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Interview: Chris Ordal

July 1, 2011 2:21 a.m.

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando speaks with director Chris Ordal about his film "Earthwork."

Related Story: Interview: Chris Ordal

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

KPBS-FM Film Feature: "Earthwork," Interview with Chris Ordal
By Beth Accomando
Air date: June 30, 2011

HOST INTRO:
Imagine a work of art that that not even the artist can see until it's done and you'll have the subject of "Earthwork." KPBS film critic Beth Accomando speaks with director Chris Ordal about the challenges of making a film about crop art.

EARTH (ba). wav 3:58 (music out at 4:51)

TAG: "Earthwork" opens today (Friday) at Reading's Gaslamp Stadium Theaters (pronounced REDDING). You can find more of Beth's reviews on her Cinema Junkie blog at K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G.

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Telling the story of how a man can turn a field into a work of art is at the heart of the film "Earthwork."

CHRIS ORDAL: The purpose of the movie is to share a story with people that almost no one knows about. A very simple yet inspiring and uplifting but also very true to life. (:13)

Director Chris Ordal speaks with KPBS film critic Beth Accomando about the challenges of making a film about crop art. That's coming up later on Morning Edition.


Back in 2005, Chris Ordal was at the University of Kansas when he discovered local artist Stan Herd.

CHRIS ORDAL: One day a mutual friend of ours just kind of casually mentioned the story of when Stan went to New York City and did this amazing work with all these homeless guys, and I just became obsessed instantly.

Herd is a crop artist and if you don't know what that is you're not alone.

CLIP You know, I've hung off of every major skyscraper in New York City and photographed every type of architecture and I've never seen anything like that.

Crop art involves using the land and what grows or is planted on it to create a work of art that can usually only be appreciated from high above. The story Ordal refers to is when Herd went to New York in 1994 to pitch a project that would turn an acre of property owned by Donald Trump into a work of art.

CLIP What if the only funding I required was the land itself? If I covered all costs out of my own pocket as long as I could do whatever I wanted with the land.

Herd's obsession with creating a work of art that might actually be seen is at the heart of "Earthwork."

CHRIS ORDAL: The thing about Stan's work is that he spends months and month creating his pieces but never is he up in the air looking at them as he is creating them. He's on the ground and when you are on the ground at one of these massive earthworks that are acres and acres in size really it looks like nothing.

CLIP I need 50 railroad ties, 50 square yards of sod... I'm doing an earthwork where Donald Trump is putting up a skyscraper.

CHRIS ORDAL: You really don't see anything until it's done... so as we were crafting the story, it was pretty obvious, pretty quickly that we couldn't show every step and then give the audience oh here's what it looks like from above because not even the artist gets that.

Herd, played by John Hawkes in the film, rarely gets to see his work from a vantage point that provides him with the big picture. So for most of the film Ordal shows us Herd at ground level working with the homeless people living in nearby tunnels.

CLIP I'm Stan Herd... well Stan Herd welcome to our home more or less.

Herd made these homeless people collaborators in his project. The artist also served as a consultant on the film and Ordal says he couldn't have made the film without him.

CHRIS ORDAL: He helped us recreate and be true to the way that his earthworks are created, and without him we wouldn't have been able to recreate the earthwork day to day. Stan was on set every single day working on the set basically with our art department and greens team. Pretty much directing the creation of the earthwork.

Ordal smartly builds a sense of mystery around Herd's art by not showing us any of the final pieces until the end credits. When the film finally lets us see it, it's breathtaking.

CLIP Stan Herd! You've opened my iris.

CHRIS ORDAL: It takes this art form that literally needs a helicopter to show people his work, and it puts it in front of an audience and hopefully reminds them that there's a story behind every work of art.

Herd's story is inspiring and uplifting yet it's not an artist risks all and gets discovered cliche. He faces many hardships. But Ordal chooses not to focus on polarizing issues regarding public art or about pitting the haves against the have nots.

CHRIS ORDAL: It's a narrative where the antagonist is not human, it's time, it's money, it's things that you feel that you need but ultimately you can still make things happen.

Ordal ends his film with enticing documentary footage of the real Stan Herd working on the Trump project. He also leaves us with this quote from painter Thomas Hart Benton: "I know there is no such thing as failure in the pursuit of art. Merely to survive in that pursuit is success." "Earthwork" tells a survivor's story and exposes film audiences to an artistic medium they might not be aware of.

For KPBS, I'm Beth Accomando.