'Biggest Little Farm' Doc Maker on Filming Skittish Animals and Showing "Harsh Realities"

ONE TIME USE ONLY - Apricot Lane Farm April 2019 - Yvette Roman Photography - H 2019
Yvette Roman Photography

The documentary follows a city-dwelling couple who pack up their lives and move to a farm, hoping to create a sustainable ecosystem: "I felt this responsibility to share with people what I had witnessed."

Filmmaker John Chester and his wife, Molly, a private chef, were living in a Los Angeles apartment when they decided to take a leap by acquiring Apricot Lane Farms, located about an hour outside of L.A., in hopes of creating a sustainable organic farm where they could live happily with their dog, Todd. As they navigated through endless challenges (from raising crops to delivering piglets and fighting off coyotes) and joyful surprises (like watching a friendship bloom between the farm's rooster and pig), Chester captured it all on his cameras. At some point, about five years in, he realized this could be a film. "I felt this responsibility to share with people what I had witnessed," he says. "I had in front of me this story that reconnects us to the infinite power of coexistence, and I was telling it through the lens of nature." Biggest Little Farm premiered at Telluride in 2018 and was acquired by Neon, which released it in May. Chester recently spoke with THR about how he filmed skittish animals, what was left on the cutting-room floor and how life on the farm has changed since the doc's release.

Was Molly OK with being a part of this film right away?

She was, but at the time we didn't think our story was what mattered. I think she also felt like it was probably a bit of a distraction — that we should just be focused on farming and not trying to capture it. And I don't think she really valued that what we were doing was anything incredibly unique; neither of us did. It wasn't until really after eight years sitting down and watching the film that both of us could really absorb what we had done and what we had gone through.

There are beautiful images of the animals. Weren't they skittish?

Absolutely. I think the key to nature documentary is really about the time you take to find the natural rhythms and patterns that exist, and then place yourself in the right spot. I was watching these things happen over and over again every single year, and so if I didn't get the cinematic quality that I was looking for, I would reposition the next time. Like the rooster and the pig, the ritual of them going to bed every night, I actually shot that over the period of a few days, but I watched that happen for months.

There are some tough moments, like when you send the pigs to slaughter or when an animal is killed by a coyote. How much of the darkness did you need to show?

Art has to really imitate life. The hardships are there, but so are the amazing, beautiful, profound moments that give us so much hope. It was very important to be unflinchingly honest and raw, and couple it with the profound beauty and magic that happens. I knew from the very beginning there was no way I was going to make the film if I had to sugarcoat the harsh realities of the impermanence of life. It was something that we struggled with the most.

You must have had so much footage over eight years. What was tough to cut?

I wish I had actually gotten to tell more of the story of the relationship between ants, ladybugs and aphids, to be completely honest, because once you understand that relationship, you begin to understand how that relationship applies to everything in life and everything else on your farm.

What impact do you think your film has had on how people view this type of farming?

It's brought about an awareness and a respect for farms that have been employing these regenerative techniques and an urgency to support that because ultimately that's what's going to dig us out. And it's been great to see some of our fellow organic and biodynamic and regenerative farms benefit from that awareness. It's not going to be hard-nosed policies and laws that bring about the greatest level of change ­— it's going to be an infinity of support around a culture that supports agriculture with an understanding of and value for regenerative farming.

And what impact has the film had on your own farm or your lives?

It's definitely brought a lot of attention to the farm. There's a lot of interest in touring it. They've crashed our website the past two months that we've tried to release tickets. We have 10,000 people hitting refresh on their computer waiting for the tickets to post, and then we sell out 500 tickets in a few minutes. What I see in that is that there's interest in really understanding and getting inside the engine of an ecosystem, and that's the best thing we could ask for.

What do you feel filmmaking and farming have in common?

Well, farms don't want to be farmed and films don't want to be made — I think it's a delicate balance of what your vision is and the improvisational opportunities that exist in the moments of failure. And to have the humility to admit when it doesn't work and start over. You set out with your objective and your messaging, but if you ignore what's happening, you miss the opportunity to go so much deeper.

Are you thinking about another project?

Absolutely. In fact, I never stopped filming. The Biggest Little Farm was really the set-up to help prepare an audience to begin to the see the value in this world, and the real story I want to tell is a bit more complicated. But after watching that film, there's going to be an audience that I feel is capable of appreciating the next level that oftentimes gets lost in jumbly Ph.D. words. I hope to be able to continue to tell some more stories — as long as my wife and my farm team will have it.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.