Soft for Digging is J.T. Petty’s first feature film, completed when he was 21 years old.
PK: How would you describe your film?
Sundance 2002 Coverage
Five Days at Sundance 2002: a festival overview
23 Capsules: Sundance 2002 capsule reviews
Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank: an interview with lovable subjects of American Movie, both working in new films showing at Sundance 2002
JTP: I guess I would call it a horror film. The story of the film has an old man follow his runaway cat into the woods where he sees a child get murdered, and a string of terrible things happen after that. I’ve really had good shock reactions at some of the screenings. For one a woman stood up and shouted “F—k you, J.T.!”... because she was really upset with the path the movie had taken. But I love frightening people. I remember seeing Invasion of The Body Snatchers, the Donald Sutherland version, when I was way too young, and being really terrified of that. Beyond that, with scary movies you know solidly when they’re working. With drama it’s really hard to look at an audience and see if it’s working. But with a horror film you see people jump and scream - and it’s tactfully satisfying.
PK: The film is listed as having a $9,000 budget. Even though it was shot on 16mm film instead of 35mm, film stock is still quite expensive. How did you pull it off?
JTP: We shot about two hours of film. If that. (Writer’s note: the finished film is 74 minutes long.) We only did three takes once. Everything was pathologically storyboarded. It’s a 22-page script because there’s no dialogue. But there are 300 pages of storyboards and we stuck closely to them. We had 80 minutes of stock from NYU that was given to us as part of the class. The actors get paid only if the film gets picked up for distribution. My little sister is one of the actors in the movie. My mom took care of us all. My entire family helped a lot. My dad designed some of our effects.
PK: What was behind your decision to be spare with the dialogue?
JTP: I feel that when you let the images tell the story that this is when you most take advantage of movies as a medium. I love good dialogue. I love watching actors act. But, really, it’s the moments when people stop speaking or the story is held together by images when it’s much stronger.