In Next Year Country, three Montana farming families who have struggled to keep afloat through years of drought, take their chances on hiring a rainmaker. Director Joseph Aguirre shares the genesis of the story and why it was so hard to stay dry while shooting a film about drought. Look for Next Year Country on public television this July (check local listings). I originally heard about rainmaker Matt Ryan and the work he was doing with drought-stricken farmers in Montana from an article that ran in the Los Angeles Times in February of 2003. On first read, the story seemed to me to have a lot of cinematic potential. I liked the folkloric Americana aspect of the rainmaker story, and the story of drought and hardship in the American West made me think of Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” and the seminal work of the depression-era FSA photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.
When I traveled to Montana and met the families who would later become the primary focus of the film—the Gollehons, the Fuhrmans, and the Hills—I knew I would have to try to make a film about their lives. The great irony for me about making this film about drought was that every time I traveled to Montana it rained. There was a running joke between me and a couple of the film’s lead characters that I was the “real” rainmaker, and that if I printed up some business cards I could do a brisk business. Looking back on it now it’s really comical, but at the time the rain presented a lot of challenges for us.
On the one hand, the farmers desperately needed the rain, so I—like everybody else—was very happy whenever it rained. On the other hand, the rain created very real problems for me and my editor, Yaffa Lerea, in post-production. How could we make the audience really feel the drought and the hardships it presented to these people’s lives and livelihoods if there were always rainclouds in the sky, or puddles on the ground, or rain falling from the sky while I was shooting? I ended up having to travel back to Montana a couple of times after principal photography to do pick ups and reshoots, and ultimately I think we managed to string together enough dry looking imagery to convey a convincing sense of how dry it actually was at the time in the film.
I recently flew back to Montana to attend a screening of the film, and as my plane approached the airport in Great Falls the pilot came over the radio to announce that we would be encountering some unexpected bad weather on our descent. Could it be that I have missed my true calling?
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