CISCO KID Interview
Emily Kaye Allen is a New York based filmmaker.
She shares the rebel spirit of her subject ––Eileen––in CISCO KID. A beautifully sparse documentary of a queer dreamer forging their way out west, under the desert sky.
Initially filmed as a traditional observational documentary, the film soon evolved into
cinéma verité––allowing for more intimacy between the director and subject.
A quick note: since filming, Eileen has changed their pronoun to they/them.
GCC So is Cisco still known as a ghost town?
EKA Yeah. Though, it's changed a little bit since I made the film, it's been known as a ghost town. It's like an intersection; it's so small. Before Eileen bought the land there, people would roll through on their way to Moab or wherever. Since filming, someone bought the general store, which is the biggest structure that you see—in some of my shots, it's just boarded up. Now, it's an actual general store again. [Cisco’s] not totally a ghost town anymore. It was for a long time, and while I was out there, I was the only person living there besides Eileen.
GCC: How did that all come about for Eileen? How did they end up purchasing that land? What were they doing before this whole adventure, let's call it.
EKA: Eileen's originally from Milwaukee, but was living in Chicago and had been living in Chicago for a long time. Something like eight years or ten. They have always been someone that's really drawn to abandoned buildings and the past: even their record collection, their music taste. They've got great taste and knowledge of music, but it's like a lot of old and obscure stuff. They grew up with a mom who was always bringing them to thrift stores and fixing up stuff, and they've always had that love of old things, love of old buildings. They [were] going out west to travel and check out places like Moab, and someone on the plane told them there's this little ghost town they should check out, not far from there. They drove through and since they're a spontaneous person they stopped.
[At the time], they were working in Chicago, a seasonal job for the parks department in the city, gardening. They'd save up and then have a big chunk of time off to live somewhere else. They saw Cisco and happened to go on a day when no one was there, and it felt like this quiet place. They saw the house that they ended up fixing up (with its little fence), and they thought, Oh my God I love this, I want to live here, and I want to use these found materials around and make this place habitable. Somehow they managed to find the old man that owned the land, and they gave an [offer], which was not much at all. He said, “okay.”
There's no water there, the soil is not really fertile for growing things, but there was electricity that they could access. They just decided to do it on a whim. I think Chicago is rapidly—like every city—gentrifying and changing, and they felt, This is something I can own, something I can work on. I'll figure out a way to do it. I think they also had the idea in mind of a long term artist residency, which they did end up doing for some time.
GCC: This is somebody who’s a free spirit. They follow their inspiration and are kind of fearless. There are a lot of scary, vulnerable moments in the film, and I'm curious what’s the overlap between you two? Where were you at in your life when you decided to pursue this film?
EKA: I went into it a little impulsively, too. At that time I was doing a lot of freelance as a videographer and just shooting content (at Bon Apetit, MTV Push, and The Earth Institute at Columbia to name a few) and also working at a restaurant. I really wasn’t happy shooting content; I needed a project. I hadn’t done my own project since maybe grad school. I learned of Eileen through my friend––and Eileen’s sister––Renee, and I thought, Oh I'm having this pull towards the Utah landscape, and here's this person that's doing something really interesting and unique.
When I went out to shoot, I really wasn't sure if this could be a film. I did have an idea of what it could be and also, [a sense of] we'll see when I got out there. I was really drawn to it. I liked the landscape. In some ways it isn’t beautiful—it's off the side of a road that's really dead—yet, at the same time, it is beautiful, too. In the distance you see the red rocks, and the light dramatically changes the landscape throughout the day and night. I was really missing the West. I was missing open space and that sort of vastness.
It all just aligned. I needed something creative to work on and I missed that landscape, and Eileen needed something, because she chose this strange place. We were both exploring something together—two different things, but they overlapped. Luckily, we got along. Eileen has great taste in films, too. They introduced me to The Spirit of the Beehive. What a beautiful film! We watched it together. During my first trip there, we also watched Jean de Florette, Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. What struck me was how all of these films related to the landscape Eileen chose to live in, in Cisco, in some way. Eileen also loves Kelly Reichardt and on my last visit there we watched Certain Women. In fact, that film informed how I filmed the train in the opening shot of my film.
They appreciated the things I liked, and they knew I wouldn't treat it like some . . . well, the story could be told a lot of different ways: like there's a woman alone in a town [menacing voice], or man against nature, or what have you. They trusted me and that it would take a little time to find the story.
In the beginning I just used the equipment I had, which is pretty cheap stuff, and didn't try to raise money because I thought, This is happening now and I need to go capture it now because I'm sure things will change over time. I wanted to show some of that change. Had I tried to set up all that ahead of time, it would have been a different time in Eileen's life, and it would not be the same film.
GCC: You went out and shot it on your own, sound and everything?
EKA: I just had a DSLR, an audio recorder, and a shotgun mic. I edited it on my own. It took a while, and it wasn't ‘til the end, when I had a fine cut, that I was like, okay, now I need to raise some money to get a really good sound person to help—the sound needed some work—and a colorist, and the money for entering festivals and all that comes after.
GCC: How long did you shoot for?
EKA: I took four trips out there, over the course of about three, three-and-a-half years.
GCC: It's good to see what's possible when you have limited resources.
EKA: Yeah! Something I learned is that it's much harder to get a film in a festival when you do it totally alone. A lot of festivals are already tracking films from the stage of pitching the film. I think when someone really wants to get a film out there and have it be noticed, it is smarter to get on the radar early on, whether that's on one of these pitch forums that are hosted by Sundance or whatever, and that [one gets] a partner, whether that's a producer or another director, or whatever.
Every festival gets thousands of submissions. You could have a good product, a good film, you know, and it might not get noticed. My film is very specific. It's kind of a slower film. It's not about a big issue. Were I to do another film, I don't think I would do it in the way I did. But, I had to do it in that way, and I'm glad I did it, because I had to go out and start. I think I would have gotten bogged down or had a hard time if I wasn't able to get funding. I'm glad I did it that way and I'm glad of the intimacy I had with Eileen. I think that that comes across in the film, because it was just the two of us.
GCC: I appreciate you going into some of that.
GCC: When you were a kid was there a lot of desert around or was it more suburban?
EKA: No, no desert around. When I was a kid, I was in Salt Lake City, which is a small city. It's a mix of suburban and city.
We would drive to California every summer because my grandpa had a house there. My dad lived in Arizona, and I'd fly to Arizona every year. I didn't appreciate it at the time, when we would drive through those areas. I thought the landscape was all dead. It wasn't until I was in college, when I made friends with a bunch of outdoorsy people, that I finally started to appreciate those landscapes. My family wasn't outdoorsy at all.
GCC: Yeah, I had a similar experience. I also grew up not far from that landscape, and I don't know what it is: when you spend a lot of time in the East Coast, but you grew up in the West Coast, at some point you start craving some dirt and open sky. It's almost a physical longing, or probably just a lack of vitamin D.
EKA: I know it's true. I've had this conversation with a few people who grew up in the West, but live out here. It's similar for people who grew up by the ocean and then don't live by the ocean. They're constantly like: I need ocean. It's a physical, bodily feeling: you want to be in that landscape. I feel that way about the open space in the West—seeing mountains or just having all this space and the sun and the sky, being able to see the horizon all the time. Whereas, in New York City, you often don't even see the horizon.
GCC: You don't even see the stars much here.
EKA: You’re surrounded by buildings and people and it can feel a little limited. You have all the culture and diversity here, yet there is something about being from a specific type of land that always has that pull on you. Even though the West is also drying up, I love it.
I remember going on a river trip with a bunch of friends, [after] I started going camping, rock climbing, and things like that. On the last night, when we got away from the river, we camped in the desert and we didn't sleep in our tents. We just slept outside. I woke up in the middle of the night, because of mosquitoes buzzing in my ear, and I stood up and all I saw was just sky, nothing around and the land with these six little bodies lined up in sleeping bags. I was like, Wow, we are so small like little ants. We're just like these stars. That feeling for some people might be terrifying, but I thought it was so cool.
The desert is really beautiful, and even though it seems dead, there's a lot of life in there. You just have to spend more time there to see it.
GCC: There are some beautiful cacti flowers and [things] that grow out in the desert. . . . When I was watching the film it raised many questions, “Could I live out there on my own? Could I do that?” and silly questions, like, “Does she even have Wifi?” I think part of me would love it because I can read and watch movies all day. [Then] there were moments where I thought, “Would I go crazy?” just passing the time alone out there, by myself. It would be different if one had a partner and were doing it together.
EKA We had a lot of conversations about that. Outside of filming, just talking on the phone or in-between filming. They thought it would be a really quiet place. Turns out it's right off the road. It is quiet and more lonely in the winter. But in the spring and in the summer and fall, a lot of people are curious and drive through. You never know who's going to come through. It can be interesting, but a lot of people are doing that tourist thing, where they're just coming in to take [Eileen’s] picture, walking around [their] property, and asking the same old questions. Eileen just wants to work. There’s a funny dichotomy or tension there.
Eileen imagined more solitude, but somehow people find them. Within the first little while of living there, they met Joe, the guy who's helping Eileen with the grave (in a scene in the film). He lives two hours away, in Castle Valley, and lives off the grid. They've become close, and he's helpful and sweet.
Then the older woman, Farland, who’s on the roof with Eileen. She's this amazing woman who built her own home herself. I joke that Farland is Eileen’s fairy godmother. She lives in Moab.
Somehow these people ended up in Eileen's life; somehow community still happens. There are [still] long chunks of time where Eileen and I were totally alone. In some ways they love it—they love to work on projects—in some ways it gets really lonely. Some people prefer a solitary life more than others. Eileen really loves people, but doesn't want to just shoot the shit with anyone and doesn't want to be in a city and go out all the time. Eileen wants to find their people and work on stuff together. That's how I see them.
Eileen found a letter a woman – who used to live in Cisco – wrote. . In the letter she wrote: “Am I wasting my life here?” [Eileen thought], Whoa, am I crazy? Am I wasting my life here? But then they immediately said, “No, I don't think it's a waste: to make your own thing, to build your own life.”
There were always people passing through. Even after I left filming, they'd call me and say,, “Oh my God, this shepherd just came through with all these sheep,” or “This whole motorcycle gang came through.” I wish I could have filmed those moments.
GCC: Oh no you missed the shepherd shot?! That was one of the beautiful things about the film, this community cropped up around them. I loved when the trucker stops and checks in on them. It's such a nice moment in the film. We always have this scary image of truckers, especially as women. When he stops and checks on them, you get the feeling that he stops every time he passes by to see if they're alright. It's this cute fatherly thing, “I just want to make sure you're still alive in there.”
They’re building a guest house too though, right? An Airbnb?
EKA: Yes, that was sweet to see. They both care about each other.
Yes. They took what was the old post office—just a little shack with a mailbox out front, with a bunch of boxes, like a mailbox unit—and they turned that into an Airbnb rental, with electricity, but no water or anything else. That's how they are making money. Then they were working on the other structure, that we see them on [the roof of] a lot in the film, to make that into an Airbnb. They did that for a while, but then eventually—even though Cisco's totally remote, technically it's part of the county of Moab—Moab started cracking down on Airbnbs, because of the hotel lobby.
GCC: Let’s go back to all the different characters in the film. For example, there's the people who stop, who she gives water to, even though she doesn't have a ton of water herself. There are a lot of interesting characters and humane moments like that: I barely have water to wash this plate, this guy's driving cross-country biking, and he's probably super dehydrated—and she gives all the water there is to give.
EKA: I was just going to say, that's where you sometimes see the tension. There are these tourists that are gawking, and then, this bicyclist, this Italian bicyclist, biking across the country. He thought he was stopping at a town where he could buy water, then realized it was a ghost town. Eileen thought, I'm going to give you water because you're not just here to gawk at me. You're doing a thing and you're nice and you need water and you're going to go for a long stretch before you're going to be able to get to another place where you can get water. Eileen takes care of people. That's the thing: even though Eileen can be prickly sometimes, they're also a caring and nurturing person. You see that, eventually, with some of their relationships with people passing through or with people like Joe or Farland.
GCC: In a way, it feels like she's the sheriff of this little town.
EKA: Yeah. I don't know if they were. They didn't plan for that or expect that, but [they, in] some ways, may be. [They embrace] it a little bit, [taking] care of themselves, [protecting] themselves. Like, okay, you're going to follow my rules. They're just trying to do their thing, and sometimes they want to control the space they're in. They really value what they have out there, and they're just trying to keep it special. Sometimes, people come in and throw that off a little. Sometimes you can't tell [that it is] even owned, because it's a ghost town. You might just walk right up all over Elieen’s space and you might not know it's their space. I think they're frustrated by that sometimes.
GCC Yes that makes sense: it is her home.
EKA There's a bit of a territorial thing going on but I think that’s natural. That happens to a lot of people when they own something, when they buy it. It's a very American thing. I think people get their property and they're like, This is mine—it's sacred—I’ve got to protect it.
GCC The voiceovers of her telling stories—which is one of my favorite elements of how you told this story—allow you hear the articles or some letters she read. There's one story about a woman standing in the middle of the road in a bathrobe. Could you tell us about that? Who was she?
EKA I could only be there so much to film; then, I would go away, and we’d talk a lot on the phone. Then, [from] Eileen, we learn more about the history of the people that lived there before them. Some of those stories were fascinating, and I wanted them to be included, because, as Eileen says, “You're not starting something new, you're continuing something.” When you move into a space, there is a history there. [In] the house Eileen moved into, a woman and her daughter lived there before, and in the trailer next to it [had been] an old man. He eventually died in that trailer. There's a lot of his stuff around. Eileen is using his tools and wears his long army jacket. His presence is very real in Eileen's life. The woman left things, too.
There's an experience out there of learning stories, reading about things, and then imagining what that would be like. You're always wondering how you're going to live through an experience like that.
GCC So when you got all the footage, did you have any sense of the structure or anything? How much experience did you have making it docs? Or did you think, I'm just going to go out there and see what I see and be open to that.
EKA My experience before was as an assistant editor on documentary films. I'd edited my own stuff and content for work. I did go out very open. The only thing I had in mind was how I wanted to film it, how I wanted it to look through the camera. When you're in a desert landscape, it is vast, and I wanted to film it that way. I had a lot of wider, static shots. I didn't want to film it handheld; I wanted to use static shots as much as I could, which is hard to do with a person that's moving around, doing their thing. But, Eileen was constantly doing things over and over again, like working on the roof, which made it easier for me to film it that way, to stick to the style I imposed on myself.
Two things happened right away that I realized that I didn't want, but had to go with it anyway.
GCC What were they?
EKA Before I started filming, I imagined a quiet, slow observational film -- sort of like Cousin Jules. Once I started filming, I realized quickly that that wouldn't be the case.
Eileen kept talking to me all the time. At first I thought, I don't want to be a character in this. Had I told Eileen, “Don't talk, don't talk,” they probably would have followed along, but it wouldn't have been the same. There wouldn't have been that connection and the intimacy. I wanted Eileen to be as comfortable as possible. I decided, Okay, I guess I am going to be a part of this film, even though you don't see me in it.
Once I started editing, I kept thinking that this film felt more akin to some films by Les Blank and a little like Grey Gardens (not the story but the casual way in which Edie speaks with the filmmakers, the Maysles).
Also, I thought, Maybe I can play with time a little. I'm going to take all these trips, but maybe it doesn't have to be structured, in the edit, in a chronological way, but I realized I wouldn't be able to get away with that either, because Eileen kept changing their hair. It was long, then they shaved it, and then, when I came back, it was short, and then they shaved it [again]. I thought, I'm going to have to do this in the same order, in chronological time. That turned out to be fine. You know . . . I'm happy it worked out that way because I wanted to show the passage of time. I wanted the viewer to feel that time, to see how things had changed over time. It made sense to do it that way; it gave me a bit of a direction to start the edit.
GCC I thought the editing was great, and I love the sound design, how it's pretty much all ambient, and there is only music in one part. There's that dreamy sequence when she's in the red canyon and she's wandering around. I'm curious, was that something you set out to pick up or did it just happen? It’s a beautiful, blossoming moment in the film.
EKA Eileen and I went on that hike in that canyon, through those red rocks. I filmed it all and it's beautiful, and I thought, Okay, this is the only part of the film where we see sort of beautiful desert, the desert that people imagine when they're like, Oh, I'm going to go to Moab or wherever. That landscape is why Eileen initially went to that part of the U.S., to see something like that.
We were driving, on a different day, to Moab to get supplies: water and stuff. I wasn't filming, [just] listening to a mix-CD, and that song came on, and I was blown away. I had never heard that song before, and I loved it.We were driving by the river and the Red Rocks, [and I thought], This is the soundtrack. It's very dramatic. It sounds like old cinema music, but a little weirder, a little more haunting. I thought, I have to use this song. It came about organically. I needed to get rights to the song so I could put it over the hiking part.
It’s the only part in the film [where] there's a song that's intentionally put over it, and I like that, because it's also the only part of the film, visually, where you're in this dreamy desert landscape. It felt like a breath of fresh air from the rest of the tone of the film. I like that. That's how it feels when you're there. That's how I wanted it to feel in the film. I had to raise a bit of money to get that song, and I'm glad I did.
GCC The timing was perfect. It begins, and you hear the haunting intro, you see all the Red Mountains, as you turn the bend, and it is as though Clint Eastwood (or Joan Crawford!) is going to appear on a horse.
EKA That part was the only scene that was hard to figure out where to put in the film. And I knew it was going to be. I kept saying to Shannon, my partner, who came on as Producer to help me with the Kickstarter, and who works as an editor. Shannon helped me towards the fine cut, consulting. I would show her cuts and talk about it. At one point we had a bunch of cards up on the wall of the scenes and it took a minute to find the right spot, the right timing for that scene. But it worked out great.
GCC You put up cards, like index cards?
EKA Yeah. I was having a hard time figuring out the flow of each scene. Even though I was going in order of my trips and the seasons, within each season, I could rearrange things [where] they make sense in the flow of the film. It helped to just put things on the wall and talk it through, because immediately you start to see, This might be a problem or this might, before you get in and spend all the time on [the edit].
GCC Smart! I know they do that a lot in screenwriting to get all the plot and structure down. It's interesting that you applied that here, finding the narrative element in the doc.
EKA It’s hard because there’s not a strong narrative, in the traditional sense. There's not a three part structure. It's open and loose, observational. Anything I could do to help give it some shape. . . . with some documentaries you know what the structure is going to be ahead of time, some are not at all that way. It helps to be able to talk it through with someone. I’m really glad that Shannon was able to help me. She's so good at seeing the bigger picture.
GCC A good editor can save a film. Many people would stop and would often say that Eileen is so brave. I found it interesting that a lot of women would stop there, and they would always say, “You're so brave to be out here by yourself.”
EKA Women saying, “You're so brave. Are you scared?” Eileen and I talked about that a lot, how a lot of men don't have that thought. It's not an immediate thing, not to say that they don't have any fear, but it's not the same, and that's hard for men to understand. Eileen was saying, “I would never want a man to tell my story because he just wouldn't get it.”
It's not to say that there aren't men out there that aren’t scared, it's just [that] women live in a patriarchy: we don't have as many rights; we are objectified. People try to control women. There's much more violence towards women than the other way around. This is something that I've talked to Eileen about a lot. It's difficult for women to imagine themselves doing something like Elieen’s doing. That fear, that vulnerability is always there. It doesn't go away. You just decide, I'm scared, but I'm gonna do this anyway.
Women who chose to stay a night or two in Cisco also probably felt safer because Eileen was the host (rather than a man). Then they want to talk about it: “How do you do this? Maybe there's something in my life that I'm scared about, but you're doing this. Let's talk about it.” It was an open door for a lot of women who stayed there. And Eileen [would admit], “Yeah, it is scary sometimes, yet here's all the reasons why.”
A lot of people keep a lot in and don't want to be vulnerable. Eileen's this neutral person. [People are] like, “I just met you out in the desert on my drive. I'm never going to see you again, and you're making me feel comfortable here. So, I'm going to share something I'm going through.” It's therapeutic for them. Whether Eileen likes it or not, or feels okay about it or not, they're a person people are opening up to.
GCC [Eileen’s] building something. It [makes] me wonder . . . I want to touch that part of me; I want to be out in the land, like you were saying in the beginning. They're scrappy. They’re working with her hands. I was amazed. How [do they] know how to freaking build this thing? There was something about that that I appreciated, because even women have that want. In society, we're not the ones [usually] out there doing that sort of thing, so it’s fascinating to see this.
EKA I think, in general, in our society, we're bound by learned behavior, that we don't think we can. We're told we can't do certain things or that certain spaces don't belong to us. That happens with gender. It happens with race. It happens with all kinds of things.
After I made this, a friend sent me an article I loved—and I wish I could remember the author's name—about the road trip: films about the road, stories about the open road and how it's such a male narrative and has been for so long, that when women are out on the road, suddenly they're threatened. Are they going to be murdered or going to be raped? It's such a strong narrative, that's been in our culture for so long that it can be hard for people to imagine something different, for women to imagine, I don't have to feel scared out here.
Eileen's totally scrappy, just figuring things out, improvising. I think that's what makes people admire them so much. Myself included. I think there's a part of that in everyone. But we're scared of doing it because it's unconventional or it's a big risk. We all have that in different ways. And by seeing Eileen doing it, the viewer can explore that idea for themselves. Oh!? Eileen's doing that . . . what's that thing for me?
GCC And it's beautiful that she was kind of a symbol for that. Before we go––who’s Ernie?
EKA Ernie was the old man that lived and died in the trailer. [It] turns out Cisco is in Thelma and Louise. Ernie is in the film: the old man sitting there as an extra when [Thelma and Louise] are there, right towards the end, with the infamous drive off the cliff. And Eileen uses the stuff that that guy used; he's a presence in Eileen's life. When Eileen told me about this I said, “Of course I've seen Thelma Louise,” but I hadn't watched it in a long time and I didn't remember him. Eileen showed me and it was great to see the person that was there before, and in such a funny context. That's such a classic movie—I love that movie—about women being independent and this idea of freedom, escaping these norms. And it's in the West. It makes sense, [for this] to be in my film, that little scene.
GCC It was a cool connection, I love Thelma and Louise. . . . Well, what's next for you and the film?
EKA We did the festival run—just a few—and that was great. It's going to be online: by the end of January. Fandor, which is a streaming site, acquired it. It will be available on Prime and Apple TV, too. They want to launch it around Slamdance, since it played at Slamdance last year.
GCC Do you want to make another film?
EKA Yes and no (laughs).The thing that got me into film is photography, which was a huge passion of mine, which I abandoned for many, many years. I kind of want to work on a photography project. But … I constantly have film ideas, so we'll see!
GCC Last question: Who are some of your favorite photographers?
EKA Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Deana Lawson to name a few. Stephen Shore was a big influence in how I filmed the landscape of Cisco (a lot of static, wide shots with a deep depth of field). The vast desert landscape itself was also a big influence.
But … I constantly have film ideas, so we'll see!
Find out more and watch Cisco Kid at ciscokidfilm.com
Americana amongst varying landscapes and terrain
Photo essay by Ella Kaplun
Ella is an explorer, thinker and creator who loves to express herself through photography and writing. @ellakaplun