Interview with Brent Chesanek, director of Nomotopowell
By Mauro Lukasievicz
How did the idea to make a feature film that explores the stories of a small town like Geneva, in the outskirts of Florida, come about?
Geneva is next to where I grew up, and then my family moved there after I left for college. I helped my father build the house during summer break. That is when I first learned of the assassin Lewis Powell, out of a general curiosity. However, my initial inspiration to make the film was not the assassin, it was the environment and the vanished towns in the area. Having family in the village means I've spent a lot of time amongst the landscape, which fascinates me. I'd been thinking about climate change and how the area's wetlands were probably going to look very different in the near future, possibly disappearing completely under water. But making a film specifically about climate change feels impossible, depressing, and debilitating.
Why did you decide to narrate as if it were a travel diary?
There is a strange brown sign along the main road into town that simply reads "Kolokee." This word looks and sounds beautiful. I learned the word does not exist outside of that sign and the distant memory of the town it once was. Learning of this and the other lost towns made me think the film could travel throughout landscapes and civilizations while at the same time staying in a very precise location. I was in an actual place, but also in the presence of ghosts of towns, rather than ghost towns. Everything could be both supernatural and factual within the same space, and the distinction between the two realms would hide somewhere in the shadows. This idea that I wanted to explore towns and the curiosities within made me think of Marco Polo's "Il Milione," where we journey to a place, describe its points of interest, and then move on to a different location. Polo's travelogue was supposedly Christopher Columbus’s inspiration, and there was a copy on his ship when he invaded. There is an inherent violence in travel and travelogues that was always supposed to live on the surface of my film. NOMOTOPOWELL is not supposed to inspire anyone to visit the village, but I acknowledge my complicity in how presenting a portrait of far away lands, while trying to offer illumination and understanding, can potentially lead to great destruction and suffering.
How did you come across botanist John Bartram's travelogue and when did you decide to use it as a starting point?
Bartram's son William had later published "Travels," which is a more famous description of the region and Florida in general. I'd read that book long ago, and revisited it when researching NOMOTOPOWELL. In the preface to that edition, I learned of the earlier account written by William's father John. John's journey reached its furthest point at the wetlands depicted in the middle section of the film. Those ten days in which Bartram spent in the area, (five days on the outbound, and five on the return), played nicely into the structure of a film that tells a second story which rhymes with its first story. Using Bartram's text as a series of numbered intertitles allowed me to experiment with taking audiences into unknown regions with the knowledge that their journey would resume shortly. Bartram also engaged in a kind of whimsical naming of places that works right into the film's own strategies. For example, "Came to Round Lake, so we called it, it being one of the roundest I ever saw". In the journal entry that comes after the final entry used in the film, Bartram decides to name a piece of land after himself.
When we watch your film we constantly have a sense of mystery, which seems to be highlighted very meticulously with the use of some ambient sounds. How did you work on these aspects?
I am quite familiar with the area, and I shot at the exact historical locations for the characters, the towns, and Bartram’s trip. However, I was always looking to find frames that evoke an unknown. Getting lost is very much a part of exploration, and if I could sense that when I composed a shot, I would feel like the image and its duration had more possibilities. Sound would allow a further sense of mystery for an audience, as we hear so much that we cannot see. The voices are all spoken as ghosts at a distance. With the exception of the narrator's script, all other voices we hear are speaking texts that were written by outsiders, composed far away from the village. I recorded the sounds myself, in a process often done separate from the photography. The film is a mixture of sync-sound and separately captured recordings. I try to make each aspect of filmmaking as simple and focused as possible. During sound recordings, I would sometimes not monitor the audio, because I wanted my own knowledge of what I'd captured to be limited. Sound sessions involved recording overnight at the assassin’s grave, hiking miles away from civilization, or gathering even the most mundane sounds of traffic. There are sounds I recorded that I cannot explain, and they are used in the film.
Another thing that seems to work perfectly is the choice for the movie to start and end on the same image. Can you tell us more about it?
The film became a repetition of sounds, images, words, and structures. We hear an abundance of primitive shapes mentioned throughout the voice-overs, and even start to sense right angles within images of natural environments. The repeated image you mention, the square, is related to everything-- from the frame of early cinema, the 5.1 surround sound; to the design of towns and cities; the cardinal directions, map insets, road signs; to the language of both anthropology and geometry; it is a simplification of form, with symmetry.