Once Upon a Time in Knoxville is a labour of love – it’s been almost ten years since I first visited the farm near Knoxville, Tennessee, where Rollo has built a number of houses out of reused and found materials. This film’s taken a long time to make because there was no money. But with every passing moment it’s become more relevant. As we say in the film, this film is about the future.
Rollo himself is the perfect subject of a documentary – he is living according to his strong principles, and swimming against the tide to do so. So this film is both an examination of really important issues – the environment and how our individual lifestyles impact on it – and also a study of a very remarkable and cool man.
Back in 2001, I didn’t have any money. I had a camera with me, so I got footage as best as I could. Some of this is in the final film. I never lost interest in the idea and in 2007 my business partner Simon and I had to do some filming in the USA, first in Arizona and then in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is only a couple of hours drive away. Our flights were paid for, and we had some equipment with us, so we spent two extra weeks in America on Rollo’s farm to make a proper film.
We got a lot of footage, and more importantly an aesthetic style developed. Our second-hand camera was outdated, but we realised that it was perfect to make a film about a community who reuse things. This could be added to by using really rough and ready camera moves. In editing we took this a stage further, using quite a jagged style. I think this is really beautiful, and it is certainly authentic – this is what you get if you make a film with no money. Added to this, we were able to record a lovely musical score from the fiddler who was one of Rollo’s tenants. This means the music comes from the farm, along with everything else in the film.
Rollo was great at structuring his ideas into compelling stories, like his two Mexican tales, one about the landfill and the other about the monkeys. Also, he framed the story of Knoxville’s appalling and destructive interstate system with the story of the Cherokee land that is now underneath a sea of concrete.
I think Rollo’s ideas are great, and that by and large he is right. I also think that this is an important film that says something original – that is that if we are to combat the destruction of the environment, our standard of living will have to fall, and that this is not in itself a bad thing. Rollo and the people who live on his farm show just how positive it is to live a life with very little.
This film, I hope, shows that idea in action.