While the huge vegetables and fattened animals, alongside carousel rides and hot dogs, take all the glory at an American fair, there is so much more going on around every corner of the party. DN alum Andrew Wonder – who last joined us with misused teenage superpower short Whipped – in conjunction with his partner and Producer Colleen Dodge, visited fairs in Michigan, Delaware and Alaska to create The Great Fair, a jazzy portrait of families and communities coming together to celebrate and compete on a regional stage. From young children with huge rabbits to Black cowboys to indigenous dancing, the film creates a panorama of an American society that feels far more united here than in traditional media representation. We’re joined today by both Wonder and Dodge for The Great Fair’s online premiere to discuss their relationships to the fairs, being inspired by 70s documentaries and shooting countless footage in the process.
Tell me your relationship to these fairs?
Andrew Wonder: Colleen and I are always interested in telling these untold stories. I spent a lot of time in subway tunnels, making documentaries. We filmed this before the pandemic and at the moment it was an opportunity to capture these communities that had inspired us. I think of the fairs as local Olympics. I think of them as such a beautiful way for individuals of a community to show their passion for what they love. Once we started thinking beyond the food and the animals and the subcultures there, we just got more and more captivated by the world.
Colleen Dodge: Across the 50 states we were really looking for a cultural event that is uniquely American and the fairs are such a great summer tradition that brings out the local communities. It was a fun way for us to see something that is unique to each state’s culture because I think a lot can get lost within this idea of America and “we’re all one” but there’s this uniqueness that exists within each community.
To see people being introduced to agriculture and farming at such a young age is really, really beautiful.
For a non-American like me, what can you expect out of the fair?
AW: I think we Americans get stuck into the stereotypes of fried food, bright lights and fair games. What always pleasantly surprises me is if you go beyond that, you see the DNA of a local community. It’s amazing to see children who have been raising an animal for a year show them off to win awards or the indigenous people we met in Alaska showing their stories.
CD: What you also see at these fairs beyond the rides and food is these generational teachings in a way I hadn’t been exposed to before in the ‘burbs of Southern California. Here there’s a ten-year-old raising rabbits and a 16-year old judging the rabbits with their mom standing by. To see people being introduced to agriculture and farming at such a young age is really, really beautiful.
How much footage did you have? It must have been quite a lot!
CD: I don’t think Andrew ever hits stop!
AW: When we made this film, it was just Colleen and I. Colleen had never used a sound kit before. I taught her to make the film. We really made this together. There’s a lifetime of footage that no one but Editor Ricky D’Ambrose saw with this project. But I really believe in form as intention, letting the camera roll and seeing what’s there. For the film, I had a lot of lenses rebuilt for me from Duclos lenses here in the States.
There is a particularly influential style of 70s American documentaries, like The Great American Cowboy or The Endless Summer, films that just capture these personal experiences. I hoped by taking that attention and using slow motion we would find the moments between life. I never wanted it to just be interviews or “this is what a fair is.” I wanted it to be all those moments between the smells and the sounds that you usually don’t get to notice at these experiences.
I really believe in form as intention, letting the camera roll and seeing what’s there.
Tell me about the grading. It looks like film despite being shot on digital.
AW: Not much actually. It’s pretty much all in camera. I was very lucky, being raised by some amazing cinematographers like Harris Savides. I’m a big tinkerer and I spend a lot of time building and discovering new things. The look of the fair was a year of development, taking the Alexa and playing with Super 16 mode, combining that with old French military lenses that had been used in space. I wanted the image to always be on the edge of not existing, to feel like one rainstorm or gust of wind would make it all fail apart. It was a hard line to ride every day. I call it vintage digital.
The music isn’t the typical stars-and-stripes songs you’d expect at a fair. There’s experimental jazz and classical. Why did you want to come at it from a right angle?
AW: There are a lot of stereotypes of Americans and our patriotism isn’t our prettiest one. I’ve spent a lot of time around this country; I’ve lived with oil workers in North Dakota and taught high school in the South. I’m always surprised by, once you get past the boisterous parts, how European these communities can be. And it is kind of jazzy. There’s not a lot of rush until you have to get the chicken to the award station. I wanted the feeling of the film to capture that.
I wanted the image to always be on the edge of not existing, to feel like one rainstorm or gust of wind would make it all fail apart.
What’s it like working as a couple?
AW: It’s the greatest gift I’ve ever had in my life, to have the person you want to spend every moment with also being your most important collaborator. I love having someone that shares so much of your perspective and can go into a situation like this without a script.
CD: It’s really beautiful: I think there’s this intuitiveness that comes with working and collaborating with someone that you are also invested with emotionally. I feel this freedom to explore because I know he will be equally interested in it. I think it always keeps care and compassion at the heart of the filmmaking process.
What are you working on next?
AW: We are in pre-production on our next feature film. It’s a COVID-horror film about two ambulance drivers who steal from their patients. We’ve been building lots of new drones, new technology and new approaches to keep building on this form before structure approach. Hopefully we’ll be filming that this winter. Colleen has also just had her new film finished, so we expect to see you in the Directors Notes queue very soon. It’s been a great summer for us artists and this is such a beautiful cap to the end of it, so thank you.