Director Q&A: Drew Xanthopoulos on The Sensitives

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We spoke with Revelator collaborator, Drew Xanthopoulos, about his new documentary The Sensitives, which premieres tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film, directed and shot by Xanthopoulos and produced by David Hartstein, follows several subjects who live with chronic illness and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). The film is getting a lot of love in it’s run-up to the premiere, and is listed as a must-see at Tribeca by the likes of The Village Voice, No Film School and IndieWire.

The film follows a loving grandfather who is struck down by a debilitating illness with mysterious, environmental origins. He faces an agonizing decision: an uncertain, unhealthy future with his family or the lure of an isolated, “safe” community built for “sensitives” like him. As his wife and daughter struggle to find a way to keep their family together, we meet others that have faced the same impossible choices: an aging mother and her two adult sons living in self-imposed quarantine deep in the Arizona desert, and an activist, in fragile recovery, who haunts the hallways and conference rooms of disability advocates to build support for a malady that no one seems to understand. We were fortunate enough to get a little time with Drew during the hectic week to discuss the film.

DREW XANTHOPOULOS Q&A:

Q: I’m sure you’ve answered this a thousand times by now, but what originally drew you to this subject? 

A: I was first influenced by Thilde Jensen’s photography in a New York Times photo essay and subsequent book titled “The Canaries,” which documents dozens of people across the country dealing with severe chemical and electrical sensitivities. I’d never heard of the subject before and her images haunted me for months after before finally contacting her with a long list of questions I had. She eventually invited me to come on a shoot she was doing near Dallas and introduced me to people across the country. She also taught me the ropes of how to work with people with these illnesses, how to prepare myself and my clothing and my camera.

Q: How did you approach your interviewees about doing the film? Were they excited, hesitant? How did you get to know them over the course of filming?

A: I spent about a year and half meeting people all over the country. The reason why I landed with the people you see in the film is because I connected with them personally. We connected about basic, universal human things—music, travel, baseball. It was important for me to be able to relate to them on a personal level because it’s the best measure of being relatable in a film and what makes a film unique. In good documentary or fiction, the audience is meeting people the filmmaker relates to on some level.

Q: Obviously, you faced several challenges in production that you wouldn’t have had on most films. Were there any unexpected road blocks that you encountered and how did you work around them?

A: I had a pair of work clothes and, per the instructions of the subjects, I would boil them in water twice, and then soak them in baking soda for a few days, and finally air-dry them. I would never put them in conventional washers or dryers because they’ve processed a lot of highly-fragranced detergents and dryer sheets. After this, I would I store the clothes in a sealed bag. I had to start using different kinds of soaps and different kinds of hygiene products. For about three weeks leading up to a shoot, I’d sort of dress and wash myself the way I would during the shoot, to get all of the fragrances off of my body. I wouldn’t take an airplane to a shoot; I’d always drive. My car was pretty old, so the new car smell – glues and plastics – was gone, and I never used any air fresheners in it, so my car had a pretty neutral smell. When I got to people’s houses, I would hop in their shower, and I would put on my work clothes and start filming after that. I would never use hotels, either. I’d always camp when I was on shoots with them. It was a pretty immersive experience in general. During actual shooting, I couldn’t use any wireless microphones, which is pretty standard practice on a documentary, so all of the sound on the documentary is from a shotgun microphone on the camera, which also influenced the way it was shot.

 

Q: Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d know when you began work on this film?

A: Every film has a learning curve, but that’s what makes it exciting and worthwhile, I think. So I’m happy I knew what I did at the time and discovered as I went. If I went back and told my past self something I know now it would spoil the experience of it all, I think!

Q: Your Kickstarter page says you shot over 160 hours of footage. What was your strategy for pairing that down? How did you first approach structuring your edit?

A: For a long time, I wasn’t sure if anything was going to happen with the subjects. There was a point at which we were looking at just cutting three portraits but then, everything happened all at once and each of the stories suddenly had arcs. I saw there were these three parallel journeys happening—Joe going to see if a community in North Texas would make him feel better, Susie going to D.C. to seek validation for this condition in the disability community, and then the twins and their mom losing their caregiver and trying to venture out—so it became a matter of weaving those three stories together.

Q: How great was working with your editor, David Fabelo? (Guest question by David Fabelo)

A: When we were searching for an editor a colleague of mine gave me the advice that they should be someone you’d want to take a 6-month road trip with because that’s basically what editing is like. Especially with a film whose subject can get very heavy at times, I think he was spot on. Anyone who’s met David knows he’s such a pleasure to be around and is naturally an incredibly smart, empathetic person. He was an invaluable voice in helping maintain objectivity and guide structure but he also got what I wanted the heart of the film to be. He understood what we wanted people to take away from this journey.


Q: This film is premiering on the 20th at Tribeca Film Festival. What would be the best reaction you could get from a viewer? What are you hoping audiences take away from the film?

A: I think the best reaction I’m hoping for is for an audience to feel moved by the stories of these marginalized strangers and also compelled to want to know more. The subject is in need of more attention and research so capturing the public eye, I hope, would lead to more of both.

Q: Lastly, are you still in touch with your subjects? Are they excited about the film’s premiere?

A: Yes, I speak with them all regularly and they are very excited for the premiere. Fortunately also, Lanie, whose husband is sick in the film, will be attending the first couple of screenings and will be part of the Q&A’s too and I’m very comforted that someone who’s a subject in the film will be present.

 

We want to extend a big THANK YOU to Drew for taking the time to chat with us during the important week for his film. The Sensitives premieres Thursday, April 20th at 6:30 at the Cinépolis Chelsea, with three additional screenings throughout the Tribeca Film Festival.

Find more screenings and ticketing info at Tribeca’s site.

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