Elaine McMillion Sheldon is driving south on I-79 through West Virginia, chasing a new story. She’s behind the wheel of a packed-to-the-roof Subaru Outback, with her dog Keeley in the passenger seat and her husband, Kerrin Sheldon, trailing her in a small U-Haul truck. The documentary filmmakers are wrapping up one set of films, including “Heroin(e),” which premieres on Netflix on September 12, and just starting to shoot a couple more. They are moving from Morgantown to Charleston to be closer to the new stories. The Sheldons, both native West Virginians, have moved repeatedly over the last few years, always in search of a story. Sheldon, 29, explains that proximity to her subjects is crucial. “I love the fact that I understand the place I’m documenting on a whole other level because I pay the same electric company and drink the same water.”
Sheldon won a Peabody Award for her 2013 interactive documentary “Hollow,” which examines the future of rural America through the eyes and voices of McDowell County residents. “Heroin(e)” chronicles the lives of three women in Huntington, W.Va. — a fire chief, a drug court judge and a street missionary — who are battling the opioid epidemic. During her move to Charleston, she spoke with John Temple, author of of “American Pain: How a Young Felon and His Ring of Doctors Unleashed America’s Deadliest Drug Epidemic,” about the film and about making a living as a documentary maker in Appalachia.
Q: In one scene of “Heroin(e),” medics are treating an overdose at a Sheetz convenience store, and you show this happening while cashiers a few feet away are ringing up customer after customer. Describe shooting that scene.
A: Kerrin and I shot this film together, but that day I was actually alone. I was with the firemen at the station, waiting for something to happen. When the dispatcher called in the Sheetz overdose and said the lady was slumped over the counter, I was nervous to see what I might see. At that point, I’d seen three or four overdoses, but a public place felt like a whole new territory. So we ran in and there she was, slumped over the counter, and they got her on the floor, and it all happened so quickly that in the moment it felt like 45 minutes, but when you watch the clip, it’s very quick. I just had to think very quickly about what’s the wide shot that shows this broader view, because people didn’t stop their daily life.
Overdoses in public spaces have become so normal that it didn’t stop their daily routine of checking out and buying their Pepsi at the Sheetz. Which was shocking to me. I kept looking at the screen to make sure I was recording. I always fear that I’m not recording in stressful situations. I wish there was a second camera there because what you can’t see off-camera is that there are little kids, like 10, 12 years old, with their phones out recording it. And that was disturbing to me, but I couldn’t capture the whole scene alone and couldn’t take my camera away from my main subjects and what they were doing.
Q: You and Kerrin work together on these projects. How does that work?
A: We work together and we’re married, so everything is intertwined. So all the ideas, from how are we going to approach this scene creatively, and “Is this person the right person to tell this story?” are decisions we make together. I’m a person who likes to have my things in order, a pretty traditional person. I like to have a process that works and repeat it. And Kerrin’s more of a risk taker, let’s try that new camera, let’s try that new lens, and I’m scared that if we try something new, we’ll miss that moment. So we challenge each other to be creative and yet be reliable and trustworthy.
Q: You like to live in the same town that you’re shooting in. In fact, you move to wherever your current story is taking place. Why is that?
A: When one of our subjects has a court date and it’s three hours away, we can be there, so we can be more present and our films can be more real, hopefully. I never thought I’d be back in West Virginia, I thought I was gone, but I got out and then I realized that I’m from a place that’s very unique and a place that people don’t really understand. So when you know a place well and it’s being misrepresented, I think there’s a duty to do some work that helps right the wrongs. I’m not saying these films do that, but I think over the course of my life, that’s the goal — doing some work that helps people to understand this region a little better. I don’t think I could do that in another part of the country because I don’t have those roots.
Q: Name the last five places you’ve lived and what you were working on.
A: Well, we’re driving from Morgantown to Charleston right now (to work on two projects that Kerrin is directing). In Morgantown, we were working on a feature film (nearby). Before that we were in Chattanooga, (Tenn.), and I was documenting this family that came here from Mexico. Before that we were in Miami, where we did a series for Mashable about the invasive lionfish. And before that we went to Albania and Scotland for Kerrin’s travel series. We were there for three weeks each, so it wasn’t really living there. But that was a time when we didn’t have an apartment. Having an apartment is a new thing for us in the past four years.
Q: Describe what you’ve been doing this week.
A: We premiered the film “Heroin(e)” at the Telluride Film Festival last Sunday. The film showed at the Sheridan Opera House that fits 250 people. It premiered with another Netflix Original Short Documentary titled, “Long Shot.” Even though they were short documentaries at a very star-studded festival, the two films attracted a full audience and even booked a second screening to seat the overflow. So we went out to Colorado and did the screening and did a Q&A and got some really good feedback about how this story is relevant to the rest of America. Telluride Film Festival is really weird though, compared to our normal life. The opening night dinner I was waiting for the restroom and Christian Bale came out. Across the room, Angelina Jolie was there chatting with Werner Herzog. It was unlike any situation I’d been in as a documentary filmmaker.
Q: Why do you think the film did so well there?
A: I think the opioid epidemic is really well-covered. It’s in the news every day. But taking the angle of these three women gives people something to grasp onto. We made the film to be more experiential than informational, so we’re really trying to let the facts and information that typically leads in an opioid film or story go to the wayside so you can be emotionally invested in the experience of what it’s like to be a fire chief in Huntington, W.Va., or what it’s like to be a drug court judge in Cabell County.
Q: Was it just a coincidence that you found these three women in Huntington and did it take you awhile to make the leap that this was a documentary?
A: It started when we were doing the development of a feature we’re doing about recovery. We went to Huntington because the city makes headlines for being the “overdose capital,” and one of the reasons is because Huntington is very transparent about its numbers. Not all towns are. We just sort of hung around until everybody got comfortable with us. We sat in on drug court and watched it unfold, let them know we were there and weren’t leaving until we can have a conversation with them and talk about what we wanted to do. So we shot all this footage and then about nine months went by and it was always in the back of my head that I wanted to do something with it because these women were really inspiring.
And then the Center for Investigative Reporting put out a call for short films about women making change, and I looked at Kerrin and said, “We have seven really good production days of these three women doing their thing. We could absolutely turn this into a pitch.” We submitted it to the Center for Investigative Reporting, and they funded the making of the film. Once we had a rough cut, that’s when Netflix came on. They liked the rough cut and helped us craft it into what it is now. We do a lot of shooting for extended periods of time with no funding, which means sometimes we have to drop things and pick them up later.
Q: You watch a lot of documentaries. Are there things that you commonly see that you don’t like? And what are documentaries doing really well right now?
A: I think it’s pretty obvious when you watch a documentary that’s more agenda-based, which seem to be the ones that are the blockbusters. I don’t think that’s what documentaries are made for. I think that’s what campaign videos are made for. If you go into making a documentary and you have all the answers and you’re just asking a series of questions to get those answers, I think you should work in advertising. If you’re not willing to be challenged and hold two conflicting viewpoints at the same time and be OK with that, because that’s what humans are, then I think the documentary is lacking in substance.
What I think docs are doing well is, I’m seeing a lot more filmmakers returning to communities they have some connection to and exploring that community, and that’s exciting to me.
Q: Are there more outlets for documentaries than previously?
A: Totally. I never thought I’d be working with Netflix at this point. It really is a shock. There are all kinds of new things popping up like Field of Vision, which I did a short for. Frontline does digital shorts. If you’re interested in working on women’s issues, there’s Refinery29. There’s New York Times Op-Docs. You don’t just have to put your short films on YouTube or Vimeo and hope your friends view it and you get 200 views. I don’t think it’s going to slow down anytime soon. I do think we’re approaching a saturation point though where audiences are going to need more curators and influencers that help them sort through the weeds of what’s out there on the Internet.
I’m really excited to see what happens on Tuesday when the film comes out, who will see it, who it’s recommended to. Netflix has these different thumbnails for every country, they try out different art for every country to see what’s popular, to see what people are clicking on. It’s really a fascinating marketing machine that they run (at Netflix). I have no clue what’s going to make people click. The business side of film is not always my favorite but it’s about 40 percent of the work. The creative part of making films, it doesn’t ever feel like it’s enough. You always feel like you’re doing the other parts to keep it moving.
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
John Temple (@johntemplebooks) is the author of “American Pain,” a nonfiction book that chronicles how two young felons built a colossal pain clinic that sold drugs to addicts. The book was nominated for an Edgar Award and won the INDIEFAB Book of the Year award in True Crime. Previous books include “The Last Lawyer,” which won the Scribes Book Award in 2010, and “Deadhouse.” More information about Temple’s books can be found at www.johntemplebooks.com. Temple teaches journalism at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media and lives in Morgantown, W.Va., with his wife and two sons. Prior to teaching at WVU, he was a newspaper reporter in Pittsburgh and Tampa.