Video & Filmmaking

Katy Grannan On Making Her First Feature Film, The Nine

August 30, 2016

By Conor Risch

Prostitution isn’t mentioned until 20 minutes into fine-art photographer Katy Grannan’s first feature film, The Nine. Tony, a soft-spoken man living on the street, says that he worries about the safety of the women he knows. The topic of heroin comes up even later, as Grannan’s main character, Kiki, a woman who lives in Modesto, California, on the film’s namesake South Ninth Street, tells an old man she’s two-and-a-half days sober.

Grannan set out to make The Nine, a film about Kiki and a community of people—mostly women—who live in poverty, struggle with addiction and prostitute themselves to survive, because in them she recognized one of her oldest childhood friends, who lived on the street for 20 years. “I had a very personal connection, and I felt like I had something new to say about a story we all think we’ve heard,” Grannan told PDN in email and phone interviews. “We’ve seen TV specials or even documentary photography that focused on prostitution so specifically. It’s been done very well at times, but it also can serve to further alienate people who are already alienated, and so you think of them first in terms of what they do out of desperation versus who they actually are.” In Grannan’s film, prostitution and addiction are just part of a much larger story about the waves of hope and despair that define the lives of the women and men living on The Nine, and about the friendship between the filmmaker and her subjects.

THE NINE | TRAILER (2016) from Katy Grannan on Vimeo.

Making the Film

Grannan chose to emphasize “the more mundane aspects” of the daily lives of her characters, showing them hanging out in their motel rooms, taking time to relax on the bank of the Tuolumne River, meeting or speaking with children they can’t care for, or walking the streets of Modesto. “I was interested in the way that that mundaneness and violence interweave so often on The Nine and in all these women’s lives,” Grannan explains. “Next to a conversation about murder is a conversation about, ‘This is what I wanted to be when I grew up and it didn’t work out, but it just might.’”

Through those conversations, viewers begin to know Grannan’s characters, and their voices—Kiki’s in particular—carry the film. “It was important that they really speak for themselves and that they be talking about the things that anybody else talks about, which is regret, which is about family, which is about aspiration—the stories they tell themselves like anybody else. We all recreate our histories, we all tell ourselves these stories in order to try and make sense of the past and envision the future. And that’s a story that I wanted to tell,” Grannan says.

Kiki’s observations about life on The Nine, about religion, about hope and fear and self-doubt, are poignant and poetic. “I heard people say out here on the street we’re free. I think the street is more like prison,” Kiki says at one point, “but I guess we’re free from real life. I want to be eight years old again so I can make a whole new plan for myself.”

Grannan and assistant director Hannah Hughes shot the film over the course of five years, using a Canon C300, 5D Mark II and Mark III, available light and lavalier mics to record sound. The film mixes intimate, cinéma vérite footage with impressionistic sequences that reveal the surrounding landscape and combine with Kiki’s narration of her internal cycle of hope and struggle. “We’re both simultaneously searching for possibility or light, you could say beauty,” Grannan says, “just trying to make sense of it. And we’re both doing it in a different way, but in the film I was trying to use a very specific visual language that mirrored [Kiki’s] imagined world.”

The Tuolumne River plays an important role. “It’s another character in the film, a silent witness to the devastation that human beings cause to themselves and to the world around us,” Grannan explains. “The river is also one of the only things that move on—that, and the constant hum of the traffic and the train, are the only things that leave The Nine. Life moves on. The river is also a paradox, in that it’s a place for recreation, and for people to relax on a sunny day, and hang out with friends. It’s also the place where bodies are dumped along with couches and shopping carts. It looks quite beautiful on a summer day and yet it’s burdened with a terrible history (that keeps repeating itself.)”

Kiki, the film’s main character. Grannan struggled with the decision to pay her subjects a day rate but in the end decided, “I wouldn’t ask anybody to give that much of their time and walk away giving nothing back,” especially in a community where people struggle to meet their basic needs.

Kiki, the film’s main character. Grannan struggled with the decision to pay her subjects a day rate but in the end decided, “I wouldn’t ask anybody to give that much of their time and walk away giving nothing back,” especially in a community where people struggle to meet their basic needs. © KATY GRANNAN

On Gaining Access

Grannan was able to make the film because her cast allowed her in. “My relationship with the community and the trust that was established for years was the single most important thing,” she says. She built that trust a number of ways. Her calm demeanor around people who are “really suspicious” was one factor. “I didn’t pretend to be from The Nine or a similar neighborhood at all, but I wasn’t freaked out, I was very comfortable,” she recalls. She also “always did what I said I would do.” For instance, “If someone’s dog got injured, I’d bring it to the vet, and bring it back. People were shocked that I didn’t go sell the dog. They’re so accustomed to being fucked over that when you do the smallest things—give somebody a ride to the next town or help somebody, whatever it may be—do these things over and over again you become [reliable].” She retrieved the ashes of one woman’s deceased mother, paid for the funeral of a stillborn child, helped get a message to the mother of a man she barely knew but who called her because he’d heard she helped people. “Just lots of things that were really meaningful in a way that was much more than providing a handout,” Grannan says.

She also chose to pay her subjects a day rate, a decision she struggled with. She didn’t want people to perform for her, or “feel obligated to make me happy in some way,” she explains. “But then I weighed that against the fact that I was showing up all the time, and this is a community that is very desperate, and I wouldn’t ask anybody to give that much of their time and walk away giving nothing back, you know? Especially people who just need a place to sleep for the night, just really basic needs that are not met. So I felt like that made my decision really clear.” To avoid resentment from others who weren’t part of the film, she would hire people to help out in other ways—to run errands or make sure nobody interrupted a shoot—as well.

Other characters include Wanda, who talks of opening a mudwrestling club by the time she’s 50; Robert and April, who speak about the life they once had and remember their deceased child; and Tony, who hangs out by the river and sings.

Nana eats a popsicle. Making art from real lives poses difficult questions, says Grannan. “Are you just as loyal to the work as you are to the person or does it lean one way or the other?”

Nana eats a popsicle. Making art from real lives poses difficult questions, says Grannan. “Are you just as loyal to the work as you are to the person or does it lean one way or the other?” © KATY GRANNAN

Putting it All Together

Grannan and Hughes worked for four years on the film independently before they sought help. “I didn’t approach producers for funding early on because I didn’t want anyone looking over my shoulder,” Grannan says. “I’d never made a movie before, and I had to figure it out myself and couldn’t feel indebted to or distracted by anyone. It would’ve been too much. So I paid for most of it myself.” She and Hughes had an edit that was way too long, and realized “we are in over our heads, we have no idea how you get it into the world.” Grannan began working with producer Marc Smolowitz, who recommended she apply to the Independent Filmmaker Project. There, she was connected with a mentor, Jonathan Oppenheim, who gave her “candid feedback” on her edit (she later worked with Eli Olsen and Stephen Berger to finish it). “Everything about editing is challenging and profoundly, creatively thrilling,” Grannan says. “It’s an art form unto itself, no question. There are infinite ways of telling a story, particularly a vérite film. (I hate the word ‘documentary’—it sounds like a vehicle for objectivity and fact-telling.) When you’re editing, the utter subjectivity of filmmaking is very, very clear. I fell in love with editing immediately. I could work for 12 hours easily and not even notice that time had passed. One of the toughest things is to constantly stay true to your intention and to the heart of the film, so that every decision you make has that intentionality—all of this while remaining open to see where the film takes you, how it reveals itself to you.”

While at IFP, she also attended workshops “that made very transparent the nuts and bolts of filmmaking.” She was introduced to sound designers, and people who handle sales and distribution. Past IFP students came back to talk about their experiences, and Grannan also established a community with other filmmakers, who have shared information as they’ve finished their films and begun getting them into festivals and in front of audiences. “[Making a film is] so isolating,” she says. “You go to so much effort, there’s so much of yourself, time, energy, heart, money, every possible way, and nobody cares more than you, and so then the other part of getting it out into the world can be very humbling, because it’s like applying to college over and over and over again, and trust me, you’re not getting into what you think are your top choices,” she says. But at the festivals you do get into, Grannan says, “you find your people.” In June, The Nine premiered at Visions Du Réel festival in Switzerland. It was also shown at Poland’s Krakow Film Festival and at the National Portrait Gallery during Photo London.

Towards the end of the film, Kiki addresses Grannan and Hughes during a breakdown, in a scene that transforms the film from a story about Kiki and the others living on The Nine to a story about the friendship between Kiki and the filmmakers. The scene lays bare the complex relationship between the women on either side of the camera. For any artist who works with people, Grannan says, “whether it’s writing or photography or film, that is a big question: how deep is the loyalty, how long does that last, and are you just as loyal to the work as you are to the person or does it lean one way or the other?”

Grannan says that she speaks with Kiki almost every day. “I have not been so good at establishing boundaries, frankly,” Grannan confesses. She helps Kiki, but also encourages her to help herself. Kiki can be resentful when Grannan says no, but, she says, the two women are close enough that they can discuss it openly. Grannan also has to think about “how good a friend” Kiki can be in return. “It’s very difficult to witness someone putting themselves through the same kind of suffering endlessly. It’s really difficult, so you also have to protect yourself,” Grannan says.

On the day Grannan spoke to PDN, she and Hughes had been on the phone with Kiki. She spoke about getting a job, getting along well with the man she is married to. “And I know that, unfortunately, that’s the story she’s telling herself,” Grannan says. After five years, Grannan says she still wants to believe the good news, but she also understands that more suffering will come. “Part of the revelation of the film is my coming to terms with the fact that I’m telling myself stories too. I want to try to make sense of why any one of us can undermine ourselves to such a degree.”

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