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Raindance: ‘Bob and the Trees’ Director Diego Ongaro on the Life of a Charismatic Logger

Whenever a tree falls in western Massachusetts, there’s at least one person around to hear it. Bob. That’s because the rural middle-aged logger and protagonist of “Bob and the Trees” is likely the one who caused it to tumble. “Bob and the Trees,” which screens at London’s Raindance Film Festival on Oct. 3, comes from the mind of director Diego Ongaro.

The film follows Bob, a logger in his 50s who loves hip-hop, golf and his family. His kind but tough outer shell begins stripping away through a series of unexpected winter hardships. To understand more about the man who teeters on the edge of a fall himself, Ongaro discusses with Variety the man who inspired the movie, the under-representation of foresters and the film’s intimacy.

Bob is a logger in rural Massachusetts — that’s not a common story told in moviemaking. Where did the idea come from?
The idea came from meeting Bob, who is a real (person). He’s an existing forester who’s been doing that for 35 years in western Massachusetts, and I met him when I moved myself to western Mass. with my wife, who’s a novelist. He’s a local figure and we quickly became friends. He’s a forester and also has been logging for a while, and he took me out in the woods. I went logging with him, and I learned a lot about something I had no idea about because I grew up in Paris, I’m French, and logging was not something I was familiar with. He’d talk about logging a fireplace, and I had no clue what the whole process behind that was. So I was interested in that and also the whole tree business, and how they do it. It’s really tough conditions; it’s very dangerous. It’s harsh weather and it’s a crazy life, crazy work, and I’ve got a lot of compassion for these guys. I thought it would be interesting to tell the story from the perspective of a logger. Logging is very underexposed in movies. We rarely see loggers.

And then there was Bob. He is sort of a real character, very close to the one you see in the film. He’s a very funny guy, very charismatic, full of stories. He’s extremely knowledgeable in forestry and has a college degree in forestry. He has a farm with all the farm animals that you see in the film. I was very intrigued by the man himself, and thought it would interesting to tell the story with him, with a character who was very close to who he is in real life, but it would not be a documentary. I would put together a fiction, piecing together stories he told me, stuff that I make up, and sort of a more documentary aspect of when we see him logging.

Do you keep up with real-life Bob? Has he seen it?
We’ve been touring with the film a little bit. We premiered at Sundance and then at a bunch of festivals, so he’s been traveling with me and the film for most of the time. He’s seen the movie many times now and he cries every time.

Many of the scenes focus on either only Bob or Bob and his close family. What was it like shooting those intimate scenes?
It was very important to keep things extremely intimate on the film. They are all nonprofessional actors, except for the person who plays his wife in the film. Everyone else is local people here that I know very well and so I wanted to keep a very small crew of people to shoot the film.

We did a lot of rehearsals to make them feel more confident in front of the camera. Shooting intimate scenes became very natural because we worked as a small group of eight to 10 people, including the actors and crew. We shot on mostly existing locations. The farm that you see in the film is Bob’s actual farm in real life; that’s his house, too. I think it brings a lot of authenticity to the film and the characters.

What message are you hoping to tell with this story?
I hope it opens up (the subject of) loggers and how dangerous a job it is. I think often logging is misrepresented. Often people think about Oregon and deforestation and when it’s done right, the way Bob does it in real life, you really have to consider which tree you’re going to take down. It opens up the canopy and makes the wood healthier. When it’s done right, it’s for the best for nature and the forest. It makes it healthier.

It’s also interesting everything is about craftsmanship these days and making things with your hands and going back to a basic life. It’s interesting to see these guys working with their hands and doing everything with your hands. I think people will root for Bob, who’s a very charismatic and compelling character.

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