Filmmaking | Interviews

Talking with David Sutherland of ‘The Farmer’s Wife’

1 Sep , 1999  

Written by Tiffany Patrick | Posted by:

Filmmaker David Sutherland talks about the impact of this film on the filmmakers and the nation.

New England filmmakers David and Nancy Sutherland bring the seductive nature of filmmaking and its promise of success into the realm of real life. Nothing about David or Nancy, or their home gives away the fact that their recent film, "The Farmer’s Wife," seems to have single-handedly unified today’s fragmented cable audience, captivated a detached, cynical public, and changed lives forever.

The success of "The Farmer’s Wife" seems to have knocked these two off their feet. Talking to them, one gets the feeling that husband-and-wife team, along with Darrel and Juanita Buschkoetter, the family intimately revealed in the six-hour film, are paddling through category-five rapids on a homemade raft, having the time of their life.

Viewer response to the film is overwhelming to the Sutherlands and the Buschkoetters, who still answer their own telephones and respond to the thousands of emails they receive. Yet the sheer volume of viewer response to "The Farmer’s Wife" is only a backdrop for the stories and outpourings of sentiment they contain.

Couples have gone into counseling after watching the Buschkoetters, says Sutherland. Three New York City police officers volunteered to work with Darrel on the farm this summer. "The other interesting thing is," says Sutherland, "you could have a 70-year-old woman who grew up on a farm talk about how she remembers back before her dad lost the farm. The dialogue was exactly the same as the Buschkoetters’. We got one the other day from a woman [who] had watched ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ and called up her parents. It made her realize what they must have gone through. She saw them with different eyes."

Sutherland recalls another viewer’s story. "There was one woman that I remember distinctly. The woman was an EMT. These [EMTs] had watched all three nights. They were talking about ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ before they got called out. After they’ve done three emergencies, [they’re] on their break, and they’re still talking about it. Then, at the end of the last emergency, it’s 4:00 in the morning, and they’re still talking about ‘The Farmer’s Wife,’ you know, and they’re saving people left and right.

"What’s the most interesting thing about ‘The Farmer’s Wife,’" Sutherland continues, "is it cut across class, race, region, and was as much urban as rural. Visually, the story of the Buschkoetters unfolded like a tapestry unraveling, yet it was the audio that proved most intriguing for this filmmaker. The film," he says, "is really driven by the audio. We’ve had a lot [of e-mail] about the soundtrack. I wanted to make you feel like you’re living in their skin–I mean, to go through what they’re going through, and on an emotional level. If you feel [Darrel], even at his lowest moment," says Sutherland, "you feel for him. Even if you don’t like what he’s doing sometimes, you don’t stop feeling for him."

The impact of the film on its filmmaker is palpable. "I was really driven by audio more and more. Also, learning in a different way what to follow. I really changed my way of thinking in that level. I have changed my ways so much. I’m in a different place. I’ve evolved to be verité."

The impact of the film on David Sutherland, the man, is also extraordinary. "The aftermath for me was, as a kid of the ’60s who was fairly cynical about a lot of things–I know Americans are generous in disasters, but to actually realize how nice people for the most part really are. I mean, the aftermath for me really made me proud to be an American, and not just by giving more or less, people not just telling their stories–some wanting to help, some giving advice, some sharing their stories, and it didn’t matter what their background, because everyone has issues in their life."

The outpouring of support from an audience riveted by the universal plight of the Buschkoetters brings Sutherland to tears at moments. "Darrel and Juanita were much more able to deal with that," he says. "Emotionally, it was hard for me. I cried a lot. You’re reading these stories, and it doesn’t matter what day it is–it’s always there. The country," says Sutherland, "in spite of what you read in the press, definitely has much more in common. The film seems to resonate in people. Whether it’s the dream of farming, the dream of being a writer, an independent filmmaker; it’s very hard to chase your dream in the world today. The country really has very much in common. You could have a grocery store guy in New York City having the same issues as a guy that delivers coal in West Virginia."

Inspiration for "The Farmer’s Wife," for an inquisitive and observant person like Sutherland, could come in something as trivial as a statistic. "I had a sound man when I did my last film, ‘Out of Sight,’ who was a farmer in Maryland. He told me the median age [of a farmer] was 57. I had heard different figures back in the early ’70s, so I had a social issue backdrop. My goal was to put a face on the people chasing the dream of family farming. If you thought of family farming, you thought of the Joads of ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ but they’d already lost the farm when the story begins."

Getting at the issues of family farming and rural life for Sutherland and his team was perhaps made easier by his unique style of filmmaking. Instead of telling the audience what to think, Sutherland creates a portrait. "A lot of documentaries have issues, and if [they’re] dealing with a family, you’ll get to know the family through the issues. That’s not the way that I instinctively work. For me, it’s really the portrait of the people. In a way, [it’s] a portrait of America. That’s really how I saw it."

Sutherland says he knew as soon as he heard Juanita’s voice on the phone that she was his farmer’s wife. "I went around the country. I ended up finding them through Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska. I would get names of farmers from different groups like Prairie Fire, which is in Iowa. They would lead me to others. [Then] I heard her voice. She didn’t think they were going to throw in the towel."

Sutherland often brought the conversation back to the viewer responses he and the Buschkoetters have received–heartening stories from every corner of American culture that show just how deeply "The Farmer’s Wife" penetrated the psyche of today’s television audience. "It’s amazing to me that people stayed with it that long and related to it. Everyone says the MTV generation [won’t] stay with something. Well, they stayed with it, and the channel surfers, they stayed with it to the end."

That a venue for a film like "The Farmer’s Wife" still exists is a hopeful sign that independent films of this type will survive the Rupert Murdochs and congressional cutbacks of our global economy. Television and film formats typically do not make exceptions for six-hour films with little narration. Although many did not understand what Sutherland had in mind with "The Farmer’s Wife," PBS was intrigued by what it did not understand, a reaction Sutherland is grateful for.

From a technical standpoint, Part Two stands out in Sutherland’s mind. "Night Two is my favorite in terms of filmmaking. I mean, the anguish of Night Two, and what they’re going through, I could have let those scenes at night play for 90 straight minutes, or for two hours without a cut except for the tape changes. They are just so into each other. And they’re physically exhausted."

The Buschkoetters remain on the farm made famous by "The Farmer’s Wife," but life has changed for them. They now travel to attend film festivals and press conferences, to receive awards, or speak at political rallies. They are often invited to appear at local and civic functions across the country. Sutherland recalls the first time Darrel and Juanita saw the ocean. "We were…at the National Press Tour in Pasadena.  They had been out of state, but had never been on an airplane.  We met them at the LA Airport.  They’re out in Santa Monica, and it was so mobbed, I swear it looked like Calcutta.  They walk in the water, and Juanita calls the girls and holds the phone up so they can hear the ocean."

What do the Buschkoetters think of their experience with the Sutherlands? At a National Programmers meeting in San Francisco, Sutherland got to hear Darrel talk about what made him persevere through the point in his life made famous by the film. "Basically," recalls Sutherland, "Darrel said sometimes when he’d get depressed, he’d think how hard I was chasing my dream."

After all is said and done, Sutherland inevitably moves on to make other films.   Nancy Sutherland feels she is betraying Juanita Buschkoetter by moving on to document other people in other corners of America.  "You know," says Sutherland, "the Buschkoetters will always have their ups and down.  But for me, you know, whether they stayed together or lost the farm, I knew that she could walk down that road at the end with her head up for trying."

For more information about ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ visit http://www.itvs.org/external/after_fw/farmers_wife.html or David Sutherland Productions at http://www.davidsutherland.com.

Copies of most David Sutherland films can be purchased at BuyIndies.com.


For more information about 'The Farmer's Wife' visit http://www.itvs.org/external/after_fw/farmers_wife.html or David Sutherland Productions at http://www.davidsutherland.com.Copies of most David Sutherland films can be purchased at BuyIndies.com.