Interview: Patrick Creadon of “If You Build It”

Posted on February 23, 2014 at 8:00 am

Patrick Creadon is the director of the new documentary “If You Build It,” the story of an idealistic young couple who movie to a depressed North Carolina community to teach teenagers how to solve problems with design.  He talked to me about the town, the couple, Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller, and why this story was so meaningful to him.

What led you to this story?

When I was growing up, the television show “This Old House” was by far my favorite TV show.  I was the nerdiest kid on the block and I loved PBS. But I particularly loved that show and I loved seeing things getting torn down and rebuilt, or not torn down but redone, and fixed.  The fixing of things, and loving things, and taking care of things was incredibly inspiring to me.  I loved it.  I loved everything about it.  And truthfully, I also love the movie “The Breakfast Club” so for me, this was like a mash up.

I was around sort of filmmaking when I was a kid.  I did some acting, but I never considered it to be a life pursuit.  It was more like a hobby that we did as kids.  We have some really fun experience with doing it but I really, really love documentaries.  And being around filmmakers, I realized I could be a documentary filmmaker and that could be a thing.   I’ll do that.  And I worked for WTTW for about three years when I got out after college.

And I did that for three years.  I studied film at the American Film Institute here in LA.  I came out in one graduate school.  And for about 15 years, I was a freelance cameraman and I was shooting other people’s stuff, documentaries, and TV shows, and stuff.  And my wife and I made a documentary about the New York Times crossword puzzle called Wordplay. That was our first film and it was a wonderful experience. We did it because we love crossword puzzles and I literally was terrified the year we were making that film that somebody else was going to make one because I couldn’t believe that nobody has done a Will Shortz movie.  We made it in our spare bedroom.  We never thought it would get out there the way it did.  And it gave us a lot of freedom.  I mean not financially believe me. Documentary is challenging but people could see that we could do offbeat stories well and so the next movie was I.O.U.S.A., which is a non partisan look at the national debt.

And then along came this story and for a reason I already mentioned, it resonated with me.  I loved design, I love fixing things, I love a high school story. We thought that there could be some really great characters that we would meet and kind of a culture clash between Emily and Matt and the students. The bottom line is Christina and I have three young daughters who are in public schools in LA.  It felt like there were a lot of compelling reasons to make this movie so even though it was a story that took place in a small town that we have never even heard of, it felt incredibly personal to. 

This is the story of a small group in a small town but there are some important big issues and lessons with broad applicability, too.

I think it takes a little time for people to understand what’s in it for them like what is in this movie for me.  And what we’ve learned over the last three-and-a-half years since we started is that, I know this sounds lame, but there is something in this film for everyone.  I really firmly believe that.  So whether you’re a parent, or a student, or a retiree, or a young person looking for their first career, or someone who’s midcareer and they have some community projects that are thrown in their side and they can’t figure it out how to fix it like I think what I’m trying to say is I think that our country is in a like a reboot moment like we’re rebooting a lot of things.  We really are rethinking the way we’ve done things and the way we should be doing things.  And the challenge there is that that’s a very scary moment, but it’s also a very exciting moment.  And as people are thinking about rebooting things in their lives, it’s a good time for some designed thinking.  And it’s a third time to really think about problems from a fresh perspective and I think that that’s what designers do.  I really believe in that.

One of the things I wrote in my notes was this movie answers the age old question of “When am I ever need calculus?”

It’s hard to get truly inspired when you’re taking PE Online.  That’s just not going to inspire a kid.

Why was it important to include the earlier story about Matt’s failed effort to donate a house that he built in Detroit?

Well I think it’s really fascinating and it’s a little heartbreaking when you see the story about what happened. Honestly, our biggest fear with this film from the beginning was, “Oh no!  We’re making a Kumbaya movie.” Where everyone’s going to sit around the campfire and sing a song and there will be nice people doing nice things.  And that might be a little lame frankly.  And from the very first day, we realized how hard it was to do the kind of work that Matt and Emily were doing.  I mean our very first trip was when the school superintendent was forced to resign, that was shortly after we got to town. We went to North Carolina about one week every month for a year.  On one of our trips, Matt was looking like his dog has died or something and I said, “What’s wrong, Matt?”  He had just gone back to Detroit and saw the condition the house was in. But the thing is I’ve met so many folks in the non-profit space we’ve all got our Detroit story, everyone of us has a story like that. And it’s talking about rebooting, really rethinking charity. Never give a guy a fish but teach him to fish. So the thing about Matt and Emily and the thing about our film is, they haven’t really reinvented any wheels here.  The one thing they did that’s unusual and I think that is cutting edge is they took this curriculum into a high school.  And to my knowledge, this level of certification and this level of ambition is unique.  These kids were basically learning graduate level and college level skills.  So that is unique but project-based learning, new charity models, community redevelopment, new educational experiments, I don’t think Matt and Emily had a monopoly or anything of those things or they aren’t the creator of either of any of those sorts of things.  They’re certainly not the creator of this idea of design thinking. What they did though, they took a risk.  They took ten kids for a year and spent three hours a day with them and taught them something that most people thought was way above them, way above their heads and the kids are not going to be able to keep up. And the kids loved it.  You saw it.  You kids loved it.

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Directors Documentary Interview

If You Build It

Posted on February 20, 2014 at 5:17 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 21, 2014

An idealistic young couple from big cities moves to a tiny, economically depressed town in North Carolina for a project that will take advantage of what they think is “an untapped resource” — teenagers. Emily Polliton, TED talker and co-author of Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People and Matt Miller, who had just built a home in Detroit to donate to a needy family, got a pioneering school superintendent in Bertie County, North Carolina, to agree to let them create a curriculum with a daunting challenge.  They wanted to revitalize the students and the town through design.  They had a lot of ideas, but they knew that they could never accomplish anything unless they were clear that they were there to support the town.  They knew that the students would be responsible for a big project.  But what that project would be had to be decided by the people who live there.

if you build itDocumentarian Patrick Creadon (“Wordplay,” “I.O.U.S.A”) observed the Studio H project that Emily and Matt brought to North Carolina over 16 months.  The name stands for: Humanity, Habitats, Health and Happiness (echoing 4H’s “head, heart, hands, and health”).  They began with ten bright but bored high school juniors.  One of them says dryly that he hates school just as his father and grandfather did: “It’s a family tradition.”  And in one of the movie’s bleakest moments, we see some of them taking mind-numbing online classes, including, ludicrously, PE. “It’s not that I’m leaving here,” another says.  “There’s just nothing to keep me here.”  This project answers the age-old question: When will I ever need to use calculus?  And, in Emily’s words, it is a counter to the current approach, which has “the raw and unadulterated

None of them have ever made anything before.  None of them have ever been asked to look at what’s around them and think about design before.  Day one, Matt and Emily have them getting their hands dirty — very dirty, making water filtration systems out of mud and cow patties.  For the first time, they are asked to think with a pencil.  “Some of your sketches are ugly, and that’s okay,” Matt says to encourage the kids to stop self-censoring.  “The studio is a mess, which is fantastic,” Emily tells them.   After two preliminary projects, they work with the town to decide on what their big project will be.  It will be something the town will be proud of, something hopeful, something that will help the economy: a farmer’s market.

Design is about solving problems.  As Emily says, “Design allows creativity to have a structure.  And that allows you to come up with solutions you wouldn’t otherwise come up with.”  Making a bean bag toss or a chicken coop or even a farmer’s market is one thing.  Working with people is another.  The visionary school superintendent is fired immediately after Emily and Matt arrive.  The school board votes to keep their program but eliminate their salaries.  As Matt points out, while he can fit in, Emily is a triple outcast in the North Carolina rural community — half-Asian, female, and a designer.  As Emily points out, working together under so much stress puts a lot of pressure on their relationship.  And, as she also notes, they are trying to build something with a construction crew made up of teenagers.

This is a compelling narrative both in its own terms and as a metaphor of many of the core themes and conflicts in America today.  It is a compelling indictment of our failure to inspire our young people with meaningful educational opportunities and a thrilling glimpse of how easy it is to transform the way we think about education and re-connect to our sense of possibilities.  It is also a daunting portrayal of the entrenched mindsets and lack of courage that stands in the way.  Design can solve problems, but only if we let it.

Parents should know that this movie has some depictions of high-stress  economic circumstances, references to prejudice, and a dead animal.

Family discussion:  What was Matt and Emily’s biggest challenge?  Their biggest accomplishment?  Check out the movie’s website to see what happened to the students.

If you like this, try: “Waiting for Superman” and “Wordplay”

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