Sundance 2013: Interview with ‘The Moo Man’ Filmmakers

by Warren Cantrell on February 12, 2013

in Blogs,Features

Park City, Utah – During the latter half of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I was privileged enough to spend almost an hour speaking with the directors and stars of what I consider the best documentary to have come out this year, The Moo Man.  The manager of the gorgeous High West Distillery in Park City was gracious enough to close off a space so that I could talk privately with directors Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier, along with the owners and operators of the Hook and Son operation featured in the film, Stephen Hook and his father Phil Hook.  The five of us sipped a delicious rye-bourbon blend called Son of Bourye, one that’s made in-house by High West, and discussed some of the practical realities of making The Moo Man, and what we all considered the film’s message to be.

[Picture, from left to right: Warren Cantrell, Heike Bachelier, Andy Heathcote, Stephen Hook, Phil Hook]

Warren Cantrell – So can I start by asking where this film came from?  What brought you to Hook & Son?

Heike Bachelier – Well, basically, we live very close to the farm, and we got a leaflet through the door, because we order our own milk, and the bottles get delivered to our doorstep, and we got this leaflet through our door that said we could actually order raw milk, and so we ordered that milk immediately.  And the milk bottles, it has a little picture of the cows on the back, with their name and a little story about each cow, but also the invoices came, which had little stories about the farm.  So that really intrigued us, and I organized a surprise visit for Andy one day on his birthday.

Andy Heathcote – Not as a filmmaker.

HB – No, not as a filmmaker, just as a surprise.  So I arranged with Stephen a visit to the farm, and Steve took, I don’t know, something like two hours out of his work day, and showed us around, and introduced us to the cows, and told us about raw milk, and when we left the farm, we just looked at each other…

AH– We were both thinking exactly the same thought.

HB – …and we both actually knew we have our next film.

WC [To Steve and Phil] – Do you get that very often?  Do people come by and visit the farm very often?

Phil Hook – Yeah, well we do markets in London, and people are always asking, do you allow the public into your farm?  And we do try and accommodate, but it’s such a small farm, you know, it’s not a modern, modern sort of farm where you can have hundreds come, but we do try to have two or three different days where people can come by, because it would be nice for our customers to actually come to the farm, and see it, in the flesh.

HB – It actually took me a while.  I don’t remember how many emails I wrote, because I suppose you’re quite busy, but I was quite persistent.

Stephen Hook – Yeah, I don’t remember either.  Yeah, but we do take people ‘round the farm, in very small groups, whether it’s Andy and Heike, or a group of schoolchildren: whatever the group is, just to tell our story.  Probably the most touching group we’ve ever done was a group of blind people, which was about ten years ago.  [To Heike Bachelier]  God, it was about ten years ago.  I don’t know if we ever told you this before.

HB – No, I’ve never heard this!

SH – So each blind person had a helper with them, and the most amazing moment was, we had a calf, which was about a month old, and they could feel the calf, the size of it, and then we had a heifer, which is about a year old, and they could feel the animal, and the growth in a year, by feeling the change in size.  And then we had a cow called, Ruby, she was really THE cow, before Ida, if you like, and she was a huge cow, you know, and she was lovely.  And people, she was very tall, and people would, if I stand up, her tail head was up here. [Standing, Steve raises his hand to about the five foot level near his chin], and the blind people could actually walk along, quite a few paces to get through, and they could feel up her leg.  And she was just brilliant.  She stood still, and then they came to the head.  And one of these blind people, who’d been a surgeon, and I don’t know how he lost his sight, but he was reduced to tears by the experience.  But yeah, just really amazing.

PH – Yeah, these were blind people.  Totally blind, not just partially.

AH – [To Heike] Can you imagine if we’d seen that?

HB – I know!  I just thought that!  Oh my God!  How did we miss that?

SH – Yeah, that happened long before you’d come along.

PH – Yeah, it must have been fifteen years ago.

WC – Wow.  I mean, I know with blind people, they have their heightened tactile senses, which can really be a powerful thing.

PH – Oh yeah, you don’t really appreciate it until you actually see it.

SH – Yeah, in a way, the film is similar, because whether you’re blind or not, you’ve got this idea of a cow as a characterless unit of production, and when these blind people felt the cows, suddenly this thing called a cow became very alive for them.  And I think with this film, suddenly the cow becomes very alive for the people that see the film.

WC – Oh yeah, absolutely.  That’s definitely how I felt about it.  It was a powerful experience.  I’m curious, though, did you have any reservations when they told you they were interested in making this film?  Did you have any reservations, about, you know, camera crews coming in?  Anything like that?

PH – Well, I mean, it was about a year later when they actually contacted us, and we haven’t got a clue what this is all about, you know?  Do they just want a bit more milk, or, you know?  We had no idea.  But Andy explained that they were filmmakers, and it was so lovely, because Andy just comes with his own camera, on his own.  There’s no huge crew.  And this is why the cows just took him in, you know, as part of the scenery, you know?  Just like one of us, working with them.  That’s why it looked so natural.

SH – Yeah, I’d just also say that, Andy said right from the start, I’m not going to be a tour director.  I’m not going to tell you what to do.  You just do what you do, and it’s up to me to capture it.  And, so, he really did melt into the background.  But, if I’d said to Andy, we’re moving this cow from over here to over there, he had to get in the right place to shoot it, ‘cause you can’t tell the cows to do it again.  So I think this film is a fantastic testament to Andy’s skill at capturing what happened on the farm.  You know, he had to get the lighting right, and the, I don’t know the technical terms, but the sound and light, being in the right place at the right time, to get the shots.  And he had to do all that on his own, and he had just one chance to do it every time.

PH – There’s no sort of take one, take twenty: there’s one shot, and that’s it.

WC – Well, I think that’s appropriate, seeing how it’s an about organic products, it feels like a very sort of organic film.

AH – It is an organic film.  Yeah, yeah, it is, literally.

HB – Yes, in the literal sense of organic.

AH – It evolved as we went along.  When we started the film, we had an interesting farmer, and an idea in place about the raw milk angle, which was really interesting.  Yet as we kind of got more into the farm and saw how things worked, I was in a sort of strange position, as I was just observing, not in his face at all, and we realized, one of the things we realized was that on farms it’s about life and death, but also about the relationship between the animal and the farmer.  And we spent a number of years there, and we started to realize, you know, that this is something interesting; that this is about the cow as well.  And the focus became more about that relationship, as we did spend quite a lot of time getting the cow’s P.O.V., which is what I loved, you know, getting their perspective, the cow’s perspective, about when they got up, or when they’re going to get milked, and going back down, and stuff.

WC – Yeah, well, you know what struck me, what set this apart from other documentaries that I’ve seen, is that there’s no talking-head interviews.  And you’re not bringing in, you know, dairy experts, or other farmers, things like that.  You really let the film speak for itself.  You seemed to just turn the camera on, and allow the cows do what they needed to do.  It came across that way.  It certainly spoke to the themes that, well, I don’t want to say that you brought out, but that came out by itself.  I think it worked.

AH – Because of that, you have to go with that, really.  I mean, the cow is the story.  You can’t jump in and out with all that cutting.  That’s what I see with this film.  But hopefully that’s why it becomes a sort of immersive experience, I kind of hope that people watching it, that people can feel like they’ve been taken away from their jobs and feel like they’ve been dropped into Sussex, into that different continent, into that different world.

WC – Was there ever a temptation to add anything more topical as far as current events, like things that are happening with the British economy, or anything like that?

AH – We tried to keep it mostly in perspective, so you can see the cracks.  [To Stephen] There were a couple early mornings, two or three early mornings, in the kitchen, when you’d kind of like had enough.

SH – Right, yeah.

AH – [To Stephen] There was times when you’d just had it.  One of them is still in there, which is quite strong, where you complained that the milk being sold to the dairy, that you’re losing money on that.

WC – Yeah, yeah, wasn’t it something like, it’s 27 pence per liter to sell it, but it costs 32 pence to produce?

SH – Yeah, the cost of production.

WC – Yeah, that was striking to me!  I mean, that’s amazing.  I thought that was interesting, because I remember not too long after that, you [to Stephen] had spoken about how it’s been difficult to bring younger people into the husbandry and stockman trade, just because, you know, who wants to break their back all day for something that’s not promising wealth, or a steady paycheck?

SH – That’s right yeah.  And that’s backed up statistically, because the average age of the U.K. farmer is 58.  And if you look ten years down the road, what with the labor lost on the farms, who’s going to be coming in?  I think, in some ways, the recession has been good, because people are starting to think, aw, maybe there’s an option for me here, because the jobs aren’t out there anyway, and I think some people do want to get back to a work that is gratifying instead of doing a mundane job every day.  And there’s that balance, if you like, between having an income, but also having a quality of life at work.  And on the second one, of course there’s lots of work, as dairy farming has its downs, you know, having to calf a cow at two in the morning, and that sort of thing.  You can’t replicate that in any other job.

WC – Well, one of the things I thought was inspiring about the film was that I think that it speaks to any person who has a passion, whether it’s painting, or music, or in my case, writing, where I think that it sort of stands up for the people who believe in this idea that, you know, whatever I’m doing, if I love it, that’s what it is for me.  It may involve sacrifice, it might involve disappointment, but if this is what I enjoy, and it doesn’t have to be about dairy farming, I think it speaks to any walk of life that way.  Have you gotten any similar reactions like that?  Do you think it’s an appropriate take-away?

AH – Ah, well, our previous film, which was called The Lost World of Mr. Hardy, which was about fly-fishing, and a fly-fishing tackle company, which is like one hundred years old, their story, and this was about craftsmen making fishing rods by hand, and about how people who dedicate their lives to an idea can somehow be happier with that motivation.  And it’s also about what we lose, by losing this passion.  It’s a theme that’s very important to both of us.  And it was our life choice as well, because we decided we were going to make films, slowly, one by one, and then, with that much budget, and keep complete control, and we’re passionately working with the medium. 

WC – And, yeah, it sounds like you’ve taken that approach in your own lives, as you say, keeping things smaller-scale.  Yeah, that’s wonderful.  Now, being such a long shoot, what difficulties did you encounter, you know filming?  I mean, being outside, I’d imagine that can be kind of hard on the equipment.  Did you encounter difficulties as far as…?

AH – Ah, as far as texturally?  It’s just hard to have a shoot to go on for more than three years, the camera which we were shooting on when we started, which was a JVC-HDV camera, which has a great look, but it’s not good with no light, because a farm is quite big, and some of the spaces on the farm can be quite dark, with the loose boxes, and the cubicle house, it’s not really got light enough to film, which you can just about get away with, until something happens when you have to go from indoors to outdoors quickly…

WC – Yeah, and it ruins the exposure, I noticed that a few times.

AH – Yeah, so technically you’re on the edge quite a lot, and there’s lots of early morning starts, and the light, so technically, it was difficult in that sense, but it was also a single-shooter, and I wanted to be there at sunrise, which is challenging.  But I generally had a rifle-mic on the camera, and Steve had a madio-mic on, which generally works.  But a cow is dense enough, that if the cow walks in front of Steve and blocks every single sound, you know, you just can’t get around that!  But we found ways around it.

WC – Yeah, well, I’d imagine that was just part of the challenge of making the film.  It must have been a fun new challenge every day.  I’d imagine it kept you on your toes.

HB – But, thank God, Andy loved so much being on the farm that he shot tons.  So you know, I had quite a good choice.

[Everyone chuckles]

SH – Yeah, plenty to choose from.

WC – [To Stephen and Phil] One of the things I was most struck by when watching this film was the obvious concern and affection you have for your herd.  When it comes to the larger operations, the more impersonal operations, do you feel that the emotional toll of that kind of a connection plays any part in the decision to go bigger and get less personal?  Like, even with the fiscal realities aside, which are obviously daunting, is it a decision that you think some people make, that they don’t want to get that connected to their stock?

PH – I think that when you do anything with these big herds, the owner employs a herdsman, and that herdsman will probably still have, perhaps a cow in there that’s their favorite, but they’re not all individuals like ours are.  And, of course, the owner, he might be a London businessman, but in general, these herdsmen, they are good stockmen.  But you wouldn’t have the individuality like we’ve got with our herd.

SH – And I’d say it’s tough on herdsmen, because they’ve gotten into it because they love cows.  And that love that they’ve got for cows is really tested and stretched.  Because they’re having to work so much.  They’ve got so many cows, and the hours are so long, and, um, sometimes they might become disillusioned, because it’s not what they’d hoped for in terms of the life of the cows, their numbers are increasing all the time, in terms of that ratio, and I think it’s only getting tougher and tougher.  And that’s maybe one of the reasons why there’s not people coming into it.  Because it’s so much pressure on the herdsman.  And the herdsman gets paid good money, and, you know they get good money, which is apart from the house, which is often part of the deal as well.  But being a herdsman today is a completely different kind of fish to what it was even like twenty years ago.

WC – Sure.

PH – And the cows now have chips in them, all around, so they’re just a number in a computer.  And it goes back to what we were saying, because ours just have a tag in their ear, but that’s it.  And those others, they’re just going to go back to a computer, and it’s going to come up on the computer as number so-and-so…

SH – It’s far less tactile these days.

WC – Yeah, I noticed that, I think it came across in the film, [to Andy] because there were scenes that I felt like you put in deliberately, were you show Steve looking for Ida.  [To Steve] And it wasn’t like you had your iPad out, and were tracking her.

SH – Yeah, that’s right.  That’s one of my favorite scenes in the film.  Where I’m in the middle of the yard, and I’m asking, “where’s Ida?”  And then you see her head pop up, as if to say, “hello.”  And then she says hello to Andy, and the camera.

WC – Yeah, that’s right, where she about licked the lens.

SH – Yeah, yeah, in the cinemas, in the screenings, the audience, I think, that’s so powerful, at that moment, the audience actually really connects with Ida.  They’ve seen the one scene in Eastborne, with her down at the beach, they’ve enjoyed the humor, they can see her stubborn character in that situation.  But then, when she comes down, and says hello to the audience by nosing the camera, the audience really engages at that point.

WC – I think that started with the opening shot.  The shot of you, you know, I don’t know if that’s in the morning, but you were calling out to the cows.

SH – Yeah, yeah, that was in the morning.

WC – I was reminded of someone calling for their dog, like, “here Sparky.  Hey!”  You know?  I just don’t think people immediately connect livestock in terms like that.  And when you do develop that kind of a connection with your animals, yeah, absolutely, it’s something that grows.  Now, as far as what you were talking about, with the youth coming into the trade, I saw that your sons were in the film, [to Phil], your grandsons, is this something that you’ve spoken to them about?  Or have they expressed any interest in taking up the family business?

SH – Yeah.  Well, they love living on the farm.  And they really appreciate living in open space, and so on.  Some of their friends from school don’t really have that open space to run around and that sort of thing.  They all work on the farm, they either feed calves, or bottle milk, or, you know, they help with the milking.  So they are all involved.  And I would love the business to be big enough for them, if they wished to come into it, if they’ve got the passion to come into it, and they want to come into it, it’d be a tragedy if there’s no business to impart to one of them.

WC – Yeah.

SH – And that would be a tragic loss of talent for the one who wanted to come in.  So, I’d like to provide a business that’s big enough for them to come in if they wished to.  If they’ve got the passion.

WC – Well, yeah, I’d think that’s what any parent would hope, that if you put that in front of your child, if it was their decision…

PH – Yeah, I agree.

SH – I want them to come in because they want to come in, not because I want them to.  It’s a big difference.

WC – [To Phil] Now was this a similar relationship that the two of you had?

PH – Oh yeah.  I was interested in farming since I was about that size [holds hand up to waist-level], and Steve’s always been interested in farming.  And luckily, I’ve got another son who hasn’t been that interested in farming, because if both of them had been interested, it would have been a dilemma.  It wouldn’t be business like it is, with just the two of us.  So fortunately, it was just the one, but with the business expanding, I think that two could quite easily take on that business.  But with four, I’ve got no idea how four boys would do it…

WC – That’d be a great sequel, eh?  Twenty years from now?  Might even make a good sitcom T.V. show.

SH – You know, actually we had one cinema-goer, after this morning’s screening, that said a U.S. network really ought to have a weekly show about a farmer, and it would be a fantastic diary every week: the U.S. public would get to see what you’re doing on the farm every week.

WC – Well, you know if it was a U.S. production, they’d bring in script-writers and make-up artists.

SH – Yeah, right.

WC – If I had to take one lesson away from The Moo Man, it’s that humans are moving further and further away from our food production, and that this is taking a toll on us, not just physically, because of the chemicals and things like that that are being put in the food, but also spiritually and emotionally.  And I’m not really talking about any specific higher-power, or anything like that, but more like the human condition, the human spirit.  Do you think this is an apt observation of what you were going for?

AH – Absolutely.  I kind of think that farming is in our genes.  That connection, particularly with animal husbandry, it’s been with us for thousands of years, and somehow it’s important to what we are.  We have a need to kind of have a relationship with animals, I think that as a species, we have evolved over the years, but now, in the U.K. especially, I do think that our farms and our countryside, the two are connected.  Like where I live, if it wasn’t for the farming on the hills, where I live wouldn’t exist anymore.  It would be scrub land.   It’s not just what we eat, it’s how the countryside is, it’s about the whole holistic circle.  [To Heinke]  And you’ve got a pretty strong opinion on that as well.

HB – Yeah, it goes a bit further for me.  Because I think, what I saw, you know, because I edited the film, what I was really surprised to see in the material was this cycle of life and death.  Which I actually found really comforting in a spiritual way as well.  Because I think this kind of cycle of cows being born, and cows dying, I kind of, while editing it, realized that I’m part of this cycle somehow as well.  And that is something that’s really comforting.  And that’s why I think people are so touched by the film in the end, when Ida dies, because it kind of has something to do with us as well.

WC – Yeah, absolutely.

HB – I found that part just really powerful and moving when I edited it.

WC – Well I think it’s important to show that, because it is an integral part of this process, to show all the good things that come…

PH – It’s part of life.

WC – Yeah, absolutely, and I’m just thinking of this now, if we’re moving away from this idea where things live and die, we’re a part of that process, maybe it has something to say about how we’re becoming more desensitized towards violence and things like that, because it’s far away from us, if we’re only seeing it on T.V., we’re only seeing it in the movies, it’s not quite as real as when you’re with an animal for twelve years, and it passes, so it’s, I don’t know, just came to me…

SH – Yeah, well, with one screening, down the street, the one scene where I’m pulling the calf out of Ida…

WC – Yeah, with the ropes!

SH – Yeah.  The audience really got behind that scene.  You could almost feel them pulling.  And when the calf came out, they cheered!

WC – Wow!

AH – Yeah, there was a round of applause in the cinema.

PH – They were so relieved!

SH – Yeah.  They were really pulling with me.

HB – But even I found myself, sitting in my seat, saying, ‘come on!’  Really trying hard.

PH – And someone said to me today after the screening, ‘Why were those chaps standing there, not helping?’  And I said, we’ve been asked that before, and normally they would have been, but if they’d all got in there, Andy wouldn’t have gotten in at all with his camera.  And the calf wasn’t suffering at all, it just looked tough, with the chaps standing around.  But, yeah.  She was a big cow, and would have calved on her own.  It would have just taken a bit longer.

WC – Can I ask if you guys have had any more luck with the female cows?  It seemed like they were all bull cows.

SH – Ah yeah, well, over the year, it works out that fifty percent are born female, and fifty percent are male.  But you can have a little run of male or female calves, it’s just the way it goes sometimes.  There’s no rhyme nor reason.  And, yeah, at that time when there were quite a few cows calving, they just seemed to have a lot of bull calves, yeah.

PH – But I remember one year, I think we had fifteen bull calves in a row.  And that caught up two years later, when the replacements came into the herd, and suddenly you got fifteen females less, to come in, and can really put you out for a while.  But we have gone over to sex-semen, which is the latest thing, so you can then breed from your best families.  And they’re not all high-powered cows, not all Idas, but there are some you’d like to breed from to carry on the bloodlines, which is good, because we’re not getting the male calves, which, well, are useless in some people’s eyes, and you’ve seen, you can’t make use of blocks of them.  So that’s helped us, really, that’s technology, I suppose.  But it helps all farmers.  You’ve got these bloodlines that you want.

WC – Yeah, it’s fascinating to me.  I’m a city-dwelling person, I live in Seattle, so maybe that’s why it struck me so much, because I am so far removed from it.

SH – Yeah, well, that’s fantastic.  In a way, you’d think that the people who wouldn’t really get the film would be the most urban people.  But this film so connects with anybody, no matter how urban they are.  And that’s really powerful.

WC – Yeah.  I think that’s important, because it speaks to the message of the film, which is that it can cross those boundaries.  Yeah.  Now, if you’re a person like me, who was touched by this film, what can you do to sort of help out and chip in to this sort of thing?   I mean, obviously there’s going to farmer’s markets, and supporting your local farms, but is there anything else a person can do to support this kind of a community?

AH – I hope it’s empowering, and people are kind of motivated to spend a little more effort in looking where their food comes from.  Which means supporting farmer’s markets and these kinds of things, but I suppose it’s the legal issue as well.  You know, raw milk is actually barely legal in some states, and it really, anything we can do to help raw milk become more acceptable, because, Stephen, who was about to tell you I’m sure, its health properties are fantastic.  And it’s kind of criminal that it’s so hard to find, because it’s such a good product.

SH – And I also think that when people go and see this film, and then go and buy their milk from the shop or store, they’ll understand a whole lot more of what’s actually gone in, on the farm-level, to put that milk on the shelf, instead of just taking it for granted.  And therefore, respect for the food will increase.  And if you respect food more, then it probably means you have much better quality food, and less food waste.  In the U.K., people now spend eight percent of their disposable income on food.  So it’s not valued.  And since it’s not valued, thirty percent of the food that’s bought is wasted.  Which, okay, you think it’s cheap food, but there’s cost on the welfare side, producing cheap food, and there’s cost to human health, and health services, and looking after people, and the cost of wasted food to dispose of.  And, you know, is this progress?

WC – Yeah, I think that’s fascinating, because you’re right.  I’d think that here in the U.S., I don’t know the statistics, but I’d imagine it’s a much more severe problem as far as wood waste.  We don’t really have a very good reputation for that sort of thing.  But I think that it’s an important message of the film.  That it is full circle, that it’s not how you’re purchasing your products: you’re engaging with the food you buy, even at the supermarket.  It’s about how you’re going to treat that food once it’s home.  Are you going to buy smarter, or buy less?  It’s a big issue.

AH – Yeah, I mean, I do believe that.  That kind of respect thing, with what the small farms are doing, with what the animals are giving, to buy meat, you know, from an animal who’s sort of given their life for it, and then just throw it in the garbage, it’s just so disrespectful.

WC – [To Andy] I noticed that part of the film, the way you designed it, was that there was a lot of shots of the cows in the pastures, in the open fields.  Was that a deliberate decision to sort of paint the atmosphere of how they’re treated on the Hook farm?  Was it a deliberate sort of filmmaking decision to paint the texture of that relationship?

AH – Yeah, it’s trying to deliver a cow’s P.O.V., really, because they’re characters in the film as well.  Where the farm is, it’s kind of…there’s so many things that could be in the film that aren’t in the film, you just get a kind of hint about this marshland, which is lower down, which isn’t really a quality kind of farmland, in terms of the grasses and things, but the cows love being down there.  There’s a field called The Wilderness, and the cows just love being there, and I wanted to bring some of that across, about how it’s kind of the cow’s choice.  Because it’s a long, thin farm, it’s about a mile long, isn’t it?

SH – Yeah, it is.

AH – Yeah, but the cows seem to just love being down on the long grass, and I wanted to bring that across.

HB – I also found it very intriguing in the edit, because I hadn’t been on the farm, so I didn’t know the farm very much.  But I just know cows, on fields with short grass.  You know for me, I found it actually really intriguing, it gave me a different image of cows to see them in the high grass.  It kind of, for me, made them like whole animals, somehow.  You know, seeing them in the wild environment.  So, that’s why I found those shots very intriguing.

WC – Yeah, and I thought they were beautiful, they really added texture to the film.  Yeah, absolutely.

SH – It’s their quality of life.  Down on the marsh, it sounds silly because they’re just walking, but they’ve got a real variety of fields to go in.  And that’s good in terms of their own habitat, but it’s also good in terms of their variety of forage that they eat.  And, okay, there’s forages and so on, and it doesn’t always lead to higher milk production, but that’s part of the culture that the cows have, and is a result of them having a high quality of life, and they’re healthier, and happier.  And, you know, they’re not bored.  The cows on some of farms have the same grass all the time when they’re out in the fields, or within.  They might have only two or three types of grass, which might be high-quality grass.  But, you know, it’s like being fed a high-quality fish all the time.  It’s a great diet, but do you want that every day?  But our cows have got that variety in their life, and that’s really important.

PH – You know, one thing that’s not shown in the film is the cow’s lactation schedule, which is we milk them for ten months, but then we give them a two month rest.  That two months rest, six weeks of that is on the marshland, so they’re not coming up and down, up and down for the milking, you know, that batch of chaos: actually having a holiday from all that.  And we bring them home two or three weeks beforehand to have their calves.  And you saw that one [in the film] beat us to it.  But I think also, what it doesn’t show, is there are a lot of dikes.  There’s no hedges down there to separate the fields, because its marshland.  And because the reeds are so high, it’s actually impossible to show the actual water.  So they are smaller fields, and there is this network to help drain it.  It’s just all below sea-level, but, uh, they have a lovely holiday there for six weeks.

WC – Now how does that work?  Isn’t it such that the cows have to be milked after a certain point, because doesn’t it sort of start to hurt them after a little while, if they’re not milked?

PH – Oh, the udder?  Well, with these big herds, they do give a lot of milk.  And the udders do get really tight.  And it’s gone a bit robotic, now, what with the cows going in, and the robot.  When they first have their calves, they will go to that machine perhaps five or six times a day, to relieve themselves, because they know every time they go it relieves them.  I know it’s taking away the human element, but the cow itself, for those first few weeks, it must be quite comforting to them.

WC – Yeah, well, in school, I studied history, American West stuff, so, you know, cowboys and Indians.  And I studied about the old cowboys, from the 1800’s, who drove the large cattle herds, and one of their jobs was to milk the female cows  in the herd, because if they didn’t, the stomachs would get distended, and they just had to release it, because after a certain point I guess it’s necessary.  But, I don’t know, that’s just fascinating to me.

SH – Well, a high-yielding cow might get milked twice a day, it might have twenty liters of milk, or twenty five, for one milking.  So a high-yielding cow might be producing fifty liters a day quite easy.  So that’s fifty kilos of milk…

HB – Oh my God, I never heard that.

SH – If you’re milking twice a day, you might be getting twenty five or thirty kilos of milk between their legs in the udder, each day.  And that’s, you know, between two milkings a day.  And that’s a lot of pressure.  That’s a lot of weight for the cow to carry, and can weaken the loins, and so on.  And with that much weight, they might get in trouble, but also, the udder is likely to leak because of the pressure of the milk, and if the tit seal breaks, then there’s a chance of bad bacteria getting in the tit, and causing Mastitis.  And then you have to treat the cow with antibiotics and so on.  So that high yield level, okay you get a lot of milk which you sell, but it’s putting pressure on the cow.  It is.  And the cow, because she’s so focused on the high yield level, which probably means a high energy and protein diet to produce that high yield level, and everything’s focused on that production, but she doesn’t got the reserves to deal with other things that might come along, like a bacterial infection.  And that’s when she’ll get hit, because she can’t cope with that sudden overload on her resources.

WC – Wow, that’s fascinating.

SH – Now whereas a cow like ours, which is on a lower yield level.  They’ve got those reserves to cope with anything that comes along.  And she’s not having those stresses put on her, either.  Because the cow’s system will collapse when she’s stressed; just like a human.

AH – They’re very happy cows, you know, very laid back.

WC – [To Stephen] What is it like for you now being away from the farm?  I know we spoke just a little bit about it yesterday, where you said you’ve got things covered for the most part…

SH – Yeah, I’ve got a very good guy who’s milking cows for me right now.  And he knows the cows, and they know him, and he’s excellent, so I’ve got no worries about the cows being looked after while we’re away.  I’m missing seeing the cows, just like I’m missing my wife and children.  And seeing the film being screened, it’s lovely in that it takes me back to the farm, but at the same time…

WC – You get a bit homesick?

SH – Yeah, yeah.  It can be a bit weird.

WC – How long’s it been since you had a chance to take a holiday like this?  I’d imagine it keeps you pretty…

SH – Every year we try and get away for a week.

PH – Yeah, you do have to have that break.  And you come back refreshed, but you have to get a couple weeks.  Because it’s three hundred and sixty five days a year, you know, with the herd, and the herd has calves all year ‘round, so you’ve always got cows calving.  And of course, with the big herds, they perhaps calf once a year, the whole lot calf within a month, so then the herdsman can have time off.  And they can redecorate, or refurbish, because the milking’s died down.  But when you’ve got doorstep delivery, you can’t do that, because you’ve got to have milk three hundred and sixty five days a year.  There’s always something going on…

SH – The cows never know that’s it’s Christmas Day or anything like that.  And that’s when they tend to misbehave, or…

PH – Yeah, when you want to get back home for the turkey, or whatever, you know.  It’s difficult.

WC – Yeah, I can imagine.  Now, what are your plans?  Have you guys screened the film in your hometown yet?  Has anyone in the community seen it?

AH – We’ve had our friends and family…there’s a lovely little 1920’s cinema in the small town where the farm is.  We’ve had our friends and family there, in the theater, which holds about one hundred and twenty people.  Which was really great, actually.  I was proud to show that, and we had a little party at the farm afterwards.  Steve brought a cow along to introduce to our friends and family.  Which was lovely.

HB – All our friends from London were like, ‘wow!’…

AH – And the kids, they were all saying the same thing, ‘wow!  I never knew…’  What did one say?

HB – Yes, some of our kids came down from London, and said about the cow, ‘Oh my God, dad!  I didn’t know cows are so big!  They are so much bigger than they look from the motorway!’

[Laughing]

HB – I loved that comment!

PH – Yeah, it’s one of those things we take for granted, but it’s quite a big thing to see the real thing, you know?  We don’t always appreciate that, until you hear things like that.

SH – These days, within twenty minutes of watching something, they’re quite bored and their minds are going elsewhere.  But with this, whether the children are four or seventeen years old, they’re completely transfixed.

HB – Yes they were still.  There was nothing.  No one was moving, actually.

WC – Yeah, that’s how I experienced it in the screening I went to, I was just captivated.  And I’m not going to lie to you, there were some sniffles at the end of the screening. And I don’t get emotional during movies very often, and I’m on the record now, so I did NOT cry, but I had to take a walk.  I had to take a moment.  It was very powerful.  The scene, especially, I’m getting shivers just thinking about it, when you’re on the phone with the animal disposal company…

SH – Yeah, yeah.

WC – As filmmakers, I think you guys just knocked that out of the park.  You didn’t hold it too long, you didn’t really get in his face, it was just a quiet, dignified moment.

PH – It was spot on, it was, yeah.  And that brought a tear to my eye, just seeing that today, seeing that again, it still chokes me up.  You can’t stop yourself.  It just comes, it’s just such an emotional…it’s even got me starting now, look.

SH – I phoned Andy that morning to say the cow had died.  So Andy knew that he was coming out for a very hard interview to do.

AH – Yeah, it’s a horrible…as a filmmaker it’s a strange morning, because I knew this is obviously, this is very important.  But at the same time it was also emotionally horrible, because I felt so much for Steve, to kind of have to…I don’t know.  I wasn’t scared of it, even though it was sort of daunting, the whole task, it was slightly horrible.

WC – Oh, yeah.  I can imagine it being sort of like when you know someone is sick, and you’re on the way to the hospital and you have to emotionally get ready for that…

PH – I think with this, it was even worse, because the way it happened.  One week she was a lovely cow, perfectly healthy, and then this foreign body…and she just went downhill.  And it was fairly obvious that she wasn’t going to come back from that.  And it’s different than cows going off at the end of their lives: um, fair enough, you know?  But to go that way…it was even more heartrending.  Not as much suffering, just, not got the will to live anymore.  And that one scene, in the marshes where you’re going around, where she was just sort of grunting away, as if she was answering what he was saying, I find that very touching.

SH – And the interview, when Andy filmed it, I didn’t know what I was going to say.  And I was aware of Andy behind the camera, sort of choking up…

AH – Yeah…

SH – And I had no idea what I’d said afterwards.  It was all an emotional blur, really.  And when Andy showed me a cut of the scene afterwards, it brought it all back.  And it’s lovely to see now, because it’s such a record of the farm, and of our lives, I actually said to Andy, he was wondering at the time how he was going to finish the film, and we both knew when this happened that this would be a great way to end the film.  But I personally felt that it was going to be Ida’s legacy.  And her story as a dairy cow could represent the way that the dairy industry could go…or could get people thinking about the whole dairy industry.  This one cow’s life could transform people’s views on the dairy industry.

WC – And that’s amazing!

SH – And that’s a legacy.  What a cow’s life to have done all that.

PH – If that hadn’t happened at the time, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here.  Andy would probably still be filming Ida.  But it’s something that…you just can’t write a script for that.  And with Andy not being that many minutes away, we could just pick up the phone, and so, it was so useful being able to do that.  You know, he didn’t have to round up a crew or anything like that, he could just come on his own, and just shoot it.

WC – [To Andy] So, where do you feel you’ll be going now?  Do you think the film is something that is going to be bringing more attention to the situation, or connect more personally with people, and affect them on the more individual level?  Have you thought about where you’d like the film to go as far as its life?

AH – I hope it has some kind of theatrical life.  Because I think when we go to the cinema, you do drop into this world.  And that’s what cinema is best at.  With television and the adverts, it’s a different sort of experience, really.  So, hopefully it has some theatrical life, but beyond that, I just hope it makes people think a bit more, about animals.  I mean, it has sort of given us an idea for our next film, which, well, we’re very interested in doing something about the dairy industry versus raw milk.  Because raw milk has lots of great properties, and it seems these small farms are against the interests of these big businesses.  So I think there are some questions there which we’d like to address.

WC – I think that’s wonderful, yeah.

HB – I really hope, uh, I think our aim was to touch people emotionally through Steve, through the story of this one farmer.  But I really hope that, what the film does for the people who’ve seen it, that it kind of gives them a different level of awareness in the future when something like news about a farmer come out.  That they just have another open ear for this kind of news.  Because there are news stories about this.  Like, a few years ago, there was, I think it was in France, there were farmers that came together to spread milk on fields as a protest.  But I think that kind of goes in one ear and out the other, because you don’t know, you can’t connect to it.  I really hope that the film helps people to connect to farmers more, so that they’re more aware of what’s going on.  And hopefully, so that there can be some change for these family farms.

WC – Yeah, absolutely.  Um, from editing perspective, what was the challenge of taking four years of footage, and…well, where did you start?  Can you give me an insight into your process?  Do you say to yourself, I have a sort of linear idea of what I want to do, or did you just kind of assemble the footage and let it inform you?

HB – Well, I think the biggest challenge was that I’m not an editor.  I’m a director, and so I had to learn, technically, how to kind of construct scenes, and that was a big challenge for me.  But the biggest challenge, I think, was the material of Ida dying.  It was so strong, I could have edited the film with just ninety minutes of Ida dying, because it was just really strong material.  So I think the challenge was how to integrate Ida dying into a film which makes sense, which takes us through a story.  Because it always felt like for a long time, like, okay, this is an interesting film, and suddenly Ida died, and it was difficult to integrate and make it feel organic, because suddenly something happened to Ida.  So that was a huge challenge.

WC – Oh yeah, I can imagine.  When I read the press release, that you’d been filming for four years, my mind just started spinning about how much footage you must have had to go through!  And the tough decisions, because I’m sure there was a lot of footage and scenes…

AH – There’s were lots of great scenes, some really powerful scenes, that you still missed.  You realize, you see, you’ve always got this ‘end’ thing sorting of pushing things, so we’ve got a very delicate balancing act.  There’s some gritty scenes that aren’t in there which…

HB – There’s some fantastic strong scenes.  Yeah, the problem was, really, that there was so many good scenes, that I edited just tons of scenes; and to eventually find what kind of scenes actually fit together and make the film.  And it was very much like finding the story in the editing room, really.  That, you know, finding out of what scenes worked together.  There are some scenes which are quite, uh, very strong, that didn’t make it into the film, because they didn’t fit right next to the others…

WC – Well, that’s what the DVD is for, right?  After the theaters; the deleted scenes!

HB – Yeah, that’s right.

WC – I’ll buy it.  And, well…it looks like we’re about out of time.  I’m out of questions, and have just been sort of chatting these last ten minutes or so, and it’s been just wonderful.  I really appreciate you guys sharing all this with me.

SH – Well, we’d like people to know.  It’s an important message.

WC – Well, again, thank you all.

AH – It’s been our pleasure!

 

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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