King of the Hillbillies
By Anne S. Lewis
MAY 10, 1999: There's something oxymoronic about a documentary subject crossing over to Hollywood -- as in being asked to guest star on Roseanne. So no one was more surprised than West Virginia filmmaker Jacob Young when Tom Arnold called to talk about bringing Jesco White, the white trash, Elvis-impersonating, clogging star of his 1991 Dancing Outlaw documentary, out to L.A. for a taping. Young recovered from his shock sufficiently to respond that he probably wouldn't be interested in coming out there as Jesco's "babysitter" but might be talked into it if he could film the junket. No problem, said Arnold. Alas, when Young and Jesco arrived on the set, the Arnolds' marriage had just imploded, as had, coincidentally, the Whites' back in Boone County. Jesco's TV debut fell by the wayside in all the connubial bedlam -- Roseanne went on a rampage and even tried to fire Young -- but out of the detritus came Dancing Outlaw II: Jesco Goes to Hollywood, the story of the parallel universes inhabited by the richest and the poorest couples in the world. The moral, Young says, is that "white trash will be white trash no matter how much money they have."
Young, in 16 years of filmmaking, has kept his finger securely, bemusedly, but always affectionately, on the pulse of Appalachian hillbilly culture. One of his first films, American Junkumentary, mined the quirky bounty of the already litter-strewn area's junkyard businesses. Dancing Outlaw opens with the smashing of a beer can against the bullet-dented Boone County road sign. The rusting, trashed-out trailers, the dingy laundry blowing on the clotheslines, the abandoned washing machines and wrecked cars, Jesus and Elvis ... and then there's Jesco White, sitting on the stoop of his trailer, telling us about his early gas and lighter fluid-sniffing years and how he keeps his contentious older wife, Norma Jean, under control. Self-possessed, yokel-accented, seriously off-kilter, Jesco is more than a little scary for all the earnestness in his self-presentation. Then, off he goes clogging across a swing bridge, tap dancing on top of an occupied dog house, on a large square of plywood, on any hard, flat surface he can find, banjoes and harmonicas blasting either live or from his hand-held boombox.
Young originally went to Boone County to make a film about Jesco's dad, D. Ray White, a legendary Appalachian clogger. "I went to this diner in the county seat where this gang of lawyers hangs out, telling White family stories -- they've got this cottage industry there, defending the Whites against all of the criminal charges that are filed against them. When I asked if anyone knew where I could find D. Ray White, they all got these sad looks on their faces: 'Well, you could find him six feet down at Locust Hill -- three years ago he got a bullet and died.' Apparently, he'd been shot in his front yard by a neighbor who'd come around to settle a score with another White son. I turned around to leave and one of the lawyers shouted out, 'Well, you ought to look up Jesco, his number-one son, why, ah think he's a-learning to dance.'"
Jesco was and Young did, and the resulting half-hour film became a segment of the 13-part Different Drummer series that he made in conjunction with West Virginia public television and the BBC. It won the American Film Institute's Best Documentary award in 1993, screened at the Museum of Modern Art, and was named best public television program in '92. WNPB-TV in Morgantown could barely handle the tape requests. And then, oddly enough, it became something of a cult classic, circulating through the Hollywood party circuit and prompting the Tom Arnold call.
Young, who is 47 and has lived all his life in West Virginia, says he gets nervous when he's somewhere flat; he needs the mountains for a place to hide, for protection from the wind. He became fascinated with backwoods Appalachian culture -- which encompasses not just West Virginia, but also a little of Kentucky and Virginia -- when he was in college and met people from that area. "The area where Jesco lives is really Red Neck Central. The cultural norms of the people in this area are different than any I've come across," Young explains. "I wanted to capture how the Whites lived and stayed connected to a way of life which is on its way out, passing down a tradition, like the dancing, that I don't think will be around much longer than 10 or 15 years. Even if Appalachian kids don't move away from the area, today they're learning about MTV -- not how to dance like their parents did."
Jacob Young: There are long-standing rules of etiquette in this area; these people aren't belligerent or dangerous and won't shoot you if you simply show them, in small ways, that you respect them, that you recognize them as the landowner, the authority. I would never, in that part of the country, lead with the camera. I go in and make sure that the family knows who I am and what I'm doing, then I would get the camera out, show it to them, explain it to them, even put it on their shoulders and let them look through it. The point being to demystify the camera, show them that it isn't an offensive weapon. It's important to me that if I'm making a film about these people, that they know that I'm one of them, on their side, not some outsider trying to judge them as a negative stereotype. I try to pick subjects that I like and feel that way about.
JY: Oh, yes, they'd seen documentaries; they're very current, you see satellite dishes all over the place. What I did was find Norma Jean, Jesco's wife, and talk to her first. Then, about three or four days later, Jesco came out of the woods and we started the project. He and I talked quite a bit about what I wanted to do -- which was just to tell his story -- though I don't think he really understood. I think he thought I was making a music video -- he has this way of interpreting things in his own way and it's hard to convince him otherwise. He thought this was going to be his big break.
JY: I went through three or four sound men for this film. My crew is just me and a sound guy. But they kept getting intimidated. In fact, it took us six to eight months to complete the film because we kept getting chased off. Jesco really is this multiple personality. Everything would be going great and then he'd get up to go to the bathroom and come back this different person. One time he came back to the kitchen table and started sweating and shaking and said, "You know, I talked to Elvis last night and he said you were a-making millions a dollars off this movie and ripping me off and that you ought to be killed!" I glanced at this 12-gauge shotgun leaning against the wall and nodded to my sound guy to get into the van and start it up. Then I took Jesco's hand and said, "Jesco, you can trust me. Here's what I'll do, if you want. I'll give you the whole movie right now and you can do whatever you want with it. You just take a few days to think about things and I'll call you to see what you want to do." I went out to the van and handed him some blank Beta tapes that were lying around -- I knew there wasn't a VCR within a hundred miles. My sound guy was backing the van down the driveway and Jesco was running alongside it as we talked. Jesco was instantly reassured and it seemed to me that it would be okay to resume the shoot but my sound guy would have none of it. "Well, that was fucking interesting, man, but I am never going back there again," he said as he peeled off. There are parts of that area where even the cops won't go unless there's a body.
JY: What I'm trying to do with these films is make the film that my subject would make if he or she were the filmmaker. I try to be as unobtrusive as possible, just me, a sound man, and a Betacam on a tripod. I start by casting the widest net possible, my job being just to keep my subjects talking. I don't interrupt them, I want to let them say everything that's on their minds. I'm trying to find out what's important to them, what they fear, etc. -- whatever happened to be foremost on their minds that day.
So my interviews are just like conversations where I'm just listening to what they're saying, rather than trying to cover a particular topic. When they tell me something -- that's fact for me. Later, when I look at what I've got on tape, I may want to go back and pursue a few things they said that interested me. Or ask someone else about a story somebody had related, to get their take on it. Of course, while I'm shooting, I never know what I've got; I'm always thinking it's all worthless. I never know what movie I've got until I start to edit it, which is why only I can edit my films.
JY: Well, let's see. I can't make a film without music. I wouldn't know how to pace it. I love rock & roll, so every film has that in it. It's just a matter of finding the right soundtrack for my people. One of the first questions I always ask is, what's your favorite music? I try to understand them that way.
Errol Morris is my favorite doc maker; he informs me the most. Gates of Heaven was the most important film I ever saw and I'm always trying to imitate that, trying to carefully compose every frame and letting my subjects just talk.
JY: Yeah, I loved that too -- they do that three times a week! I intentionally cut that scene into the middle of the film because I like to save surprising stuff, like that, and sprinkle it throughout the film. I hate to admit that I make docs, because people just hate that word -- they immediately think: boring. And, it's true, with most docs, in the first 10 minutes, you've figured out the issue and the filmmaker's take on it. I like for there to be surprises. In other words, you may think you know where this film is going but just at that point, I like to take a complete left turn and surprise you entirely. So I try to save my little gems and not spend them all in the first two minutes of the film.
Take that mud bog scene: That could have been a really splashy opening but I needed that for a little adrenaline shot later on, so I saved it for a time when I thought the film might be lagging a little.
JY: I've got lot of things in progress, including a feature film that I've written the screenplay for. I'm still working on American Breakdown, [a reality-based series featuring stranded motorists] which has shown at festivals and which I'm talking to people now about turning into an ongoing TV series.
It's funny, I got into documentary film, even though I really wanted to do feature films, because I could only afford to do docs. Now, with a feature in the works, I don't want to abandon the doc form because I think it may be my strong suit. It turns out you can do almost the same things in a doc as in a feature film but you may have more freedom with the doc form. With a feature film, there's no excuse for everything not being just perfect. With a documentary, there are lots of situations where you absolutely must compromise.
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