With modern culture’s values continuously changing, as people are always adopting to new advances in such areas as technology, politics and healthcare, society often becomes less appreciative of the long-forgotten industries that are still essential to maintaining the lifestyle everyone is accustomed to throughout the country. Such is the case with the all-American lifestyle of the coal mining communities throughout Appalachia, whose citizens all depend on the once-thriving industry, no matter what type of job they perform with their local company. First-time feature film writer-director Sara Colangelo created an intensely emotional and relatable story about the continuing struggles of the country’s remaining coal mining communities in her new independent drama, ‘Little Accidents,’ which is now playing in theaters and on VOD. The riveting story chronicles diverse, but equally captivating, human dimensions about the will to survive in an industry that doesn’t always receive the recognition it deserves, and is also sensitive to the workers’ struggle of its rigid social hierarchies that are plaguing all generations.
‘Little Accidents’ follows the disappearance of a teenage boy, JT Doyle (Travis Tope), after he goes missing in the woods of a a small West Virginia coal mining town that’s already already devastated by a mining accident that left nine workers dead. JT is the popular football star at his high school, as well as the leader of his group of friends who regularly bully the less economically fortunate Owen (Jacob Lofland), a freshman who longs to be accepted by the older, admired group.
But Owen and his friends only use Owen to serve their own selfish purposes, while also harassing him because his mother, Kendra (Chloe Sevigny), can barely hold their family together after her husband’s death in the accident. While Owen is also resentful that he has to care for his younger brother, James (Beau Wright), who has Down syndrome, he suddenly gets a new outlook on life after JT’s disappearance. Owen knows what happened to his classmate, but is afraid to tell anyone what really led to his disappearance.
Since Owen is unsure how to contend with his guilt of not informing anyone where JT is, he helps his classmate’s mother, Diane (Elizabeth Banks), try to deal with the disappearance of her son. While Owen regularly visits the Doyles to help with household chores to help her feel better, Diane drifts away from her husband, Bill (Josh Lucas). His job as a mining company executive, who had a role in causing the accident, has made her family the prime target for the town’s anger. As she secretly begins spending time with the sole survivor of the disaster, Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook), truths will be uncovered that threaten to tear apart the few remaining threads holding the town together.
The New York-based Colangelo generously took the time recently to talk about writing and directing ‘Little Accidents’ over the phone during an exclusive interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how she decided to adapt her 2010 short film of the same name into the feature, as she was interested in continuing to explore how a past traumatic event in a small, industrial town is still causing troubles to all of its citizens, no matter what social and economic background they come from; how it was not only important to her to read articles about the lifestyle in coal-mining towns in Appalachia, but also speak with workers associated with all aspects of the mining companies, to better understand their motivations, and realistically infuse their true emotions into the story; and how it was important to her to explore how the accident in the coal mine affected three different families, whose lives were all extremely altered, albeit differently, to help showcase the diverse emotions and responsibilities that connected them to the deadly disaster.
ShockYa (SY): You made your feature film writing and directorial debuts with ‘Little Accidents,’ which is based in part on your 2010 short film of the same name. Why did you decide to adapt the short into the feature?
Sara Colangelo (SC): Well, I made the short film called ‘Little Accidents,’ but the feature isn’t a literal expansion of the short. But the feature does take some themes from the short. One of the themes is an interest in industrial, and in some instances, post-industrial, America. The short was set in a factory town, and I was interested in continuing with that backdrop for a feature.
But more importantly, the short dealt with the idea of an accident or traumatic event set in the past. One of the creative challenges was never allowing the audience to see that accident, but have viewers experience it through effects on the characters. So I knew that was something I wanted to explore more in the feature.
With every new project, I like to move on from things, too. So I wanted to set the feature in a different world, with a slightly different group of characters, and make it a different industry, as well. Around the time I was writing the feature, I was reading a lot about coal country. I thought it would be a fascinating backdrop. I knew I wanted to set the story in a one-company town. I thought a lot of these coal communities in Appalachia would be a great place to set it. A lot of Americans don’t really know a lot about what these communities are really like, including myself. As I was reading about some of the accidents that have occurred there, I began to fall in love with some of these people’s stories.
SY: Speaking of reading about America’s coal country as you were writing the feature, what kind of research did you do into mining towns as you were penning the script?
SC: It really stared with newspaper articles from such sources as the New York Times and NPR, which did a fantastic series on coal country. I started looking at the politics of the accidents and whether or not executives were getting in trouble. I also looked into judges protecting these corporations. Then there were also smaller stories about some of the supervisors and victims of the accidents. So I started with some of that information, and worked some that into the script.
Then I also went onto the website for the US Department of Labor. There are transcripts there from proceedings with survivors of coal mining accidents. You really get a sense of their language, how they approach their work and even what their emotions are like after some of these accidents. I think I developed a great freedom just listening to these men’s stories ant testimony.
Then I wrote a loose first draft of the script, as I knew the types of characters I wanted to include. I wanted a teenage boy with a secret, who’s also contending with his father passing away. I also wanted a sole survivor of the accident, who’s young and in a Lazarus way, rose from the dead. He would have to learn how to live in the town again. I knew I also wanted to go to the other side of it. I wanted to see what it was like having a family implicated in the accident. So I knew I wanted to have those three characters.
But I didn’t know the specifics of the world, so I went down there and started driving around these communities. I started talking to people, and filling in the blanks for myself.
SY: The feature includes a very complex narrative intertwining the lives of the three characters you just mentioned: a miner who was injured in the accident, a young boy who lost his father in the mine and the wife of the coal-mining executive most likely to be implicated in the accident. Why did you decide to incorporate all three perspectives into the story, and showcase the effects the accident had on all of them?
SC: I knew going into making the film that each of the characters could have their own film. But there was something interesting in weaving them all together. I really wanted to capture their mass confusion in the town, including what happened, and who’s responsible. I also wanted to create a portrait of the town. So there was a lot of interweaving of the storylines.
But there was also something that I felt could happen, and after seeing the other two storylines, that event could be amplified. I thought that idea could be interesting to explore. I also didn’t want to create a black and white world of victim versus perpetrator. I really wanted to look into the grey areas of both sides.
By looking at the lives of Diane and her husband, it’s clear Bill is thrown under the bus. He’s not powerful enough to be protected, but he’s also not low enough not to be held responsible for anything.
There was something about seeing these accidents from all sides. As I was reading about these accidents, it was hard for me to even gauge culpability. Some things are important to a place’s culture. I was also trying to shine a light on the pieces that are anti-corporate and critical of some corporate structures that rule coal country.
SY: ‘Little Accidents’ features a diverse ensemble cast, including Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook, Chloë Sevigny, Josh Lucas and Jacob Lofland. What was the process like of casting the main characters for the film?
SC: The first person found was Boyd Holbrook. I was lucky enough to do the Sundance Director’s Lab in 2011. A casting director from Sundance said, “You should meet this kid named Boyd Holbrook.” When I saw him, I thought he was too good looking for the part. I pictured more of an anti-social guy to play the role.
But when I met Boyd, he definitely impressed me. He’s from coal country, and his dad was a coal miner for 30 years. So he had an inherent knowledge of the role that I wasn’t going to be able to instill in another Hollywood actor. So he was really fantastic to work with, and I was blessed to have met him. I also thought he could help the other actors get to a place of authenticity because he knew the world so well.
After I attached Boyd first, the script circulated the agencies, and Elizabeth Banks got her bands on it, and really liked it. So we had a Skype meeting, and I was impressed by her sensitivity to the material. I was also intrigued that she wanted to step away from comedy, and go back to her roots in drama. We hit it off very quickly, and then she became attached.
From there, we got Chloe Sevigny, who I thought wanted the main role. But she was more interested in the character of Kendra, Owen and Jake’s mom. After that, Josh Lucas had read, and really liked, the role of Bill Doyle. So I was lucky to have assembled such a great cast.
I had seen Jacob Lofland in ‘Mud,’ and a light bulb went off in my head. I thought he was wonderful, so when I start writing the script, I was thinking about him. I was lucky I was able to contact him, and that he liked the script.
SY: ‘Little Accidents’ was shot in the real-life coal-mining town of Beckley, West Virginia. Why was it important to you to film in a real mining town? How did shooting on location help influence the way you approached telling the story?
SC: We really wanted a documentary style and natural look to the piece. So I wanted to use real locations as much as possible, and have real people from the area be extras. In the case of going into the coal mines, I wanted real miners to be in the halls and locker rooms of these locations. Even with the short, we filmed in a soda factory. I had real factory workers in the film, as I think it makes such a big difference in conveying a sense of reality.
You can’t recreate the look of these places in the Appalachian area anywhere else. I think it was important to be telling these stories in the place where they’re set, and having the locals participate in telling the story. We really wouldn’t have gained these communities’ trust if we didn’t.
It was nice to finish a project, and have the communities’ support. Often times, when I had a question, like did the workers really work this way or wear these boots, or about any of the details, anyone would fill me in. That made me feel as though I wasn’t some imposter from New York. I really tried to have an open dialogue with people living there. Sometimes the script would change if they said, “We did this that way.” at times, we would include some of their antidotes.
SY: In addition to releasing the film in select theaters, ‘Little Accidents’ is also be available on VOD. Do you think the On Demand platform is beneficial to independent films like this one?
SC: I think so, as it’s challenging to get a theatrical release for smaller films now. So the VOD platform allows more viewers to see indies, especially people who don’t live in big cities like New York and Los Angeles. I do want people in Appalachia, and all small towns across the U.S., to see it. i do think it allows people from all walks of life to see it.
The movie was shot on 35 mm (film), so I would encourage everyone to see it in theaters. It looks beautiful in a theater, but the VOD platform is a great way to get the film out to all audiences.
Written by: Karen Benardello