Interview: Two Trains Runnin’ filmmakers
With a whole host of intriguing new documentary films heading to Sheffield Doc/Fest each year, it’s never easy predicting what will be the big hits, but we reckon we’ve spotted a sure-fire winner from this year’s line-up. The main event of the Saturday night is the international premiere of highly-anticipated American film Two Trains Runnin’. It tells the story of the search for two lost blues singers from the Deep South in 1964, but set against the background of the American Civil Rights Movement. Our very own ‘Dochead’, Mark Perkins didn’t need much persuading to have a chat with Dava Whisenant (editor and co-producer), Benjamin Hedin (writer and producer) and Sam Pollard (director).
This isn’t your first Doc/Fest, is it?
Dava: No. We came in 2015 and made contacts through the MeetMarkets, so Doc/Fest was helpful in developing this film, and made us aware of what the international market is interested in. It’s a wonderfully put together festival and it’s such great fun.
Ben: Yes. I was really taken by Sheffield. I’d never been in that part of England before. The festival is just superbly done, and really impressive. We’re both back this year, along with Sam, for the screening of Two Trains Runnin’, and for a Q&A afterwards.
Without giving too much away, what can we expect in Two Trains Runnin’?
Dava: It starts with two groups of students searching for two long-lost blues singers. By the 1960s many of the original blues artists had died or disappeared, but a few were rediscovered and the folk and blues revival led to them having a second career. However, two of the most influential, Skip James and Son House, had never been found.
Ben: I liked the blues, and I knew that in 1964 two groups set out to have one last go at locating these blues singers, who could have been dead for all they knew. It was a totally impromptu and essentially a dumb idea, as these guys quickly discovered. They were down in Mississippi at the most dangerous and incendiary time possible. If they had known what they were heading into, as they admit in the film, they wouldn’t have gone.
Dava: What they didn’t realise was that, at exactly the same time, volunteers from colleges in the north and the west were also travelling down to Mississippi to help bring about awareness of the civil rights issues and voting rights struggle, which is why it became known as Freedom Summer.
Ben: I was interviewing the surviving blues-hunters for a book, when I began to realise that it was a really exciting and provocative story because of the overlap between their story and the civil rights movement. The book never got written, but the story nagged at me and stayed with me until I decided that a documentary would be the way to go, but I had no idea what that meant, having never made a film. I needed a director and a producer. Sam Pollard was my first choice for director, because every time you watch a documentary about blues or civil rights, his name is in the credits. Dava Whisenant had edited a film I’d seen about Merle Haggard which had really impressed me, so I approached them and they both said yes.
Sam: Ben sent me a proposal, and we talked and talked and talked and at one point I got really excited about it and said this could be a really interesting film. I’ve collaborated with lots of people on lots of films and this has been one of the most positive and fruitful collaborations ever. If it hadn’t been for Ben’s tenacity to raise the money and to tell this haunting story, the film would not exist. And we really have to tip our hat to Dava, who did an amazing job weaving all the story elements together.
Dava: One of our problems was that most of the guys involved were dead, and those who are still alive didn’t have any photos, so animation seemed the best way to tell those parts of the story in a cinematic kind of way. The animators created some really beautiful sequences, which fit in so well with the rest of the film.
Sam: It is amazing that all these things happen at that one pivotal time. All of these separate groups being in Mississippi that one weekend when the infamous ‘Freedom Summer Murders’ happened, which could only have happened in the racially volatile south, and which changed lives, and even American history, forever.
There’s a tremendous soundtrack to the film, not all of it original Delta blues music.
Dava: We wanted to start with a live performance, and Chris Thomas King’s performance of Two Trains Runnin’ at the start seemed to fit perfectly, although the film originally had another title: The Blues House – referring to a house in Newport where all these old-time blues musicians stayed. We filmed Chris playing, and when our historian Greg Tate said he thought ‘the way you guys are weaving these stories together it should actually be called Two Trains Runnin’; that was a light bulb moment. We had our title. Some people think the blues is slow and sad, and it can be, but some of it has such a groove that it wants to get people dancing and forgetting about their troubles. I tried to use the lyrics of the songs to move the story on whenever I could.
Sam: One of the things we decided was important was to have musical performances in the film by contemporary musicians who love the music of Son House and Skip James. There’s some good blues in here that you’re not going to see in other films: for the live music we got people like Gary Clark Jr, Buddy Guy and Lucinda Williams to perform.
Sadly, the issues that the film raises are still relevant today.
Ben: Fifty years on from these events, it seems the best we can still do is to confront the problem. We don’t seem able to correct it. The film is about this moment in American history when you would have hoped that race relations were re-assessed, but in a way it was only a temporary thing. The lesson of the Civil Rights Movement is that we must keep trying, otherwise nothing will happen; no progress will ever be made.