Q&A: Documentary Filmmaker Scott Colthorp

For many years, director Scott Colthorp's Atmosphere Pictures created beautiful images out of its Old City offices for national clients such as HGTV, A&E, Discovery Channel, Lifetime, History Channel, and more. These days, his base of operations is mostly in Brooklyn, where he can be found working 16-hour days, but he still spends time in Knoxville. ("My drive from NYC to Knoxville is where I often find my peace," he says.) Much of his professional production work has been for hire, but in 2011 he made his first documentary, Trek Nation, an examination of how Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek has affected people's lives.

For his newest personal project, Blackout: On Swan Pond, he returned to East Tennessee—but worlds away from pop culture. Blackout looks at the impact of TVA's 2008 ash spill in Kingston, both environmentally and on residents in the Swan Pond community. One aspect that made the project both easier and more complicated is that TVA is also a client of Colthorp's—so, while he was able to gain access to the utility company, he had to overcome skepticism from residents in order to document a full picture of the crisis.

Blackout premiered at the Nashville Film Festival in April, and Colthorp will be screening it here at the Knoxville Film and Music Festival on Monday, June 9, at 7 p.m. at Scruffy City Hall. He will be leading a discussion of the film afterward.

What issues did the Kingston ash spill raise for you, particularly as the subject of a documentary?
The Kingston ash spill is the largest industrial spill in the United States. That, in itself, was reason enough to grab my interest. But as we began filming, my interest in sustainability grew larger and larger. Coal is our primary fuel for electricity generation, followed by natural gas. Both are fossil fuels, and both are finite. And now that the science is clear on climate change, the Tennessee Valley—and the inhabitants of our planet—need to quickly find a solution to keep the lights on without ruining the planet.

How did the Blackout project come together? How long have you been working on it?
I have been working with TVA's film and video department for many years, helping the communications department share information with the public. I was asked by TVA's former head of film and video, Cletus Mitchell, to document the clean-up process so that TVA could share it with the public. It was too much for his team to handle at the time. I conducted interviews with officials from both TVA and the EPA. A few months into the project I thought, why not make a documentary about the spill? TVA and the EPA agreed to let me have full access. From there, I dug into my savings account and started conducting interviews with local residents.

Did you have to find funding for it, or did you just run out there and start shooting?
TVA was kind enough to let me use the footage I acquired from them, then it was reaching into my own pockets to complete the film. Now we are seeking distribution.

Was the reality of the situation on the ground different from what you imagined?
Yes. I was surprised by the sheer volume of coal ash produced by this plant. You have to see it firsthand to get a sense of how much coal the Tennessee Valley burns—20-plus pounds a day for the average valley resident. Coal ash is the waste that is left after coal is burned, and to think that 140 million tons of it are generated annually is mind boggling.

How did you go about finding residents to speak with—were they reluctant or eager to talk about their experiences?
Some residents were reluctant to talk to us, knowing that we had worked with TVA in the past. Some couldn't talk because they were involved in lawsuits. But there were plenty of resident that were willing to share their experiences. One couple in particular were such fascinating characters that they became the stars of our film. Curtis and Phoebe Humphreys have lived in the Swan Pond community—the community that is adjacent to the plant—all their lives. And they have generations of family members buried in a cemetery overlooking Emory River in their backyard. Our entire film team felt that the Humphreys had the most honest point of view concerning the spill. So they became our central characters and our story-thread for this documentary.

Were you surprised by anything as you dug into the story?
Most of us are so distant from electricity generation—centralized power plants are often placed in rural communities—that we are surprised to learn that we are still burning coal. And to think it runs most of our electrified world is astonishing. Rolling Stone journalist (and Big Coal author) Jeff Goodell told me that most people, including himself, thought that coal went away with top hats and corsets. But coal is here, and will continue to be here for some time.

Your first documentary focused on the cultural ramifications of Star Trek. Did you have to adjust your style of film-making to go from entertainment to a huge environmental disaster as a topic of study?
Ha! I think documentarians love to have a camera on their shoulder, digging into the next story. It really doesn't matter if I'm interviewing Leonard Nimoy or Curtis and Phoebe Humphreys of Swan Pond. As long as there is something to learn, and something to share with a larger audience, I'm excited.

What do you hope to accomplish with Blackout? What message do you hope people get from it?
I know this may sound silly, but I think what drives me is a desire to raise awareness—whether it's Star Trek's message of human improvement or a terrible industrial spill that raises the question, isn't there a better way to produce electricity?