In a modern world that relies so heavily on efficacy and instantaneous results, it’s always surprising to learn not everyone adheres to the fast-paced rules of the metropolis. Tony Stone’s first documentary, ‘Peter and the Farm’, explores the intimate life and work of Peter Dunning, a Vermont farmer who has spent over four decades tending to the land and living by the rules of agri-cycles. However, although the film showcases the working life of Dunning, the cameras also capture an exploration of humanity, isolation, and the markers of life, as Dunning delves into meditations of his personal history, from his family choosing not to see him anymore, to his numbing drinking. Ahead of ‘Peter and the Farm’s’ release at the New Directors/New Films festival, organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the MoMA, Stone presented the film and its subject matter at NeueHouse Madison Square, where he sat down with us to discuss his anti-hero, and his foray into the documentary world of filmmaking.
NeueJournal: How did you first hear about Peter Dunning and what interested you in telling his story?
Tony Stone: I first met Peter Dunning when I was about eight or nine years old at a Farmers Market in Vermont. My parents had a connection to him as they were both artists, and I developed my own relationship with him over the years. I actually put Peter in a movie where he played an 1800s logger, so he was very apropos for the role. He ended up being cut out of the film, but I developed my own rapport with him, due to his charismatic spirit and his sort of performative nature. Although I’ve known him for over 25 years, I didn’t go to the farm until he invited my wife and I a few years ago. We were struck by the beauty of it and by its whole operation.
Peter is sort of this fading spirit. There aren’t many people like him and of that specific generation, so it felt like there was a need or urgency to document his world before it may collapse. Farming is such a Sisyphean undertaking, but what he had built was so magical and amazing, so we were drawn to the farm and wanted to have a reason to film there. Being a narrative filmmaker, I felt that documentary kind of lacked the visual and experiential qualities that I wanted to pursue since they are usually comprised of sit down interviews. I wanted to visually translate the farm and experientially translate Peter’s micro-world, which is why the title is Peter and the Farm, since it represents the experience and duality of the man and his setting.
NJ: What do you want the takeaway of the film to be, and is there a universality to the story that you’re hoping will translate into some sort of action?
TS: I would say to keep the film open-ended, where you wonder what is happening and where it leaves off and whether there is a mythological aspect to it. To ask yourself, is this cyclical? Is Peter, this sort of biblical character, still on the farm? I would also like people to ponder, what is sustainability? There’s a point where your self-sustainability can no longer go on.
There’s no specific takeaway, but for me, farmers are obviously heroic. There’s a challenge with working based on the repetition of cycles and years that is just absolutely admirable. I’m in awe of the dedication farmers have to the work and the land. Everybody has their own experience of dealing with characters like Peter in their life, whether it’s a father, an uncle, or whoever, which enables you to relate to certain parts of Peter. Obviously, a farmer would have one view of the film, as opposed to somebody in the city, who would have a different view. It’s interesting in that dialogue too.
NJ: What has been the starkest difference in filming this largely isolated subject matter as opposed to other projects you’ve worked on?
TS: There’s obviously a difference between narrative and documentaries. Narrative is total self-creation that could start with the director or producer and then unfold from there, but it’s created out of a concept and then built around that. What’s interesting with documentaries is that your subject is everything. We jumped into Peter’s world, and it’s amazing to be at the mercy of his day to day activities – you also sort of wanted to step away and let him lead. He was such a collaborator who had his own ideas, but then our camera brought its own tension and its own reality. We worked mostly with a single camera, which actually reduced options. It’s such a balance trying to show the spectrum of the character without trying to say too much. In a way, I kind of looked at it as if we were editors of Peter’s material, which is so theatrical and sounds, in a way, prewritten because he’s told his stories so many times. By having Peter also film we wanted to remove ourselves so that things could unfold naturally, uninterruptedly, and spontaneously.
NJ: How did your childhood affect your decision to become a filmmaker?
TS: I spent nine months of the year in New York City and the remaining three months in Vermont. So having context for each of these worlds, I was able to look at them and their different eyes and become aware that my surroundings have different patterns. When I was in Vermont, I was running around, making forts, starting fires, and letting my childhood imagination run wild. In a way the scenarios we create as children is its own form of filmmaking.
But also being in New York and going to a high school that had a film department, as well as being exposed at a really young age to so much culture, and movies, and places like the Film Forum, was huge. It became more of an innate language, which stemmed from the cultural exposure combined with the circumstance of living in these dual environments.
NJ: How would you describe the current state of the world in three words?
TS: Suicidal, solipsistic, and numb.
NJ: When is the last time you cried?
TS: Recently, talking about Peter and his current predicament.
NJ: What is your current state of mind?
TS: I guess excited, but fraught.
NJ: If you could have witnessed any historical event, which would it be?
TS: There are so many. It would be interesting to witness something like World War I, but the extent of it and the carnage was so horrific, which would make me want to see more celebratory occasions of humanity. Discoveries are a always incredible, and one thing I love about that is you would require a return trip, otherwise you don’t realize that it’s a discovery.
NJ: Who do you most admire?
TS: Peter Steele (laughs). It’s kind of an inside joke.
Photography: Andrew Boyle for NeueJournal