In Conversation With: Cynthia Hill

Cynthia Hill. Photo by Jeremy Lange.

Cynthia Hill is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker from North Carolina. Her documentary about domestic abuse, Private Violence, had its World Premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival before airing on HBO. Hill is also the producer and director of two current nonfiction series: Road to Race Day, an 8-episode deep-dive into the lives and performances of NASCAR’s greatest athletes; and PBS’s Peabody Award-winning A Chef’s Life, which began its fifth season October 1st.

Just before the season premiere, Hill spoke with Sean L. Malin about what it’s like to oversee a media company in Durham, the possibility of moving into fiction filmmaking, and working with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Naturally, this conversation has been edited lightly for clarity.

Sean Malin: You founded and run Markay Media. Do you have mentorships through your company, or have people shadowing you, like DGA trainees?

Cynthia Hill: For me, or do we offer it for other people?

SM: I don’t know the difference. I guess I only imagined that young people would shadow you at this point since you’re the primary director at Markay.

CH: We have a lot of young folks that work with us. We’ve started doing these “Lunch and Learn” things – I hate to call them that – where we have somebody come in and teach “Field Audio 101” or whatever. We are in Durham, and it can be isolating in these parts. Anything we can do to help a fellow filmmaker out and provide opportunities for them to stay in this area…When I moved back to North Carolina 16 years ago, there was an obvious lack of support and resources for filmmakers. So a group of us started a non-profit called the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF) to support the work of Southern storytellers. This year the SDF received a MacArthur grant. You’ll be hearing more from us.

SM: I went around the South for a project in grad school looking for independent and underground filmmakers who were trying to preserve their films. The one thing that was uniformly true between Jackson, Knoxville, Baton Rouge, and Atlanta is that, even if someone gets the chance to shoot their film, nobody knows what to do with it, how to get it color-graded, how to raise money for post. Even if they know how to make something, they never learn how to take care of it.

CH: It is hard. I’ve got drives and drives sitting around my house and my office. It’s like, “What the hell do I do with all this?” It’s a bit daunting.

SM: You worked in Los Angeles for a bit, though, so you know what you’re doing at this point. You can get something off the ground if you want to.

CH: Yeah, yeah. I’m learning more and more about the color-grading and sound-mixing processes. This season, Season 5, is actually the first year that we’ve started delivering content directly (by-passing a traditional post house) to PBS for our show, A Chef’s Life. We have a colorist who lives in North Carolina; and we’re doing sound remotely in L.A. The on-line process happens here at our office in Durham. We hope to take on more of the finishing work in-house as we continue to grow. Speaking of new projects, this may be the last season of A Chef’s Life as we know it. We are in the process of pitching a new concept to PBS that would bring Vivian to primetime. Keeping our fingers crossed.

A Chef’s Life. Courtesy PBS.

SM: You direct and produce every episode.

CH: Every one. I’ve got to figure out how not to do that. I was just in LA meeting with [companies] because I really want to try doing fiction, though I don’t know why.

SM: Errol Morris is doing it, so why not you?

CH: *Laughs* I know. Someone asked me, “What have you been up to this year?” I said, “Well, I’ve got eight hours of this NASCAR series and ten half hours of A Chef’s Life and…” She was like, “Who’s directing all those?” “Uh, me.” I’ve got to figure out how to give up some control and let that stuff go. I’m learning, slowly but surely, how to give up some things and work with a team – like I edited my first two films, but I finally gave the editing up. It makes it easier to actually produce content when you have more than one person working on it.

SM: Right, especially when…well, correct me if I’m wrong, but looking at its website, Markay Media seems like it is in this mid-range zone where it is not a full-fledged studio yet, but you have assembled a large collective of cinematographers, producers, editors, and you as the director. It’s actually a major contingent of filmmaking creatives, not just a three-person production company.

CH: Because of A Chef’s Life, we now have a full-fledged team. Producers, editors, line producer, graphic designer – all are working full-time. We are pumping out enough content at this point that they’re all busy all the time. Except then you see the horizon and you’re not sure what’s next. It makes us all a little nervous.

SM: Do you have aspirations towards forming a core of filmmakers, in addition to yourself, who can do what you do in the field?

CH: That is where we’re trying to go. I’m looking at executive producing some content, instead of feeling like the whole creative part of it rests on my shoulders. We have a couple of things that are in the pipeline, one where I would be more hands-off. I’m also working on another feature doc that has a development deal with HBO, though I am directing that. But my standards for content are really high. I wouldn’t want to just do something just for a paycheck, per say. I have to figure out what the right kind of work is and how to do it so that we are keeping mouths fed around here.

SM: Every filmmaker I’ve ever met is that same way. Even though you have a Peabody Award and a documentary coming up with HBO, you still think, “What’s the next thing? Is there even a next thing?”

CH: Trying to figure out that happy balance of [being] busy plus being inspired by what you’re doing. I’ve struggled a little bit with that this year. I don’t know if it’s my midlife crisis creeping in, but I feel more pressure to figure out what I personally want to do. We will see what that turns out to be.

SM: I have never spoken to someone who won a Peabody but continued to work under-the-radar afterwards. Someone like Donald Glover or the people who make Veep don’t appear to be thinking, “I’m really going to have to hunt down a new project for myself and my company.” Do you feel like anything you produce or direct now has to live up to the Peabody Committee’s standard for you to feel it’s worthwhile?

CH: Hell yeah! *Laughs* No, it’s not necessarily that something has to be [Peabody-worthy]. I do not set out thinking, “I am going to do a NASCAR show unlike any other sports show ever!” That is just the kind of content that I gravitate to: content that has deeper meaning and purpose; something that doesn’t look like something else that is out there already. I just do what is intuitive to me, and then it looks and sounds different because it’s coming from my head – and my head, I think, is a little different.

SM: That’s true.

CH: I don’t have any formal training and there are not a ton of other filmmakers in North Carolina to guide me. So I’ve had to figure out things on my own. But that definitely hasn’t stopped me from trying new things and taking risks. When we started making [Road to Race Day], we didn’t have it placed yet, so nobody was telling me what to do. I just went out and started doing it. To be honest, nobody gave a crap. That allowed me and my team to do only what works for us and to use the storytelling methods that we felt good about as a team. I don’t know if I could operate if I was given an assignment…actually, I know I couldn’t do it, because I was commissioned to do a short film, and then I was un-commissioned to do a short film.

SM: They de-commissioned you? It’s like turning off The Terminator or something.

CH: It was like, “Mmm, I think we’re on different pages.” But we parted on good terms.

SM: Road to Race Day looks like no other NASCAR series or movie I’ve ever seen. Now, in truth, my parents are New Yorkers, I grew up on the West Coast, and I’ve lived for years in the South. I never gave two shits about NASCAR. Before seeing your show, I condescended to that entire community and environment, as so many people do. In fact, just last week, NASCAR was back in the news in a way I don’t respect.

CH: I know, but Dale [Earnhardt] Jr.’s right there on top of it. I’m so proud of him. Who would have thought Junior would be the voice of reason in this political climate?

SM: Did you come up against politics or beliefs that you didn’t appreciate, especially as a female producer/director in that environment, when shooting the show?

CH: At Hendrick, definitely not. That place is beyond professional and respectful. They run a really tight ship. I was brought in as the person in charge of the production. They seemed happy to have a woman coming in and appreciated that I had a new perspective. They knew they were going to get something different with me at the helm. And I’m pretty sure that was what they wanted. They were not interested in the same old reality tv or driver-centric interview-based content. They get approached to do that all the time.

I am an observational filmmaker, but it is hard to do – really do – cinema vérité or observational filmmaking. I always do some bastardized version of it. But for this project I really strived to be there in the moment, and to pick up on things that were happening. I didn’t ask many questions. Each time we got started, I would have to quickly decide basic stuff, like, “Who am I mic-ing?” Part of that is trying to see the horizon and to know where we could possibly go with the story. That leads me to what I’m filming next, and what I’m filming next, and what I’m filming next.

The nice thing about the series and working with NASCAR Productions was that we were able to use the broadcast footage of the races, and the commentary provided a lot of the context.Knowing that we had that to lean on gave me some comfort with letting the scenes play out without asking a lot of questions.

SM: What’s the title of the guy who is like the team captain for the pit crew, giving instructions to the driver?

CH: The crew chief.

SM: When you mic-ed those guys during races, and we hear them mumbling to themselves or strategizing over the radio, it made me realize how quickly they have to be thinking. I hadn’t understood until then that professional racing was a game of strategy; I just thought it was about who could avoid G-shock longest. By mic-ing the crew chiefs, you make it clear that these are like multi-person chess games.

CH: That was fascinating to me, too. I had done a little reading and knew that it was much more complicated than what you see on television, but I did not know how sophisticated it actually was. The crew chiefs are so smart. They are the head coaches. They have to see all the different little parts and make them all work. A second slower coming out of a pit stop could mean that you either won or you didn’t. I appreciated that kind of detail much more after experiencing it.

But going back to your question about misogyny: oh yeah, it’s there. Unfortunately, it’s everywhere. Not often, but every now and then we would come across some rowdy fans, and I heard some things that were not very pleasant. Coming out of the Charlotte 600, we had spent 17 hours that day on the track filming. We are pulling through the tunnel leaving the track. And we hear these – I can’t call them frat boys because they were each about 30-something – guys walking through the tunnel, chanting, “Hey, we want some pussy!” I was just like, “Really?! I’m going to tell your mama!” It still pisses me off to think that they felt that was acceptable. It is not acceptable in a locker room or anywhere else.

The cameraperson who did most of the filming with fans is female. Blaire Johnson is a badass but there were times that I was afraid to let her go by herself, like at Talladega. That place is beyond crazy. I’m not typically like this, but I thought, “Somebody needs to go with her.”

Chase Elliott in Road to Race Day.

SM: That is disturbing considering that the show paints NASCAR in a more sophisticated light than usual. Employing a sort of art-house aesthetic and turning your cinema vérité documentary camera on it almost makes NASCAR seem cooler.

CH: But it really is that way. The fanbase is also —

SM: International, coastal.

CH: — not just the “rednecks” that I’m describing. I hate to even use that word because it feeds into the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding the sport and the teams. NASCAR has tried to broaden its fanbase, the original fans feel like they’ve been slighted, in an odd way.

SM: That is the mood of the country, writ large, not just with the Good Ol’ Boys, but really with anyone who has a taste for American pastimes and traditions. Think about the War on Christmas – that seems trivial, but there are people all over the country who feel bonded by that issue. I have family friends down in Texas for whom this is a serious bother.

CH: That is my upbringing, too. I grew up in rural eastern North Carolina.I went to church camp every summer and won the rifleman’s trophy one year. I’ve still got a little redneck in me.

SM: Why did you move back to Durham from Los Angeles?

CH: I was actually in New York before coming back. I divorced, and it was cost-prohibitive to stay there. At the time, I was finishing up my very first film, Tobacco Money Feeds My Family, so I was spending a lot of time filming in North Carolina. Part of me felt a bit like I had failed and had to move back home. But I chose to plant myself here because the stories I wanted to tell are in the South. Choosing to make my filmmaking career in North Carolina has come with a price. Instead of being somewhere like Los Angeles or New York where I could “make connections”, I have had to struggle for a lot longer. I feel like it has taken me 10 years longer than it should have to get here. I didn’t have the connections – I didn’t know how to put myself out there. At the same time, that isolation allowed me to develop the way that I do things without a lot of outside influences; and I think that there’s a positive in that.

SM: Digital episodic series and documentary web series are really the Wild West. You had so many partners on Road to Race Day. You had NASCAR Productions, Hendrik Motorsports, and Peter Berg’s company, Film 45. You’re working for Complex Networks, Rated Red and Go90. You have all these different corners trying to tell you what to do or how to do it. What kinds of notes were you seeing from the various studios involved?

CH: To be honest, hardly none. Everyone knew what type of project we were making and supported the vision. I know, not what you typically hear. I think Pete and I have a very similar aesthetic. His feedback was always encouragement. Hendrick’s notes were mostly trying to prevent us from accidentally revealing trade secrets. And our producer from Complex, Melanie Moreau, is a Southern gal so she got what we were trying to do. It was a really pleasant experience, I have to say. They were all willing to take a chance.

Cynthia Hill, far right. Courtesy Cynthia Hill.

New episodes of A Chef’s Life air weekly on PBS and online. Check your local listings.

All episodes of Road to Race Day are available for free on go90 and the go90 app.

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