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Interview: Chris Ordal

Earthwork’ Director Talks About Crop Art

Zach Grenier and John Hawkes in

Credit: Shadow Distribution

Above: Zach Grenier and John Hawkes in "Earthwork."


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


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" (opening July 1 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters). Listen to my interview with director Chris Ordal.

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

"One day a mutual friend of ours just kind of casually mentioned the story of when Stan went to New York City," Ordal tells me in a phone interview, "And did this amazing work with all these homeless guys, and I just became obsessed instantly. I wanted to tell a story that needed to be told through cinema. And discovering this artist whose art form is temporary, that disappears after time, I just thought there was nothing more perfect to put onto the permanence of cinema than Stan's story. "

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Shadow Distribution.

John Hawkes as crop artist Stan Herd arrives in New York City in "Earthwork."

Herd is a crop artist and if you don't know what that is you're not alone. A photographer in the film goes up in a helicopter to take pictures of Herd's work and comes back amazed: "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.

When Herd goes into the corporate offices and sees his competition he makes the Trump representative an offer he can't refuse: "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."

"The thing about Stan's work," Ordal explains, "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. 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 with low key appeal 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.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Shadow Distribution

Crop artis Stan Herd (played by John Hawkes) enlists the help of homeless people to create his crop art in "Earthwork."

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.

"He helped us recreate and be true to the way that his earthworks are created," says Ordal, "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. Or as the photographer in the film notes, "You've opened my iris."

"[The film] 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," says Ordal.

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 have's against the have not's.

"It's a narrative where the antagonist is not human," Ordal insists, "it's time, it's money, it's things that you feel that you need but ultimately you can still make things happen. 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. That life usually happens that way. There's all kind of good that you can take from everything but a lot of times you have to find that stuff in very difficult times."

In some ways, Stan Herd recalls the protagonist of David Lynch's "The Straight Story." Ordal likes the comparison and adds, "They are both very simple but with unique leading men with a dogged determination to do something unique. We knew that we had a very unique main character in Stan Herd and we wanted him to be simultaneously genius and naive without being bumpkin-like."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Shadow Distribution

The real Stan Herd.

Ordal ends his film with enticing documentary footage of the real Stan Herd working on the Trump project.

Ordal said, "I knew that an audience would probably struggle a bit if they were left with just the film so when I show that footage at the end it really proves to people how close what we did is to the original. There are shots in the movie that we took directly from and recreated from that archival footage."

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" (rated PG for thematic elements, smoking and mild language) tells a survivor's story and exposes film audiences to an artistic medium they might not be aware of.

Companion viewing: "The Straight Story," "Crop Circles," "Winter's Bone"

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