive and spontaneous than most film structures allow.
I’m a fan of myth, of studying the deep psyche of storytelling, but I also see connections and symbols in ways that are not based on Jungian archetypes. I mean, what do you make of a deer that’s been blasted into a million pieces by a Burlington cattle guard? What do you make of a two-mile monster whose head you can’t see, who is made of iron and diesel fuel, who would crush you and leave you on the ballast to bleed out just as soon as it would whisk you away? How do we create stories that reflect this? My hope for this film is that people will watch it and get new ideas for what documentary filmmaking can be.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify the film’s message?
Any exposure would be great, but the film has always been a project between my brother and I. We reached out to the blues musician Charlie Parr for help with the soundtrack and we consulted with filmmaker friends who knew the whole submitting to film festivals thing, but the rest has been the two of us learning by trial and error. We didn’t go to film school. We don’t have a production crew helping us out. We wanted this to be a personal project, about the two of us, and the kind of experience we’ve had riding trains.
If we got too many other people involved, they would all bring their influence to the project and it would be less our own. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s hard when you get too many opinions flying around. For instance, I know our film was rejected from numerous festivals because it has a photo of a naked woman’s torso in a pile of trash. If we had a team of people trying to market the film, it would have been taken out pretty quickly. But it’s an important image, and it means something essential to the story, so we left it in. I don’t know, sometimes it’s better to follow a vision than to bring a lot of people on board.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
Ideally, I’d like it to be seen by young people who are looking for American adventures. I want the dreamers and seekers to watch this film and feel a little stoked about doing their own project, about risking something and finding a vehicle for their voice.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
One thing we’ve been asked at the film festivals is whether or not there are still hobos riding the rails. The audience looks at us and knows we’re not homeless, and not grizzled in the way some train riders are. They want to know if the myth is a “true myth.” The answer to the question is sort of yes and no. Yes, there are still people riding trains, many of whom are wild road dogs with tattooed faces and knives in their belts. But there are also many women riding trains. And there are young kids who ride trains for adventure. And there are graffiti artists who ride trains, and anarchists, and winos, and seasonal workers, and tramps, and older men who rode trains in the eighties but still ride, and there are sketchy people and kind people like anywhere else.
The contemporary American hobo is a version of the myth, but also nothing like you would think. Mostly, they are idealists who value freedom and experience more than money and comfort. They ride trains to connect with radical principles in the tradition of Whitman and Thoreau. They know the history and they have committed themselves to the adventure.
Would you like to add anything else?
Yes, the music! We were lucky enough to get most of the soundtrack from a Minnesota blues musician named Charlie Parr. He’s an amazing songwriter and if you like road music and classic blues country, you need to know his work. It really made the film come through.
What are the key creatives developing or working on now?
My brother and I are both working on full-length books of poetry. Last year I was lucky enough to get a publishing contract with BOA Editions out of Rochester, New York. It’s a press I’ve loved and admired for years and they’ve published some of the best poets in America. Right now, I’m working on edits and the collection should be out in Spring 2018. The book is called RAIL, and is about growing up in the Midwest, riding freight trains, poverty, grief, and the spiritual significance of the American West. For the release, I’m hoping to complete a series of short films that will accompany the book.
Interview: April 2017
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Riding the Highline
Poet brothers Kai and Anders Carlson-Wee hop freight trains across the country.
Length: 16 min
Director: Kai Carlson-Wee
Co-director: Anders Carlson-Wee
Producer: Kai Carlson-Wee
Writer: Kai Carlson-Wee, Anders Carlson-Wee
About the writer, director and producer:
Kai Carlson-Wee is the author of RAIL, forthcoming from BOA Editions. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he lives in San Francisco and is a lecturer at Stanford University.
Anders Carlson-Wee is a 2015 NEA Creative Writing Fellow and a 2016 McKnight Foundation Creative Writing Fellow. He lives in Minneapolis.
Key cast: Kai Carlson-Wee, Anders Carlson-Wee
Looking for (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists): Journalists
Where can I see it in the next month?
We’re screening at the Fargo Film Festival in Fargo, ND (March 21-25), the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, CA (March 31-April 5), the Victoria Film Festival in Victoria, Texas (April 6-9), Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH (April 13-14), and at the Rochester International Film Festival in Rochester, NY (April 20-22).