ArtsATL > Film > The ArtsATL Q&A: Filmmaker Micah Stansell on “The Water and the Blood” at High Museum

The ArtsATL Q&A: Filmmaker Micah Stansell on “The Water and the Blood” at High Museum

Stansell based the film on his father's brief experience as a cattle rancher.
Stansell based the film on his father's brief experience as a cattle rancher.

Micah Stansell’s “The Water and the Blood” is an immersive multi-screen video installation that presents a kaleidoscopic take on the interwoven stories of five characters in the rural South. It has been exhibited at MOCA GA (and described as “mesmerizing” by ArtsATL’s Jerry Cullum) and played at the FLUX night of public art, but this Saturday night, July 28, it will have its largest presentation yet, with projections spanning a total of more than 350 feet, covering the facades of the buildings of the High Museum of Art that surround the museum’s Sifly Piazza. From 8 p.m. to midnight, visitors will be able to watch it for free as the score plays in the piazza and via audio options streaming to their mobile phones.

We caught up with the Atlanta-based filmmaker to discuss this new presentation of “The Water and the Blood,” the film’s unusual narrative and its origins.

ArtsATL: I was interested to read that “The Water and the Blood” was based on a family story your father used to tell. Can you share the story? 

Micah Stansell: Well, I’ve always been a little hesitant to directly answer that. I don’t want to control how people read the story. I prefer to keep it open. A lot of what’s important to me in the work is that people are able to bring their own context. I try and leave it pretty narratively sparse. I will say that the story was about my father’s foray into cattle ranching. The entirety of his herd of cattle was rustled from him. It becomes about more than just that one event. It becomes about family, about the relationships. It’s the core event that the film was structured around.

ArtsATL: Obviously your father is from a somewhat rural background. Is that your background as well?

Stansell: Oddly enough, he was born in the city of Atlanta. He did live outside of Griffin. That’s where he had a farm. But he was born in the city of Atlanta, and his dad was born in the city of Atlanta. My dad went to the University of Georgia and was an agriculture major. He decided to try to become a cattle rancher after graduating from college. That’s sort of where the story begins. He didn’t have a super-long history of being a farmer.

ArtsATL: Did he tell a lot of stories? Or is this just the one he told a lot?

Stansell: I think that being from the South, it’s just what people do. They tell stories. At any kind of family gathering, there were always stories being shared. This is just one I remembered. It felt very dramatic. It felt like it was an important part of my dad’s life. It wasn’t like he told the story all that much, but the couple of times I’d heard it, it resonated with me pretty strongly, so I thought it’d be something interesting to explore.

Micah Stansell

ArtsATL: How did you originally get interested in filmmaking?

Stansell: In undergrad, I was a dual major in journalism and fine arts. After I graduated, I ended up feeling that film was a nice combination of those two things. It has the storytelling through image of art, and the storytelling through words of journalism. I wanted to explore that, so I ended up going to Georgia State for graduate film school.

ArtsATL: So you weren’t one of those kids who’s always making little movies all through childhood?

Stansell: I didn’t ever really make movies. My dad had a VHS camera early on. I never played with it. I don’t think it was made accessible to me. I wasn’t a kid that watched a lot of movies either. I wasn’t even really aware of that as a form of storytelling.

ArtsATL: So you weren’t even a film buff growing up?

Stansell: No. We read a lot. Our family read a lot of books and played a lot of word games. That was more or less our entertainment. For a good part of my childhood, from about five to 10 years old, I lived in Africa, where my parents did agricultural mission work in Tanzania. There wasn’t a movie theater where we lived. I can count on one hand the times we went to the movies when we were in Africa. It was only when we went into the big city in another country, Nairobi, Kenya, that we got to a movie theater. Those moments were memorable, but it wasn’t like I was really immersed in it.

ArtsATL: You said that some of the films you saw in Nairobi were memorable. Would you point to any of those as influences?

Stansell: Not really. I totally remember them all, though. I saw the movie “The Goonies.” I remember thinking it was pretty awesome. I think I saw that movie on two separate occasions on two separate trips to Nairobi. They didn’t rotate the films very frequently. It was a pretty slow turnover for movies. It could have some sort of subconscious influence, but looking back I don’t feel like it’s a conscious influence.

ArtsATL: Could you talk about the process of making “The Water and the Blood”? Was it all made here in Georgia?

Stansell: It was all filmed within a two-hour radius of Atlanta. We filmed in Carrollton to the west and Milledgeville to the east and down in Franklin in the south. Some filming was done closer in, like in Palmetto and College Park, where I live. We filmed it over three and a half weeks, mostly on weekends, just to accommodate our actors

ArtsATL: Was it made from a very specific storyboard or did the images develop from things you encountered along the way?

Stansell: We definitely did pre-production like you would a film. We sat down and came up with shots and ideas. To do certain shots we built specialized camera rigging, so we had those shots in mind, but of course there’s always a reaction to the space. You may have drawn it a certain way, and then you get in the space and it just doesn’t work right.

And there are other elements that are totally spontaneous. Like we filmed at a wrestling match in Franklin. We didn’t choreograph the match, and the audience was just the audience that was there for this event. Though we did ask them to wear nothing too modern — the film is vaguely set in the ’70s. A lot of that scene ended up being almost like a documentary. I would position my work as close to documentary as anything else. Even when I’m working with actors, I’m working in a spontaneous fashion. It’s very much improvisational. I feel like it has a pretty strong relationship to documentary.

ArtsATL: The work is different from films viewers might be used to seeing, where we sit in an audience in chairs oriented toward a single screen. Do you have any thoughts about the way you’d like viewers to experience the work?

Stansell: It’s important for me to have my work be accessible. I’m not interested in making work that’s not approachable. But I also want to make sure there’s plenty of substance so people can watch it multiple times. It uses a lot of the language of movies. I do that on purpose. I use that common lexicon that we’ve all learned from watching movies in a theater. All of those things are in place to provide that ease of experience and hopefully remove the fear of coming into this big open space with multiple images being projected all around.

ArtsATL: What’s next for you after the screening?

Stansell: That’s a good question. I’m working on another big project, but it keeps slipping my mind. I’m so concentrated on this right now. I know I’ve got something planned, but I’ve totally put it out of my mind.

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