For more than two-and-a-half years, filmmakers Tashai Lovington and Robert Lughai of Tarazod Films have been immersed in the world of the Gallus domesticus, that is, the chicken. One of the most ubiquitous domesticated animals and sources of food in the world, the fowl is recently reasserting its presence in urban areas around the country. That's the story of Mad City Chickens, their new documentary about the growing movement of backyard poultry.
Paring more than 40 hours of footage into an 81-minute film, Lovington and Lughai introduce viewers to the urban chicken, which officially made its way back into Madison nearly four years ago. They tell stories of newly hatched chicken-keepers, the rescue of a factory farm hen, the importance of the birds as both pet and egg source, the specter of the bird flu, poultry art, and much more, complete with a mad scientist and giant clucker.
The filmmakers have already drawn national attention to their work with Tarazod. Their short film La Fe'e Rouge was one of ten official entries featured in the inaugural Independent Lens Online Film Festival launched by PBS in late 2006. Then in early 2007, this film about the artistic recreation of dolls was bestowed the Audience Award for the fest. They are also writing a feature-length narrative script for their next project, with a working title of The Edwardian Full Moon Encounter, that they plan to produce in HD. Their current focus, though, is the release of Mad City Chickens.
Lovington and Lughai talk with The Daily Page in an email interview about the new documentary, discussing their inspiration, the editing process, its music, the giant chicken, and more.
The Daily Page: What was it about keeping chickens in the city that compelled you to create this documentary? What was your inspiration? Did making this film make you want to keep chickens?
Lovington and Lughai: Keeping chickens made us want to do this film. We've had backyard chickens a couple different times in our lives and so we know just how interesting and personable these birds can be. Since chickens are usually thought of as livestock that live on the farm, it was intriguing to us to talk with people who were keeping them in the city.
What did each of you contribute to the film? How would you describe your individual roles in the collaboration?
We contributed fairly equally. Figuring out and writing the script, producing, directing, and editing. Tashai is rather skilled with special effect compositing, so she did the bulk of that. Robert added more to the writing of the narration portions of the film.
Why did you choose to add dramatic/fanciful elements such as the giant chicken in your approach to the film?
It's a film about poultry. What poultry movie is complete without a giant chicken? You can't tell someone your doing a chicken movie without causing them to at the very least crack a smile. Chickens are humorous, enjoyable animals. The giant chicken just takes the fun to a new level. Plus, we love creating fiction. So it was a way for us to satisfy that itch while still producing a legitimate documentary film.
How did you decide who to interview for the documentary?
We first learned of the backyard chicken movement in Madison. It was still illegal to have the birds within city limits, but the Isthmus newspaper did an article on what was then referred to as the "Chicken Underground", people who broke the law by hiding chickens in their garages and backyards. We attempted to get some names and numbers, but the Isthmus wouldn't give 'em out.
A year went by and a group of poultry supporters going by the name "Mad City Chickens" was formed. When the laws were changed allowing four hens (but no roosters) per single family residence, the group's founding members started holding urban chicken 101 classes.
We met Alicia Rheal and Bryan Whiting through one of these classes and began the interviews with them. They in turn connected us with a number of other Madison chicken owners. It just grew from there to include more chicken folk, artists, breeders, and experts from around the country.
What's the current status of chicken-keeping in Madison?
There are a lot of chickens in Madison with new owners taking the poultry plunge all the time.
Chickens can be both pets and food, not something that can be said about most animals kept by people in a city. Where did you find the dividing line between the two in the making of the film?
It seems to be about 50/50. Half of the people we interviewed had chickens for the food aspect, especially the eggs, although some took advantage of the meat as well. We were surprised to learn that the other half, while enjoying the egg production, kept their birds primarily as pets. Most of the owners, be they food or pet oriented, seemed to give their hens individual names and all the birds appeared to be treated quite humanely, as well as we would treat our dogs or cats.
What were the most difficult portions of the film to cut out of the 40 hours of footage you shot?
There were several interviews that we really liked, stories of people having chicken dreams, a tour of local show-bird breeding facility, and others, but they just didn't fit into the scope and/or length of the film.
The most difficult edit was the last nine minutes. Once we decided on doing a feature-length doc, we planned for a 90 minute film. When we at last had the 90 minutes on the time-line, however, the story just wasn't tight enough. We had to continue to whittle away at it, second by second, until it finally felt right, the total running time ending up being 81 minutes. Cutting out those nine minutes was just brutal.
Can you discuss the soundtrack created by David Haugh?
Dave is a good friend of ours and a talented musician. He has a substantial collection of songs he's written and recorded over the years. When he learned that we were doing a film on chickens, he put together a CD of tracks that he thought we might be interested in. And we were! We ended up using several of his songs in the film. Accompanying his music are a number of other pieces by other artists that all make up the film's soundtrack.
Why should people attend your premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival?
Because we think it's a damn good movie. It's entertaining, informative, and has real heart. You don't have to keep chickens to enjoy this film.
What do you hope will be the reaction to your film by people who currently keep chickens?
We hope they want to buy it.
What other films will you be seeing at this year's Wisconsin Film Festival?
The Pixar Story, Saturday Afternoon & Night Shorts, Pageant, Na Kamalei, The Case, and a number of others. There were several that sold out early that we would have liked to have seen.
What extras can we look forward to on the DVD release?
The exact contents are not yet set in stone, however, it's likely to include a behind-the-scenes making-of doc, movie trailers, expanded chicken how-to interview with Mother Earth News Editor-in-Chief Cheryl Long, extended interview with bird flu expert Dr. Michael Greger, the music of Mad City Chickens, chicken bloopers and other cutting room floor material.
Mad City Chickens will premiere in the 2008 Wisconsin Film Festival at 9:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 3 at Monona Terrace. Though advance tickets for are sold out, there will be rush admission at the door. Both Lovington and Lughai are scheduled to attend and answer questions after the screening.
More information about the making of Mad City Chickens can be found on the Blog for Tarazod Films while production photos can be viewed in a gallery on Flickr. There are also a teaser and a pair of trailers for the documentary, one for Mother Earth News and final version released last week. The group Mad City Chickens, meanwhile, provides more details how to join the poultry underground in Madison.