“…they weren’t so much walking towards California as they were running away from Wisconsin.”[Editor’s note: Wisconsin Public Television will air Almost Sunrise on May 29. Here’s our original interview with director Michael Collins from the Wisconsin Film Festival.]
By its very nature, Almost Sunrise is made for a nation torn asunder by increasingly polemical rhetoric. Two war veterans walk from Wisconsin to California, in part to repair psyches damaged by tours in Iraq. More simply, they walk as a means to communicate. In 2017, it’s easy to give lip service to the idea of listening to one’s fellow neighbor. It’s much harder to actually do it.
That’s just what Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson aim to do as they set out from Milwaukee to Los Angeles to raise awareness of the nation’s abandoned service members. Along the way, director Michael Collins and his documentary crew — a crew which varied, depending on where their subjects were and what was left in the budget — capture a depressed nation that needs an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. The ensuing catharsis of Almost Sunrise is worth the likely wave of media attention and Wisconsin pride it’s headed for because it doesn’t just reach across the aisle of “Middle America”; it literally traverses it. I asked Collins “5 Questions:”
1. Your opening is so stunning, when you cut from Tom Voss the child to Tom Voss the soldier. Can you share more about how you found that moment?
That footage of Tom as a child was such a blessing. We bookend the film with this footage because it speaks so much to the loss of innocence that is integral to his internal journey. The juxtaposition of him as a child and a soldier gave us the ability to communicate so much of what the heart of the film was about in a visual and visceral way without having to try and put it all into words. Being a human going to war and coming home is such a complicated experience it’s nearly impossible to express. This footage gave us the opportunity to connect with the audience on a heartfelt level, rather than just by exploring this intellectually.
2. One of the qualities I love is that the exact location of Tom and Anthony in their walk isn’t your main priority. That dislocation actually adds to these abandoned veterans feeling “stuck.” As a storyteller, how important was their journey’s geography to you?
As a filmmaker, I was very excited about the physical aspect of the journey because it is so cinematic. I spanned the entire country, through nearly every landscape and throughout the seasons. But ultimately that is just the backdrop for what is a very internal, emotional journal. I realized this early on, and it was something we really had to grapple with both during production and in the edit.
We witnessed in the beginning of their trek how they weren’t so much walking towards California as they were running away from Wisconsin. We tried to reflect their internal spaces as we filmed them moving both physically and emotionally towards their destination. So sometimes we’d feel the claustrophobic urban landscapes and constant movements on screen, and other times things grew more still and wide.
Fortunately for me, one of their biggest breakthroughs on the trek was in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado, speaking to Wolf Walker. From that moment on as their perspective had shifted, so too did the landscape to vast wide-open and beautiful spaces. (Until they reached L.A. when we realized Tom still had a ways to go!)
3. I want to hear more about the logistics of your shoot. How big was your crew? Were you camping and staying with them the entire way?
The size of the crew would vary depending on the where the guys were, and honestly, what our budget would allow. Often it would be three of us, sometimes two. For the bigger shoots as they left Milwaukee and when arriving in LA, we had eight people or more because we didn’t want to miss a beat. But we weren’t with them all the time. I also wanted to make sure they had space to have their experience without our presence.
I enjoy the intimacy you can establish with a small crew, and this production really demanded it. And since Anthony and Tom were always moving and meeting new people, we had to find ways to work around that. We also had to learn the best way to stay mobile and how to film from a vehicle. It turns out nothing beats a mini-van with collapsible back seats because you can set up a tripod and film out the sides and the back.
We did some camping, but not often. We always had to go and copy the footage and recharge batteries. I remember when the guys were sleeping in the Mojave Desert, we had to drive two hours to the nearest motel and then would have about four hours to rest before we’d need to head back out, wanting to be there before sunrise as they woke up.
4. The emphasis is on Tom and Anthony’s journey but you also touch on how important healthy communication is for veterans in general. When you’ve taken Almost Sunrise on the road to festivals, what have those Q&A experiences been like?
Since our premiere on Memorial Day at Telluride MountainFilm, we’ve connected with diverse audiences all over the country. I am consistently surprised with the questions, but there are often common themes that arise. The first is about Moral Injury and how it differs from PTSD. Many civilians also express how they didn’t understand the complexities of the military experience and ask how they can get involved to support vets and military families in their communities.
The reaction from veterans is often of gratitude that their story was relayed in a way that doesn’t depict them as a stereotype. Many are left in a place where they feel more open to share their experiences with their community and their families. We get lots of comments from vets about how they feel hopeful and now see new paths towards healing that they weren’t aware of.
Very often our Q&A’s have discussions about holistic modalities for healing and how veterans and their families can access them outside of the VA. There are usually questions about the breath-work depicted in the Project Welcome Home Troops workshop that Tom participates in. And this leads well into our Impact Campaign.
Beyond the Q&A we have several immersive activities that we are able to bring, including panel discussions on Moral Injury, a meditation session led by Tom, community art projects led by Katinka Hooyer, who is also featured prominently in the film, and walks with Anthony and Wolf Walker to experience the healing power of nature. You can see many audience reactions as well as highlights from the impact campaign in this short video.
5. Anthony and Tom’s stories continue outside of their walk, a fact that goes on to define the film’s structure. Have you kept in touch with either of them?
I’m in close touch with both of them as they often join us at screening events and are very involved with our campaign activities. They are both doing well. Anthony is working full-time but also organizing treks for veterans. And Tom has recently moved to California. He has been helping to set up Power Breath Workshops all over the country for Project Welcome Home Troops and continues to find creative ways to help veterans. They both continue to share their experiences as a way to help inspire, uplift and heal others. We look forward to connecting with audiences in Wisconsin and encourage everyone to learn more about our campaign on our website to see how they can screen the film in their own communities.
- Almost Sunrise plays on Sat, Apr 1 at 4:30p in the Union South Marquee.