Everybody, at least those who haven’t been super rich all their lives (and I’m sure there is no one like that in the Hamptons), has probably experienced, at some time in their life, the threat of being evicted.
So while political films by American directors aren’t usually accessible or of interest to the mainstream audience, I’m guessing there are about 100 million potential viewers for Little Pink House, which tells the true story of Susette Kelo’s courageous fight against the powerful people who used eminent domain to justify razing her beloved home and others in New London, Connecticut, to make way for a Pfizer plant.
Watch the trailer:
Beginning Friday, writer/director Courtney Moorehead Balaker’s moving, inspiring new film starring the always terrific Catherine Keener can be seen by a modest number of people at Village East (Kelo and Balaker will be present for at least one Q&A) and AMC Empire in New York City, as well as in L.A., Berkeley, San Francisco and Atlanta. It’s a timely, important film about one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions in history—one that has had lasting impact. As Balaker says, this story “hits a nerve.”
On Monday I had the following conversation with Courtney Moorehead Balaker, her husband and co-producer Ted Balaker (who covered the story when he was at ABC News) and Susette Kelo, a reluctant hero.
Danny Peary: I assume there has been a whirlwind of activity leading up to this Friday’s national opening of Little Pink House.
Courtney Moorehead Balaker: Exactly that. This morning Susette and I were on the Today show. With Megyn Kelly.
Ted Balaker: And last night we were in New London.
CMB: We had the premiere at the Garde Theater. 1,400 people showed up and others had to be turned away.
DP: Did Susette recognize people she used to know when she lived there?
TB: Oh, yeah, it was like a homecoming.
DP: So did 1,400 people love it?
CMB: It felt like it. We didn’t know which way it would go.
TB: It deals with a contentious issue.
CMB: So I wasn’t sure, but Susette felt confident it would be well received, and it was.
DP: I would think one of the hardest things for you would have been when your neighbors in Fort Trumbull readily sold their houses for relatively small cash offers, allowing Pfizer to build on the land. Was there a sense of betrayal that divided the community back then that still exists today?
Susette Kelo: Oh no, never. I thought people should do what they wanted to do. I wanted to stay. The first people who sold were those who owned buildings but didn’t live there and rented out their properties. Some people who lived there did sell and moved on and that was fine. I had absolutely no resentment toward them.
DP: When is the last time you’ve been to the property that was taken from you?
SK: I’ve been there only three times since I left. I don’t go back there. Once I was with John Stossel, once with Courtney and Ted for the end of the movie, and the other day with the folks from the Today show.
DP: How did if feel?
SK: Well, what they did was wrong and it’s a horrible experience to go back there. They ripped out our hearts. I don’t think some people realize how bad and how hard it was to go through something like that.
DP: This may be the hardest question to answer: What did that little pink house mean to you?
SK: It meant everything to me. It’s where I chose to live. I was a paramedic going to nursing school and I wanted to live closer to the water, and bought this house I could afford. When I first walked into that house it was like I had been there all my life. I had such an overwhelming feeling in that home. It was like whoever moved it there knew what was going to happen, that someone was going to save it.
DP: I wondered if you were so taken with the house because you were an EMT worker and needed something calmer, more tranquil.
SK: I didn’t look at it like that when I bought the property. I just saw it as a place by the water and a place I wanted to be. I guess you could say that it was tranquil. [Laughing] But it wasn’t tranquil there for very long.
DP: At the time your house was put in jeopardy in the late ’90s, had you even heard of “eminent domain?”
SK: Of course I’d heard the term, but I understood it to be used only for true public use, not for a private company to take away people’s houses so they can build on their land.
DP: As we see in the film, a private company like Pfizer can always justify using eminent domain by pointing out its presence will boost the economy of a depressed area. So how do you argue with that?
TB: By showing their track records. They are usually pretty bad. There’s usually a huge gap between the promises made and what is delivered.
SK: Once they acquire the property through eminent domain, they don’t have to put what they said they’d put there. That’s one thing I learned.
TB: You’re right that it is difficult to argue against. You see in the film that what is presented to the people of a town can sound very seductive. Because of the poor economy, people do want more jobs and tax revenue. But they might think differently if they realize that at the core, people of a particular neighborhood are being forced out of their homes and don’t want to leave. It’s a cruel thing being done to them.
As Scott Bullock said at the Supreme Court, what poor communities have in common is that they don’t generate a lot of tax revenue. If you just want to generate tax revenue, you’re going to be bulldozing a lot of poor communities.
SK: They don’t generally use eminent domain in wealthy neighborhoods.
DP: Or get rid of a golf course so they can put up low-income housing.
CMB: You’re right!
DP: Susette did great being interviewed by Megyn Kelly this morning, and I really admired that because she isn’t someone who has ever been comfortable with the media and being in the spotlight.
CMB: Absolutely. I consider myself shy too and was always terrified of getting up on a stage and speaking in front of groups. I know Susette didn’t want to be the spokesperson initially and the Institute of Justice lawyers had to talk her into it. She wasn’t looking for attention because that’s not who she is. She wasn’t looking to be the face of a cause, but she did it because it was the right thing to do.
She had to do it because it would protect other people from being hurt. It’s so admirable to do what she did and also have so many emotional opinions thrown her way—because there were people on her side and others who weren’t. And Susette, you were in the eye of this storm, and it wasn’t pretty most of the time.
SK: This was true.
DP: Susette, you have five adult sons. I’m sure your line of work then, as an EMT paramedic riding around in ambulance, impressed them. But when you initiated your fight to save your house and neighborhood in the late 1990s, were they surprised that you became the spokesperson for a cause?
SK: One of my sons said the other day, “They couldn’t have picked a better person than my mother because she is so tenacious.”
DP: Did you agree immediately to be the spokesperson when Steve Bullock of the Institute of Justice asked you. Or did you need to think it over?
SK: We discussed it. As Courtney said, I wasn’t looking to be in the limelight, but I did it because it was the right thing to do, and out of respect for the Institute of Justice, for what it did for us. When the Institute of Justice took our case, they said they’d never desert us and they are still true to those words today.
DP: And it is associated with this movie, using it as a devise to spread the word against eminent domain.
CMB: Yeah, for social action. As for using the film for education and awareness, they are a huge partner. They have the most intimate knowledge of where these problems are happening currently and know how to go in there and use the film effectively. I’ll tell you a very quick anecdote.
Our film played at the Provincetown International Film Festival and Susette was there with me. About a week before I left for Massachusetts, I got an email from a stranger named Mike. He said, “I live in Provincetown and saw that your film is going to play here at the festival. My family is dealing with something similar. We have owned a bike shop for a really long time and the city wants us to leave so they can turn it into a parking lot.”
Parking, as you may know, is a premium concern in many places. It was a contentious issue because some people actually wanted more parking in that area. He said, “The location is key to our business. There’s a vote coming up and I wonder if there is a way to use your film to help us fight this thing?”
I reached out to Christina Walsh of the Institute of Justice and asked her to give Mike some pointers. We had two or three screenings and they were packed and he handed out fliers afterward. Susette actually talked to Mike and his family and gave them some advice. There was a vote two days later and they won. They really felt this film put their situation into perspective in a way a conversation at City Hall couldn’t.
We were really proud of that moment and we want to have more of those moments. Now that we are officially releasing the film, I hope we can start doing that.
TB: That’s why we have kind of a hybrid distribution model. We have a traditional theatrical release plus people can bring the film to their hometown theaters if it hasn’t been booked there. What happened in Provincetown, we want to happen all over the nation, where these abuses are going on. Because they’re targeting poor minority or elderly communities, nobody really pays attention.
Nobody would have heard of Susette Kelo had it not been for Scott Bullock of the Institute of Justice agreeing to take the case. So we want to use this movie to shine a light on local abuses, because they are happening right now.
DP: Local is the target, right?
TB: Yeah. We’re happy to see that a group in Wisconsin and another in Indiana are using the film in a similar way.
DP: Courtney, I read in the press notes that when you first spoke to Catherine Keener you knew she was the right person to play Susette because she recognized the importance of home.
CMB: That’s right.
DP: Did you have her meet Susette?
SK: I met her only after the film was made.
CMB: We tried to get them to meet when we were in pre-production. Catherine was on the East Coast visiting her family but Susette’s schedule as a nurse and other things was so crazy that it didn’t work out. Then Catherine decided that she knew Susette well enough from the script and the book and watching clips of her, and I think that as an actress, she probably made the right choice to wait to talk to her. Because it wasn’t about doing an impersonation of somebody, but about finding the heart and core of the story and recognizing the times of human despair and anger and the times of resilience and strength.
Catherine responded to so much and really felt she knew Susette. When I was writing the script, Joel Soisson, who produced the film with Ted and me, said that when Susette learns the case is going to the Supreme Court, Susette should throw her arm into the air and yell, “We’re going to the Supreme Court! Yay, I’m going!” So that’s how I wrote it. On the day we shot the scene with those lines, Catherine, who never met Susette, said, “She would never do that.”
So we changed it and it turned out she was totally correct. She could tell that Susette was not that type of person who says, “Me, me, me, look at me!”
DP: Susette, when you heard about 5–4 Supreme Court ruling against you, were you surprised or were you ready for the defeat?
SK: Oh, no, we were all surprised that they didn’t allow us to stay. We were shell-shocked.
DP: How long did it take for you to get back on your feet?
SK: I’m not sure I’m back on my feet yet. That was huge. They really destroyed a lot of people.
DP: I thought about how veteran baseball player Curt Flood refused to be traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia and took his case to the Supreme Court in 1972. He sacrificed his career by challenging the reserve clause and losing the decision, but he paved the way for an independent arbitrator to strike down the decision in 1975, allowing free agency for all players.
TB: Lots of people’s houses are protected today because Susette stood up and was willing to sacrifice her own home.
DP: Is it a goal to a more favorable ruling by the Supreme Court some day or is the emphasis now only to change things at the local level?
SK: I don’t really know. Scott says there is a chance they’ll change the ruling one day. But what the Supreme Court really wants is for us not to come back, but for municipalities and states to take care of their own land use cases.
TB: The Supreme Court left the door open for states to do reform, and that’s the fastest way to do it.
DP: Is Connecticut one of the 44 states that have enacted laws against eminent domain as a result of her action with the Institute of Justice?
TB: No, Connecticut is terrible, New York State is terrible.
DP: I agree. That eminent domain was used so the Barclays Center could go up in Brooklyn was a crime. I have always despised eminent domain because of stadiums, arenas and golf facilities being erected in areas where the people there hadn’t the power or resources to put up a fight. And rich people getting richer.
TB: Cowboys Stadium, Dodger Stadium—stadiums are some of the most egregious examples because they’re literally kicking out homeowners and businesses to make room. In Los Angeles there’s now discussion of razing a blue-collar Latino neighborhood to make room for a new Clippers facility. Of course, the Clippers are owned by one of the richest men on the face of the earth [former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer]. So it’s just the same sad story playing over again.
DP: Susette, when you appear before a congressional hearing, what do you say?
SK: I spoke once at the state level and once before Congress after the decision. I had a prepared speech and told the story of our homes being taken, and said how long it took and for what and why.
DP: Did you get angry and slam your fist down?
SK (laughing): I don’t get angry. I guess you can say I’ve been groomed.
DP: Courtney, the film is getting national attention. Did you know the film would resonate with people all over the country?
CMB: I did. Otherwise we wouldn’t have made the film. We knew we could reach people about the concept of home. Everyone knows what that feels like. Even if you don’t own a home, you know where you live and you know where you want to be. They can relate to the situation of someone trying to put you out of their home and uprooting you. What I didn’t know is how many people have personal stories about this or have connections to people who have gone through it.
After the Q&As at film festivals, in places I wouldn’t expect, people would say, “This happened to me” or “This happened to my family.” People were so moved seeing what Susette went through and did that they’d hug her and cry. I’m so happy to see that the subject has a wider reach than I expected. I thought the concept of home was broad while the issue was obscure, but it too is broad.
DP: During your interview with Megyn Kelly today, they put a statement from Pfizer on the monitor, denying any wrongdoing in New London. One of the things that is brave about your movie is that you mention Pfizer by name rather than using a fictional pharmaceutical company. So what do you think of its denial to being party to using eminent domain to get rid of Susette’s Fort Trumbull neighborhood?
CMB: What I find interesting is that we know there was a Pfizer executive on a yacht with the governor of Connecticut and one of the key figures of the New London Development Corporation, and they were breaking a bottle of champagne and talking about how they are going to launch this redevelopment plan. It was very well documented. Jeff Benedict, who is a wonderful journalist, wrote a fantastic book that I highly recommend.
The movie encapsulated an enormously complicated story, but one of the biggest challenges was condensing it and having to combine characters, which is why names were changed, but Jeff did a very good job of documenting it all. He put it out for the world to see that Pfizer was working with the New London Development Corporation [NLDC] to build something once they were given a usable site.
Maybe Pfizer is trying to say it wasn’t its idea. Whose idea was it? It’s like the chicken and the egg. In Jeff’s book, it seems that the governor really launched the whole concept, and the multimillion-dollar corporation that made the most sense to get to build there was right across the river. Either way, it was the city that forced Susette out so Pfizer could move in. Pfizer didn’t knock on doors and offer money for houses or go in there with a bulldozer. It was the city that did it.
DP: Was the city of New London separate from the NLDC?
CMB: The NLDC was technically a non-profit, but it was working very closely with the city. It was kind of the same animal with different heads.
DP: Susette, I was struck by Pfizer being offered $75 million to move in and you being offered $65,000 to move out.
SK: At the beginning we didn’t know what Pfizer’s deal was. After they got their money and all the workers came to work and started the bulldozing, all I could relate it to was watching children playing in a sandbox with their Tonka trucks. Today we’re going to move all the dirt in front of Byron’s house. And tomorrow we’re going to move that dirt over to Billy’s house and put Jersey berries around Byron’s house. They made roads to nowhere, sidewalks to nowhere. When the money ran out, the trucks were parked, the dirt stayed where it was, and everybody left.
DP: Courtney, for Susette the house was something so personal, but as the writer/director did you see that house as a metaphor for other things?
CMB: Yeah. One of the things that fascinated me so much about this story is the idea of value and who defines a person’s value. Susette is the only person who can define her value. Her neighbors are the only ones who can define their value. Yet someone can come into your life and say, “No, no, this is your value. And this is the value of the locket you’re wearing. And this is the value of your property.”
And they truly believe—or don’t believe—that they are not only right but also are doing what’s best for you and everyone around you. And that truly terrifies me. There is a metaphor there in terms of my own values. I think it’s about principle. People shouldn’t be going around telling people what their things are worth.
DP: Susette, there’s a line in the movie that Courtney wrote for you: “I’m scared.”
SK: There was fear. Of the wolves at our doors and having our backs to the wall and needing to fight like wild animals. And then the fear of what’s going to happen? Tomorrow? An hour from now? What’s going to happen if I go away for three days? So there was plenty of fear.
DP: Courtney, how did you see it—that her fear was something that made what she did even more admirable?
CMB: Totally. I had to imagine that at that point she had gone so far and had to decide whether to turn back or keep going. When you make such a choice in life it can be terrifying because you don’t know if your choice is right. I took so much from the book and, Susette, there is a moment in it where you tell Jeff that you’re taking it on. You’ve gone to the point of no return and you have no idea how it’s going to pan out. Because so many things were happening and so many things were changing all the time. So for me that’s what her saying she’s scared represented.
DP: Was slipping Susette’s romance with Tim into the movie difficult or easy because it gave you some respite from the serious stuff with the case?
CMB: It was actually hard and here’s why. That part of Susette’s life happened when everything was going on. I felt it was important to incorporate it because I wanted to show that in the middle of this gigantic battle and while she was working crazy-long hours and going to school, this man has this horrible accident and she has to take care of him. It’s almost like Who wrote this?
I’m sure people think it was made up, but it really happened, and if we didn’t include it we would have left out a huge, crucial component of her personality. She is really tough and resilient and won’t stop, and she has the biggest heart. She just gave so much of herself in a personal way, when most people would have just said, “I’m sorry, I have a lot going on and this would be too much.”
I was blown away by how she found time to take care of him. That’s why I thought it was an important part of the story.
DP: Susette, was it a total burden taking care of him at that time, or did it help you to have another facet in your life besides just the house?
SK: In real life it was overwhelming at best, to have to do all that with him and continue what I was doing about the house. He was in the hospital for two months. To me, Courtney putting it in the movie was to show another part of being human. Because life changes on a dime for anybody. In an instant your life can change.
DP: In the press notes, you state that eminent domain is a form of bullying, which connects Susette’s story to the #MeToo movement.
CMB: Ted and I like to say eminent domain is a form of legalized bullying. Susette was someone who stood up to some really powerful people in government and an enormous corporation. She didn’t back down. That’s not an easy thing to do. It took years of her life and a lot of energy. She could have folded, could have walked away and saved herself a lot of pain and heartache.
DP: In the press notes, you say, “It affected every aspect of her life—emotional, financial, you name it.”
CMB: It was a gigantic sacrifice. I put up dates on the screen to the passage of time, but it was hard to convey in the film how long this took. It was like 10 years from when the story started to percolate until the Supreme Court decision. A decade of somebody’s life. How it pertains to what I see the women of the #MeToo movement doing is standing up to people who use their power to intimidate and assault, and say that’s not okay. There’s never a bad time for a movie about a strong woman, but the timeliness of a film about a strong woman couldn’t be better.
DP: There is a woman vs. woman element to your film, Courtney. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays Charlotte Wells, a shrewd but flaky woman, who schemes with the corrupt Republican governor to bring Pfizer to New London so he can claim he brought prosperity to a depressed Democratic town. We should hate her but we don’t because you don’t, which leads to the question, “Was she a hard character to write?”
CMB: She was the most challenging character to write. She’s based mostly on a particular woman but she’s really a composite character taken from several women. Even when I read the book I never really saw that woman and her closest cohorts as mustache-twirling villains who tried to hurt people and kick them out of the neighborhood. But if you write them too black and white it’s not interesting, because people aren’t black and white and nobody has been entirely evil since they were two.
People are complicated and if you don’t portray them that way in this case then it’s not believable and heavy-handed. Anyway, I truly believe that some of them thought that what they were doing was going to lead them to a greater good. She may have believed that at one point.
DP: I don’t know if when you were making the movie you thought of the eminent domain proponent Donald Trump, but I know that today he’s a focal point of the conversation that goes with this movie.
CMB: Oh, yeah. When we were making the film people were joking about Trump thinking about running for president.
TB: He had started his campaign.
CMB: But nobody was really buying it. Because he’d talked about it before so people weren’t taking him seriously.
TB: You can imagine Courtney spending long hours directing this film about eminent domain. And then Trump starts running for president.
CMB: If you told me then that Susette’s most famous opponent, who had literally said, “I love eminent domain,” was going to be our next president, I would have laughed you out of the room. It’s actually kind of surreal that he is our president now and the eminent domain issue is coming up again because of the Wall and our movie is being released. We didn’t plan it that way but it just happened that way.
TB: Trump said of the Supreme Court decision, “I agree with it 100 percent.”
DP: Courtney, how do you want people to react to your film?
CMB: If people walk away from the film thinking that what happened to Susette and her neighbors was tragic, or at least think about it and have a conversation about it, that’s all I would ask.
DP: Susette, Courtney said you are totally busy now.
SK: I’m still nursing. I’ve maintained my license but no longer practice paramedicine in the field—although I sometimes have to act like a paramedic in the hospital.
DP: In Courtney and Ted’s movie, after the Supreme Court decision, you promise everyone, “We won’t quit.” What can you say about that line?
SK (laughing): Here I am. When you say you will do something, you have to do it. When I was raising my kids, I’d tell them, “I say what I mean and I mean what I say.” If I say I’m not going to quit, I’m not going to quit.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.