Question and Answers with Producer and Director Larry Hott
What excited you about this subject?
I've been making history films for almost twenty years and many of them have one big problem -- it's a constant struggle to find dynamic images. What's wonderful about this film is the visual nature of the subject matter. Highways and cars are about movement; it's an inherently visual subject. And it's a twentieth century subject to boot. Not only do we have the abundance of archival material (I don't think anything in American society has been as well-documented in motion picture as cars and roads) but we have the roads themselves -- the interstates that have been built over the last forty years. And in the right places and at the right times they can be startlingly beautiful.
What was the hardest part about the filming?
Ironically, although the subject matter is inherently visual, there is not a lot of variety in the way interstates look. That's the nature of the federal highway system. The highways were built to the same standards whether they were in downtown Philadelphia or the Black Hills of South Dakota. So, if you're just looking at the road itself the images can become monotonous. Even if we were shooting through the windshield, tearing down the road at seventy-five miles an hour, the shots would have a certain sameness. What we found we had to do was place the roads in context, set them in different environments. So, for example the highways through Houston become stunning because the sweeping overpasses curve by shimmering glass skyscrapers, or the roadways in Texas stand out because they are set in a seemingly endless landscape of waving golden grasses.
You're using an innovative technique for the talking head interviews. How did that come about?
The first filming we did was in Los Angeles for the opening of the Century Freeway. After the celebration I took the crew around L.A. looking for basic landscape shots of the freeways. And I discovered several things. First, it's dangerous to shoot highways. There's usually no safe shoulder or vantage point. Second, it's loud out there because of engine noise and the wind that cars and trucks create. And third, it's either very hot or very cold. These conditions are not insurmountable if you're just trying to pick off some landscape shots but try taking an interview subject out on the highway for a two-hour, thoughtful discussion. They wouldn't last ten minutes. And I didn't want to film people while they were driving. It's just an overdone technique. And I didn't want people talking from their living rooms or studies, with a bookshelf behind them. That wouldn't do for a highway film. So we started experimenting with the "green screen." All the talking heads were filmed with a special green screen behind them. In the editing process the computer can take out the green and put in any shot, moving or still, that we want. In this way we could create the sense of movement and beauty of the highway without having our subjects feeling too uncomfortable to respond intelligently. Of course we played with the technique a little too, which is why you see people pretending to drive or seeming to float over the highway. It was a bit of a gamble but it paid off beautifully.
What were some of the thematic problems you had in editing?
One of the biggest problems was trying to separate the story of the interstates from car culture. They are, of course, inseparable. But for a ninety-minute film we had to draw the line somewhere. So, for example, we have Julia Child talking about what she does and does not like about fast food. But we don't have a section on women and cars. You could argue that fast food is related to car culture, but it is also clearly associated with highways. There are 15,000 exits on the interstates and just about everyone of them has a fast food franchise. So that section stayed in. We could have had a section on car design and how it has changed in relation to the highway speeds, but it also changed for many other reasons. These were difficult decisions but we made them based on what we thought was essential to the story.
Why isn't there more about the engineering that went into the interstates?
We wanted the engineering feats to be evident in the images of the highways. Having a section on tensile strength of concrete or the weight-bearing qualities of steel isn't necessary if one can see the evidence in the reality of the structures. There they are: twelve lane bridges, 200 foot high overpasses, mile-long tunnels. The aesthetics of the highways can't be separated from the engineering. We just felt that showing the beauty of the roads was more exciting and entertaining than talking about the technology that went into them.
Did you encounter anything strange or surprising during the filming?
The most unusual shoot was the opening of the Century Freeway in Los Angeles in 1993. We shot that celebration three years before we had production funding because we had a sense that the ribbon cutting ceremony for one of the last links in the interstate system would be an important moment. What I didn't know was the kind of celebration we would encounter. Here we were on a brand new highway interchange with the governor of California, Pete Wilson, about to speak, and four different high school bands march up and start a battle of the bands, each one tyring to outdo the other in gymnastics, musicianship, and loudness. Then after the speeches, including one by a Native American representing the tribe whose lands were originally under the freeway, thirty different ethnic groups performed. There were Mexican dancers, belly-dancers, flappers, geisha girls, African-American singers. This resulted in my favorite shot in the film, a pan across all these groups watching the speeches. This was only a year after the L.A. riots, and there was a great sense of the need to come together. You can feel this spirit in that section in the film.
There are a lot of unusual and humorous elements to the film. How did that come about?
You must be thinking of John Kay of Steppenwolf. Everytime I mentioned that we were making this film the response would be, are you using "Born to be Wild." Well, I'd heard the song used in other road films and I didn't want to trot out a cliche, but I also didn't want people to wonder why it wasn't in the film. So I came up with the idea of having John Kay from Steppenwolf actually sing the song a capella in the film. Turns out that he's a big fan of PBS and jumped at the chance to do it. An added bonus is the blues guitar playing that he does to bring us back after the break in the second half. The other fun things came about from brainstorming ideas. We already had Dave Barry and Molly Ivins in when Diane Garey, my wife and editor, asked for more humor to break up the story. She said, "Think of someone unlikely to have in the film, like Mr. Rogers." So, I got in touch with Mr. Rogers and he loved the idea. It's only right that he should talk about trolleys. After all, he gets around the Land of Make Believe in a trolley. Then it was just natural to call Julia Child. Who better to talk about food, fast or otherwise? Believe me, it was a strange feeling to bring two coolers full of Wendy's, Taco Bell, Burgy King, and McDonalds take out to Julia Child's gourmet kitchen at seven in the morning.
How did you find the trucker couples that appear in the film?
I had done some filming without sound in a small truck stop near my house in Massachusetts. Truckers just kept coming up to us to chat and when they found out what we were doing we couldn't shut them up. So the next time I had a sound crew with me I went out on the tarmac at a giant truck stop in Tonopah, Arizona and waited. Within a few minutes we were surrounded by truckers who wanted to talk about their lives on the interstates. Many of the truckers were husband and wife teams. One of the couples, Marion and James Malone, and their little dog Max, live in their truck year round. They have a waterbed, computer, microwave, television and VCR all in the cab. I could make an entire film about the way they live.
Do you have a favorite statement in the film?
My favorite statement in the film is by Lisa Newton who is a philosopher at Fairfield University in Connecticut. She appears to be driving her car, although she's really filmed against a green screen and we put a moving scene behind her, and she's saying, "We really should have nice green fields and possibly a little dirt road winding through it. And that would be so charming. And I really wish America were like that. Oh I do no such thing. I mean here I am I'm going 75 miles an hour on this road and I have to or I'm not gonna get where I'm going. I am sitting here saying I love my car, I need my car, I want my car, get outta my way." And that ambivalence about driving and our concerns about what it does to the environment versus our love of highways and mobility and speed is what the film is all about.
How did you choose the highway battles that you portray in the film? The easiest one to decide on was the Boston battle over the Inner Belt. This was a huge fight in the 1960s that resulted in changes in the way Highway Trust Fund money could be used. It was well documented -- lots of old footage and people alive who remembered the details. The other two were not so easy. There were many, many battles around the country but they all seemed kind of similar to the Boston story. Then we found out about Ann Bandazian. She's actually the mother of the friend of a friend of mine. In 1992 this friend of a friend told me that his mother had once bit a surveying engineer in an attempt to stop a interstate from going through her property. Four years later we had the money to follow up the story and it was better than I thought. We even found the two engineers who were involved. We tried to interview all three together, but for some reason the engineers didn't want to be near Ms Bandazian again. I think people can identify with both Ms Bandazian as a women fighting the system and the engineers, who were just trying to do their job. The final story is in Overtown, Miami. Here was a community that was destroyed by I-95 in the early 1960s and they didn't really fight back. That intrigued me. Also, we found wonderful footage of African-American street life in Overtown in the 1950s and two very articulate witnesses to the events, T. Willard Fair, president of the Miami Urban League and Jesse McCrary, an attorney. In the film McCrary calls what happened to Overtown a political drive-by shooting and killing of a community, which is pretty strong language. When I saw the condition of the neighborhood now and compared it to the old footage it almost made me cry. I knew it would be a powerful section in the film.
How did this project come about?
Way back in 1992 Tom Lewis approached me about doing a film on the interstates. I had known Tom from his Empire of the Air book and film and respected him a great deal. I knew right away that this was the perfect subject for film and a perfect subject for me. I've done many environmental and history films, and films about American icons. Here was a subject that combined them all. Working with Tom has been a pleasure on every level. He knows everything about the topic and has an ability to make it come alive in his writing. We get along because he understands the limitations and strengths of film and doesn't try to put too much onto the screen. He's also a great producer, not afraid to work with TV stations, PBS, Web site developers, study guide people, and me all at the same time. Also, we share an oddball sense of humor, which helped a great deal as we were adding the funnier pieces to the film.
*Stephen Ambrose Historian, Professor Emeritus University of Louisiana (or New Orleans?) His book "Undaunted Courage" is on the best seller list right now. He is the author of numerous books on President Eisenhower. Search for Stephen Ambrose on the web and you will find a full-page bio on him.
Michael Smith Historian at University of California at Davis Author of "Pacific Visions" and an expert on highways and car culture
Dave Barry Humorist and Columnist for the Miami Herald Author of numerous best-selling books
Michele Grijalva Writer and Professor English at the University of Arizona, Tucson
Jessica Mathews Columnist for the Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations
Lisa Newton Philosopher and Director of the Program in Applied Ethics at Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT
Phil Patton Author of "Open Road," a history of American highway culture a and frequent contributor to national magazines such as "Esquire."
Stephen Goddard Writer, Attorney in Hartford, CT and author of "Getting There," a history of transportation policy in the United States.
Tom and Ray Magliozzi, also known as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, and the hosts of National Public Radio's immensely popular call in show "Car Talk."
Harley Shaiken Labor Economist at University of California, Berkeley and an expert on automobile history
M. David Lee Architect and a principal in the major Boston architecture firm of Stull and Lee Lee was an activist in the struggle against the Inner-Belt in Boston in the 1960s.
Sandra Rosenbloom (check details) Transportation Planner and director of the Drachman Center for Transportation Planning at the Unviversity of Arizona, Tucson
Ronald Edsforth Historian at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire and an expert on automobile history.
Kenneth Jackson Historian at Columbia University, New York City and author of "Crabgrass Frontier," a history of suburban development in the US.
Roland Marchand Historian at the University of California, Davis and an author of articles about Norman Bel Geddes, designer of "Futurama" at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
*Frank Griggs (check details) An Engineer who built some of the first interstates in New York State in the 1950s. Former professor at Merrimack College. He is now a engineering consultant in the Albany, New York area.
*Molly Ivins (lives in Austin) (check name of newspaper) Columnist for the Dallas Morning News, commentator on 60 Minutes, and author of "Molly Ivins Can't Say That Can She?"
Char Miller Urban Historian, expert on San Antonio highway history, Professor at Trinity University, San Antonio, TX
John Kay Lead singer of the rock band Steppenwolf, which made the song "Born to Be Wild" famous in 1967.
William Cronon Historian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and author of "Changes in the Land" and "Nature's Metropolis."
Jonathan Gifford Engineer and Professor at George Mason University, VA and author of histories of the Interstate system.
T. Willard Fair President of the Miami Urban League and active in Overtown, Miami
Jesse McCrary, Jr. Attorney in Miami and active in Overtown, Miami
*Joseph Alioto Former mayor of San Francisco (check dates 1966-72?)
Fred Salvucci Transportation Planner at MIT and a member of the coalition that opposed the construction of the Inner Belt in Boston in the 1960s
Sylvalia Hyman Community Developer in Roxbury, Boston and a member of the coalition that opposed the construction of the Inner Belt in Boston in the 1960s.
Ken Krulkemeyer Transportation Consultant and a member of the coalition that opposed the construction of the Inner Belt in Boston in the 1960s. Lives in Boston, MA.
Claire Barrett Transportation Consultant and a member of the coalition that opposed the construction of the Inner Belt in Boston in the 1960s. Lives in Concord, MA.
Jane Holtz Kay Writer, Architecture Critic for the magazine "Nation" and author of the recent book "Asphalt Nation." A member of the coalition that opposed the construction of the Inner Belt in Boston in the 1960s. She lives in Boston and doesn't own a car.
Sunny Moore Engineer who was bit on the arm by protestor Ann Bandazian while surveying for a proposed extension of I-84 in Canterbury, CT.
Tom Brennan Surveyor and Engineer who was with Sunny Moore when he was bit by Ann Bandazian, who was protesting the extension of I-84 in Canterbury, CT.
Ann Bandazian Home owner in Canterbury, CT who bit a surveying engineer on the arm when he attempted to survey her property for an extension of I-84.
Diane and Gary Phillips Husband and wife trucker team
Marion and James Malone Husband and wife trucker team
David Dillon Architecture Critic for the Dallas Morning News
Andres Duany Architect and Planner. Duany is one of the leaders of the "New Urbanism" movement, which attempts to design new towns and cities in a village, pedestrian-friendly style.
Bill Fay Lobbyist for the American Highway Users Alliance, a pro-highway organization
Officer Randy Anglin Arizona Highway Patrol
Fred Rogers Host of Mister Rogers
Julia Child Gourmet Chef and Television Personality
The distributor of the film is:
Films for the Humanities P.O. Box 2053 Princeton, N.J. 08543-2053 Tel. 800-257-5126 Fax 609-275-3767 Direct 609-275-1400
The Book is Published by Viking Press in October
354 pages, + 16 pages of photographs
Available from bookstores or call: 1-800-253-6476
The Book ---- The Teachers Guide ---- Film Transcript