Way Out Ahead of Us – 2021 – 87 min


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.

Director’s Statement

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.

Anti-Ethnography Statement

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.

Crew Bios

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.

Cast Bios

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.



//a dispatch from Jamie Thomson// 


I spent a lot of time this summer helping my family’s neighbors, Lester and Lella, clean their attic, which was great, because they paid me, and because they are among my favorite people to spend time with in Northampton. When we weren’t sorting through things, we sat on their porch and drank juice and talked, slowly and easily. Up amongst the things we found was a series of family scenes from the 1950s or 60s, perhaps intended to teach a class, though the material didn’t seem so clear to me. Instead of bringing them to the dump, I tried my best to decipher the lesson.


(1) using the laidlaw charts.jpg


American Dumb        

     by Jamie Thomson 


(2) life is pretty much always happening.jpg

(3) meanwhile the beautys everywhere around you.jpg

(4) they were busily making new meaning.jpg

(5) they were all out validating each others' mondays.jpg

(6) touch me hold me happily ever after.jpg

(7) it was yet another good talk.jpg


(8) it was actually a sort of funeral.jpg

(9) one more dream was coming to an end.jpg

(10) and then you remember it forever.jpg

(11) held together by some fragile rope.jpg

(12) we go fast so as to more readily forget.jpg

(13) when i win i feel good.jpg

(14) but what about alone at night.jpg

(15) devastation can also be slow yet equally painful.jpg

(16) learning is fun but also may serve to illuminate the rigid class structures that define us.jpg

(17) wishing they never left.jpg

(18) a happy family at play.jpg

(19) it's been missing for so long.jpg

(20) never to be heard from again.jpg





Leave Lyndon B. Johnson

I saw an exhibition (called Sleeping By The Mississippi) of Alec Soth's while 
driving from Boston to New Orleans and writing these poems. See a bunch more 
at http://alecsoth.com/photography/.

Soon After Easter 

Here in New Jersey
I ate a chocolate
I found in a dead log

One of many dead logs
Weighing down the acreage
That was appraised for me like a credential
By my host
Who revealed himself over dinner

To be a republican

It was inside a green plastic egg
Still not found on Thursday
Disappointing to the parent
That had overestimated its own kid
And that valued
Diligence and industry

(Afraid I imagined
The kid
Was still looking)

And if it had known
A disappointment to the kid too
The yolk it was meant to have
Was coconut flavored milk chocolate
By Lindt
Wrapped in reflective silver and blue
Itself egglike

I ate it after several minutes
Of having it in my pocket
Wondering what might hatch


we search shorn badlands for what’s there
and find
it’s not great work

we spread the word of a very different gospel
one that is twisted in the middle
but frustratingly won’t
fail to find itself in the end
like a möbius

it starts as a profession
of dark love for dark things
the animals and air

then into yet another purple sky
thin impersonation
of the night it brags about
seeing just beyond the horizon

there are the two of them
advisers of a different way
exceptional strategists and
from each to the other

like hysterical documentarians one lurks
near the terminal where night casually waits
like a Japanese teen for his bus to arrive
as if day were Boston
and he wants to get to New York

and follows him on
fearlessly he
boards the animal tube

no one else notices him
sit among them
and pull in their grease

it’s obvious he’s worrying
about his performance
having both been glory
and been unremarkable

he’s just some guy
with a job bigger than he
thought he could do
and now doing it
he realizes anyone could
if they’d just shut up
about who they were

being one of the guys in a city
lost among the lost coins and
slack herds mushing forward
overcome with false purpose
he manages to feel apart from them
an individual
like many others
are naturally able
and to know himself as just a man a
ponderous onerous little idiot
who types and erases curse words
to exercise two powers

Haiku 44

Two people who walk
Home into complete silence
Strangely just blow up


Now He’s Hard To Get Ahold Of

Jamie was recently accepted to a highly prestigious graduate poetry program. I am truly happy for him and grateful that we have gotten to feature his work on this site over the past year and a half.

While that’s all well and good, I cannot help but be reminded of a story I once heard on This American Life (ep. 573 “Status Update”). In it, Neil Drumming laments the partial loss of his longtime friend Ta-Nehisi Coates to the licentious world of paid academic appearances and book signings. I also feel at a loss and left out, like I’m ready for the bright lights and superstardom that inevitably accompany those very few and very fortunate inductees into the fold of Modern American Poetry – so where’s my golden ticket? I want to be recognized on the streets, to have my lyric lines quoted back to me in unison by the screaming masses or to be gawked at in silence by fans floored that I retain enough humility to take the subway. I want to be on the late night shows, to sell out the stadiums, to drown in the excesses of grotesque wealth, to be swallowed up by the frenzy that hounds each of our beloved Bards as they walk along among us.

But it was never meant to be me. It was always him.

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 4.11.36 PM.png

Poems by Jamie Thomson 

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Three Poems for Posterity

Hello. It’s been some time.

The site is now accessible without the “.wordpress.”

I pay dollars for this so don’t type it in the old way – then where would we be?

Chris Mars, drummer for the replacements, paints these portraits.



by Rob Rice


No I’m still around
Reading different books
But not writing much
I did see a red pen
Smashed up in the street
I think it had been run over
At Stop and Shop
One cashier said, “I didn’t have a headache until earlier”
To which her bagger said, “It’s so hot. I didn’t think they’d let me bag all day”
The doops and beeps were general
Each exactly one aisle quieter or louder than another
All the way down
Stripes of beeps and doops and the clicking
Of expert hands entering whatever number
Means banana here
I began to understand the hypnosis.
On the sliding automatic exit doors there was a taped paper sign
It was over and over
Crushed when
Letting people leave
I wondered why it was on the internal,
Moving and not the safe for signs,
Stationary part of the door
But, truth be told,
As I watched it cycle,
I unfocused my eyes
And it seemed very natural.





Ever 1 
by Rob Rice


I stake time
at the gymnasium
among the open-ended
smells and the comrades
baring gore their fins their
shoulders. I get to swish down
urinals left full of piss full of protein.
I converse in pulls, grunting I fake it, reluctant to
agree: people like us because they feel bad for us or
people don’t like us because they feel bad for
I put in an application to have my head opened sagittally,
hoping to helplessly scream out narration while they’re uncoiling the ridges,
that canned tongue. Exasperated I admit, “Yes – we’re born – but for
the most part our organs remain in a kind of womb.”
Dine in tonight, moongoers, sing health at me until I live.
Bodies breathing well look like trips underwater, organized,
but with everything scandalously dilated on fresh air, a done flush,
forehead a mess and chest a red huff.
eating up humid rooms their sheets newly wrestled into good rope.
Cardiac nodes gulp and click like static,
crimson; our gamey crotches
where all the muscle’s bound.
Great class in the flat stretch of grass yard, drama that daring one
tree. Don’t worry, we’ll not score you to collect sap in pails.
feast weeks end in real sorrow, us all blinded white
eyes welling up with cholesterol.



chris mars painting


by Rob Rice


I dig the ground
Searching for water
But find pipes

Warm Water






Warm Water

by Rob Rice



jazz drummers are in the business of letting us know

exactly how many right nows there are per second


creased at the eyes

face like a book

dog-eared anthology of dense smiles


how satisfying it would be to rip

a medium sized tree out of the ground


if you were a giant


i know you’d liberate

the little breath trapped there


is the city like a chandelier

arms folding like a thin fingered fist

in maybe by magnet


a hanging spider’s legs

that gather miserably around

the caught can for a hopeful second

be interpreted as loving


in a way it is


a surprise then

affirmations of sadness

like yeah


this is experience


study it


shop thought talk of the dead

isn’t qualified

but definitely

they can sleep anywhere

if they’re depressed enough


electrical energy amassed

enough in the shoulders

to critically ablate a brain tumor Veins lit through skin

filaments that take a second to blink away go

migraine grey

as an afterthought




our whole culture is driven

by that shit

it used to be

a small town




the statistics



negotiate this


people enjoying the company of their dogs

say off hand

we need to add minutes between the hours


that’s their plan

to get away with it



Green Need





Green Need

by Rob Rice




A notice arrived

From the almond willow


A consensus sourced whole from the Salix

Community -integra, babylonica

They wish

Generous in consolation

For us to know

They need us


That they love like we do

In mushy drooping gestures

Mealy and partly of


and apple it is

To say that

The children hiding in that skirt

From their future

Their one common boogeyman

Have found a place to hide

That’s worth it


And that

Glamorous apple

Skin already like candy

Or an ornament is

Spiraled off with work knives


That thumb eating beauty of


That too

Is worth it


Despite then

Surprise Malus

Poison avoidant domestics

No knowledge

Of that

history Us children of cultivars


We’ve seen

A graceful field with tall birds

All that individual grass

Reedy and wild

Full of time

And maturity no wonder everyone is still a girl

In the woods


But just

Cross talk of cold air

Brittle-skinning old trees

Who blossom anyway

They’re going forward

With abandon like a woman

Who doesn’t let it get to her

Who you still imagine

Bringing the sun in on her skin

And letting you have some











by Rob Rice





Sweaters set

In sync with the leaves changing

Highways in New York and Connecticut


Their charm

In disrepair

The asphalt feels harder and more brittle


Like cold ceramic

Something in the families and water

The leaves that stink

Like creek bed and salamander

Fungal threads

Walks with dogs long since dead

It used to be

That you couldn’t make it once around the trail

Even in your imagination

The trouble of nutrient rich childhood

Weighing you down

The cold cheeks of a fat kid

Patchy red and white

The whole face is cheek

Brief exceptions


New York and Connecticut

You’re a visitor there

What is it

It’s too deep


Grain the wood of those saccharine houses

And huge of them

The intricacy of the family systems

Not giving back

Like a forest

In a German fable

Wealth obfuscating everything

Disorganized and teeming

It’s so hard to lace

It falls asleep

into myth

Defeated lazily

into myth

Sinking with a smile like the French woman

It would take your whole life to understand

And then you’d try to explain it

And ruin everything

The natural

Exists right up until you press it

Then the domesticated

The museum

No one looking for proof ever witnesses magic




You stand there

Your sharkskin muted in the afternoon lights off

The apartment so well arranged it’s hard to speak out loud

The wall with one arm and bowing your head

Musing about what it would be like to be her

A woman your wife

Is this the first time you’ve thought like this

You think

And how exciting that could be

You could have an affair

She could have an affair

She’s still so beautiful

You’re so dark now

So late in the afternoon

A good hour since it would have been fully undepressed to turn the lights on

She could have someone over

Someone career army

Glass eyes don’t give

All belt and pleat

And he’d snap

Or he wouldn’t

But she’d know he could

He wouldn’t even have to

It’d be so obvious

You lost that

Or never had it

Your power’s gone

It’s out

Who bought this apartment

Where is she

How did you two meet

Can you remember

She can’t

She’s not even home

Enjoy your wealth

She has him

Or might as well

You could find someone

With all that

But you couldn’t hide the power thing

The lack there

Panacea Politics





Panacea Politics For The Relevant Poor

by Rob Rice




It’s insubstantial empathy marshland

The greens are going brown

Wet tan foams

Wake with each step as you introduce air

As if you have the right to


Your hand is

Thumbing the lifeline

grip returns a sulcus

a think tank for conceding to mud






A knocked loose tooth

Spent on two more chews of hard water candy,

salt taffy carousels a movie

made in the image of war


A king and lost kid lie frozen by the same storm

A body can come up with the flesh for a whole other body, somehow

More than once, fray, the body bank writes loans


You can raise a family on humiliated shopping carts

Shuddering back into their pens

Skulls full of electric worms

Nervous in their own societies


I spoke the words of neuroscience for the making of service

I clasp and listen to the news and it reads true, don’t let it down


We feel hard crabapple wet and like our own jelly

Happenstance of spread

A kink and wallop of cream

Shallots stripped bare and brutalized into stink and sweetness

Plating a modern meal


The food was good

But the waiter was awkward

Is what I’ll report to god








Cardboard box packed with little

Bags of caught rain

Poor family daughters like white cheese

Somewhere between ricotta and mold

In their stare and in how it relates to mother

Whose massive sloping bosoms still hold such water

Their shelve tops oddly flat like a left and let dead thigh

Heat from life cooling against the floor as it rises

Leaving that mold


Chaperones on day trips to reenactments of life before war

Dancing the way they did

Steps forgotten completely by the civilian most

Wrecked down by loads that creak rouge knees

Courting just one quick shuffle or dip at a granddaughter’s fifth

And last before it’s too late to have her

Grow up with it


Half trails cut and stuck standing

Upright from the mass of walls and collections

Of one day saviors searching for themselves


It’s a house lost to its owners

Mauled by a sign on the door asking

Stay out


And why shouldn’t it ask

Richness enough to deny the filmsy pools of our character

Portions that set us back, up

Find us there pleading high crime

For games harder to play

Than when she is young

And sleeping


Some cities are becoming too difficult to use

Tubs of what I can believe it’s not

Street signs stuck resident yentas

Other herds thinning out

Red dick tech

It’s all porn










Knees and modern hate

A killer bands together with a master a mistress of power in cognate

A flower woven through a fence, lianas like a drowning man

Drowning the man who saves him


Procession of whitebike memorials

A minister a prole a neonate

A closer a showroom a glass patch

Affluence a miracle of here and there


After too, now where would it be without our

Oars they layer folds

Smooth liquid showings up of

White sky and a mobbing of panicky limb ends

Through flooded jungle glades bloodlines

Boasting tox spotted flowers yelling out

Panacea politics for the relevant poor


None come to serve the outside worker

Raking the dead from the coops

They’re often in the back


Between boys and the men they’ll become

Girls and the men they’ll come to resent as figures of waste

Figures and figurines

Archeology of progress and a wet smack like

Clay on clay












Mental work borrowed pro bono

Self support by sabotage and gavel


Defined by the winners they laud and lost to



Of buildings

Sick of identifying patterns like it’s great to

And corporation as human

Spit back in the face of the movement

Here’s that for your picket and choose


News people bored for words

Sit perched in the hot southern sky and glare down at cars

Heat distortion

We see some

Piecemeal from their predecessors

Necessarily no longer them


Leftovers from the time before they wondered which the war

Key links

Between lakes and their kettle beds


Just wandering off like sublimation











We all believed the machine reached this “deep space.” No problem. We listened to the spooky noise and heard the NASA guy when he said that’s what it meant. We barely cared. We barely noticed. Who would care, a thing like that. And that’s how we let it slip by. Just like that. So who are we now. We sped it down. More than a thousand times slower, signal flayed from noise. Signal, that’s who we are, we almost missed it, but then here it is:


What does it say. Listen. What does it say?