SxSW 2019 Interview – THE RIVER & THE WALL producer Hillary Pierce

“THE RIVER AND THE WALL is an adventure film rather than a typical essay-style documentary. It’s about five friends who travel the entire length of the Texas-Mexico border on mountain bikes, horses, and canoes to explore the potential impacts of further border wall construction and to see first hand the borderlands and the people and wildlife who live there. The film is an immersive experience and audiences will be transported to a place that many of them will never see in person. The border is misunderstood and this film will completely change the way people see it.” Producer Hillary Pierce on THE RIVER & THE WALL which screens at the 2019 edition of South By Southwest Film.

I hear you are back at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favourite aspects of the city.

I was one of the producers of TOWER and A SONG FOR YOU: THE AUSTIN CITY LIMITS STORY, two films directed by Keith Maitland that we premiered here at SXSW in 2016. We had such an incredible experience and wildly positive reception that year that I will be forever grateful to Janet and her team and the festival audiences who embraced our films so enthusiastically. I’m an Austin-local and our core team is based here so to be able to share your work simultaneously in the town that you call home and on an international stage is a really unique experience and I’m so lucky to have that. This will be Ben’s first film at SXSW and I’m so excited for him to be able to have that experience. Austin is a really wonderful place to make and watch movies.  It feels like living in a small town with all the benefits of a major city.

So how did you get into this movie-making business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

I went to college in Wilmington, North Carolina and got into the film and TV business during a local boom we were having there. I loved the work but wanted more creative control and the ability to make an impact so I moved from production work on studio projects to the documentary world. I interned with Albert Maysles in New York, filmed a few things of my own, and ultimately got my MFA in Documentary Film before moving to Austin. Austin has been a wonderful place to live and work and I’m so grateful to have been a part of uniquely Texas-based projects like TOWER, A SONG FOR YOU: THE AUSTIN CITY LIMITS STORY, and now THE RIVER AND THE WALL as well as consulting for and working with many other local filmmakers in this tight-knit community.

How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!

This was one of the fastest-paced filmmaking experiences of my life. Ben and I were working together on some other things when he had the idea for the film. He had been in Far West Texas making a short on mountain lions when he learned what a border wall in that area might do to the wildlife. He made a short soon after and then we quickly started thinking about a feature. We officially decided to start developing and fundraising in May 2017 and by December 1st, we had raised enough money for production, had five subjects for the expedition, and hit the road on mountain bikes in El Paso. Two and a half months later they reached the Gulf of Mexico in canoes and we jumped into the edit. We spent the better part of 2018 in the edit room and are ready to premiere the film just shy of the two-year mark of deciding to make it. Having this film come together so efficiently, from fundraising to production has been a dream and testament to its necessity right now. Many people came together because they care about the border, they care about wildlife, and they didn’t want this border wall to move forward without further examining the potential impacts, giving a voice to the Rio Grande, and sharing these amazing places with the world. That energy and that passion is brought this film into existence on such a quick timeline.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee are we talking about here?

Coffee definitely plays a big part, as well as late nights and inside jokes, but truthfully, knowing that this issue was like a runaway train barreling down the tracks is what kept me motivated. Knowing that finishing this film meant amplifying unheard voices and viewpoints in this national conversation is what made me want to work as hard and as fast as we did, while still doing quality work.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

I think the biggest challenge of this project is dealing with the adversary of time. In many ways, I acknowledge that time is on our side given that this topic is hot and people are interested, but in some ways, we couldn’t make this film fast enough and no matter how hard we try to keep the story up to date, we can’t keep up. The final cut might not include some of the changes that have happened since the trip concluded, but it is evergreen in that it documents some of these places, species, and voices in a critical time before a sea-to-shining sea border wall is constructed. It also captures an incredible adventure amongst five friends in a time and place that is very special.

I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.

Going into production, we knew that a lot of the places we would be filming such as the Forgotten Reach or the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande would be places that have never been filmed before. That was an exciting prospect and we knew we wanted to film them in the highest quality possible and in a dynamic way. We also knew we wanted to deliver in 4K. We have always talked about the film as an immersive experience so we wanted to shoot super wide to give the big picture of these landscapes while also getting up close and personal with our expedition team as they biked, rode, and paddled down the border. All of the aerials you see in the film were either shot via helicopter on a RED Weapon or with a DJI Inspire 2 with the X7 camera. For the personal, character-driven verite footage, we mostly shot with the Panasonic EVA-1 or the Canon 5D MIV. We filled that out with really amazing wildlife footage shot on the RED Weapon as well as so GoPros to never miss the action. In an attempt to keep our camera team fresh along the journey, we cycled operators in and out to allow for down-time so we actually have a core team of 6 cinematographers/shooters who shot the film. Editor John Aldrich is included in that camera team as well and he, along with Ben and I tried to keep styles and footage we were capturing cohesive.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

I am really looking forward to seeing people’s reactions to the wildlife and landscapes of the Rio Grande. It’s kind of crazy to think about, but there are Texans who have never seen some of these places. SXSW attracts such a worldwide audience while also bringing in locals so I’m super excited to blow some folks’ misconceptions about the border and what it looks like out of the water. I think they’re going to be amazed at how beautiful it is.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

The film continue to play more festivals throughout the year but we’re very excited to announce that it will be coming to theatres and digital platforms at the beginning of May. We will also be building a robust community screenings tour partnering with nonprofits to bring the film to audiences in smaller markets. We don’t want anyone who wants to see this film not be able to get their hands on it.

If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

I would really love to screen it at the White House. I think they have a home theatre.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie?

A lot of hard work and passion went into making this film and it was made for you and everyone sitting around you. Respect that and take time to savour it.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Be a doer and not a talker. Ideas are great, but action is greater. If you have an idea, make it real. Create your own opportunities and bring an idea to life. Don’t let naysayers stand in the way of making a great idea a reality. Surround yourselves with people who believe in your good ideas and want to make them a reality too.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

I think the most moving festival screening I ever attended was seeing The Trials of Darryl Hunt at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC in 2006. It was the first documentary I’d ever seen that moved me to tears and then immediately introduced me to the filmmakers and subjects. Film festivals are special because they bring the movies to life. It’s not something you can have at home on the couch.

This is one of the many film titles playing at SxSW 2019. For more information on this and any other title playing in the festival, point your browser to!

Leave a Reply