Hillary Pierce talks The River and The Wall

The team paddles down the Rio Grande as it cuts its way between Mexico and Texas. Credit: The River and the Wall

Producer Hillary Pierce joined Solzy at the Movies during the 2019 SXSW Film Festival to discuss the award-winning documentary, The River and The Wall.

Hillary Pierce

What was so important about making The River and The Wall?

Hillary Pierce:  We felt like it was really important to give a voice to the river and everyone that lives along it including the wildlife.  In this national conversation, there’s just a lot of talk from a lot of people and so many of those people don’t actually live on the border.  We felt like it was really important to get down to that place and document it and document the people and wildlife that live along it so that we could elevate that story into the conversation since it wasn’t a big part of it already.  And time is of the essence.  We we’ve tried to make this film as quickly as possible without sacrificing any equality just because it’s constantly being talked about.  Funding is being approved.  Funding was approved just after we wrapped production last year in the omnibus spending bill.  That’s something a lot of people didn’t even realize is that the border wall has been partially funded and continues to be partially funded even though President Trump just asked I guess this morning (March 11, 2018) in his proposed budget for eight plus billion more dollars even though he doesn’t get these large chunks that he asked for.  There have been small amounts included in past bills.  It was happening.  We knew it was happening and we wanted to get the story out there as quickly as possible so people really realize what’s at stake and what’s really being affected.

I think a lot of people when it comes to talking about the border—at least on the conservative side of things like that, no one’s giving thought to the people who live there and what their feelings are or the ecosystem.  I was watching those farmers or whatnot talking about how once this wall goes up, they won’t be able to access important things.

Hillary Pierce:  I think a lot of people when they think about the border, they think of a desolate landscape void of humans and even wildlife and activity.  That’s just not true.  That’s not true at all. There are people—homeowners who’ve owned their land for in some cases decades upon decades going back to you know pre-United States.  Here in Texas, we take private property rights pretty seriously.  I know that that’s an important issue for conservatives nationwide.  I don’t think people realize that ranchers and farmers—the very people that are feeding this nation—are having some of their most vital lands taken away from them.  If Trump were to get the full amount of money that he’s asking for and this wall were built from sea to shining sea, over two thousand landowners would have their land seized via eminent domain.  I don’t think that’s something that people really understand completely and we were glad to be able to speak to some of the farmers and ranchers who were in that situation so that maybe they could tell their story.

How important was it to have the conversations with the two congressmen, Beto O’Rourke and Will Hurd?

Hillary Pierce:  It was really important to hear the voice of elected representatives along the border.  At the time that we that we were in production,  Congressman O’Rourke was still in office representing the El Paso area and Congressman Hurd won his re-election so he continues to represent a very large district that comprises over 800 hundred miles of the border.  We thought it was essential to include both a Republican and a Democrat just to speak to their views and to speak to the views of their constituents because this shouldn’t be a partisan issue.  I think a lot of people see it as the GOP is pro-wall and the Democrats are against it.  In actuality here on the ground in Texas and at the border, there are a lot of conservatives that are against the idea of a physical border wall.  Those voices aren’t being heard in the national conversation so having Congressman Hurd in particular to represent his Republican constituents and his Democrat constituents was important because they do know the issues.  They know this intimately.  They live there and their constituents live there.  We had to have them in the film.

What was the reception during the world premiere?

Hillary Pierce:  We were overwhelmed by the positivity of the reception at the premiere.  People seemed really engaged.  I think there were a lot more laughs than I was expecting.  You never really know what people are going to laugh at and people seemed to be having a good time but also really digesting the information.  That’s exactly what we wanted.  We wanted to take people on an immersive visual experience down to the border but also take them on an adventure with our characters.  We were humbled with a standing ovation after the credits rolled.  We really can’t ask for anything better than the reception we got Saturday night.

When did the Ben Masters first come up with idea to make the documentary?

Hillary Pierce:  Ben was making a short film called Lions of West Texas that he was filming out in the Big Bend region of Texas.  He was speaking to some of the biologists—actually, one of the biologists featured in the film, Dr. Louis Harveson of the Borderlands Research Institute.  Dr. Harveson mentioned that these mountain lions cover a lot of ground and they rely on the Rio Grande for their water source in the Chihuahuan Desert.  It got Ben to thinking, Well certainly, that’s true for mountain lions and must be true for other species.  This is not something I’ve really thought about–how a wall would change that.  He’s had experience using an adventure to dig into an issue with the last film he produced, Unbranded.  He just came up with this idea:  Why don’t we take a journey?  I think in some part he just wanted to go and see for himself.  We knew that we had to build the right team.  We just found a lot of really fun-loving, adventure-loving people who also care about these issues.  I’d already been working with him on some short films and he told me the idea and I came on board to produce because it’s something I care about as well.

What’s the biggest thing you want the audience to take away from watching the film?

Hillary Pierce:  I think if I had to choose one thing for the audience to take away from watching the film, it would be that the border is a beautiful and rich place both culturally and environmentally.  It’s just beautiful and it’s a place to be cherished.  The Rio Grande is a river before it’s a border.  It gets treated as just a border and there’s a lot of misconceptions.  I want people to see the film and cherish what we have here and know what’s at stake and know what can be damaged and what’s already being damaged by this border wall.

Gravitas Ventures opens The River and The Wall in theaters and VOD on May 3, 2019.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.