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Interview: Julien Nitzberg

Julien Nitzberg chewing on some wheat. [Photo: Ted Plank]

Interview: Julien Nitzberg

Julien Nitzberg, associate producer of the cult documentary Dancing Outlaw, which stars the notorious Appalachian mountain dancer Jesco White, has set himself up for the same criticism that often gets leveled at fiction filmmakers like Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke. When directors show politically incorrect behavior without passing judgment on that behavior, it rubs many folks the wrong way, leading to charges of misogyny in von Trier's case or nihilism in Haneke's. Nitzberg's latest film, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, has and will most certainly be judged exploitative for its celebratory portrayal of Jesco and his kin: poor, white, violent West Virginian drug dealers who have no qualms about snorting pills for the camera at their octogenarian matriarch's birthday party. But underlying the reality-TV hi-jinks is a true respect for the subjects. Nitzberg seems almost in awe of the Whites' ability to buck the system so thoroughly and blatantly. The Whites indeed have created their own lawless world where the primal, Biblical eye-for-an-eye rule trumps all. One can't help but think Werner Herzog would be tickled pink by both the doc and the rebel director behind its lens.

Slant:What possessed you to want to make a film about the Whites and how did the production eventually come together?

Julien Nitzberg: I met Mamie White back in 1989 when I was making a documentary about Boone County's famous rockabilly and proto-punk singer, Hasil Adkins. Hasil and D. Ray White, the famous tap-dancing patriarch of the White family, used to perform together, so the Whites were good friends of Hasil's. I was shooting Hasil's concert and a crazed catfight broke out between three female fans of Hasil. This fight was like something out of an old western and went on forever. Finally Mamie jumped in and broke it up, tossing each woman to a different side of the bar like they were baby dolls. She was on acid that night and was pissed the catfight was ruining her good party. A week later, I saw Mamie again and she was on acid again. She kindly invited me to her birthday party, where she promised me she would have a "cake with tits and a pussy on it." As a man who loves cake, I found this to be an offer I couldn't refuse. At her house, I met Jesco and immediately became obsessed with the whole family. I went back the next week and shot the first footage of Jesco. This footage became the basis of Dancing Outlaw, the PBS documentary that made Jesco into a cult icon.

So, 20 years later I get a call telling me that Johnny Knoxville was a fan of my documentaries and wanted to meet me. At this point, I'd stopped making documentaries and was working in Hollywood writing scripts for HBO and had just written and directed an operetta called The Beastly Bombing or a Terrible Tale of Terrorists Tamed by the Tangles of True Love, about a group of white supremacists who come to New York to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge and meet a group of Al Qaeda terrorists who have arrived at the same time with the same plan. They eventually bond musically with songs about how much they both hate Jews.

Anyway, Knoxville and I met and became friends, bonding over a mutual love of David Allan Coe's X-rated country albums. He started coming to see Beastly Bombing every week and we started talking about doing a project together. I showed him my early Jesco footage one day and then the next thing I know he had the idea that I had to go back to West Virginia.

Slant:I like that you delved a bit into the coal-mining culture the Whites are a product of. It brought to my mind the parallels between hillbillies and gangstas. There's really very little difference between the mentality that births Appalachian artistry and that of ghetto rappers. Both demographics don't expect to survive that long or to lead enriching lives so they're steeped in a "live for today" kind of ethos. What's your take on all this?

JN: When people are trapped in poverty and see no possibility of improving their situation, they too often react in the same way. These are people with no options at all but who have taken this lack of hope and stood up to it in the only way they saw as possible—creating a badass outlaw persona that thrives on romanticized self-destructive behavior. They want to have their lives noticed and acknowledged and getting into a lot of trouble is the only way to do that. They don't see the world as fair in any way or buy into the American dream. They see coal companies like Massey Energy killing people in preventable mine disasters and never getting punished because Don Blankenship, the head of Massey, finances political campaigns in return for laws and court rulings that favor his company. This blatant corruption of the law fuels the outlaw culture in the region, justifying many others in the community to feel that they need to find ways to also exploit the system in their own small ways. The Whites, as masters of this, end up being celebrated in West Virginia by some like other outlaws before them (Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, etc.) who rebelled against corporate and state crimes by leading lives of crime themselves. Gangsta culture is just the urban version of outlaw culture.

There is this concept in America, that anyone can succeed if they wanted to—the whole "you can raise yourself by your bootstraps," but I think the film is a refutation of that. The world is not fair to poor people. It fucks them over and there are cycles that almost never end once people are trapped in them. When you grow up a White and constantly hear romanticized stories of criminality, or how great it was when your mother stabbed Dennis, you are going to grow up excited to stab someone and get family cred by going to prison. Finding a new moral center is going to be hard, if not impossible. And even if you have a moral center, but a shitty education, the possibilities for improving your life in a region with only one major and very dangerous industry (coal) are still pretty dim. This is something we are scared to admit in America because it goes against the myths we tell ourselves daily in all our Oprah episodes and cheery, life-lesson TV shows.

Slant:The film doesn't feel exploitative or condescending in any way, but did you worry about falling into that trap while you were shooting? I guess the fact that the Whites are actually well respected in their outlaw community might have helped to avoid it. On some level do you admire their nonconformity and their giving the finger to society?

JN: I love, respect, and admire the Whites. They are smart, funny as all hell, and have insane courage. I have no doubt that if they had been given different opportunities their wiliness would have led them to great conventional success instead of criminal success. But I have to say their intelligence and heart makes their self-destructiveness all the more tragic and heartbreaking. We bonded because I came from a very dysfunctional family, filled with physical violence and weird feuds. As a kid, I found escape by becoming a punk rocker and was able to channel my destructive hateful ways into art. If I hadn't had that opportunity and had grown up in Boone County, I probably would have ended up in trouble like the Whites. Even among my friends who had opportunity and middle-class backgrounds, a lot ended up becoming drug addicts and dying because they could not handle the everyday pains and corruptions of the world and had to numb it. Punk rockers and outlaws share a lot of the same self–destructive tendencies and hatred of society.

Because I know and love the family I never worried about making something exploitive. However, I knew certain politically correct people would see it that way. We cut the movie like a Scorsese crime film, not a documentary. This makes certain people uneasy because the film doesn't have the dull pacing some people think documentaries are supposed to have. We don't portray drug use as a purely negative phenomenon. I know how fun using drugs can be; that's why people do them and get addicted to them. This freaks some people out who think drugs should always be portrayed negatively.

Moreover, I didn't want this to be a social-issue documentary, but a multilayered family portrait allowing people to observe and explore this family that exists in America but is never shown with a sympathetic eye. Too often portraits of people from this region are incredibly simplistic. Either the families are portrayed tragically or they get drawn as living a bucolic existence from another time with mysterious old country wisdom. Yet the Whites are very complex people with very deep thoughts about life and death. They see the limits society has placed in their way and instead of being depressed, they give life (and death) the middle finger while they "party their balls off." I tried to be nonjudgmental and honest, showing their resilience, humor, and the way their lives abruptly switched from moment to moment, from tragic to comic to tragic again with dizzying speed. This complexity is what I hope resonates with viewers who see the film.

Slant:What was the most difficult part of the shoot? How did you go about gaining the family's trust in the first place?

JN: Most of it was difficult to shoot. We were often observing illegal and/or questionably moral activities. Many scenes were emotionally hard to shoot. Obviously this included destructive drug use.

There were also frequent death threats from different members of the family. In total we received at least eight death threats. One older half-sister of the Whites who was in her 60s told us she was coming down with her rifle "Josey Wales" and was going to kill me. A few weeks later she kept insisting that I come to her house for an interview and that everything was all right. I'd heard stories about how she'd recently held a whole bar hostage with "Josey Wales." I chose not to pursue that interview. As Billy Hastings, whose nephew Brandon shot him in the face three times, learned, some threats from the family can be very real.

Nothing went the way it was supposed to ever. When we were supposed to shoot with Mousey White and her husband Charles Green, he could not be found. Instead we filmed her search for him. When we were trying to film the interview with Kirk at the beginning of the film, her son Tylor kept interrupting. Once again, I went against the normal instincts of a documentarian trying to control an interview situation and let the chaos happen—to what I think was a good effect.

Family members were jealous of who got the most time with the crew and would then refuse to be filmed. So it was a constant state of winning people back over. Stories were spread by different family members that we were doing crack with other family members, having sex with them, had bought one a Hummer, and even that Kirk White had put a hex on me to spend more time filming only her. Sue Bob's boyfriend Rick got jealous that he wasn't on a shoot. Sue Bob and Rick got in a fight about it and she refused to go home. Instead she went to spend the night with Kirk. So Rick called the police and claimed I'd kidnapped her. In the middle of the night, a state trooper showed up at my room demanding I release her.

Slant:Do you have any regrets about the film itself? Is there anything you wish you could have included but didn't?

JN: When Kirk gets into rehab it seems a lot simpler than it really was. She literally had to stalk all these rehabs to get in. There were a bunch of other things I wish I could have included, but we also wanted to deliver a compact tight film. Some of the really important stuff luckily will be included in the bonus footage, like a great sequence dealing with the family's relationship to religion.

The family is so complex and interesting and their situation raises so many questions about American society I could watch them forever. I wish they had their own channel with a live feed from a camera on each member of the family. I wanted the film to be three hours long, but luckily Jeff Tremaine and Johnny Knoxville wisely talked me out of that. Finally, I embraced the fact that in movies, like in music, it's better to write a nice tight Ramones song than bore people with a nine-minute version of "In a Gadda Da Vida." But for the diehards we do have almost two hours of mind-blowing bonus features.

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