LAND GRAB • Saginaw Born Director Sean O’Grady Explores the World of a Financial Mogul Investing $30 Million to Create the World’s Largest Urban Farm in Detroit

Riverside Saginaw Film Festival • Films in Focus

Posted In:   From Issue 835   By: Robert E Martin

03rd November, 2016     0

For Saginaw born director Sean O’Grady, the process of creating his 76-minute documentary known as Land Grab was a transformative experience, given that as a result of coming to Detroit to make the film, he now owns a production company in Metro Detroit, where he is producing a number of TV projects at the moment, while developing ideas for new films.

As for his new and definitive work, Land Grab is a compelling documentary about John Hantz, an eccentric finance mogul who dreams of investing $30 million in order to create the world’s largest urban farm in one of Detroit’s most economically depressed neighborhoods.  Following the arguments of both strong backers and equally strong critics of the development, O’Grady will be appearing in person at this showing of Land Grab at the Riverside Saginaw Film Festival to discuss his three-year long journey producing the film, which he also elaborated upon during a recent interview.

Review: The topical arena of 'Land Grab' is certainly at timely one, not only for cities in Michigan like Detroit & Saginaw and other urban centers of the so-called 'Rust Belt' that have experienced large declines in population over a 30-year time span; but for any urban area struggling with issues of demolition and large plots of abandoned housing.  Can you tell me how you were drawn to this subject and what some of the creative objectives consisted of that you are striving to achieve with this documentary?

O’Grady:  I was drawn to the subject after reading countless articles about John Hantz’s dream of spending $30 million to build the world’s largest urban farm in Detroit. I grew up in Saginaw and had been living in Los Angeles for a few years, so Michigan stories always grabbed my attention.

At that time, they grabbed my attention even more seriously because Michigan had production incentives for film and TV, and the company I was working for asked me to look for Michigan stories, as producing in incentive states is attractive to networks and producers alike. And the first story I found  after being given that directive that I felt was worth telling was the story of Hantz Farms.

Creatively, this was interesting to me because John Hantz had an idea that he felt would help his city, and he was facing great criticism and obstruction. I felt this was analogous to filmmaking, as trying to get a film or TV series made can be a brutal and trying process, as well.

It’s frustrating to have a story that you feel can help broaden people’s perspectives, introduce them to new thoughts, or simply entertain them, and to then face the seemingly endless battle that it is to get any project on screen, and this made me empathize with Hantz. I also felt it was an interesting look at a project that was actually achievable, and funded, and still facing great hurdles. It was a rare situation with a charismatic main character, and I am very lucky to have been able to make the film.

Review:  After going through the process of creating this documentary, did your perspectives or thoughts change or evolve along the way with regards to the benefits of urban farming and also the concerns that are raised by critics?

O’Grady:  My perspective changed quite a bit while making the film. My view of what urban farming is, and what it could be, was incredibly narrow when I started making the film. Also, my understanding of the devastation that vacant houses and vacant land cause to urban communities changed dramatically.

Regarding the critics, I really didn’t understand their position until I got on the ground in Detroit and started talking to them. Only then did I realize that Detroit has a tragic history of suburban developers taking control of large areas of land, using tax dollars to pay for the land and develop proposals for the land, to then never follow-up on their developments, leaving the neighborhood worse than it had been before, and leaving the city even poorer.

Residents were concerned that John Hantz was this type of developer, but what they didn’t know is that he wasn’t using any tax payer dollars, and he wasn’t a suburban developer — he had lived in the neighborhood in which he was proposing his development for over 20 years. He was (and is) a resident of the East Side of Detroit and if his project turned out to have a negative impact, he couldn't just drive north on 75 and hide like many other developers. That makes a huge difference.

Review:  How did you get started as a filmmaker and how may films have you directed, written, and/or completed? Also, how has your experience as a filmmaker informed your approach to this latest outing?

O’Grady:  I started as a Production Assistant on Hollywood movies and network TV shows and learned the industry from the ground level up, spending several years as low on the totem pole as you can possibly be, which was a great experience.

This is the first film I’ve directed, along with a few television projects, and I’ve produced a handful of other films, including In a World… and Big Sur, both of which premiered at Sundance Film Festival a few years back.

I also produced a film called For Lovers Only that we made with a really small crew traveling in cars, and on trains and boats across France with only the equipment we could carry in our backpacks, and the film was really well received.

And by starting on bigger projects, then oscillating between films like For Lovers Only and bigger independent films, I realized that you can make great films with any sized crew, and so when I started Land Grab, it was just me with two cameras on tripods and a microphone. The crew grew from there and I was lucky enough to bring a bunch of really talented people on board to elevate it way beyond what I was capable of, but I always knew that if push came to shove, I could do it on my own. I think that’s really important for filmmakers to know, because it also helps you get the best out of your team.

Review:  What was the most challenging component involved with pulling this film together?

O’Grady:  Initially, the hardest thing was getting John Hantz to agree to talk to me. It took months of persistence to get through his PR team, as they were (justifiably) concerned about how the Hantz Farms development would be represented. After that, financing and distribution are always incredibly challenging.

Review:  Who are some of the influences that have inspired or informed your work; and what do you feel distinguishes 'Land Grab' and makes it a unique experience for audiences?

O’Grady:  I really love the documentaries made by Alex Gibney, Errol Morris, and Werner Herzog. Also, a film by Don Argott called The Art of the Steal was a big influence. I think Land Grab is a unique film, as it truly gives both sides of a complicated issue an open forum to make their case.

Of course I hold my opinion, based on spending a few years researching and making the film, that this development is positive, but I think the opponents of the development can also watch the film and feel that they were portrayed fairly, and their options were treated with respect.

I think the film is also unique in that filmgoers are conditioned by years of watching films in which the protesters are heroes railing against harmful developments, and in our story, the developer actually turns out to be a force of good. This unusual presentation typically leads to lively discussion when we present the film in person at theaters. It tends to make people think, and also make them discuss the issues presented in the film as it relates to wherever they might live, and I think that’s a good thing.

Land Grab will be featured at the Riverside Saginaw Film Festival on Saturday, November 12th at 8:00 PM at Pit & Balcony community Theatre.


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