Boom and Bust in a Single-Stoplight Town
'Crawford' and the commander in chief
Like most people, David Modigliani had never heard of Crawford, Texas, before George W. Bush set up camp in the 700-person town that counts Waco as its closest "big-city" neighbor. "I didn't know that Bush wasn't from Crawford," explains Modigliani, a Massachusetts native. "So when I found out that he moved there in '99 a couple months before his candidacy, I was sort of intrigued by that fact and realized that he had very effectively created an origin myth. And then I literally looked on a map with my friend and thought, 'Where is Crawford anyway?'"
In 2004, Modigliani got in his car with a few friends and a camera and headed to Crawford. At the time a playwriting fellow at the University of Texas' Michener Center for Writers (where I first met him), Modigliani thought there might be a play there.
"We went in completely cold," he recalls. "We were told that if we went into the gas station early in the morning, we would be able to meet some of the farmers who come in to drink their coffee before they go out to begin their day. So we rolled out to the Fina station, which is in the film, at 5:30 in the morning, and we walked in, and there were six guys sitting around a table, and it was like the needle went off the record. You know what I mean? It was like ... 'Who the hell are you guys?'
"It was very clear that I had brought all of these people here, and I was gonna have to say something. And I, um, you know, went back in and looked at a bulletin board for an inordinate amount of time and sort of summoned up the courage ... and I went and started talking to them and broke the ice."
Having originally envisioned the project as a multimedia piece that would function as "sort of an indictment of Bush for his political stagecraft," Modigliani changed course as soon as he started talking to the people of Crawford. "When I saw the footage of the people that we'd interviewed and talked with, it was just very clear to me that this needed to be a film. These characters' faces and their beings were so engaging that any attempt at a play would never do them justice." As for Modigliani's notion of a politically charged piece, that, too, fell away. "It became clear that these people and their experience was much more interesting than anything else."
Crawford charts the boom and bust of an all-but-boarded-up town that was powerfully affected by Bush's arrival, ascendancy, and astonishing fall. The town experiences a remarkable arc in its relationship with Bush, one that mirrors the nation at large. It's safe to say that by the time Cindy Sheehan rolled into town with 20,000 strong swelling the tiny town way, way past capacity, the honeymoon was over. But Modigliani was always more concerned with the micro, not the macro, view and with accurately depicting the people of Crawford in a way the national media all but ignored.
"I wouldn't say [the people of Crawford] are suspicious," Modigliani says, "but I'd say they're skeptical of media in general, because of the way that their town is portrayed in the media. And as you see in the film ... every single news report has the same backdrop, which is the bale of hay and the broken-down piece of farm machinery. And if you turn the camera a little to the left, you see a residential house, and you turn a little to the right, you see the high school track. So they feel like they've been made to look more Podunk and hillbilly and backward than they really are. And so I think they're a little distrustful of the media in that regard.
"But being young and [having] a small camera, we don't look like TV people," he continues. "I think more importantly ... as soon as they felt like we were respectful of them and we weren't politically combative – we were just kind of interested in their stories and what they had to stay – they became really warm and were really generous."
Because of that trust, Modigliani and his small crew enjoyed close access to the residents of Crawford, many of whom were struggling with contradictory feelings about their new neighbor, the commander in chief. Late in the film, there is a tragedy that has a rippling effect, one that extended to the filmmaker.
"Some really, truly dramatic things happen to several characters in the film," Modigliani says, somewhat haltingly. "And it's a strange and conflicting experience to, on the other hand, be in the editing room and [be] thinking very objectively about what works for the film and thinking about the people in the film as, quote, 'characters,' while in the meantime, their lives are progressing. They're not part of some screenplay that you're writing.
"It's hard to hold both the objectivity of filmmaking and the subjectivity of relationships with the people in the film. And the confluence of those is both scary and exciting," he says.
Some of the Crawford residents featured in the film will be at its world premiere at the Paramount – a prospect that makes Modigliani a little nervous – but mostly he's just enthusiastic about the Festival, the end point of a years-long shoot, maxed-out credit cards, and 18-hour days in the editing bay.
"To have a Texan filmmaker with Texan subject matter coming through a Texan film festival felt like a great match," he says, "and it felt like a great place to launch the film."
I ask Modigliani, a little teasingly, if he's calling himself a Texan now. After all, this is a guy who summered in Martha's Vineyard growing up and counts family friends Jake Gyllenhaal and Mary Steenburgen as part of his film's advisory board.
"I guess I am," he laughs. "There [are] the bumper stickers 'I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.' I'm sticking around. I came four years ago. I thought I'd just stay for grad school and I'd move on. And I stayed to finish the film. And I love it. I want to stay here and make more films."
CrawfordDocumentary Feature, Spotlight Premieres, World Premiere
Saturday, March 8, 4pm, Paramount
Monday, March 10, 11am, Paramount
Saturday, March 15, 1:30pm, Paramount