“Documenting Nature and Society: An Interview with Filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis”
The Ryder Film Series, November, 2000
by Megan Hollingsworth
In June of 2000, High Plains Films released a new documentary feature, KILLING COYOTE, with a week run at the New Crystal Theater in Missoula, Montana, the non-profit organization? home base. Killing Coyote documents a competition where hundreds of animals are killed for cash and prizes, and examines issues surrounding the attempt to control the coyote population in the West. After earning a Masters in Environmental Science at the University of Montana in 1992, Director Doug Hawes-Davis decided to try his hand at documentary filmmaking (with no previous production experience). Through the process of trial and error (including a healthy dose of the latter according to the Director), Hawes-Davis has produced a number of powerful documentaries. Perhaps the best known among them is the only other feature by High Plains Films, Varmints, which documents the plight of the prairie dog in the American West.
I first had the opportunity to work with Doug in 1997 when, as a staff member of Heartwood (a network of individuals and organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of forests in the Central Hardwood Region), I helped him secure funding for the distribution of his 1995 documentary, Southbound, which documents the hardwood chipping industry in the Southeast. In November 2000, we spoke over the phone about Killing Coyote, personal experiences, past films and current projects.
The Ryder: How did you get your start in film production?
DHD: Basically, I’ve always really liked documentaries and when I finished my graduate thesis I realized that it was just a piece of paper that was probably going to sit on a library shelf somewhere and wasn’t going to have a lot of impact as far as education or advocacy, so I got the idea that the topic of the thesis could be turned into a film, if only I knew how to make the film. By coincidence, I met another graduate student at the University of Montana who was interested in media and we took about a thousand bucks out of our own pocket and decided we would make a documentary. With no previous technical skills or understanding of film making at all, we hit the road for three weeks, did interviews, shot scenes, and edited at the community access television station here in Missoula, which is another whole ordeal. After seeing the response from people who were in the film and hearing their plans for using it to raise awareness about their issue, I was just really empowered by the whole process. I didn’t immediately go make another film, but for a couple years it was in the back of my mind how much I enjoyed making the first one. And then a couple years later, I pretty much tackled it full time. The more I’m involved, the more ideas I have for other films.
The Ryder: So, your initial interest was in putting out a message through film. It didn’t start out with film work and then the message?
DHD: Yeah, I think that the line between education and advocacy is kind of blurry really and in some ways all advocacy is education or activism even, but for me the purpose of making films is to be an advocate for understanding of the issues that we deal with in our films.
The Ryder: Would you please describe the production technique you used for Killing Coyote?
DHD: As in most of our films, the entire crew consisted of Dru Carr and myself. For all of the live action scenes, we were both shooting virtually all the time trying not to miss anything. We ended up collecting about fifty hours of footage total. Most of the images in the film were shot on digital video using two Sony cameras, a very small one-chip mini-DV camera and the DSR300 DVCAM… We did incorporate a bit of 16mm film for some of the wildlife footage and we shot some Super 8 for use in the scenes where I felt like past was meeting present, that is, some of the ranching scenes, the coyote contest, and some of the hunting scenes where it was kind of the old West meets today. I wanted to use a format that everybody would recognize as an old format, so we took this really cheap camera, shot a bunch of Super 8 and had the film developed and transferred to DVCAM. I had purchased the Super 8 camera at a flea market in Arkansas several years before, but had never used it in a finished film. I also incorporated some footage from State agencies and a bit of home video shot on VHSC. We established fairly early on in the film that we were going to manipulate color and speed when using some of the lower quality formats, such as mini-DV and VHSC. Everything was edited in a Macintosh computer using the media 100LX with firewire. Finally, I piled the computer and cables into my pickup, hauled it to Barrett Productions across town and mastered to Dbeta.
The Ryder: What drew you to the project initially?
DHD: Some of the people who were distributing Varmints made me aware of some of the issues surrounding coyotes in the West. One of the people working on both issues, both prairie dogs and coyotes, sent me an article from the Rawlins, Wyoming, daily newspaper that had a photograph of over two hundred dead coyotes in a parking lot at a hotel in Rawlins. The article described an annual contest where hunters attempted to kill as many coyotes as possible across whatever area of Wyoming they wanted to travel in competition for cash and prizes. I was just amazed that this actually took place. Being a hunter myself, I had never thought of competing in some sort of hunting contest, much less one where you actually compete for cash and prizes. So I was intrigued by the subject matter in this whole event and what it meant sociologically. Just thinking about coyotes, I was aware previously of the activities of Animal Damage Control, which is now Wildlife Services, a federal government agency, whose mission is to protect the American livestock industry. In the West, by and large, that means controlling predation or controlling predators, the most significant of which is coyotes. So, I started putting together the idea of a film that would look at all the different ways that human beings currently and historically have perceived and related to coyotes. . .
The Ryder: What was your first step in the production?
DHD: The first step in making it?. . . To raise some money (laughs). . . there’s clearly a big difference between having a basic understanding of the issue and knowing how you would approach actually making a film, so the first thing was the same as any other film, which was to try and find out who are all the major players on this issue. . . so, I did a bunch of research, read several books about coyotes and tried to learn as much as possible about our relationship to coyotes.
The Ryder: How did you select your sources?
DHD: I’ve gotten into the habit of doing a lot of pre-interviews where I talk to people on the telephone first and just try to get a feeling for how they are going to fit into the story. A lot of filmmakers tend to eliminate a lot of people through that process, and certainly we eliminate some, that is eliminate from our potential on-camera interviews. A lot of times I find it’s worth going ahead and interviewing basically anyone involved in an issue because you never know how people are going to respond or what they are going to say and as you interview more and more people that you may have eliminated previously. So, basically we were pretty inclusive. . . people working from the scientific perspective on coyote ecology, people who are in the agriculture industry who are familiar with predation, wildlife services people, coyote hunters, ranchers.
The Ryder: How cooperative were your sources?
DHD: Every individual who we wanted to interview we were able to interview. We found Wildlife Services a little challenging. They were, I would say among all the individuals of government agencies we’ve interviewed over the years, the most difficult and most wary of their own public perception and public opinion relating to their activities. . . we did end up spending four days with Wildlife Services. . . Wildlife Services has been under a lot of public scrutiny in the past five to ten years, but we did end up including their perspective.
The Ryder: Public scrutiny from what angle?
DHD: For the most part, from people who would like to see them stop killing wildlife.
The Ryder: What if anything during the film production was unexpected?
DHD: When we made Varmints, we were shocked at the prairie dog shooter’s perception of the animals and their lack of respect for the animals. Once again, being a hunter myself, I think that it’s very possible to have an appreciation for animals and also recognize that humans kill animals, whether directly or indirectly. Richard Nelson, in his book, Heart and Blood, asks the question, “Is there a moral ground that can encompass both hunting and animal rights?” In my opinion, this is one of the important questions that both Varmints and Killing Coyote deal with. Hunting and killing are separate acts that may or may not be related, but when talking about hunting, killing is often assumed as the purpose. . . But in doing Varmints, we were shocked at the hunter? lack of respect for the animals that they were shooting. And so we sort of anticipated the same sort of attitude when we were preparing to make Killing Coyote. As it turns out every single one of the coyote hunters that we interviewed were very likable people. . . The whole idea of varmint hunting - varmint being an animal (coyotes and prairie dogs both fit into this category) that is a pest, or a nuisance, or a problem for human activity - tends to lead to a lack of respect or perception that these animals have no value and therefor they don’t command our respect. But in the case of coyotes, we learned a lot about how you kill a coyote. And it’s not just like you go out in the woods and the coyotes present themselves and you shoot them. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of understanding of both the behavior of the animal and the animal’s habitat to know where to go find them and how to bring them to you. . . so, what we found is that through that understanding of the animal’s behavior and the animal’s habitat, the hunters gained a tremendous amount of appreciation for the coyotes. All the hunters believed that they’re (coyotes) the smartest animal out there on the landscape. So, it sets up a fairly fascinating irony to me that these people really truly appreciate and respect this animal, yet the goal is to kill them. . . We just assumed that those people would be more like the prairie dog hunters than they were. In fact, they were two different breeds all together.
The Ryder: Your voice is entirely absent from the film. How do you feel this affects the viewer and any opinions that may arise from watching Killing Coyote?
DHD: Yeah, well not just Killing Coyote, but as an organization, High Plains Films has released thirteen documentaries since 1992 and only two of those include narration. One of them was the first documentary that I made. . . and I regret it. There are many personal narrative documentaries that I like very much. The thing neither Dru nor I really care for artistically is professional narration in issue documentaries where the producer essentially inserts his or herself into the content of the film to shape viewer’s perceptions of the people characters and issues presented. So, the bulk of our films don’t use a narrator because we feel that people are going to learn and understand an issue better if they feel more immersed in it and if they feel like they have discovered in some way the answers for themselves rather than being told by a narrator. . . Obviously, there’s a lot of power in the things we shoot and a lot of power in the clips that are edited in, versus the ones that don’t make it. Hopefully, we’re trying to be as truthful as we can with the story. We want people to see the full story and make their own decision about how they feel about the issue. . . In many cases when the producer’s voice is there or there’s a narrator there, the viewer is being led one direction or another, and I don’t think there’s really any way around that when you use narration. I think it? possible THAT you lose a lot of your audience if your voice is there trying to steer people in one direction or another.
The Ryder: One conclusion drawn from the reviews I’ve seen is that it’s difficult to know just whom to root for after viewing the film. Was this your intention in producing Killing Coyote?
DHD: The goal is not to have viewers walk away and be rooting for or against anyone in the film necessarily. The intent of the film, as I said earlier, is to give people an understanding of the issue. To me, documentaries in general should never be about trying to dissect somebody’s personal character or attack an individual, because that doesn’t really do anything for the understanding of the issue. And I think it’s all to easy to do that, to choose sides and decide that the people who are not on your side are somehow evil or bad. But really it’s the behavior and a person’s perspective that’s important. . . I never really thought of it in that way, that people would want to root against an individual in the film. Certainly, we hope that people decide how they feel about the issue at some point after viewing the film and maybe that’s not a half-hour later or even a week later. You know, six months down the road they realize this is how the film impacted their beliefs about the relationship of humans to wildlife in this case.
The Ryder: Many of us go into watch these films and already have an idea of how we feel about the issue.
DHD: I think you’re right. I think a lot of people who walk into the theatre to see a film such as Killing Coyote. . .they’re a hunter and assume that all the animal rights people are bad and they don’t like them or they’re on the opposite side of the spectrum and walk into the theatre they’re going to hate the hunters. I don’t want that to happen. I want people to be challenged by what they see and hear, regardless of which side of the issue they think they’re on.
The Ryder: What moment, scene or experience from the production of Killing Coyote left the greatest impression on you?
DHD: Well, I suppose the easiest answer would be the coyote contest itself. A year after I read the article from the Rawlins paper, we were there ourselves, hunting each day with some of the participants, filming the Calcutta where the hunters bid on who’s going to kill the most coyotes, and filming the awards ceremony as well as the check-ins, where dead animals come in to be weighed and counted. Certainly, that was an intense experience. But I would say the thing that had the most impression on me perhaps was something I was surprised to learn about, which was that Wildlife Services has a facility dedicated predominately at this point to non-lethal control, that is controlling predator populations without killing them. The main thing that they’re trying to do is research into immuno contraception, basically sterilizing wild animals. From my perspective, that was pretty horrific. I just never imagined that such a thing would be taking place and certainly not that there would be tax money spent on it.
The Ryder: Do you know what stage they’re in presently?
DHD: Well, they’ve developed things certainly that will sterilize coyotes, but it’s not an efficient technique to use in the field. It’s very expensive. They have to give them several injections before an animal is biologically sterile.
The Ryder: Getting back to the competition and the whole idea of gambling on killing, how do you think the participants’ perceptions of you were affected by your being a hunter?
DHD: Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m not sure I know the answer to that. I would say that being a hunter helped in asking some good questions, or some questions that the hunters were interested in responding to. . . We were treated with a great deal of respect. People were very willing to talk to us. They were excited to talk about what they do and why they do it and share their perceptions and understanding of coyotes and hunting coyotes in the Western landscape. . . I think that being a hunter myself just made it easier to ask questions that were pertinent to what they wanted to talk about.
The Ryder: What’s been the biggest challenge in distributing the film?
DHD: Well, it’s interesting. We’ve gotten good reviews in most of the mainstream papers in the towns where the film has been screened and we’ve had quite a few screenings, but documentary distribution is challenging in many ways. It seems like most non-fiction film is produced for television audiences these days, which means under half an hour with an on-screen celebrity or professional narrator or whatever. We’ve released an 83-minute film with no narrator that looks nothing like anything you’d see on television. So, that’s an added challenge as far as trying to have the thing broadcast. . . We are fortunate to have venues like The Ryder film series in Bloomington, Indiana, the Bijou theater in Eugene, Oregon, Crystal theater here in Missoula, Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff and other non-traditional venues that are willing to screen it where people can actually get out and see it. It’s just a matter of being very independent and finding those places where it can be seen. It’s slow, but we’re confident it will be seen.
The Ryder: So, what’s next at High Plains Films?
DHD: Right now, we’re working on three films. One is about wild horses in North America (their role in Western landscapes, their history, and the politics surrounding their management). We’re also fundraising for a film called This is Nowhere, which will be about Recreational Vehicle enthusiasts who camp almost exclusively in Wal-Mart parking lots. Finally, we’re editing The Naturalist, a biographical piece about the work, advocacy, and philosophies of Kent Bonar, an extraordinary naturalist living in northwest Arkansas. Dru and I are excited to wrap that one up after more than three years of working in our “spare time” to get it finished.