Lyn Clinton - filmmaker "The Height Of The Sky" / President Bill Clinton's cousin
On the phone with Philip Anderson - 2000
 
The name Clinton has become permanently embedded in practically everyone's mind in the U.S., if not the world. Between all the politics, scandals and highlights of Bill and Hillary, not to mention the occasional Roger story, there is enough Clinton tales to write several novels. Now comes a new name to public light, Bill's cousin Lyn. Lyn comes from a different side of the family. She is a filmmaker, primarily known for doing documentaries, who has just released a very favorable new movie called "The Height Of The Sky" (Vanguard). This film retells an old Clinton family tale - or at least is based upon one - from back in the Great Depression.
 
"The Height Of The Sky" is very well made, entrancing, with a fresh batch of faces who really hold their own as actors. For an independent film, this one has that big screen feel to it. Although a bit slow at times, it is to be expected judging by the subject matter. The story is of a girl, more educated than the rest of her social surroundings, who attempts through all odds to keep her family together during some very hard trials and tribulations as they are about to lose their farm. Along the way, a murder mystery becomes part of the tale and adds an intriguing plot twist to the whole story. Life wasn't pretty in those days and it isn't always easy to accurately portray how hard it was, but Lyn Clinton has done as fine of a job of recreation as she could with an independent budget.
 
We recently had a chance to chat with Lyn about her film, her family association and her current projects. At 29, Lyn is quite youthful for someone who had created a project with such endeavor, Lyn was more than happy to go into the life of an independent filmmaker and give us a glimpse of how things are done. 

K2K: Was "The Height Of The Sky" your first film?
LC: My first feature. [Before that] I made several shorts. I had worked in films for quite some time or in and around the film business. I had seen the different aspects of it. So, "The Height Of The Sky" was my first feature, my first big endeavor, out on my own.
 
K2K: How did you get around to making it?
LC: I was actually working on the film "Primary Colors" at Universal several years ago. I was working for the executive producer. I then started working in editing and realized that it was about time to stop doing production assistant type work and to just go out and do this. I had studied film in college. My biggest interests were anthropological and ethnographic films, but something led me to want to tell this story. It actually is a historical story, something that always interested me. I've always been interested in the Deep South anyway, from a historical point of view. It actually relates to my interest in documentary film. I decided to just do it.
 
K2K: Is this story more legend or factual?
LC: Well, elements of this story are authentic. A relative of mine, during the civil war - I changed the story to 1930 - his son had Tuberculosis and he did take him to a cabin to remove him from the rest of the family, so he wouldn't give everyone TB. The conditions in the film, the shanty that they lived in, were similar to the way that people lived in that region at the time, even in the 1800s. It could have been even worse. We didn't even have a budget for extensive renovations and production designs. We did what we could. Our cabin, actually, ended up looking a lot nicer than the farmhouse that they lived in. It's like, "Why didn't the whole family just go up to the cabin and live up there?" (laughs) So there are things like that.
 
Basically it's the story about a young boy and his father. The more I started to explore the relationship between a boy and his father; father/son; why this father, in the circumstances they were in, give up everything for this one son. That's really a question that I've never found an answer to, even speaking to relatives and even read record books in rural Arkansas and things like that.
 
The fictional aspect of the film was that I needed to find something a little more dramatic to occur. So I created an entire plantation owner's family and the conflict between the two families. I decided to make the protagonist the sister. He did have a sister. She was eventually a school teacher. That was a true element. I just thought it might be interesting to tell it from a young woman's point of view, especially during the 1930s, when women's voices weren't as pronounced as they are today. Especially in that region of the country.
 
I changed it to the 1930s for several reasons. One was budgetary. We were not going to be able to recreate the civil war period on our low budget. We made the film for the cliche independent filmmaker budget of $100,000. We were lucky. By only utilizing several locations, and having them being mostly rural locations, it made it a lot easier to make it look very authentic - as opposed to if we had tried to recreate a city and urban scenes during the 1930s. That would have been more difficult. I also had been very fascinated, having grown up in that region with - during car trips as a child, I would see these shantys along the interstates and highways. I would always wonder who lives there and what their lives were like. You could see a light in the distance at night. They didn't have any plumbing and you knew someone was there. That was just a period of history and that was the period of time that I was interested in, so I decided to set the film in that time rather than try to recreate a time that I didn't have a budget for. And, the 1930s was still a time, in that region, when there were rampant problems with Tuberculosis, or Consumption, as it was called. It wasn't until the 1950s that things started to really turn around in that region, actually in most parts of the country, but that was the hardest hit.
 
K2K: Well, you just answered an old question of mine. I never quite knew what Consumption was. I had always thought it was an unhealthy inhalation of dust or something.
LC: (laughs) OK, yeah. Well, it's like the maiden in the romance novels, "I have Consumption." Everyone is, like, "What's that?"
 
K2K: Well, you know, like bogged down lungs with a lot of tar or something.
LC: And I guess that's what it is. (laughs) Technically. Yeah. I learned a lot of things about Consumption while I was doing research for the film.
 
K2K: Of course food intake is Consumption too.
LC: Yeah, I guess gluttony might be a form of Consumption.
 
K2K: If you had the budget and the chance to redo your film over again, would you do it?
LC: Oh yeah. I actually wrote a script based on my $7 million version. It took place over the course of two years. It was much more detailed. There are about twelve more characters. There were urban scenes. There was a town. There was a car crash late at night. Leora, the young woman, ends up killing the plantation owner, not by accident but covers it up. It was more suspenseful and more dramatic. There were a lot more places we could go with it. People always say, "You have to have a really good story." I want to say to them, "It doesn't matter how good your story is, if you don't have the budget it's not going to come through." There are so many things that we didn't get in on film that were in the script, that really took away from the story itself. Then, four months later, when you're editing, you're thinking, "There's nothing we can do." I went back to even take photos of the farm house and the guy who owned the farm had torn it down for more farmland. So, see? Things disappear. You've got to get it all while you're shooting. In a $70 million dollar budget you can do what you want. You can rebuild it.
 
K2K: Well, you could do the Kevin Costner $700 million budget, but then maybe nobody would show up.
LC: It would be about as slow as this film. (laughs)
 
K2K: I shouldn't say that but he spends millions and millions and then the films don't quite get the response they should.
LC: Well, my old theory, after working as a P.A. [Production Assistant] for some time is that, I ended up with lots of free filofaxes and coffee makers. My lunch, every day, was paid for and we took home dinner. A lot of parts of the budget go for "just things." You can't do that on independent films. We didn't have any luxuries. Everyone was using Porto-Toilets. Everyone was having to withstand horrible heat, humidity, mosquitoes... We had one trailer, but it had to be parked a mile away because the noise from the generator was so loud that we couldn't have it near the set. This was in Arkansas. Delta Arkansas in the Delta South. New Orleans or bayou swampland, it was kind of the same climate. The crew came from New York, Los Angeles - many of them from Arkansas, but the one's from out of town were overwhelmed. We had a lot of illness. Then there is something called the chigger that I wasn't aware of, and nobody from out of town knew what it was. Everyone was attacked by them.
 
K2K: Chiggers?
LC: Yeah. They're little red bugs and they burrow under your skin and breed. They itch like a mosquito bite. My lead actress had them all over her legs. They show up in the film, which is great, but she still has the scars now. They leave scars if you scratch them and everyone was scratching them thinking they were mosquito bites.
 
K2K: How do you get rid of them?
LC: You can put nail polish on them, which is the old redneck kind of way. Or, there's something that we discovered at Wal-Mart called "Chigger-Rid". It was essentially a more glorified nail polish. So you put that all over your body and it suffocates them and they die.
 
K2K: I suppose you could also bathe in gasoline.
LC: Yeah, or something like that. (laughs) Yeah. After you work a 17-hour day on the set, you get home at five in the morning, you bathe in gasoline and then apply the "Chigger-Rid". It's fun. (laughs) But everybody was in really good spirits through all that. We actually made a mistake and rented the big house for a lot of other people to live in. The behind-the-scenes drama was more - you know - intense than what we shot on a lot of days.
 
K2K: Is there going to be a "Behind The Scenes: Making Of" video?
LC: I wish.
 
K2K: How much did it cost to make the whole film?
LC: About $101,000. and 28 cents or something. We had used the budget that we thought we would. A lot of people who worked on the film, it was their first time to do the roles that they had. Our director of photography had been an A.C. before and shot some commercials but he had not done a feature. He did a good job for not having done a feature before. There are a lot of things like that. People were really accommodating. They came into the job more for the experience than the money and that's what you have to do when you make a film on that little budget. A lot of the actors were the same way. We couldn't get a SAG deal. It didn't work out because we were in Arkansas and our SAG office in Miami had had some problems with another Arkansas film at the same time. They told us no. We didn't have the money to hire someone for the production office to deal with it, so I had to lose three actors who we had planned on using, because they were in SAG.
 
K2K: Don't you just hate unions?
LC: It's crazy. One of the reasons that I shot the film in Arkansas - there are many reasons - is, for one, because it's a "Right To Work" state. So, if you're in a union, you can work on a non-union project. This doesn't apply to SAG but it does apply to the Camera Union.
 
K2K: It doesn't apply to SAG?
LC: No, nothing applies to SAG. They have rules everywhere.
 
K2K: I don't get SAG. In my view, I think the best man should work.
LC: I agree. I think that if you want to work on something, you should be able to. Part of the problem that I had was - two 40-something actors and one 20-something actor. They were on SAG and none of them had any established careers. They had been in films. The two 40-something actors had been in "Primary Colors." But the 20-something actor had ended up in SAG but the best roles that he can get are in the crowd scene, screaming something in the movie "Soldier." He couldn't work on my film where he was going to play the older brother Simon - because he was in SAG and we didn't have a SAG deal. So they called his agent and they threatened her because they had his name. It was a bad deal for me because he was a good actor, but it was a bad deal for him because he wanted the experience. So he had to debate whether or not to lose his SAG card and do the film.
 
K2K: In my case, I often wondered what would happen if I appeared in a film without a SAG card or just lied about having one.
LC: In my films, you can be non-SAG. In my films you can, but big films will pay for you to become SAG, is my understanding, if you're in a big film and don't have a SAG card.
 
K2K: Aside from the film for a moment, in reference to [President] Bill [Clinton], what side of the family are you on?
LC: He's my grandfather's brother's son. He's my dad's cousin, so he's my cousin. I think I'm a third cousin. His forefathers - Roy, Raymond and two others, Roger - they all had sons and one of them was my grandfather and one of them was my dad and one of them was Bill. It's complicated.
 
K2K: It gets more complicated now that I found out that Bill is not actually your blood relative either.
LC: No. It's all the Clinton thing. I didn't even know about that.
 
K2K: Right. It just came out that he was adopted.
LC: His mother Virginia was married to somebody, I don't remember the last name, and then his brother Roger is his half-brother.
 
K2K: Aside from Roger being a singer, you being a filmmaker, and Bill playing the saxophone, how many other people in your family are involved in arts?
LC: A lot of people. I have cousins galore in different bands across America.
 
K2K: Anybody of notoriety?
LC: Probably not. Unless I don't know about it. (laughs) They range from academics to musicians to, um, politicians, I guess. (laughs) I don't know, but it doesn't have anything to do with blood.
 
K2K: How much does the family name help you in business?
LC: I actually always dread that experience. It was great being Lyn Clinton because that was just the name I grew up with. Once Bill became President, it changed once people knew I came from Arkansas, but I haven't lived in Arkansas for years. I went to college in New York and no one ever believed me when I told them that I was from Arkansas. So unless somebody did research, they didn't really know.
 
K2K: Well, when you're related to someone so famous, it can help or it can hurt.
LC: I actually happened to get a lot of jobs on film because of where I went to grad school or friends of friends. Nobody ever made the connection until I made this film. Vanguard seem to be... Actually I had this film screened in a small film festival in Los Angeles and everyone hears my last name and hears that it's set in Arkansas and based on an old family story. Then the L.A. Times and Variety start writing how I'm related to Bill and they started calling the White House and asking questions.
 
K2K: I had to ask the questions.
LC: Exactly. You see a film set in Arkansas and the director's last name is Clinton, you're going to ask that question.
 
K2K: OK, then let me get a couple of other questions out of the way here. Has Bill seen the film?
LC: Oh yeah. We screened the film at the White House in February [2000]. The cast and crew, we all went. It was fun.
 
K2K: What did he have to say about it?
LC: He liked it. There was a quote from him in the Chicago Tribune about a month ago, I can't remember. The article is on our website. http://www.goodgirlfilms.com. Good Girl Films.
 
K2K: Has the whole family seen the film?
LC: The whole family has seen the film at different points in time. My parents had a screening while I was out of the country last fall. They screened it for most of the relatives. Several of the relatives were at the White House screening. A lot of people from Arkansas who work in D.C. were invited to the White House screening. I didn't really know any of them. So we got it out there, I guess, for all the Arkansas people. (laughs) It was fun. They had a nice wine and dessert reception. John Glenn and his wife were there to see it. It was interesting to meet someone who, at such an age, has been in space. It was interesting to meet someone who didn't mind the fast takeoff and all the things that would terrify me for months.
 
K2K: How was your meeting with John Glenn?
LC: Oh, he was nice. His wife Annie was there and they were so sweet. They were wonderful to me. Very encouraging about the film. It was a real treat for my actors because a lot of them came down from New York to D.C. They did anything they could to fly from around the country. Most of them are starving actors. It was really exciting. I made sure that they got to come, when the White House called me to screen it. I knew that they really wanted to come. Most of them had never been, obviously, to the White House before. To get there and see yourself on the big screen, I'm sure was really exciting.
 
K2K: OK, who stayed in the Lincoln bedroom?
LC: (chuckles) My cousin Marie. I was going to but I actually stayed with friends. They didn't let all my friends stay there. The White House doesn't let men and women spend the night there together and my fiancee was with me. If we weren't allowed to both stay there, then I wasn't going to stay there.
 
K2K: Are you serious?
LC: Yeah, we couldn't share a room.
 
K2K: So they have "modesty and ethics" rules there?
LC: Yes! The White House and the Clinton Administration will not allow unmarried couples.
 
K2K: You know, I hate to say this, but it almost sounds rather funny, after all the scandals, that they would have that kind of a morals clause.
LC: Well, I mean... I was glad that I was able to give it to my cousin Marie because she really wanted to stay there. (laughs) I hadn't seen a lot of my college friends and friends from high school. After the screening, we all went out and had a good time. I was glad that I got to see them and glad that I got to see my film at the White House, but I was really excited to give a cousin of mine the opportunity to stay there.
 
K2K: To hang out at the White House.
LC: Yeah. She had a good time. She's friends with a lot of the people who work there, who actually stay there. A lot of her old co-workers and friends were there. Since she actually knew so many people there, it was fun for her.
 
K2K: So how many times have you been asked the question of if you took any of the silverware or ashtrays from the White House? The typical questions.
LC: None, none whatsoever. He [Bill] gave my cast and crew a really nice tour of the Oval Office. It was wonderful. It was great to see all the great and historical things in the White House. Everyone was really excited, but no one stole anything. (laughs)
 
K2K: Oh, I didn't think anyone would but it seems to be the standard question to ask.
LC: We don't have to steal from there. We get birthday presents and Christmas cards and all the silver trays and little cups and things. Every birthday. I guess that this Christmas will be the last though.
 
K2K: Is there some neat art in the White House?
LC: I didn't really notice. I wasn't paying attention to that since we were meeting and greeting people for the film. In the Oval Office, the one thing that I did notice is that there was some beautiful art. I don't know whose it is. There was a lot of beautiful gifts that Bill has received from other countries. Swords and stuff. Gorgeous pieces. It was really interesting to see those. Some of those will be in the library. I think that they will be at the Clinton Presidential Library. It's all very interesting. It was such a fun experience and fun to take everyone there.
 
K2K: In talking about your cast, how did you pick who would be in it?
LC: I had Evan, who played Evan, who approached me at a wedding of a mutual friend and asked me if he could audition for the film. His friend Jennifer, who played Leora, actually came with him to audition and I really liked her for the role. Several of the other actors came through friends or people who I knew when I lived in New York. I found several through a casting agent in Arkansas, who cast a lot of Billy Bob Thornton films and regional films. One of the actors she provided me with was named Rick St. Vincent. He plays Nathaniel. I was impressed with him and with Jackie Stewart, who plays the father, Wendell. Both of them were unique finds for what I was doing in that region.
 
K2K: Jennifer did a hell of a job.
LC: Jennifer had done a lot of theater in New York. I just thought she fit the role. A lot of people have compared her to Sissy Spacek.
 
K2K: I have to say that the one thing that bugged me, not about the film, but about the mindset of the timeframe, is that they seemed to breed children for extra workers and education was considered bad.
LC: Yeah, that's the way it was. It was a very uneducated, desolate part of the country. The thing is that, obviously I don't agree with it, a lot of people during that time didn't have any education because they didn't have any resources or access to it. People from other parts of the country, or more affluent areas, or from universities, really don't understand that. Even people at the time, in the '30s, my grandparents didn't grow up that way, I still see it like that. That was kind of what inspired me. You can still go out to rural parts of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas and see that. You can experience it and talk to people and hear that mentality. It's ethnologically, for me, interesting. A lot of people could care less about that, but my growing up in that region, it interests me.
 
I don't like to make comparisons but, that period of time, in the Deep South, is almost like some of the ways that Third World countries are considered to be very wealthy or very poor. That's kind of how that region was and still is today in some parts.
 
K2K: I heard a funny quote the other day about those areas. "Their education extends to the amount of tractor technology."
LC: My whole theory is that those people have to be there - I don't mean it like that - for the life that we have so that I can have my sushi or things like that. I have respect for that kind of earthly, work-the-land mentality. I have respect for people all kinds of people, no matter where they're from or what they do. I just feel that that's a voice that most people misunderstand or have never heard. To know what that voice is and to understand that there were no resources for them to know anything else.
 
K2K: Well, in the film, when looking at these people, for supposedly being poor and uneducated, they looked pretty damn clean.
LC: Yeah, there was one point where I finally just threw dirt on Jen - when Gabriel and Leora are in the cabin talking. I threw dirt on her face. The camera people said, "Oh my God!" I said, "No, this is how everybody needed to look for the entire film."
 
K2K: What are the newspaper clippings on the wall as wallpaper?
LC: During that period, people in farmhouses, that's how the insulated their houses. It's insulation. That's how they did it. They used the paste that they made from gums to get it up on the wall. Those, the ones that were visible in the film, are papers that are actually from the 1930s, that my great-aunt rounded up for me. It's interesting to me that most of the people who lived in that way, in those houses, were illiterate, yet they had piles and piles of magazines and newspapers to use as insulation, yet no ability to read them.
 
K2K: You know what it was, it was "all dem purty pichers".
LC: Newspapers at that time didn't have many pictures. Then they had the Saturday Evening Post, which did have pretty color pictures. It was something to give color to our desolate house yet something to keep us warm in winter.
 
K2K: So, do you want to be more of a director or a writer as time goes on?
LC: I really do so many different things. I have mainly been working on documentaries of late. I really prefer to do creative projects. I'm not necessarily interested in producing anything. I've been working with different producers on grant money for documentaries and stuff like that.
 
K2K: What kind of directorial influences, and writing, do you have?
LC: Oh God. Those are the kind of questions that, when you go into an interview, they ask you, "What's your favorite book?" And you don't know. I guess there are a lot of different influences. In terms of the films that I've made, this is hard. I really love Stanley Kubrick but that has nothing to do with this film. I guess I have something in common with him since I didn't cut the film. My first editor had a five-hour version of this film. He had to leave and I took it and reedited it in two weeks' time. I have a real fondness for lengthy films. A lot of my favorite films are what lots of people term "art films." I have a fondness for ethnographic films. I did not want to be an editor. What happened was that I had no one to supervise me in terms of telling me what they thought. So we get a lot of long stares and things that I'm fond of. I looked back over the history of filmmaking and found a lot of influence.
 
K2K: How did you decide on the shots that you used?
LC: I did storyboard beforehand. I worked with a friend of mine who happened to be a good artist. We worked on this together. I did overheads. We didn't get a lot of the shots I wanted because we ran out of time. We tried to get as many as we could. One of the complications that we had is that we couldn't have removable walls and places to put the camera. So we had this 13 foot room for the farmhouse and a huge 35mm Panavision camera in there. There were a lot of times were I went, "Ah! Why didn't we use 16mm?" There were some moments were we had some weird lighting moments where light would come in the back window and it would look like daylight. I was really impressed with the gaffer. We all did the best we could. I wished that we had gotten more. But of course. That's always the case. More would have tagged some of the story elements together also. You don't know that when you shoot in the heat and you shoot less footage and you think you've gotten what you want. Unlike Hitchcock, whom I have utter respect for, some of his films are amazing. "Rope" is only two shots. He showed his crew his vision and everybody understood. We had people coming from different experiences who hadn't worked together before. A lot of them didn't understand what I was trying to do. They came from the background of big action-adventure films.
 
K2K: You have a European filmmaking style. Where did you pick that up from?
LC: I've heard that before. It must be all those years of watching foreign films. In college. When you study film history, that's what you study. There are courses where you study "Jaws." I feel like there's so much to be said for all kinds of filmmaking.
 
K2K: You have such a European style but set in the rural redneck 1930s. It was an interesting mix.
LC: I think, in a lot of ways, in shooting the story, it changed me. On the locations, I could visualize the story or the shot. I tried to not watch any films for four weeks before I shot the film. I did that so that I wouldn't start shot-lifting from other films. It's happened to people I know where they fell into the trap of becoming obsessed with other films.
 
K2K: Did you get any theatrical?
LC: I've had some people inquire. I don't know. I think it would have to be some small, art-house, revival theatrical release.
 
K2K: What about something like Cinequest or something?
LC: We stopped entering in film festivals a while ago and just started going with festivals who requested the film.
 
K2K: When was it made?
LC: In the summer of 1998. I finished it the next May. I guess Vanguard has TV rights, so we'll see what happens. Something like Bravo or IFC.
 
K2K: Did any of the actors come from any notoriety?
LC: I guess Jackie Stewart and Rick St. Vincent had been in several films. "Slingblade" and "Time To Kill." An actor named Mark Johnson, he's my biggest name I guess, was the sheriff in "Time To Kill."
 
K2K: How long have you been in Los Angeles?
LC: I lived her for two years before I made the film and then I've been back here for just over a year now.
 
K2K: Are you going to stay there?
LC: Probably not. There are so many other places that I enjoy living. I lived in New York for a long time. I used to live in Maine. I love cold weather, so I don't know if I can live in L.A.
 
K2K: Maybe Anchorage is more your speed.
LC: Antarctica. I'm fascinated by Antarctica. I've had the luxury of traveling through Africa and Asia. All I want to do is go to Antarctica.
 
K2K: Did you make documentaries there?
LC: Working on projects, mostly on grad school. Mostly ethnographic films that you would find at the library at the University of Chicago. Not really stuff that you would go out and rent.
 
K2K: What is your next project?
LC: We are raising money to do a project based on youth facilities in the Deep South. Also a project based on a book by a man named Ved Mehta. It's set in Arkansas at a blind school in the 1940s. It is about life. He is an Indian author. He's from India and came to America as a young blind boy. He attended the Arkansas School for the Blind, which of course was the lowest of the low of blind schools. Since he was from India at the time, none of the East Coast schools would accept him. It is a very interesting story that a friend of mine turned me onto. One is a feature and one is a feature-documentary.
 
K2K: Have you been approached to do any major projects?
LC: I've been approached to do two political documentaries and I had to turn them both down. One was about women in politics and one was based around a Democratic convention. I'm not really that interested in politics. I started working on two independent features. One was a project that was putting together and, like everything else in Hollywood, it fell through. I also own a business, a gift retail business in Arkansas. I do a lot of work with that. I do a lot of different things. I am designing wedding dresses now, including my own and several of my friends. I have a lot of ways that I make my living other than the big Hollywood films that aren't my style.
 
And with that, we went on to complain and bemoan such Hollywood atrocities as high movie theater prices and such. After that, it was time to go. By all means check out Lyn's first feature film, "The Height Of The Sky" from Vanguard and look for future projects from Ms. Clinton. We wish her all the best in her many endeavors.
 
Written by Philip Anderson

Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.

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