SIFF interview: CHICKEN PEOPLE director Nicole Lucas Haimes on her new, brilliant, offbeat documentary

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Chicken People is a wonderful and fun documentary that played at the Seattle International Film Festival. It is the first feature-length film from director Nicole Lucas Haimes.

What, I believe, makes Chicken People so great is that it takes its audience inside of a world they didn’t know existed (poultry competitions similar to what the Westminster Dog Show might be if it featured chickens instead of dogs) and shows the struggles of some of the field’s biggest stars. They struggle to grow the perfect chicken, but also each have their own daily challenges. It’s often funny and heartbreaking and triumphant.

While in town for her film’s screenings at SIFF (which included actual poultry to walk the red carpet; see below), I met with Nicole Lucas Haimes to discuss her offbeat (but quite excellent!) film.

It is expected to air on CMT in the fall.

I was wondering, how were you introduced to this world of all the Chicken People?

Well, I live in an urban area. I live in Venice, California and when my older son, for a very brief period of time, was completely and utterly into chickens and the boys in his school would run around going, “Chicken, chicken, chicken, chicken, chicken, chicken,” and then burst into uproarious laughter, which I found absolutely baffling, but I brought him a book for his birthday called Extraordinary Chickens, which is a picture book of beautiful chickens. There was a tiny little mention in the book that people compete them and I was like, “No, get out of here. I have to find out more about it,” so that’s what got me started.

A few months later, I went up to a chicken show in Northern California and I was like, “I have to make a documentary about this.”

Was that where you met all the characters too?

No. Finding the characters was a really protracted effort and I spent a lot of time on the phone pre-interviewing people and asking people about other people to find the right group of folks.

I think one of the obvious comparisons for Chicken People is Best in Show because it takes place in a similar world with some characters that might be considered eccentric, though it is a “mockumentary” played for laughs, whereas your film, I think shows the humanity of a group of people that most might find unusual.

I was inspired a bit by Best in Show, but it was important to me to do something different given that it’s real people and I wanted to embrace my characters rather than make fun of my characters.

Yeah, absolutely and that’s one of the things I really liked about it. There was the character that, the gentlemen that had kind of, his love of chickens almost derailed his career in Branson, Brian Caraker. Can you talk a little bit about him? He was one of my favorite part of the film, my favorite character.

What did you like about him?

I just thought that he was the most vulnerable I think and you could see the conflict within him, like how he really loves his chickens and I mean, I think he was told, “If you take off a week to go to the big event, then you won’t have a job next year,” and you could see how he was really conflicted by that.

Yes, I agree. I love his vulnerability and the way that he worked to try to find his strength and was willing to let us in to see a certain amount of trial and error with his career. That was … I’m not sure. I mean, I feel like you do. I mean, I felt privileged to be able to follow him, trying to find his path. If one were writing a narrative, you would never have an act of God where all of the sudden at the end, he gets his job back because they … Your screenwriting teacher would fail you for that, but that’s really what happened. He was on the outside for a year and I think they realized they’d made a mistake and they gave him his job back at a raise. It made me really happy that he could be victorious also in his personal life.

I mean, today he’s, currently he’s looking for a place to, a farmhouse to be able to raise his chickens. He met his goals. His parents soon will not have the burden of that, three to four hours a day caring for his plot.

Yeah, that was so amazing too. I think another thing I really liked was how supportive his parents were. If I told my mom or my dad, “Hey, can you look after these chickens for me while I go and pursue my career on stage in Branson?” They would ask, “Are you nuts?”

That’s so funny, I was just saying to Melissa (MacFadyen, SIFF publicist), “I’m a mom of two children and there would be no way I would do that!” You drive your kids, you feed your kids, you clothe your kids, you shelter your kids, you love your kids, you get them to school, but no, enough.

Yeah, that’s going way above and beyond.

No, and they’re great parents. They’re really wonderful people and I guess he’s lucky they’re retired. His mom, Betty, was kind of a … He describes her in a way as coming from a Southern Belle kind of upbringing, so to be caring for chickens really was not on her agenda.

Yeah, I bet. That’s not something you map out when you try to figure out your life plan. Do you still stay in touch with the people that you filmed in the …?

Yes. I’m still in touch with people who … Once I make a friend, I keep a friend and I grew very close to all three of them and they’re really dear to me and I’m friends with people that I’ve covered in other stories from the 90’s. I still stay in touch, but yes I am in touch with them.

That’s great to hear! How long did this movie take to make from when you decided you wanted to make the documentary to when it was finished?

About four years.

Okay.

Long process of … There are the people who option the idea and I went through several rounds of casting until CMT came on board, which was about two years ago, and then I did another round of casting to make it right for the CMT audience. It was a long … It was a lot of trial and error before I found CMT and then just the work of making the film because it happened over the course of a year. There was the ramp of time shooting the film and then preparing the edit.

What was your impression of when you saw the chicken event for the first time?

I guess first off, the noise completely took me by surprise. You walk in and it’s absolutely overwhelming and both the small chicken show which was my first introduction, the one up in Northern California which was just 2,000 chickens, and then the Ohio show was nearly 10,000 chickens. It’s so loud it knocks you back. It’s truly deafening, so that was the first reaction was, “Oh my God!”

Then the second was seeing the array of beautiful birds was amazing. Then the third thing, and I’m not sure the movie captures this as well as we might, but was an extraordinary feeling of camaraderie among the chicken people. They were absolutely very competitive and it was also clear, “We’re in this together.” They are aware that, most people are aware that it’s an eccentric hobby that people on the outside laugh about and that kind of I think brings the community together, so it’s very warm.

I noticed that in the film with the couple … The ones, the ex-boyfriend and girlfriend. She was still really complimentary towards him and just said, “He’s the best at growing chickens there is.”

Jackie, yes. Yes, they remain good friends and they truly have so much in common and they can drill down into the littlest bit of minutia that they share. It’s really remarkable.

Yeah, that’s so incredible how they maintain the fondness for each other.

It truly is. They’re like two peas in a pod.

What has been the reaction from audiences from the times you’ve shown the film?

People seem to … I mean, this is at the risk of seeming immodest because you make a film and you try your hardest, but then it becomes… then it belongs to the audience. You have to sort of step away and allow it to take its own life and it’s been thrilling to see all the laughter, that people get the jokes and there’s a lot of little sneaky jokes in there that people seem to really get and to watch people being entertained and enjoying themselves is thrilling for me. It’s truly thrilling so I’m just delighted by the response and I’ve also learned along the way how heartfelt and humor can work together … Because I hope people also … The underbelly of the humor to me is that life is really hard.

Whatever, wherever people can find meaning and find a way to cope is really a wonderful thing. We all search for meaning and so in a way, the chickens I think have helped our subjects become the best versions of themselves. I guess I’ve been getting feedback that people seem to really appreciate their stories and get something from it in addition to having a laugh.

I was just going to ask if there’s anything else that you want people to know that I didn’t ask about, about the film?

I mean, I want to do a shout out to my producers, is that okay?

Absolutely.

I had just wonderful producers, Terry Leonard who’s here at SIFF this weekend, then Motto Pictures who, thank you so much. They’re having a phenomenal year. They have so many good films. Specifically, I have to make sure I said it. It’s Julie Goldman, Caroline Caplan, and Chris Clements were great producers. Terry was my L.A. producer, they were my New York producers, an amazing cinematographer, Martina Radwan, who just helped me to see. She’s so good at vérité. She helped me break a lot of my bad TV habits by laying back and just sort of … Great editors, Kevin Klauber who was one of a team of editors, he worked on 20 Feet from Stardom and Sara Booth, great editors, amazing composer Michael Hearst. I just feel that I had an absolutely amazing team for my first feature documentary. I wanted to say that and then of course, SIFF  is the most wonderful festival and people here treat filmmakers so nicely. I feel like a princess. It’s just fantastic. Those are my shout outs.

Then I can’t forget CMT. Two executives there, they’re just wonderful to filmmakers. They were just phenomenal to work with and that was John Miller-Monzon and Lewis Bogach, great executives. I feel blessed to have such a good team.

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