By Crystal Harrell
As the Palm Springs International Film Festival comes to a close, the documentary Common Ground from critically acclaimed, award-winning filmmakers Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell-Tickell received an audience award for Best Documentary Feature. The acclaimed documentary, narrated by Laura Dern, Jason Momoa, Rosario Dawson, Ian Somerhalder, Woody Harrelson, and Donald Glover, investigates the power of “regenerative” farming systems—and saving our planet from climate change. Fusing journalistic expose with deeply personal stories from those on the front lines of the food movement, the documentary unveils a dark web of money, power, and politics behind our broken food system and reveals soil health as the key to unlocking more (and healthier) food to feed America and the world.
Currently playing in theaters across the U.S. and expanding nationwide through the end of the year with an awards push, Common Ground is in the top 20 documentary feature box office grosses nationally and, excluding one off event theatrical releases, in the top 15 in U.S. documentary theatrical grosses for 2023. The film is presented and theatrically distributed by Big Picture Ranch and Area23a. Coachella Valley Weekly spoke with filmmakers Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell-Tickell on their latest release.
CV WEEKLY: Thank you for taking the time to talk to Coachella Valley Weekly about your feature film Common Ground. This film is a follow-up to your first feature. Can you walk me through the process of what made you want to create a follow-up to Kiss the Ground with Common Ground?
JOSHUA: Kiss the Ground was strangely successful. We’ve made 20 something environmental films. We, being myself and Rebecca, are a production studio called Big Picture Ranch. We are a climate studio and we focus on solutions to climate change with film. And Kiss the Ground was the one that really took off. We’d had various successes before. We’d been to Sundance, we’d won Sundance, we’d been to show in the White House, all that good stuff. But in terms of the just sheer viewership, Kiss the Ground was incredible and some of it had to do with COVID. The film came out during COVID, so people were very aware of health and food, but some of it just had to do with awareness, and in a large part consciousness, had caught up with the subject matter. So you know, Kiss the Ground, we didn’t get to do everything we wanted to do in the first film and due to the success, people started asking us about another film and we thought, ‘wow, we’re not going to make two films about dirt, are we?’ Well, next thing you know, we have made two films and there’s a third in the works, so it’s going to be a trilogy.
CV WEEKLY: Can you reveal a little bit about the stages of production on that new film so far?
JOSHUA: We’ve shot a little bit. We’re planning to shoot the bulk of the film this year. It’s called Groundswell, and it’s about the international movement toward climate solutions through soil and through regenerative agriculture.
CV WEEKLY: Excellent. And going back to Common Ground, I know there’s a lot of big names attached to this. What was it like trying to recruit all of these featured names like Jason Momoa and Donald Glover?
JOSHUA: Well, they’re all parents, so it helped that they are all invested in a solution for their children. And that was kind of the central motivation for every single person to be part of the film. The film is a love letter to the next generation. So that is a very universal topic, and once Laura had done the initial narration, it was relatively straightforward to get the rest of the cast to do their narration.
CV WEEKLY: You and Rebecca are married. How does that affect or play into your working professional relationship?
JOSHUA: Rebecca comes up with some of the big flashy ideas and I do a lot of the sciency stuff.
REBECCA: it’s powerful. I feel like I come to the table with a whole bunch of skills and he comes to the table with a whole bunch of skills, and they’re not all the same. He and I process things very differently, so we’re committed to the same thing. So, I feel like together it really amplifies exponentially our ability. Like if it’s just me, I’m only capable of so much. And if it’s just him, same thing. But when we’re together, it’s just like double, you know? It’s kind of like magic in a way. And sometimes it feels like we’re in battle because documentary filmmaking people ask us like, should I be a documentary filmmaker? We’re like, no, definitely not. Only crazy people do that and it’s because it’s really challenging, and a lot of the time feels like we’re sort of fighting a a war or something. It’s like everything is so intense and so immediate.
So, we kind of describe it like we’re back-to-back, and I’m dealing with everything on this side and he’s dealing with everything on that side. Between the two of us, we’re able to more or less make it happen.
CV WEEKLY: You know you mentioned there’s a lot of struggle that can happen in the process of documentary filmmaking. Has here a point that either of you remember that really stands out to you in the production process of Common Ground or a memorable moment you want to share about creating the film that either of you recall?
REBECCA: The moment we found out that Gabe had ALS was a really critical moment.
That was a very, very sad moment for us. And it still continues to be because we love him so much and if it weren’t for him, Common Ground wouldn’t exist. I think as filmmakers, you have a vision and then it finally starts to come together. And for us, when we had our first cut and we had Laura Dern doing the narration, reading the letter to her children, we realized this film really needs to reach everyone. It’s a really important message. The idea came because we had a lot of support from people like Laura Dern, and Jason and Ian Somerhalder and Rosario Dawson. We just realized they’re also parents, they also feel deeply invested in this. They wanted to contribute to this. I think for them, bringing them into the fold was one of those sort of spectacular moments where you have the base for the film and they came in at the very end.
And so getting to go and film with them and have them read the letter to their children and seeing how moved it made them like authentically, genuinely touched each one of our narrators at some point to shed a tear. I think it’s because they really believe in this message like this is so overlooked. How could we be in the environmental movement for so long and not think about where we’re going to put all the carbon and then the solutions can be just under our feet? It’s a no-brainer that we’re going to need as much star power as possible to try to get this message to reach the world.
CV WEEKLY: What about you, Josh? Do you have anything to add to to that about any moment that stands out to you creating Common Ground or a favorite moment that touched you?
JOSHUA: I would say there’s two moments. One was being on Rick Clark’s farm and seeing how much money he was saving by doing regenerative agriculture. That was pretty astonishing. But seeing it was different than just hearing about it. And then the other moment is when Jason did his narration, he showed up and he was sick and he didn’t feel well and he didn’t think he was going to be able to do it. And then he started reading the narration and he got really into it. And it was one of those moments where we’d flown to New Zealand to film with him and there we were the day of and it didn’t seem like it was going to happen.
There was a moment of ‘uh oh, this has been a very long trip for something that’s not going to come together.’ And then he got what the subject was and he got the film and he just got so into it, and what a cool guy. That was cool. Those were a couple good moments, but he goes, ‘oh, you didn’t tell me we’re here today to do God’s work.’ That was what he said when he was reading the narration.
CV WEEKLY: Yeah, you got his seal of approval right there. I’m glad that you shared your favorite moments about the production and how do you feel about its involvement in the Palm Springs International Film Festival? What do you hope that audiences get out of seeing your film?
REBECCA: The whole Coachella Valley has a real opportunity to regenerate.The summers here are so hot and the weather can be unpredictable. There can be flooding in the winter and there’s a real opportunity to stabilize that microclimate. One of the ways you can do that is with ruminants and through regenerative agriculture. I’m just really excited about the opportunity that lies ahead for this area. Once people understand the concept of regeneration, like how it can just totally blossom and be regenerated—you can have cooler summers, more predictable winters. You can grow food regeneratively, build topsoil, drawdown carbon, all of the things, all of the benefits of regeneration. Palm Springs is a prime spot for that to go from desert into tall grasslands, like it really could be that. We just we would love for enough people in the area to watch the film and get the concepts and then put them into into practice because it really will determine the outcome of what this area looks like 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now.