Interview with Lee Daniel about Laura Dunn

Filmmaker Laura Dunn is part of The Independent’s Ten to Watch in 2010 for her documentary, Forty Panes, which is still in pre-production. Forty Panes is one of 23 film projects awarded a 2009 grant from the Sundance Documentary Film Program for financial and creative support. It’s a portrait of the world seen through the works of farmer, writer, and activist Wendell Berry.

The Independent spoke with Lee Daniel, Laura’s trusted Cinematographer about their work together.

Laura Dunn calls you “my key collaborator.” How did you two come together?

Lee Daniel: She approached me about six months before we began shooting what became [the documentary] Unforeseen. She was on a Fulbright Scholarship to the Middle East to do a documentary about the Jordan River and water rights. Terry Malick pledged to raise money. He convinced her to instead tell the same story in our own backyard – water issues in Texas, specifically Barton Springs. It’s a touchy issue in Austin. She made the same environmental statement. I’m a local guy, [and] Terry recommended me.

How did you and Laura get interested in producing a documentary about Wendell Berry with Forty Panes? Unforeseen references a poem by Wendell Berry – are these films related in some way?

Daniel: Forty Panes is an extension of Unforeseen. It deals with agriculture and food production. It’s about Wendell Berry’s ideas and work. We might use some footage from Unforeseen that we shot, but didn’t use.

From your perspective, as a cinematographer, what does Laura, as the director, bring to the table that is unique?

Daniel: Her openness to the process. She’s willing to try different things and take risks. Her curiosity – she wants to know what other people think. She’s not ironclad in her ideas. She sets the parameters and lets it go. She goes down different roads, not knowing where they will take her. This is the opposite of storyboarding! We shot about 35 interviews, but she may use just the audio in the final film or even just the ideas to influence the direction of the film. Of the 35 interviews and there’s only six or seven where you actually see the interview. Another example: Laura found TV footage from the 1970s when Austin was booming and put it into the film. Then when she realized that the footage, although great in and of itself, didn’t serve the story, she took it out. At least she tried, but she knew her story and knew her limits. That’s her priority. She has an uncanny maturity for someone so young.

It sounds like you and Laura have developed a cohesive director/cinematographer partnership.

Daniel: She gives me a lot of trust. Not all directors do that. It comes from lots of talks and discussions [and] from a lot of hard work.