Documentary Film, Lead and Copper, Tackles Water Crisis in Flint
While standing in queue at the Sundance Film Festival of 2017, Edwina Brandon-Kane, Co-Founder of Brandon/Kane Productions, happened upon William Hart and Patrick Letterii. The duo were working on the feature film Lead and Copper, a project that quickly peaked Edwina’s interest. Some time later, were able to join forces with the team to work on the film.
Lead and Copper is ambitious, taking on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. We sat down with the minds that are working to create this timely project to ask a few questions. The team is comprised of three members: director William Hart and co-producers Alex Olsen and Patrick Letterii. Their open insight into the film and the surrounding water crisis in the United States is stirring. Here’s what they had to say...
How did the three of you come together as a team to work on this project?
Will: I freelance often for Yahoo! News, and was sent to Flint in January 2016 to cover the water crisis as it started to become national news. I spent a week there, filing more than a half-dozen stories.
When I got back to New York, I went to my supervisor at Yahoo! and asked to be sent back as soon as possible because I felt there was so much more to cover. Yahoo! said no; they told me the story had run its course.
I pitched the idea to several other news organizations, but continued to get the same answer. As a last-ditch effort, I emailed Paul Haggis, whom I had worked with on a water project in Haiti several years prior, and told him about my idea for a feature-length documentary on the water crisis. Miraculously, he replied, and I pitched it to him the next week over coffee. He loved the idea, and gave me the initial capital to start the project.
After receiving the money, I contacted Patrick to see if he wanted to produce. We’ve done some short films and commercials together over the past few years, and I thought he would be a good fit.
Patrick: Like Will said, we’ve worked a bunch together over the years. Since college, I’ve been an actor, producer, director, editor – you name it. When he came to me with this idea, I was all-in from the start. An important topic at an important time, right in the middle of the 2016 primary season.
Initially, it was just Will and I. How Alex came aboard is a bit funny. I was at his place one night in late February 2016, and he asked me about my upcoming projects. I said I was headed to Flint in a week to start production on a documentary about the water crisis. Al loves current events, and had been following the water crisis closely. We didn’t have much money left to travel another person, but asked if he could join us out in Michigan if he got there himself. I checked with Will, and he said sure.
Alex: I was fascinated by the project, and the scope of what the documentary was setting out to accomplish – an objective look at the city of Flint, and the symptoms and fallout of the water crisis. I joined the guys midway through their first trip to Flint. At first, I just observed the group dynamic and volunteered information where I saw fit, but as Will grew more comfortable with me, he saw how well the three of us could work together. Pat and I have been friends since 3rd grade, so that familiarity has certainly helped in the two years we’ve been working on this.
How did you come across this topic of water contamination and ultimately decide to make Lead and Copper?
Will: I’ve been involved in shooting small documentaries since Occupy Wall Street. Yahoo! News called me in the morning, and put me on a plane that afternoon to Michigan. If they had sent me back a second time, chances are the impetus for a full-length documentary on the water crisis wouldn’t have occurred. When I came back from the initial trip, I really started digging through the Virginia Tech and Dr. Marc Edwards’ website (FlintWaterStudy.org). I was filled with rage; I think that motivated me in starting the doc.
What do you hope Lead and Copper will do for the future of safe water in Flint and across the nation?
Will: Water is the most precious natural resource on Earth. Water makes up 60% of the human body, and is so essential to our lives, other organisms, and the environment around us. We want this to be a wake-up call to Flint and municipalities across the country that drinking contaminated water is unacceptable, and we as a nation will no longer turn a blind eye to it.
Pat: For as much attention as Flint has received (and rightly so) over the past few years, the problems don’t end there. Philadelphia, Toledo, Chicago…cities across the nation have experienced problems with the cleanliness of their water. This needs to be recognized as a serious issue, and if a community has water problems, the proper authorities need to step in and do something about it.
What do you believe has allowed this problem of unsafe, contaminated water in Flint to continue for so long?
Will: To put it quite simply, the Michigan state government doesn’t care about poor people. It’s “profit over people”, as one of our protagonists would say. The governor and state legislature jammed a bill through establishing “emergency managers,” who basically serve as the czars of cities in financial straits. They slash the budget, and along the way, often make decisions that harm these cities’ well-being.
Alex: Flint is a majority-minority city that’s saddled with the three “40s”: 40% of the population doesn’t have a high school degree, 40% has a felony on their record, and 40% live below the poverty line. It’s now the second-poorest city in America, under fifty years after being the second-wealthiest per capita. State officials didn’t care about Flint’s well-being because it wasn’t a rich, white suburb of Detroit. It’s horrifying to think about.
Were you inspired by any other filmmakers or documentarians in your storytelling choices?
Will: When we first began the project, we wanted to tell objective truths. Investigative documentarians like Alex Gibney and Laura Poitras came to mind. But stylistically, the presentation of information, the way we shot interviews or our subjects in everyday life, I looked to Herzog’s work in Into The Abyss, and Grizzly Man, two documentaries that have been extremely influential.
Those three are well-known documentary legends. In addition, DuVernay’s 13th was really influential in how I wanted to approach a complex social and economic issue. It’s a great time to watch and make documentaries, and quite difficult to narrow my influence to a few.
What was the most memorable moment for all of you in working on the Lead and Copper?
Will: It was when people would talk about their pets dying from the water contamination. Being told the water is safe while watching your dog or cat getting sick and dying? Heartbreaking. It’s hard hearing those stories over and over. I can’t imagine it happening to my pets.
Pat: Seeing the resilience of all the Flint citizens we’ve interviewed. For years, they’ve been beaten down by social, economic, and political factors, with the water crisis wrapping all three of those things into one. But to a person, they believe their city will steadily rise again.
Alex: The first time we went to Flint as a group, we stayed at a hotel a few blocks from downtown. At the drinking fountain in the lobby and at the reception desk, there were big signs that said, “Water Unsafe To Drink. Please Drink Bottled Water.” Then it hit me – wow, this isn’t a dream. Peoples’ most basic need – clean water – is not being met. It’s never real until you’re in it.
Continue with us as we watch the progression of this amazing film.