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SXSW preview: 'World's Largest'

Five questions with the director of a quirky documentary about very big objects across America

Chris Garcia
Cozying up to Paul Bunyan are Amy Elliott and Elizabeth Donius, who say roadside attractions start with a 'crazy local dreamer.'

Using a five-question format, we're interviewing South by Southwest Film Festival filmmakers about their movies before and during the festival, which runs March 12 through 20. The interview series is being posted at the Austin Movie Blog at austin360.com, with weekly updates.

Here, we talk to Amy Elliott, co-director of the documentary "World's Largest," a panoramic look at gigantic objects created by small-town residents across America, "from 15-foot fiberglass strawberries to 40-foot concrete pheasants." Elliott, a professional photographer, made the film with her childhood friend Elizabeth Donius.

"World's Largest" screens at 9:15 p.m. March 12 and 11 a.m. March 20 at the Alamo South and 11 a.m. March 17 at the Alamo Ritz.

Chris Garcia: How did this documentary come about?

Amy Elliott: I love roadside attractions; I'm one of those people who drive hours out of their way to see things like world's largest ball of twine. The idea for the documentary sprang out of wanting to do more than stop for the obligatory photo op and then head right back out again. We wanted to spend time in the communities, see why they chose to erect these particular objects and what it's like to live in their shadows. When towns put up these things they're saying: "Come visit us." My co-producer Elizabeth Donius and I decided to do just that.

How did you approach these elephantine objects? As folk art? As monuments to America's romance with all things supersize? As sad totems to unintended kitsch?

There are so many of them across the U.S. that we had to narrow them down, so we enacted some strict and totally arbitrary rules about which to include. They had to be civic monuments (i.e., not advertising symbols or individual artists' works), tie in with the economic, geographic or cultural history of their towns, and we had to like the way they looked.

What kind of people are behind such works?

We concentrated on civic monuments, so they were usually the brainchildren of creative people who were very active in their communities. In fact, we found there was a basic reoccurring script for how most every "world's largest" came about — it was the big idea of one local big dreamer. He'd propose it, there'd be some grumbling about his sanity, people would fight about the money needed, somehow the funds would get raised, the object would go up, and in the end everyone would come around and embrace it as the symbol of the town.

Our through-line in the film is the story of Soap Lake, Wash., and their four-year attempt to build the world's largest lava lamp. The guy spearheading that project, Brent Blake, is a perfect example of this. He wanted to revitalize his town and came up with this off-the-wall idea to spur tourism. The opposition was a little more pronounced than in some of the other places because of both the scope of the project and the fact that Soap Lake is one of the poorest towns in the state, but the human dynamics were really similar.

What giant object that you visited is closest to your heart (and why)?

That's a hard call — we shot in over 60 places — but I'm going to have to give it to the giant cornstalk in Shelby, Iowa. It's not the prettiest "world's largest" (basically just a 78-foot tall metal pole), but it was so well-loved by the farmer whose idea it was that, for me, it took on a life and personality of its own. The farmer, Dwight Eckel, carefully documented all the important moments in its history, from the day it was put up to when it was moved to a more prominent place by the highway (pulling down a crane in the process). He even wrote poems about it. Now, almost 40 years later, the city is considering branding around the sculpture, using the design in signposts, etc.

What did you learn about America as you shot the movie over four years? Or: What themes emerged during your tour across the country?

A lot of the places we visited are at economic crossroads. There have been seismic changes to the industries that these towns were built on (and their "world's largests" often commemorate), especially agriculture and manufacturing. People all over the country expressed concerns about the future of their towns, either being swallowed up by encroaching suburbs or drying up and blowing away. I don't know if tourism around a "world's largest" is a great way to revitalize — these statues in many cases seem to be less viable as tourist attractions than as monuments to the past.

More about "World's Largest" at www.worldslargestdoc.com.

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649