HotDocs Interview – GREY ROADS director Jesse McCracken

“GREY ROADS follows me as I return to my hometown to document its steady decline while also reconnecting with my only family left in town, my father and grandfather.” Filmmaker Jesse McCracken on GREY ROADS which is screening at HotDocs Online.

So you’re back at HotDocs this year! Tell me about your previous visit here and what your experience was like.

I have been here about 4 times now and I love the festival. It’s very supportive of filmmakers from all walks of life and always screens some great films. As well there’s a very eager and involved audience for documentaries in Toronto which is really great.

How did you get your start in the business and what have you worked on in the past?

I started in the business as a production assistant on television commercials and eventually moved into the camera department where I assisted for a few years mostly in docudrama television. After that I moved mainly into shooting and have been doing that and directing my own documentaries ever since.

Great to hear about your background! How did GREY ROADS come together?

This documentary came together slowly over the past 4 years. I had the idea of doing a documentary about my hometown for many years. As I was visiting the town over the years I saw it slowly dissolving in different ways, and I could feel a sense of grief and fear from people still in the community regarding these changes. And then with the threat of the possible school closure and selling of the senior citizens’ home, it felt like the right time to start filming. As well at that point, my only family left in town were my Dad and Grandfather, so I thought it would be interesting to examine that aspect too; seeing this town’s ups and downs through their eyes as well as mine.

What keeps you going while making a project? What drives you?

I feel like with the two features that I’ve made I’ve had the ideas kicking around in my head for years, so that feeling of these places and themes sticking with you is what ends up motivating me to start them. And then with these two films I was fortunate enough to receive some grants locally and federally, which gave me that extra motivation to see the projects through. And ultimately I hope I’m telling stories that other people can relate to and learn from, and that factor pushes me to make the best film possible. 

What was your biggest challenge with creating GREY ROADS, and what was the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

My biggest challenge was working with my Dad and Grandfather. It’s not easy to make a documentary with your family, especially when you are exploring more difficult themes that pertain to them. So it was a long process of getting them to open up and trying to own their stories. I think through working together we accomplished something they can be proud of, and I’m very grateful to them for going where they did. This was also the most rewarding aspect as well, as I definitely became closer to them during this process.

Let’s get technical! Tell me about the cameras-slash-equipment you used and the post-production process.

I used a Sony Fs7 MK I camera with a Canon 24-105mm stills lens, and some earlier scenes I shot were on a Sigma Art 35mm lens, but I mostly stuck with the zoom for ease as a one person crew. I also shot 4K so I could punch in or adjust particular frames in post if I didn’t nail them while I was filming. I had a Sennheiser Lavalier Mic and a Senheisser SMKH416 Shotgun Mic hooked into the camera for sound. I edited on Adobe Premiere Pro and finished the film in a 1080 HD resolution. 

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your work at HotDocs?

I just think the Hot Docs Festival is such a great platform for documentary filmmakers and they have a fantastic team of programmers who bring some of the best documentaries in the world to their programming. I feel honoured to be among them.

Of course this is an unpredictable time having this show virtually. How do you feel about movies being shown in this format & do you feel this is right, or do you wish to have a more traditional theatrical release?

I absolutely wish I could have had a theatrical release as I intended this film to be a very visceral experience at times that only a theatre could pull off. But at the same time the virtual release will hopefully allow more people to view from all over Canada who wouldn’t normally be able to go to Toronto for a screening, so that’s really exciting. 

Where is the doc going next?

There are no set plans as to where it will go next but I’m hoping it will get into some more festivals inside and outside of Canada, and I’m hoping to put on some smaller screenings in more rural areas as well to help generate discussion. 

What is the one thing that you would say to someone wishing to get into filmmaking, either short or long format, especially now as things are changing at such a fast rate?

I would say it’s a tough journey with a lot of ups and downs, but if you feel truly passionate about it then you should go for it and the rewards can be thrilling. Don’t stress about things constantly changing, just find your voice and be proud of it, and get yourself a camera and start shooting and experimenting as soon as you can. I would also say it’s great to learn a technical skill as well like shooting, editing, or sound design that you can use to get hired by other people in between shooting your own projects. 

And finally, what is your favourite documentary of all time and why?

I think one of my big favourites is Koyaanisqatsi (1982). I vividly remember experiencing it for the first time in college and was so blown away by its visual poetry paired with an incredible score from Philip Glass. The film said so much without any dialogue and really inspired me to allow images and sounds to speak for themselves in certain moments without having to rely heavily on any exposition. 

GREY ROADS is now streaming on HotDocs Online!

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