An eccentric and resilient family struggles to leave a legacy that will outlive their fading desert town.
Synopsis (123 words)
Daggett is a gritty, two-hundred-person community in the California desert. Mark and Tracy Staggs have spent their lives there, defiantly staking their will to survive against the hostile odds that say they won’t make it. With herculean effort they’ve raised their daughter, Cassie, there too, pouring all their energy and hope into preparing her for a future outside. When Mark receives an unexpected diagnosis, they make one final push to get Cassie out of the house and onto her own. Unmoored by the loss of the anchor that’s held them in place for so long, they begin to drift toward their respective fates. Tracy, trying to adjust, searches for a way to honor the life they’ve shared, before the sand swallows them both.
Obscure a place as it is, the time I’ve spent in Daggett has fundamentally changed who I am. It’s an unconventional, sometimes funny, always complex community where people have been forced to develop eccentric, autonomous and very beautiful ways to survive in the face of the world’s most perverse and indifferent political economy: America. I have to tell this story, of the town and of my experiences in it, to bring an audience to bear witness to something that would otherwise remain invisible.
This film is fiction. Much of the script is based on the lives of the (non)actors, but just as much is based on my own life. I not only depict what I saw there, but the eyes I was seeing it through, as a way to invoke a more complicated and yet more faithful image of the experience.
A note on the construction. The real Mark and Tracy have been married for more than twenty-five years and have helped to raise each other’s children from previous relationships. However, they have no children together. So, in order to open our process up to a dynamic and flexible imaginary space, I introduced a professional actor (Nikki DeParis) to play the daughter they never had. Mark’s illness however, though different from how I portrayed it, is very real.
I chose to set up the film this way, as opposed to pursuing some kind of observational documentary or fiction fully stylized as realism, to challenge the old contradictions of a film presented as faithfully portraying a community while situated in the POV of the outsider- filmmaker. By mixing our autobiographies, we embraced the change my presence made in the fabric of the place, instead of trying to deny it. The intention was that, once the explicitly surreal and acted fantasies intervene, the fact of their participation, and the kind of relationship it means we have, would elevate the film from a portrait to a testament to who they are. I knew that, like with any artist, we’d get the most insight into their condition through their creativity.
Nikki, whose own raw process is on display, unlocked and made visible so many details of the place, even before we began shooting. By giving me an outlet to really wield the story as a director, she helped me to channel my inspiration, the debts I owe to Apichatpong and Lucrecia Martel and Bi Gan and Pasolini, through the aesthetics of this process. Her presence enabled me to include my own story, to invoke my father’s mortality and my mother’s resilience and my own growing up, alongside theirs, so that by the end the everyday objects of their lives became almost ceremonially potent symbols of my own.
There’s a Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor quote that sums up a lot of what I believe about the real power of choosing who to spotlight on screen. Talking about American media culture, she writes:
We end up with a distorted view of American society – society looks richer, healthier, whiter than it actually is – life almost always looks easy – the effect is to convince ordinary people that their problems are their own. The American Dream mythology actually exists to justify its inverse – just as all success is attributable to personal responsibility, so are all failures. The more the lives of ordinary people are excluded, the more the American dream seems possible.
As is so succinctly said there, the exclusion of everyday, working-class American stories from the narrative landscape aggregates together in our cultural imagination to cast some obfuscating smoke screen over wealth, rendering the naked violence and obscenity somehow clothed, somehow plausibly benign. I cannot think of a more powerful mission for narrative practice; to burst the bubble that insulates wealth from its would-be obvious vulgarity.
However, unfortunately, so much of the (especially American) cinematic tradition that “showcases” the working class is mired in aesthetics that package these lived experiences for an outside, upper-class gaze, and in so doing have worked to solidify the perceived reality of otherness. To me, the word ethnography has pretty much come to be defined by this. People are reduced to objects at worst, or documentary subjects at best (I usually read that word like subjects of a regime), but rarely agents. That agency is precisely what this anti-ethnographic, participatory process restores, and an explicit embrace of fiction, of writing behind every scene, creates a space where we can center our own gaze, upon ourselves, from within, and allows for a process that captures Mark, Tracy and I as we reflect on our own stories. That way, in place of some distancing sympathy or “objectivity,” we can have solidarity and communion – which I believe are necessary features of any cinema on the left.
Rob Rice – Filmmaker – He/Him
Rob Rice is filmmaker and neuroscientist from Western Massachusetts. After completing an M.S. in Neuroscience at Tulane, he worked as an engineer in CRISPR genetics at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. He is currently living in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the MFA Film Directing program at CalArts. In 2019, he was selected to attend the Flaherty Film Seminar as a Fellow.
Rui Xu – Post-Production Producer – She/Her
Rui Xu is an LA-based creative producer. She started her career, while pursuing her Producing MFA at CalArts, as a producer on Richard Van’s Hieu, which premiered at the 72nd Cannes International Film Festival. Rui’s first producing role on a feature project, Freddy Teng’s World of Tales, won the MPA Award at Beijing International Film Festival in 2019. The film, starring Lee Kang-sheng, recipient of the Golden Tiger Award from the Rotterdam Film Festival and lifelong collaborator of Tsai Ming-liang, is now in post-production.
Alexey Kurbatov– Director of Photography – He/Him
Alexey was born in Vologda, Russia, where he worked as a photographer before moving to Moscow to attend the School of New Cinema as a cinematographer. In addition to our film, he shot Detours, directed by his wife Ekaterina Selenkina, which was selected to premiere at the 2021 Venice Critic’s Week. He had just completed these projects when he passed away unexpectedly in January of 2020.
Colyn Cameron – Composer – He/Him
Colyn Cameron is a Canadian experimental musician who has released two albums on Vagrant Records as the acclaimed indie-pop outfit Wake Owl, and one solo album, Sad & Easy. He has done extensive touring and performing and has been nominated for a Canadian Juno award. He has done composing work for independent films and had songs licensed in TV shows and commercials. He’s currently working on another solo record and collaborating with musicians from a range of traditions on joint scoring projects.
Nikki DeParis – She/Her
Nikki DeParis was born in New Jersey. She moved to Los Angeles in 2015, where she earned a BFA in Acting from the CalArts School of Theater. After graduating, she secured the starring role in the premiere presentation of Ashley Rose Wellman’s Hot Tragic Dead Thing at the Blank Theater. Recently she performed the English language dub for the character Amparo on HBOMax’s Veneno.
Mark Staggs (also contributed as a Producer) – He/Him
Mark was born and continues to reside in Daggett, CA, where he is the president of the board of the Community Service District and sitting member at the Silver Valley Unified School District. From age four to fourteen he and his family lived deep in the desert, three miles from the nearest road, without electricity or running water. Now a father and grandfather, he has worked in construction and towing throughout his adult life, and at one point owned and operated dozens of 25-cent candy vending machines around Barstow.
Tracy Staggs – She/Her
Tracy Staggs was born in Fontana, CA and moved to Daggett when she was 16. She takes pride in her work as a custodian at the Silver Valley High School. Privately, she is an avid fan of popular culture, with an encyclopedic knowledge of film, television and music. Because her grandmother is still alive, and her children from a previous marriage have recently had children of their own, she enjoys the rare honor of being both a grandmother and a granddaughter.
About the Film
In 2017, I drove from Boston to Los Angeles over the course of a week, leaving my old and frustrating life in the labs of MIT behind, headed for film school. About a hundred miles from LA, I pulled off the highway to get gas and stretch my legs in Daggett. Though it appeared completely abandoned, something affected me about the little town.
After a few uneventful return trips where I encountered nobody (though one time, standing at an abandoned intersection, I heard a trumpet blurting out weird sounds that I was sure were some kind of taunt, but I could not for the life of me locate whoever was playing them), a waitress at trucker’s diner gave me Mark’s phone number. I’d lamely explained that I was interested in the history of the place, the mining. She shrugged and said, “I don’t really know what you’re talking about but here’s someone, if anyone will indulge you it’s him. His name is Mark Staggs.”
He pulled up fifteen minutes later and threw open the front passenger door. Because the power was out that day and the only available A/C was in the car, he drove me around with the whole family in tow, never asking what I was doing there, just excitedly pointing out various landmarks. Every once in a while, with no warning, we’d veer off the road onto some desert two-track, jostling along toward obscure hieroglyphics and abandoned mines. Hours later he dropped me off, saying, “next time you come out I gotta show you the Daggett Ditch!” And just like that there was a next time.
I went back, again and again until I was splitting my time between LA and Daggett, staying on their couch, meeting everyone in town, learning about all the intricate dramas and comedies in their orbit. A few months later, I was starting to organize ideas into a script. Eventually I presented them with this idea to make a film together and to bring an actress in.
We shot for four days at a time from October 2018 to May 2019 (with some additional shooting in early 2020 completed four days before Alex passed), for a total of 40 production days with a crew of 6-8, and then a dozen or so other trips with just Alex to shoot in a more stripped down, reactive style. Each time we would have a certain number of pages to do, scenes we had prepared and rehearsed and bought props for, but then we would also inevitably make something up in the moment. Many ultimately critical scenes came from this kind of spontaneity. Because we had this model where we’d come home for a week or two between shoots, I could watch the footage and react to it, devising new directions and fixes and storylines until ultimately the film became wildly different from the initial script.
My relationship there is very much ongoing. In the past few years, unrelated to the film, Mark and I have judged the community Christmas light competition, sold worms and carp on craigslist for his father, moved people in with their boyfriends and then out again, cleaned the dead owls out of a water tower, and flown my own parents out to finally close the loop. Ultimately, the project feels like just one of a million things we’ve done and, fingers crossed, will get to do together.