Soon after he graduated film school, Jefferson native Kyle Romanek moved to a farm in southern California. It wasn’t part of his original plan. But the biodynamic estate — dubbed Apricot Lane Farms by founders John and Molly Chester — became his home for the next four years as he documented the trials and tribulations of organic farming in the California desert.
The result was “The Biggest Little Farm,” a recently released documentary that painstakingly records eight years of labor on the farm. The film was released in theaters last Friday after building a following at the Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals. This week, it made its way to local theaters, including the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C. and the Angelika Film Center in Fairfax, Virginia. Romanek, one of several cinematographers for the project, sat down with ‘72 Hours’ to discuss the project.
Tell me a little bit about how you learned about Apricot Lane Farms and got connected with the project.
Romanek: Okay, to get to the farm — I guess it was 2014. I had been freelancing here and there, doing some reality TV stuff, and my aunt’s husband had worked with someone who works with John Chester. And [the Chesters] had posted a call for a cinematographer. So, I applied, and I got in touch with John. We had several phone interviews. He saw some of my films, my previous work, and was like, ‘You’re a great fit.’ But really, it was like an extended university. When I got there, I thought, ‘Here’s my in. Here’s my opportunity to move to L.A. and work on this farm and work on a project that feels completely unique but totally up my alley.’
So, you were hired as a cinematographer from the beginning?
Romanek: Kind of. On the farm, they have what’s called ‘‘WWOOFers’ [employees hired through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms]. And WWOOFers are basically people who want to be educated about living on a farm. So, they go there for three months, and they aren’t paid, but they live on the land and they’re fed off the land.
So, I was hired as a WWOOFer, but the filming side of things kind of happened naturally. I came at a time when there was a single producer and John, just trying to make stuff with a little DSLR camera. But they wanted to up their game and start making better content. I don’t think they had a feature film totally in mind yet, but it started to become a part of the conversation as I was there. Because they were already making some short films that were airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network. And those shorts were doing really well, actually, to the point where they were winning some daytime Emmys. I won a daytime Emmy in my second year, which was a pretty cool moment.
So, it became this idea of making a feature film showing all eight years of the development of this biodynamic farm, where regenerative soil practices are a common practice. It was a bold endeavor, but I think enough stuff had started to transpire. Stories were developing. Emma the pig gave birth to 17 piglets and almost died. You were starting to see these threads. So, my job as a cinematographer, basically, was to capture all of John’s grand visions. He’d say things, like, ‘I really want to capture some tight shots of an ant eating a sugar droplet out of an aphid’s backside.’ And I’m, like, ‘What? What do you mean?’ But those were the crazy things he would throw at me.
Was there anything that really stuck out to you while you were filming?
Romanek: Gosh, there was so much. John would say things, like, ‘I really want to make sure to capture the monarch butterflies.’ They migrated at certain times of the year, so we wanted to capture the whole process of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.’ For me, every day was an exploration into nature and wildlife. And it was amazing because I had total freedom. It didn’t matter to me that I was sitting there for 16 hours, waiting for a butterfly to hatch out of a chrysalis. You just have to sit and wait. At the same time, snails were infesting our trees — our lemon orchards — so I’d be sitting out there and capturing time lapses of that.
Did you ever get a sense of how the movie was going to end?
Romanek: When I was filming it, we didn’t quite know how things were going to end up. We just knew that everything was happening in fluctuations. You’d have really good seasons, and then you’d have horrible winds or horrible drought. The fires out there are really bad, and the farm was in jeopardy for about two years in a row. You’d see fires surrounding the farm — this beautiful oasis with 60 or 70 employees trying to corral the animals and keep everybody safe.
It’s really about the trials and tribulations of starting a biodynamic farm in a desert. I mean, California does not have the richest soil. It just doesn’t. The entire farm was a very ambitious project. So, the story really focuses on John and Molly. That’s what it became. Really, it’s about a couple who moves out of the big city and decides to start a farm. And the conflict that comes from trying to start a biodynamic farm in California. I learned a lot about farming along the way, but as a filmmaker, I was just trying to go in there and capture as many beautiful things as I possibly could.
Did you get emotionally attached to the farm while you were there?
Romanek: I think it’s hard not to. I experienced so many emotions just as somebody who was living there, falling in love with such a magical place. It’s very easy to get emotional over that experience alone.
I did fall in love with everything that was happening, but I also really fell in love. I had a girlfriend — she was actually the one who was running the whole chicken operation, about 1,500 birds. She’s now my ex, but we’re still very close and she’s actually in the movie a lot. That’s always kind of surreal, but it really was a magical place. It was more to me than just making a film and telling stories.
Was there anything that really surprised you while you were filming?
Romanek: Well, it’s a farm, right? So, babies are being born all the time. Lambs are being born all the time. And seeing a stillborn lamb is not fun. Filming it is not fun. There were these genuine moments of pain, some of which didn’t even make it into the film. Lambs whose mothers died, and they’re getting rejected by these surrogate mothers we’re trying to find for them. Some of the coyote attacks. At certain points, we were losing 25 birds or more. And no one wants to kill a coyote. It was the last thing John wanted to do, especially when he has a really strong attachment to his own dog. But it really highlights the circle of life and the way the farm was operating within this distinct ecosystem.
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters