An Interview with Clay Jenkinson
[Note: Clay Jenkinson recently sat down for an interview to reveal the story behind his first documentary film When the Landscape is Quiet Again: The Legacy of Art Link.]
How Did You Decide to Do This Film as Opposed to Some Other One?
I moved home on Labor Day 2005. I’ve been here three years now. North Dakota matters to me more than anything in the world, except my daughter Catherine Missouri, who trumps everything else always and forever. In a sense, I feel that I have spent the first 50 years of my life honing the skills and the intellectual maturity (I hope?) to do the kind of work that will make a difference for North Dakota. I want to contribute to the cultural history of North Dakota.
There are people who think I am a man of nostalgia who prizes the agrarian past in a way that is disconnected with the real challenges of that past. I have lifted a few hundred bales in my time, and milked cows now and then, and goats too, and run a cultivator, and shoveled silage. But I have never had to make my living in the agrarian arena. If I had, I imagine I would be less romantic about it. I also come from a bookish view of life—I have been a head-delivery system all of my life—and I may be accused of letting the “software” of Thomas Jefferson’s vision get in the way with a practical view of the world.
I accept all of that.
Even so, I know without any doubt that the first hundred years of North Dakota’s Euro-American history have been driven by Jeffersonian agrarianism. It is almost as if the motto or mission statement of North Dakota came straight out of Jefferson: “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.” I sometimes say we have been the most Jeffersonian state in America.
But that era is coming to an end. North Dakota is passing out of its agrarian stage into something else—something more diversified, even more sophisticated, certainly more urban. There will always be agriculture in North Dakota, but that is not the same as the kind of family farming that emerged from the Homestead Act of 1862.
Former Governor Arthur A. Link is a man of the soil. He was born in Alexander, North Dakota, in 1914. His father was an immigrant. Art Link had five sisters and no brothers. It was expected that he would stay in McKenzie County and operate the family farm. But he was literally called to public office by his neighbors. He eventually became a United States Congressman and then the Governor of North Dakota. He was, in some respects, “the last agrarian” in our political history. More than that, he embodied the agrarian ethic, and when the moment came, gave the best energies of his life to making sure that North Dakota did not abandon its agrarian heritage for what he insightfully called a “one time harvest.”
Is Art Link Still Alive?
Very much so. He is 94 now. He lives in Bismarck, North Dakota, with his inseparable wife Grace. He is still very active in North Dakota life, though his mobility is a little impaired. His mind is as sharp as ever. He reads the newspapers and he still has strong opinions about the future of North Dakota life.
Did He Attend the Premiers?
Yes, all three. The first screening was in Art’s hometown, Alexander, North Dakota on Labor Day weekend. About 200 people attended. The second premier was in Bismarck September 25. We filled the Belle Mehus Auditorium. The third was at the Fargo Theater in Fargo on September 29. That too was a great success.
At all three, Art and Grace were our special guests. At the end of the screening in each community, I just said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Art and Grace Link,” and the theaters erupted. People stood up and applauded Art and Grace Link for a protracted period of time, more than two minutes in each community. It was one of the most gratifying moments of my life to see the love, respect, and appreciation by young people and old for this extraordinary couple.
What Is the Part of the Film That You Like Best?
It’s hard to choose. For some reason, when Art Link says, “Antelope Creek was flooding,” I find myself choking up. That’s when he was called to office by his farmer neighbors back in 1946. At the end of the film, when he is asked how he feels about his October 11, 1973, speech, “When the Landscape Is Quiet Again,” and he says, “Darn Good!” I usually burst into tears. I also love to look at some of the photographs of Art and Grace in the early years of their marriage.
But my favorite moments of the film are Mike Jacobs’ commentaries. Not everyone will agree with me, because Mike is the only “critical” voice in the film. This is not really so—Mike’s “criticism” is by way of trying to make sense of man he clearly admires and even loves. But I think Mike is the source of the power of the film. He’s breathtakingly articulate, for one thing, and it is clear that he is struggling to make sense of a man and a value system that we have in some respects turned away from. When we finished our interview with Mike, about half way through the process, I remember saying, “This is going to be a great film now.”
What Did You Leave on the Cutting Room Floor?
Most of the work! This is of course inevitable. I tend to interview long, one, two, even three hours for some of the commentators. They all said great things that in the end we couldn’t use.
In particular, I wanted to include a section on Governor Link’s veto of the 19-year-old drinking bill. He took a great deal of criticism over that. In fact, he was booed at a state high school basketball championship. It was clear from the interviews we did with him that his feelings are still a little raw over an incident that occurred 30+ years ago.
We could easily do a second, third, or seventh hour of this documentary, and it would be tempting to do so.
How Did the Film Evolve?
When I first conceived the film, the working title was Conversations with Art Link. I’ve always admired Governor Link. At a public event two years ago he took me aside and said he had been reading some of my newspaper columns and wanted to talk with me sometime about the future of North Dakota. That was the moment when this film was born. Appropriately, given what has since transpired, the conversation occurred at the annual banquet of the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, now the parent organization of The Dakota Institute.
Later that night, I thought, I’m going to make a documentary film about Governor Link, in the manner of the Charley Rose Show. I’ll sit across a table from him in a black studio, and he will speak his mind about all sorts of subjects.
But when we started to conduct the Link interviews, it soon became clear to me that his story is in a way more interesting than his outlook. He’s the son of an immigrant who went on to be the Governor of North Dakota. He gave a speech that a number of people have called his “Gettysburg Address.” For whom does that ever happen? What is Jimmy Carter’s Gettysburg Address? Or Bill Cinton’s?
So I decided that the film was more about the life and outlook of Art Link than about his current opinions, which I still find fascinating.
What is Next for You in Documentary Films?
We have a couple of projects in the works. I don’t necessarily want them all to be about North Dakota and North Dakotans, but at the same time I believe there is so much work that needs to be done here, that I want to do some catching up before we branch out too much.
The next projects are a documentary about Eric Sevareid, who was born in North Dakota, but who left and did not much come back. He’s one of my heroes. He wrote one of the best autobiographies of people shaped by the Great Plains. It’s called Not So Wild a Dream. He was also one of the handful of men who created broadcast news. He was in Europe in the run-up to World War II. Along with another of my heroes, William L. Shirer, and the great Edward R. Murrow, he cobbled together the first correspondent-based news broadcasts, on radio, that led to the kind of standard format television news media that we now all take for granted.
Fortunately, there are ample archives of Sevareid at the University of Minnesota, at Vanderbilt, and at CBS.
We are also exploring other projects, including a documentary on former ND Governor William L. Guy.
But the great projects are yet to come, and we are still formulating them. I definitely plan to do something on the future of the Little Missouri River Valley.
My goal is to cover the ground of my interests and enthusiasms, some of them involving North Dakota and many of them not. We live in an age when media is essential to education and the public humanities dialogue we all need to be engaging in. I know I have a very great deal to learn about film and documentary, but I am determined to carry on until I master the form.
How Did You Get Garrison Keillor to Voice Art Link’s Great Speech?
I’ve had the honor of working with Garrison Keillor a couple of times in my life. Before he was famous, I invited him to come to Marmarth, North Dakota, to give a lecture for a series I did with my mentor Everett Albers called “What is Marmarth Good For, Anyway?” I had the honor of picking him up at the Bowman International Airport. Then we went to Fort Dilts, which is one of my favorite places in the world. The people of Marmarth were a little unsure of Keillor’s ironies, but he had a great time and he mentioned Marmarth for months afterwards on his radio program in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
I was able to bring Keillor and the Powder Milk Bisquit Band to Sheridan, Wyoming, for a Chautauqua performance long long ago.
When he was last in Reno, I had the opportunity to interview him for a public television series.
And when I did a 13-part public radio documentary on Lewis and Clark, I was able to persuade Mr. Keillor to give voice to the 50+ Indian tribes that Lewis and Clark met in the course of the 7689 mile journey.
So when we started working on this film, and realized that “When the Landscape Is Quiet Again” was going to be the centerpiece of our work, I wrote to Mr. Keillor to ask him if he would record the speech. I did not have much confidence in this, since he is preternaturally busy, and called upon to do way more than a creative artist should be asked to do. But I knew that if he took the time to think about what Art Link represents, he would find the time to do it. Art Link could be from Lake Wobegon.
Mr. Keillor said yes, and did a splendid job.
At first we were going to use his voice at the end, as a way of summing up, and deepening the film. Then we decided to put it at the beginning. I still have second thoughts about that. Frankly, I don’t think the viewer is ready for the profundity of the speech at the start, so in a certain way we waste it. If we could rework the film I would try it at the end and see how audiences respond.
Even so, Keillor adds an enormous amount of depth and credibility to the film. It’s fun to sit in the audience when his voice comes up over that lovely footage of the North Dakota prairie. Members of the audience start to recognize his voice. There is a “that’s Garrison Keillor!!!” moment, and suddenly every person in the audience is watching with specially heightened interest.
Did You Do Any of the Videography?
A little. I have a HD camera now, thanks to The Dakota Institute. Mostly I was doing the interviews while my partner David Swenson handled the cameras. He’s gifted in this and other arenas, and I would not have presumed to get in his way. But I managed to do some of the videography. You can find my footage later in the film in the coal fields of western North Dakota: contemporary strip mining, the coal fired power plants and the gasification plant, power lines and drag lines. But my favorite two shots are of the Cross Ranch, a state park that was saved by Governor Link, and a scene of a rural hillside with a lovely road running through it and beautiful trees.
Did You Get the Bug?
Absolutely. In future projects I plan to do more and more of the videography. I was a professional photographer in my youth—for newspapers—and I have always wanted to be a serious photographer. Film is quite different from still photography, and I am just getting used to it. The frustration for me is that I can usually see what I have in mind in my mind’s eye, but translating that to useable footage is another matter. I’m really pretty much a neophyte. But I intend to get good at this. It takes endless practice. A video camera, even now, is a heavy and cumbersome instrument compared to a 35mm SLR camera. When I see the frames in the film that I shot, my heart leaps.
Why Does this Film Matter?
Because Art Link matters. He’s one of the finest individuals North Dakota has ever produced. The agrarian message is important to our heritage as a Jeffersonian people, not merely in North Dakota. The stewardship theme—that we must leave the land better than we found it—is critically important to all of us, particularly at a time when the United States is going to be desperate for energy. My fear is that to feed our energy addictions we will agree to throw open ANWR and other magnificent places to barely restrained energy development. North Dakota is going to be one of the focal points of wild energy development. It’s happening already. Even though Governor Link may not be known outside of North Dakota, When the Landscape is Quiet Again explores some universal themes. I think if we can get it a hearing across the Great Plains, indeed across America, that it will strike a chord. I think people know that Art Link’s stewardship model of economic development is the right one. Anyone who sees this film will wish we had strong leaders who were willing to tell us the truth, leaders who, like Art Link, are willing to stake their whole political career on the strength of their core convictions. He’s an agrarian hero.
Besides, everyone who sees this film falls a little in love with Art Link. There’s a certain kind of Tuesdays with Morrie feel to it.
Do You See Any Weaknesses in the Film?
It’s a first film. I am immensely proud of it. If I had to put one thing into a time capsule of my career, I would put this film. More importantly, if I were asked to contribute one thing to a time capsule that was designed to explain North Dakota to the world, this film would be it. Mike Jacobs was the Shelby Foote of this documentary. He’s one of my oldest friends, and one of the handful of most extraordinary North Dakotans. He’s now the editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald. He has spent more time thinking about North Dakota than anyone I can think of.
He says in the film, of Art Link: “He so represents what we thought we were.” That sums up everything I was trying to get at with this documentary.
Weaknesses: there are perhaps too many endings. We left out some themes that really matter to us. I would have liked to have more interview with Art Link himself. There are a couple of my voiceovers that I would redo.
Perhaps the greatest weakness is that it might be perceived as a love-fest. There were serious critics of Art Link during his time as Governor. We probably should have found them out and heard from them. We were not trying to produce an uncritical film. But we definitely wanted it to be an appreciation, even a celebration of this man. In the long run we are going to have to produce films that are “harder hitting” than this documentary, but I will gladly postpone that for later.
What Does Art Link Think of the Film?
He seems to really like it. I’m not the best person to ask about that. I feel that this film has renewed interest in his life and his Governorship and given his famous “Landscape is Quiet Again” speech a new life. One of my concerns about North Dakota is that we do not make enough of our history. We fail to see that this is as important a place as every other place, and that our story needs to be told with audacity and sensitivity. I think Art Link knows that he was an important figure in the history of North Dakota and that he is glad that the case has been made for him by his fellow Dakotans. At the same time, he is so very modest that it is not easy for him to voice the pride he must feel. That’s why I admire him so much. If I had helped to save North Dakota, I’d want it shouted from rooftops. He is content to have done good work in his quiet and characteristic way, and he is the last person who would ever blow his own horn.
How Did Chuck Suchy Get into the Film?
I asked him. He’s North Dakota’s troubadour. I have unlimited respect for him, in part because he is another of our extraordinary agrarians. There’s a funny story about this. A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a coffee shop working. It was raining at the end of October. It might have been snowing. If the wind had been blowing and the temperature had been 15 degrees lower, it would have been the first blizzard of the year. I stood looking out at the rain just absorbing the blessing it was bringing to this arid region. It was a perfect fall rain. It meant, among other things, that next year’s wheat crop is going to be a good one. That matters here.
Suddenly I thought about Chuck Suchy. So I picked up the phone and called him. He answered. I could picture him in his farmhouse. I have only called him once or twice in all the time I have known him. I told him I was looking at the rain and that it had made me think of him and that I was calling to thank him for writing that fabulous song about Governor Art Link. And went on and on about the glory of the perfect fall rain, and how blessed we are to live in North Dakota, etc. Finally I shut up. There was a pause. Chuck replied, “Yes, I am feeling the joy of it too, but I have to spend the rest of the day moving cattle in the rain, so I may not be feeling it quite as much as you.”
It was one of the great moments of my life, because it showed in an instant the difference between a true son of the soil and a wannabe. He went off to be a farmer in the chilly rain and I spent the afternoon repenting my detachments.
Tell Me About David Swenson.
He’s a genius. That’s the last thing he would ever say of himself, but it’s true. He has a splendid eye. He has a deep humanity and sensitivity and respect. There’s nothing sensational in him. If someone else had shot the film, it would just be a good film. He brought the sensuality to it. People who see it and don’t really know Art Link say to me, “Wow, you guys have made North Dakota look magnificent.” That’s David Swenson. We can be shooting the same scene with identical cameras and his footage looks world class and mine looks journeyman.
This documentary was my idea and I created the interview list and the basic structure. But David turned it from an idea into something extraordinary.
One of the most satisfying parts of the process was sitting day after day for about a month in the editing booth with him. We got into a creative rhythm that was one of the happiest times I can remember. We did not always agree at the start, but we listened to each other carefully and tried to see where the common vision was. And when he’d start manipulating footage, I just stood back in awe.
Isn’t He the Makoche Guy? I Didn’t Know He Was a Filmmaker.
You do now. Yes, he’s best known for his work as a producer of Native American records: drum groups, solo artists, crossover artists, storytellers, etc. He’s won awards for that work. More importantly, he has won the respect of the American Indian community for that work. He has some kind of natural rapport with Indians. He gets them, they trust him, he can see the world through their eyes, without ever presuming anything. And he never forgets for a moment that he is a white man—that is one reason why Indians like him. So many people in his position try to become “white Indians.”
But he has been working in video for the past couple of years. He is as talented in video as in audio. In fact, I believe he may prove to be more talented as a filmmaker than as an audio producer. There is more of David Swenson in his films than in the records he has made.
Just wait. In ten years everyone is going to think of David Swenson as a filmmaker and his audio work, which will continue, will be seen in a sense as his apprenticeship.
What Surprised You in Making This Film?
Several things. First, how much everyone we interviewed literally loves Art Link. Nobody talked about him in detached analytical terms. Everyone dug deep to find a way to express how much they respect and admire this man. When you have the entire North Dakota Congressional team (two senators and a representative) straining to explain how much they admire this elderly statesman, you know you are on to something remarkable. I expected respect. I was surprised and of course totally delighted by the depth of people’s love.
Second, the continuing love affair between Art and Grace Link. They have been married almost 70 years. That alone is an amazing achievement. But they continue to hold hands in public, to say sweet and loving things to each other day after day. They look into each other’s eyes with a kind of love that makes the rest of us shake our heads in wonder and admiration. They flirt! I don’t know anybody who doesn’t wish they had that in their life.
How Did You Raise the Money for this Film?
Just about the time I was starting to work on the film, I formed a partnership with my friend David Borlaug of the Fort Mandan Foundation. He and I have been talking about working together for a long time. We formed The Dakota Institute. One of the missions of the Dakota Institute is to create a series of documentary films. This is the first of many. David Borlaug raised the money, beginning with our lead benefactor Joe Hauer of Bismarck. Mr. Hauer is the owner of United Printing. He agreed with us that this film needed to be made—and right away—and he contributed to it and saw to it that others did too.
The simple fact is that there would have been no film without David Borlaug’s work as the producer.
What Is Your Goal?
Well, naturally, I dream of saying, “I’d like to thank the Academy . . . .” For this film, my dreams is to get it into as many hands as possible and to make sure that it has a chance to be seen by everyone who would benefit from seeing it. That includes farmers, agrarians, conservationists, students, all North Dakotans, and countless others. My goal is to raise the historical reputation of Art Link to its rightful place, and to remind everyone who sees the film that leadership matters.
My goal for myself is to make the best ten documentary films ever made about North Dakota.
My goal is to be the Ken Burns of the Great Plains.