January 23, 2017

An Interview with David Hildreth and Silas Kyler


David Hildreth and Silas Kyler are the creators of Felled, a documentary film about urban lumberjacking. In conjunction with the movie, they created a book called The Art and Craft of Wood.

Could you tell us a bit about how Felled came to fruition?

David: Felled is the story of saving a dead neighborhood tree that was headed for the landfill and giving it new life and purpose. It’s about finding worth and beauty in something that everyone else sees as trash. Silas and I worked together on a bunch of different video projects over the years and talked about making a documentary together. After a big monsoon storm Silas told me that he thought he’d stumbled upon a good story for a short documentary. Silas and his friend James found a big tree that came down in the storm and started on a journey to turn the tree into lumber for furniture. I think Silas just had a good intuition for the topic and realized that he was meeting really interesting people along the way. It turns out that when a tree comes down in someone’s yard the wood generally just goes to the landfill. That’s a huge waste of resources that could otherwise become beautiful furniture or art. So we started shooting the process and after a while it was pretty clear that we could make a feature length piece about the whole issue. We happened upon a subculture of people who are fundamentally offended by that waste and were doing great work to turn trash into something more meaningful.

Is there a community of urban lumberjacks in Phoenix? How did you access this community?

Silas: Yes! Discovering that people were doing this work around the Valley was one of the main things that pulled David and I into this story initially. Starting out, I really wasn’t sure if recycling urban trees was a thing in Phoenix or not, but after doing some searching, mainly through Craigslist, I got in touch with a couple local sawyers. As it turns out, there are a bunch of mills in the valley that use local wood, all working pretty much autonomously. Through the course of producing this film I would say the community aspect has begun to grow, which is exciting. It seems like Facebook has really become a major word of mouth marketing medium for these businesses, and I’ve seen more and more of these businesses connect. More importantly, word is getting out about what they’re doing.

What has the experience of making the film been like? What goes into making a feature length film?

David: I was involved with a few other features before, but this is the first I have a hand in directing. It’s an enormous amount of work. We’ve essentially spent all of our free time for the last 2.5 years engaged in shooting, editing, or promoting the film in some way. We had a preview screening a month or so ago and someone asked how much time had been spent on the film. I answered that essentially every single evening and weekend since July ‘14 and the audience had a good laugh. Obviously that’s an exaggeration but some days I look back and it feels like that’s exactly how it’s been. Since we started production we’ve both changed jobs, we’ve both had a kid (my first, Silas’ third), and I don’t even know how many times I’ve gone into the office the next day on just a few hours of sleep. I think that’s just the reality of documentary filmmaking. It’ll be interesting to see what documentary filmmaking looks like in 10 years, but from what I see, the vast majority of documentaries will be a side hustle like Felled. The economics of filmmaking just work out that way. We’re incredibly lucky to have had a lot of help from friends and family.

How did the book become a part of this project?

David: We put out the first trailer for Felled last year and had some great success with it being shared all over Facebook. From that came a lot of interesting opportunities including a book deal with Quarto Publishing. It’s certainly not the first woodworking book on the market, but urban lumber brings an interesting twist on traditional woodworking. It’s exciting to take what we’ve learned about urban lumber and give people a step by step way of engaging with this wasted resource. We’d love for the book and the film to inspire people to look at the trees in their neighborhoods differently. Trees aren’t just a good way to clean the air and provide shade. When they die, they could be your next dinner table. Across the country we’re seeing people take this overlooked resource and turn it into something beautiful.

How did you go about writing it?

Silas: Starting out, the task of writing The Art and Craft of Wood was pretty intimidating to me. I had never planned to go write a book and I had never considered how to approach such a project. It felt like I was entering a big, unknown world. Thankfully, the book follows a pretty standard how-to format, so the structure was straight forward when we got down to it. David always accuses me of being a linear thinker, which is totally true. Being able to build the actual projects in the book and take a lot of photographs along the way gave us a nice linear workflow and foundation to build upon, which pleased my brain. Our editor, Jess, has been great through this whole process as well, and working through all of this stuff with her has been an incredible benefit.

Anything that has been deemed worthy of being published, especially in a physical book carries a certain authority, which is something that blows my mind about this project. Being a self-trained woodworker, I never held myself as some sort of expert on the topic. As I dug into the technical instructions in the book, it made me question every procedure I would describe, which led to a lot of extra research to make sure I wasn’t committing some kind of craftsmanship malpractice.

Have you had any unexpected things happen throughout the course of this project?

David: We are blown away and very grateful for the way Felled has been received. The people we tell about the project are excited and want to know more. Most people have never thought about what happens to the tree in their yard when it dies and everyone can recognize that sending that tree to the landfill is a waste. It’s refreshing to be able to make a positive film and maybe along the way inspire people to build some furniture and art that they can pass down through their families for generations to come.

You’ve been working on this project for quite a while. How did it influence you?

Silas: I’ve never worked this long on a single creative project before and I think it’s really unique how spending several years of my life on Felled has changed the way I see the trees in my city. Before I started this project I had never heard of the term “urban forestry,” but now I find myself going to urban forestry conferences and talking to urban foresters with ease. This process has taught me that, in many ways, modern society sees urban and suburban areas as the place where we consume resources, leaving the extraction of resources, or production of goods to those places outside our cities, or even our country. As cities have grown and people have spread further and further, it is apparent that a consumer relationship with our world isn’t very sustainable, and seeing what’s around us, as part of a wholistic system, is really important. This can start with something as simple as a tree, and understanding that it is part of something larger. I guess I’m just describing sustainability, but learning how to use a fallen tree, and discovering it’s place in a larger system just made that concept a lot more tangible to me.