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Underdog Narratives: An Interview with Davy Rothbart
Davy Rothbart is a true multimedia man. The creator of Found magazine, which displays items like lists, letters, drawings, and other ephemera sent in by readers who have found these lost items all over the world, Rothbart has also published a collection of essays (My Heart Is an Idiot), a book of short stories (The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas), and is a regular contributor to This American Life.
Rothbart’s latest project is the documentary film, Medora, which follows the Medora Hornets varsity basketball team over the course of the 2010 – 2011 season. The film focuses in on the economic struggles of the small Indiana town that gives the film its title, and how that narrative transfers over to the brutal losing streak the team is riding as the story begins.
I spoke with him as he drove across Missouri, and Davy shared his thoughts on narrative storytelling and how he came to see Medora as a project that would build upon his existing body of work, which, as a whole, draws readers in with simultaneous tenderness and grit, scrappiness and hope.
Brandi Dawn Henderson: As someone who has used a variety of mediums to tell stories, I am curious to know how Medora came to be full-feature documentary as opposed to an essay or audio story for This American Life?
Davy Rothbart: I’m a passionate documentary film junkie, as is Andrew Cohn, my co-director, and we’re basketball nuts. We learned about the town of Medora through the New York Times article by John Branch and we drove down there the next day just to check it out. Immediately, my thoughts were on a documentary film; I’ve made a couple short documentaries about the band Rise Against, but I hadn’t made a full-length feature documentary yet. I think maybe it’s because basketball is a visual kind of setting, and also maybe because of what I took in just walking around this small town; the landscapes there are just these kind of once glorious, small American towns that are faded now – in many ways, those landscapes are so lyrical.
Even so, a lot of my favorite pieces on This American Life have definitely taken the audio from great documentaries in order to create amazing radio pieces. For example, there’s a documentary called Hands on a Hard Body; it’s probably one of my favorite documentaries of all time. It’s about a small town in Texas and a truck dealership that has a contest every year where twenty people stand around a truck and whoever can keep their hand on the truck the longest wins the truck. It’s an incredible film and was the first kind of seminal competition documentary. All of reality television, for better or worse, was born from this one documentary, and This American Life, years ago, took the audio from the film along with some of the additional interviews that the director Rob Bindler did with some of the main subjects, and created this really crazy-brilliant radio piece. So, just because you go make a film doesn’t mean there are not other ways you could treat the material you’ve collected, but I felt that the film was the first step when it came to Medora.
DR: Well, taking these courageous, resilient kids who have faced some really difficult challenges in their home lives and on the basketball court, playing against some much bigger schools, just seemed like the ultimate underdog story. Also, the people had a warmth, a willingness to open up to us; we could kind of gauge that in the beginning. And, I related to these stories because I grew up on a dirt road in Michigan; I’m from a college town in Ann Arbor, but you can drive twenty minutes in any direction to see these Medora-like towns, and they’re not just in the mid-west, they’re all over the country. You look at a Found note and it is magical, but it just gives you the tip of the iceberg. It sparks your imagination, but it’s up to you to piece together the rest of it. Being able to go to Medora with Andrew Cohn and to spend eight months or a year in this town felt like we’d get to see the whole iceberg and get to know the town in this intimate way. We were thrilled when we got permission from the school board and the town to come in and start filming.
BDH: That makes sense to me, as the most common element in all your projects seems to be an interest in highlighting the beauty of flawed and hopeful, and sometimes marginalized individuals or communities. Why do you think you are drawn to showcasing this particular demographic
DR: I don’t know, I’m always drawn to people’s stories, the human element of sadness, darkness, or desperation. Maybe it’s because I’ve been through a few things in my own life and I can relate to those stories in a way that has more texture, is more real, more raw, more rugged. Also, I think these are stories that aren’t being told as widely; there are a lot of indie films about twenty-somethings going through romantic rom-com type stuff (and I love some of those movies; I think some of them are super on-point, brilliant, even) but I don’t see a lot of films about towns like Medora. And the ones you do see sometimes have a little bit of a sensational vibe where they include only poverty, they’re only showing the ruin and the plight and not really taking a full deeper look at what a community like Medora is experiencing. Sometimes you don’t always have an inspirational triumph at the end, but in Medora, for example, I feel like there’s an extremely uplifting conclusion in a lot of the boys’ stories by the time it wrapped up. A lot of the kids were in pretty desperate circumstances when we first met them and what they managed to overcome was astounding. A couple of the kids who graduated from Medora managed to get jobs in neighboring towns, and it might not be anything glamorous, but it’s a win just for them to have full-time employment. Not everybody gets that, but these are kids that could have gone down another path, a darker path, who found a way to put it together.
BDH: While filming Medora, was there ever a moment when you were worried about the narrative structure of the film? Do you feel like the project would have still been successful had the team performed differently?
DR: Yeah, well, first we worried they would win too quickly and the suspense of the film would be diminished. Then, we worried that they would never win and we became convinced that they would never win. We had to spin it to ourselves, well, it will be a movie about striving to achieve a goal even if you never achieve it. It would have been tough, so we were happy that they won, but we discussed the narrative structure every day. Andrew and I brought in five friends; we were all sharing a hotel room in a neighboring town, and we’d come home after twelve to fourteen hours of filming to just talk about what we filmed that day and try to figure out what the structure might be.
I will say that we said, “Let’s film everything. Let’s just – no matter how raw, personal, intimate these moments might be – let’s just keep the cameras rolling.” We promised our subjects we’d treat the material we collected respectfully. Really, the structuring was in the editing process. We took 600 hours of footage by the end of our time in Medora, but it took longer to edit the film than to film it. It was over the next year and a half that all those narrative structures were hashed out with some really talented editors, Vanessa Roworth and Mary Manhardt. They are documentary editors who have been doing this for a long, long time, so having their insight as well was really helpful.
BDH: Were there any unexpected narratives that you felt compelled to edit out while working on the film?
DR: There were plenty of unexpected moments; that’s part of the magic of documentary filmmaking. We were able to capture some really, really great moments. It was just a matter of being there. We weren’t going home on the weekends, we were there seven days a week – all day, every day – filming stuff, so we managed to capture some fantastic moments. Dylan talking about girls he dates whose names start with the letter K – hilarious – I was sitting there literally with the camera running for hours while we were hanging out. Every day there was an unexpected moment; the real challenge was trying to figure out which ones to include and how to string them together in a cohesive narrative. We had no plan or no story line beforehand, so it wasn’t like anything unexpected happened that didn’t cohere with our idea of what the story should be, because we had no idea what the story should be. We just wanted to film whatever we saw.
BDH: During some of the team party scenes the kids seemed a little bit more free with the camera. Were there times when they had the cameras to themselves or were the filmmakers always present with the cameras?
DR: We were actually always with the cameras. There are a couple shots early in the film where Dylan, Rusty, and Jack are dumpster diving, and that was just from some home video stuff that they had shot about three years before we got there. But everything else we were there for, including the high school drinking things, the parties. Our job is to be there to witness whatever happens – fly on the wall filmmaking – so the cameras were on and kids got drunk – and no one was driving home. And that scene is so critical because it’s Rusty who you’ve seen dealing with his mom’s major alcohol problems, and you see him struggle with it. It’s important, a pivotal moment, because he chooses not to drink while everyone else is getting wasted. That was one that we really wanted to make sure we included.
BDH: How did you decide which characters to emphasize within the Medora narrative? Was it difficult to form relationships with the whole team but to, ultimately, focus in on a smaller set of players and their accompanying struggles?
DR: Early on, Andrew and I decided to assign ourselves and some of other team members to certain members of the Medora team. I spent most of my time with Dylan McSoley and Rusty Rogers (Dylan is actually in the back of the van right now listening to music as I’m driving through Missouri!). Andrew spent the most time with Chaz and Robby but there are others on the filmmaking team who hung out with some other boys.
There was one kid named Derek Crossman who’s seventeen and who had a four year old daughter; he was a great, funny kid and we loved hanging out with him, but he was wrestling with whether to stay on the team or quit to get an after school job to help pay for his daughter’s bills. He ended up quitting the team and we just didn’t get that much after, so he kind of faded out of the story too early for us to fit him into the film very well.
Every kid had a compelling story. We tried to pick some stories that had variation. A couple stories were pretty similar but we had better footage of one kid or another. What’s amazing is just how generous these kids were in opening up to us, and I’ve found that when you approach people with genuine kindness, curiosity, and passion, they are very willing to share themselves with you. I think they actually are happy that someone cares, and in a way, it’s surprising how willing they were to share some personal stuff with us. No one’s ever asked them for their opinions about the world and what’s going on in their lives, so I think, for many of them, they appreciated someone being curious and giving a shit.
BDH: You were a student of Charles Baxter, and have stated in interviews that he is a true writing mentor for you. Do you feel like his style, in which characters living in typically mundane circumstances suddenly take on wildly unexpected narratives, affects your own storytelling tendencies?
DR: Come to think of it, Charlie has been called a midwestern author (not as a pejorative) and I think he’s proud of representing the part of the country that other people fly over, literally, or don’t spend much time thinking about. I think Medora is a story about towns all over the country, but it probably also resonates particularly with towns in the midwest; there may even be resonances between things I learned from Charlie and the stories we tell in Medora. My writing is completely informed by experience working with Charlie. He’s truly the best; I’ve had a few great writing teachers, and Charlie’s at the top of the list. The generosity with which he treats students’ stories about experience is amazing. He spends so much time with them, and he’d know stories from these nineteen and twenty year old undergrads inside and out, better than the writers, you know? I learned so much from him about craft, but also there’s a generosity of spirit, a curiosity, an inquisitiveness. There’s attention to the shadows, what lies in the shadows in a scene and someone’s psyche, it’s all there. I think he’s widely understood now to be a master of the form of short stories. Not all writers are great teachers, but Charlie is. I learned so much from him.
I don’t know if the stories that I choose to write about are necessarily “I’m writing about this because Charlie would have written about it,” but I think there’s a lot that I took in from learning with him, and I do see it, sometimes in the most interesting ways, appear in my stories. I know that Charlie lived in Buffalo, New York before he moved to Michigan. One of the essays in My Heart is an Idiot, by the name of “Human Snowball,” takes place in Buffalo, though it features characters (real life people who I met) who would be out of place in a Charles Baxter story. It was about an interesting bubble of weirdos, myself included, and I definitely thought of Charlie when I finished that piece. Let me just mention a couple of the other people I studied with, whose teachings really gave me a firm foot; I love to single Charlie out as the single most influential teacher I ever had, but I also learned a lot from Eileen Pollack, Warren Hecht, Ken Mikolowski, Sara Corbett – all of them at University of Michigan – and Judith Dewoskin, my high school English teacher, was great too.
BDH: Do you have a favorite method of storytelling? Is there a platform that holds more appeal for you than others?
DR: I like it all. I like all art. Writing, radio, filmmaking, zine making, those are some of my specialties. I love music; I’m actually going to start collaborating with a couple songwriters and musicians who I really love, writing songs with them, for them. I have no musical talent, but I can write and I love music, so they’ve been kind enough to want to collaborate. I’m really excited about that.
Davy Rothbart is the creator of Found Magazine, a frequent contributor to public radio’s This American Life, and the author of a book of personal essays, My Heart Is An Idiot, and a collection of stories, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas. He writes regularly for GQ Magazine and Grantland, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Believer. A founder of Washington II Washington, an annual hiking adventure for inner-city kids, Rothbart lives between Los Angeles, California and his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Brandi Dawn Henderson is a traveling writer, on regular journeys that prove truths to be no strangers to fictions. She is the Editor in Chief of Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine and co-edits Prompt & Circumstance, a resource dedicated to lighting creative fires. She wrote a relatively successful expat column and an utter failure of an advice column for a year in New Delhi, is the author of the travel anthology Whereabouts: Stepping Out of Place (2Leaf Press), and has had work published in a variety of journals. She now resides near Portland with her boyfriend, dogs, and a pretty consistent mouthful of Dungeness Crab.