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The Revitalization of Small Town USA

Directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin take audiences up north for lobster in Downeast. They document the economic revival of a small town through rugged individualism combined with community spirit. It's a lesson for us all.

Tribeca: Tell us a little about Downeast. How would you describe the movie in your own words?

Ashley Sabin: Downeast is about economic revival and the revitalization of a town that relied on this sardine factory for so many years. When a newcomer from “away” comes into the town and tries to do something different with the deserted facility, his redevelopment idea becomes a point of contention among the townspeople. Everyone has an opinion about what should be done or what kind of use should be made of the empty space, but at the end of the day, a small town like Gouldsboro needs a central employer like a factory to keep it alive.

David Redmon: I think what we've recently discovered is that the film is really a portrait of different people that worked in the factory and of the man who's trying to rebuild the business and keep people employed. We found out about the factory, which shut down in April 2010, because it was the last remaining sardine cannery in the United States. Our initial intent was to simply go in and document the transformation of the building over time. When Antonio Bussone came along and bought the building, we asked him for permission to film, and he said sure, we could film him and we could film the building.

Tribeca: Antonio is such an interesting figure. It seemed like he was really open to the camera. Was there any access that you were denied?

David Redmon: I initially assumed that he was going to say no. He's really busy. He runs these different companies along the Northeast. We told him we wanted to document the transformation of this building and his attempt to re-employ the people who used to work in it. When he said, "Okay, no problem," I couldn't believe it. [laughs.] He gave us a key to his Chelsea office, where the majority of the lobsters are shipped and exported, and the key to his factory in Gouldsboro. And we were there as frequently as we wanted to be, if the people who worked were be willing to be filmed.

Ashley Sabin: It's kind of funny because with our previous film we worried so much about control and access and not getting what we wanted as far as access was concerned. And Downeast was such a nice counterweight to that, because we found someone who really trusted us and trusted himself, and had nothing to hide.  It was so refreshing.

Tribeca: You said the factory closed in April 2010, which meant that the project schedule moved quickly from the inception of the idea to the completion of the project. Can you talk about how you dove in?

David Redmon: At first, we read about the factory closing but were unable to go to Maine. We felt obligated to finish our other film, Girl Model. One night at three o'clock in the morning I couldn't sleep, so I started just searching the Internet, and for some reason that cannery appeared again. And so I woke up Ashley and I said, "Tomorrow morning, we're going to Maine. We're going to find this cannery." And the next day we drove straight to the cannery, assuming there'd be B&Bs and places to sleep [laughs]. We were lucky to find a place just down the street from it. We then convinced a security guard to let us start recording before we knew anything about Antonio. Once we met him and got his cooperation, the project took off. 

Tribeca: I'm sure you had a plethora of great Maine characters to choose from when you were selecting subjects. How did you whittle them down? How did you approach people?

David Redmon: Well it's funny, because we could actually do four or five films. Seriously. And we're doing three. This is the first one.

Ashley Sabin: It's interesting, because I feel like in every film you sort of get really attached to a certain person or personality and they become your darling. So in a sense you have to step outside of that space of being enthralled with them, and say, "Is this really part of the story?" And I feel like with Downeast, there are so many different fascinating people we met who have such strong personalities. They are not afraid to be who they are, and that's great when you're filming because they're not performing for the camera.  They are being who they are. Their honesty and frankness is just so refreshing.

Tribeca: In the documentary, you talk about and interview Gouldboro’s Dana Rice. I wouldn't want to use the word "antagonist" to describe him, but he was definitely an opposing force to Antonio's campaign to re-open the cannery, since it seemed to directly impact his business. Do you think Antonio saw where Dana was coming from?

David Redmon: It's interesting to note that the more time we spent with Dana, the less he would open up. I think he didn't trust us. I don't want to make that assumption, but that's just the way it seemed. In fact, Antonio did offer to buy Dana's lobsters, and Dana told him no. Dana is, in my opinion, fascinating. He works a lot behind the scenes. He's on several lobster committees in Maine and in Canada. He's more of a politician than a businessman. He just loves the business and that's why he keeps being a lobsterman.

But I don't see him as an antagonist either. I see him as having to be what he is, just like Antonio, except they just happen to be in conflict for reasons that are still confusing to me. But as storytellers, it's not our job to go in and give them advice, like, "I  think there's a way for you guys to work together." [Laughs]

Tribeca: You've already alluded to three films that are in the works. Could you talk about that more specifically?

David Redmon: Well Downeast is the first one. And then part two, I think it's going to be titled, Four Moments. And that's all it is: four moments in four different locations. And audiences are not going to know what the location is about until they get about 15 minutes into each moment. But the four moments all interconnect. So it's more of an experimental piece.

And then part three is a one-shot film with no cuts or edits. It's a one-shot movie for 72 minutes of the entire factory. And about 48 minutes of it works. [Laughs] With the process of making that film, we were trying to experiment with long takes, similar to a film called Sweetgrass. I don't know if it'll play anywhere, but we'll see.

Tribeca: Have you shown Downeast to Maine audiences yet?

Ashley Sabin: We just showed a work-in-progress copy at the Camden International Film Festival, and it was kind of unreal. Antonio, his wife, and his three kids were there.  There were a lot of local lobstermen and people from the Maine Lobstermen Association. We were pretty nervous because it was so early, and at that point we were more impressionable because we could change the story if someone told us that it was not accurate or something. Someone noticed that Antonio was there, and he was given a standing ovation. And that was really surprising for David and me, because we've never made a film that we didn’t feel like slitting our wrists after watching. [Laughs]

Tribeca: Do you have advice for aspiring documentarians? And is there one particular lesson you've learned from Downeast?

Ashley Sabin: Well, we used to live in New York. But I think if you want to get at the textures and the subtleties and the multi-layers of a story, I think you have to commit yourself and live in that space to understand what it tastes like, what it feels like, what it smells like day to day. Those small moments really add up and allow you to see a story in a different way. I know that's not always possible. Our previous film was shot in Siberia, and there was no way we could live there for an extended period of time. But I do think being in a space for an extended period of time really helps you to see it in a different way.

David Redmon: Well, I agree, but there are other people who would disagree. There are other people who would say the important thing is showing up and picking up moments. It depends on the nature of the story.

Tribeca: What are you both looking forward to most at Tribeca?

David Redmon:  You know what's funny is the first time we attended Tribeca, what was the first year?

Tribeca: 2002.

David Redmon:  Yeah, 2002. We took a bus from Boston, and I still have the award slip for the first film we ever watched together. That's how long we've been together. And every year we've seen films at Tribeca, but we've never had a film here. So when we got the notification, we were just ecstatic. We can't wait. So we're really looking forward to experiencing the audiences. I think the audiences are really incredible.

Tribeca: What was the first film?

Ashley Sabin: Carlo Guiliani, Boy. And then it's funny because we met the director, Francesca Comencini. We went to Rome for Girl Model, and we told her, and we said we took a bus to go see your film at Tribeca, and she was like, "Oh. My. Gosh." It was just a neat connection. I think for me, that's what I'm looking forward to, just those small, quiet moments where you get to meet different audience members who either are from Maine or have a connection to Maine and have different types of stories. Or the different directors and you can sit down and have those connections that actually have a big impact on us, as filmmakers. When you're isolated in the editing room, those are the moments that you really look forward to.

David Redmon: Whenever you mention lobster, there is just this association with Maine. And it comes right down into the city.

Ashley Sabin: Maybe you'll have a Maine lobster dinner on opening night? [Laughs] Antonio could give all the audience members a lobster.

Tribeca: So if you could have dinner with any filmmaker alive or dead, whom would you each choose?

David Redmon: Well, I think I've already had dinner with one. Well, Ilisa wasn't there, but Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who made Sweetgrass. So I've already kind of had that dinner.

Ashley Sabin: So what else? Now you can die or…is that it?

David Redmon: I guess? [Laughs]

Ashley Sabin: I think just for the pure entertainment value, I would have dinner with Klaus Kinski. Halfway through the dinner I would invite Werner Herzog to come and then you would see the two of them together; I think that'd be really interesting.

David Redmon: And then you bring in Lucien and Ilisa.

Tribeca: What are your favorite New York films?

Ashley Sabin: I always have trouble with questions like this. [Pause.] I like Ghost Busters. I kind of love that film. Thank kind of had an impact on me when I was growing up. Bill Murray, man. He is just great.

Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?

David Redmon: What's that soap opera called? The Young and The Restless.

Ashley Sabin: I would call yours Agitated. [laughs]

David Redmon: [laughs] What about you?

Ashley Sabin: Obsessive Compulsive? I don't know what mine would be.

Tribeca: Downeast is so human. Most people who live in New York are not from New York. They're from small towns, and that feeling of community in Downeast is easily translatable to the filmmaking community of Tribeca. What makes Downeast a Tribeca must-see?

Ashley Sabin: But I think there is something to be said about New York. It's not really an easy place to live. It's the sort of place that you have to really dedicate yourself to. I think that kind of parallels the existence in Maine. You know it's tough, but there's that love and passion combined with the toughness that makes the situation really sweet. So I think that those parallels exist. I'm sure you can find similar stories here in New York, because—it kind of sounds corny—there's this vitality of life and this incredible love of life that keep you going.

David Redmon: Yeah, it's a combination of this rugged individualism combined with community spirit. Even though people in that community have differences, they still find some way to hopefully resolve disputes in the bigger interest of the community.


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