In 2002, Kelo vs. The City of New London proved to be a landmark Supreme Court ruling that was a blow against the personal property rights of American citizens. The ruling showed that a local government could use the justification of eminent domain to acquire land, even if the land was to be used for commercial interest; In this case, the City of New London’s hope of bringing in the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. While the case began more than two decades ago, the ruling still has major impact on laws to this day, especially in our current political climate. Now writer-director Courtney Balaker is retelling the story from Kelo’s perspective with Little Pink House, a film based on Jeff Benedict’s book of the same name, hoping this cautionary story will lead to meaningful action.
Lesley Coffin: How familiar with the story of Susette Keto and the issue of eminent domain? Had you followed the story in the news when it was in the courts?
Courtney Balaker: I was completely unfamiliar with this particular case until the book was brought to the attention of my husband and I. My husband, who is also my producing partner, was familiar with this because he started out as a journalist before we started our production company. But then the book was presented to us, and we were told that the rights to the book were available and asked if we would be interested in it. And then about four years ago, we read the book and I was just astonished that this could happen. How could this happen in our country and how could our supreme court support it? And we didn’t make the film until 2015, when there were just murmurs about Donald Trump running for president. But no one took it seriously. And for someone like Susette, he is one of her biggest opponents. He’s said in the press that he loves eminent domain. And when we were making it, it didn’t seem like the rampant problem it had been a decade ago, but it’s becoming a huge issue once again, especially in poor and minority communities. It was interesting to play at film festivals across the country and hear from people who stood up to say “this happened to me” or “this is happening to my family right now.” I see it as legalized bullying.
Lesley Coffin: And Donald Trump supports it on the international level, if you remember that documentary about his purchase of land in Scotland to build his golf course. Considering your experience in documentary filmmaking, why did you feel this story could best be told in a narrative format?
Courtney Balaker: That actually is a question we asked ourselves when we decided to buy the rights. And I think this story could still be told as a documentary. But my own comfort as a director is in narrative filmmaking, I’ve only ever produced documentaries. And as soon as I read the book, I knew I wanted to direct this film and write the screenplay. So it made sense that we would tell this as a narrative. But I also felt that dramatizing this, having audiences there when she got the letter or saw her neighbor’s house demolished that would be a more immersive experience for the audience. And when you do that, it can touch an audience in a deeply emotional and personal way. Not that documentaries can’t be immersive or emotional, of course they can, but this story is over a decade old so everything would be told in retrospect which can distance an audience.
Lesley Coffin: What kind of involvement did Susette have in the writing and production of the film?
Courtney Balaker: Almost none. The first thing we did was to fly to New London, Connecticut. We wanted to meet with her and make sure she’d be comfortable with us making this film. And she’s not in the film industry of course, she’s a nurse and mother, she really had no idea how this would play out. And we went to New London without even a meeting scheduled. And waiting to connect, we went to the site where her house had been and when we finally met up with her, we got along great. We talked and heard more about her story, in her own words.
And when we left I asked, how involved do you want to be? And she said “I
don’t want to be involved at all.” And she gave us complete creative freedom. She said she did that because she trusted us, but I also think she was tired of reliving the experience. There was already a book, a fantastic book, so she’d already lived it twice. And I didn’t want to force her to relive it again, although she said she was open if we had any questions. And that gave us tremendous freedom, but we also had tremendous trepidation. At some point, she was going to watch the film, and I wanted her to feel we were fair and honest.
Fortunately, she likes the film and comes to a lot of the screenings, when she can, and sees it as an opportunity to talk about this issue which has become her life’s work. Both of us want to use the film for education and advocacy, especially with this become a hot topic again, to prevent this from happening. So she’s involved now, but not during development or production.
Lesley Coffin: Where did you film the movie?
Courtney Balaker: We filmed a couple of days in New London but most of it was filmed in Vancouver.
Lesley Coffin: When you filmed in New London and premiered the film there, how did residences react to your presence? I imagine the issue still hits some raw nerves for residence who went through this.
Courtney Balaker: I think I was way more nervous about filming in New London because I didn’t know how we’d be received. There were people who wanted to sell or did sell. It was a pretty divisive issue, and it was a 10 year ordeal, so we’re talking about something that started 23 years ago. She was far more at ease about us coming there because she strongly believes that people who wanted to sell and even people who worked for the city and were pushing it through, now feel they were on the wrong side of the story. I’m sure I’ll read comments online, but the night of the premiere, I saw people completely embraced the film.
Lesley Coffin: How did you think of casting Catherine Keener for the part?
Courtney Balaker: I love Catherine, I think she’s this perfect embodiment of a non-Hollywood actress. She’s been in Hollywood films, but I feel like she never fits into that specific mold, and she’s not afraid to be herself. In all her performances, there’s something very raw about her. So she was at the top of my list, I just thought we’d never be able to get her. But when we needed to try to get the script to her, and I was so excited when she responded to the material. And from the first moment we talked about it, she completely got it, she completely understood the strong connection Susette had to her home and why this issue mattered. I can’t imagine anyone else playing her.
Lesley Coffin: Did she work with Suzette?
Courtney Balaker: They didn’t spent a minute together. I tried to arrange a meeting, but it just wasn’t working out. And when I knew they wouldn’t have that opportunity I didn’t push it, and Catherine didn’t push it as something she needed to do. She’s not doing an impersonation, she’s capturing the characters of determination and humility that makes Susette special.
Lesley Coffin: The story is powerful and a real underdog story, but sadly, the event at the center of this film doesn’t have a happy ending. She loses her house, the lot remains empty to this day. When you were trying to get this film made, did you get any resistance about telling a story that could be considered depressing?
Courtney Balaker: Well, I think there is a happy ending in the long run. Seeing what she went through, states passed laws preventing this from happening in the future. So that larger outcome is very happy result. There isn’t a happy ending to her story, but she sees the good that has resulted in her sacrifice. Personally, I don’t think films need a happy ending to be inspiring. It’s very sad that all that remains on her land is tall grass and feral cats, it’s infuriating. But sometimes people need to see that too, sometimes you need to get people pissed off so they’ll say, never again. I want people to walk out angry saying, I don’t want that to happen again. That’s the reason we have a social action campaign. Her happy ending is knowing that what she went through has led to meaningful change. And this film has already had an impact.
Lesley Coffin: In what way?
Courtney Balaker: We played at the Provincetown Film Festival and before our screening got an email from a man named Mike Reilly explaining that the city was trying to take the bike shop he owned to build a parking lot. And he was fighting it and asked if he knew anyone that could help him fight it. And we got him in touch with the Institute for Justice, the same people who helped Susette, and they gave him some tips. He handed out flyers about a vote that was happening the Monday after our weekend screening. And we won the audience festival, our screenings were packed, and I think people who voted were at that screening or heard about our film and voted against taking his shop. So that’s a real happy ending.
© Lesley Coffin (4/24/18) FF2 Media
PHOTO CREDIT: COURTESY OF KORCHULA PRODS.