DS: This DSI is with a filmmaker of quality who is not that well known, outside of less commercial circles. Having said that, I think documentarian John Grabowska’s films are works that will survive and resonate for a long time after most fiction films (Hollywood, foreign, or independent) have been long forgotten. Unfortunately, he does not have a website to which I can link. Welcome, John, and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. And, as there is little information about you online, please give us a synopsis of who you are, what you’ve done in your life, what your goals were (and if you feel you’ve achieved them), and also your place in the modern art world.
JG: Greetings, Dan, it's a pleasure to be included in your series. I make films that interpret natural landscapes and our place within them. Some of the landscapes have been the Wrangell and St. Elias mountains of Alaska, the most heavily glaciated area outside the polar ice caps; the undeveloped Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina; and the mesa and plateau country of northwest New Mexico. Many of the films have been PBS specials as well as trudging around on the international enviro film fest circuit. Your observation that I am “not that well known” shows a flair for gracious understatement.
Raised in South Dakota in the 60s and 70s, boyhood summers traveling and camping in the American West, briefly committed journalism as a statehouse reporter, some policy work on Capitol Hill, taught killer beekeeping in Central America and fell into environmental filmmaking by happy accident. There probably aren’t many natural history filmmakers who came to the field on an obvious trajectory and I’m no exception. Many are biologists who learned to shoot or photographers who learned biology. I’m a writer who learned something about both.
My goals were and are to contribute something to the canon by creating natural history films that feel greatly, understand greatly and express greatly the astonishing beauty of things. Achievement and standing in the art world would be gratifying but those are up to the critics and the audience. I submit my works for their epicrisis.
DS: Before we get to the biographical stuff, let’s get basic. How do you define your job, as a documentarian? Do you see your words as immanently more malleable than a poet’s or novelist’s, or even a fiction film director’s?
JG: John Grierson and Pare Lorentz did a pretty good job of defining the job. Grierson called documentaries the “creative treatment of actuality” and Lorentz said they are factual films that are dramatic. Those are vague enough for me.
There is an inherent malleability in scripts, particularly mine, since I write spare narration that works in concert with image and sound sequences. I also try to write implicitly in an attempt to leave as much as possible up to the inference of the audience. The audience doesn’t read the script, they hear it integrated with images of the natural world, so my words are definitely more ephemeral than the written word, which can be revisited, reread and contemplated. My writing passes by and has an impact, or it does not.
However malleable all scripts are, mine are nowhere near as mutable as those of fiction films since writers for features usually have little control once their script is picked up for production. Feature scriptwriters are diatoms floating in the ocean, the sine qua non of it all but subject to the whims of those higher on the financial food chain. I’m the apex predator in my little pond, but it’s an inch-deep vernal pool that will dry up in a week. (Call the Metaphor Abuse Hotline, quick.)
Did you have any heroes in filmmaking or screenwriting (or any other form of
writing) as you grew up? If so, who and why? And how did you gravitate to the
more journalistic pursuit of documentaries; especially those of nature?
JG: Everyone in our house was an inveterate reader and the subject matter and genres were eclectic. As a boy I read a lot of historical fiction by Kenneth Roberts, Lawrence Schoonover, Thomas Costain, books my mom had read in the 30s and 40s and wanted to share, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and The Odyssey. She also introduced me to this romantic travel writer named Richard Halliburton, a quirky fellow who retraced the journeys of Odysseus, swam the Panama Canal and was lost at sea sailing a junk across the Pacific. It’s not great writing but I loved his risk-taking and silliness. A children's book sounded like a wild adventure, Pasteur and the Invisible Giants, so I found myself reading about germ theory.
I also consumed mythology and read everything Edith Hamilton and Mary Renault ever wrote. Shakespeare was oxygen in our house, and my brothers and I traded science fiction and fantasy, Ray Bradbury, Heinlein, Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, the Martian books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. (I was delighted to hear that Carl Sagan read those Mars books too.) We had stacks of National Geographic books on anthropology and archaeology and I spent hours paging through them imagining I was Stephens and Catherwood in Copán or the Weatherills in a Colorado snowstorm or Theseus in the Labyrinth or Jack London in the Far North. Every room in the house had a sagging bookshelf and one entire wall in the living room was books from floor to ceiling, history, literature, natural history. It was like growing up in a library.
Journalism felt right to me because my parents were very politically aware, never missing the nightly news and discussing it with their sons, even before we were able to keep up. I remember my dad asking me, “John, what is democracy?” I was four. Our house was filled with magazines from World Press Review to Natural History to Classics Illustrated to The Atlantic to Games to Audubon to Psychology Today. I always read Natural History back to front because Stephen Jay Gould’s column This View of Life was on the last page. I couldn’t always keep up but he certainly was stimulating.
I didn’t study journalism in college but pursuing it, however briefly, allowed me to continue the intellectual adventure. I was a television reporter for only a couple of years but as a one-man-band in a one man statehouse bureau, it was excellent training. I had to turn out a two-minute story every day, researching, writing, shooting, voicing, editing and then sending it in over a microwave transmitter. I found that as much as I liked reporting on politics and policy, I loved shooting more and would gravitate to the wide open spaces of western South Dakota, shooting the hills and river bottoms on Indian reservations and National Grasslands.
Though I loved the outdoors and had grown up in it with our family following the Lewis and Clark Trail, trekking to Yellowstone and the Black Hills and camping our way to Alaska and Hudson Bay, making nature documentaries was not something I dreamed of doing. Doing real science had too many parameters and methodology so studying biology never occurred to me. The time constraints of television news were fine for a curious mind but disallowed exploring issues in depth. I thought documentaries would be a better fit for my interests and abilities, but I always expected to go in a more expository direction, like Frontline or NOVA type docs.
When and where were you born? What were some of the major, or defining, issues
during your youth, insofar as they affected your career path? Were you
politically, socially, or artistically active when young? What films or
television shows had an effect on you?
JG: I was born in 1960 in Wisconsin but grew up on the ringing plains of windy South Dakota. We lived on the edge of town with a creek and fields behind our house where I spent hours and hours, summer and winter. Those annual family camping trips to places station wagons usually fear to tread probably contributed as much as anything to my love of open spaces and wildness. In Manitoba Dad drove the wagon up onto a flatcar and the train wound through the boreal forest to Churchill on Hudson Bay. I remember our 1967 trip to Alaska in astonishing detail. We had snowball fights in August in the Wasatch Mountains.
My parents were not activists but were politically aware, particularly through the turbulence of the 1960s, and I grew up a news junkie. Dad worshipped FDR while Mom waggishly referred to herself as a socialist—if she’d been born ten years earlier she claims she might have been a Wobbly, but only if they welcomed fiercely independent women with self-reliant streaks worthy of Emerson. They lived through the Great Depression and World War II, married late for their generation and had children later than most. They were the age of most of my cohorts' grandparents. Both revered Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rachel Carson, admired Jack and Bobby Kennedy and thinkers like McLuhan and Dewey and Piaget. Along with endless dinner table discussions and the nightly news, we always watched PBS documentaries. I remember two in particular:
PBS broadcast The Battle of Chile by Patricio Guzmán soon after it was made. My dad was disgusted by the injustice and I was astounded that the cameraman was right there in the thick of the riots, capturing it all to tell the story. It was magnificent. That stimulated a desire to pursue journalism. Reporting enabled my curiosity and fed the idealistic need to have an impact on the world.
Another PBS film left an indelible image in my mind but I’ve never been able to track it down. Even its title has eluded me. It was a non-narrated short, not a doc but some speculative historical fiction portraying a Plains Indian encountering a horse for the first time. By its tack the horse is obviously a runaway from a Spanish colony in the Southwest but to the Indian this unfamiliar beast is either a bizarre game animal or some kind of monster. He fires an arrow that sticks in the saddle but astonishingly doesn’t bring down this creature, which is attracted to him because he’s human but spooked by his unfamiliarity. Eventually the Indian realizes it is not a monster, figures out the ergonomics of the saddle, mounts up and rides away. I’ve only seen it that once, when I was 16, but it had an impact in terms of non-verbal filmic storytelling. I’ve always wondered who made that film.
I KNOW that little film, too. I think I was ten or so (which would be around
the time you saw it- I’m 5 years younger than you) when I first saw it on PBS,
but I too cannot recall its name. I had a similar experience with this
'The Sad Flower' film, until I stumbled across it online. Damn, just
your mentioning it makes me see the film, but the title eludes. I have a killer
visual-spatial memory, but names always trouble me. Anyway, do you think growing
up in South Dakota- a sparse, harsh realm, contributed to your desire to focus
on geography, rather than the human condition, in your films?
JG: Growing up in the West definitely played a major role in shaping my psyche. I now live in the Eastern Woodlands and suffer from occasional bouts of geographic claustrophobia. I need excursions out West just to see a horizon 50 miles away. The extremes of South Dakota strip away layers and superficies to reveal the essential. A professor in Spain once asked me what the climate was like in South Dakota and when I finished describing blizzards, 30º below zero winters, hailstorms, intense heat and tornadoes he looked at me as if I were mad, or lying.
Though I make films about the land, it is the land as Aldo Leopold defined it: the holistic community of soils, waters, plants and animals, which includes humanity’s place within the natural world. My intent is to interpret a singular landscape and to show that humankind is as much a part of the natural world as the flora and fauna and soil and water, that the barriers between nature and ourselves are unnatural. As humans we evolved in open spaces—the Serengeti is remarkably similar to the High Plains. We have spent far more of our time on Earth hunting and gathering than we have tilling or manufacturing or sitting in front of computers. E.O. Wilson uses the term biophilia to illustrate this, that we are hard-wired by evolution to respond to the natural world. Though I don’t refer to it specifically, biophilia is integral to my films.
I never thought of it before now but the High Plains are the same kind of savannah ecosystem where Homo sapiens evolved. Did that play any role in my affinity for open space, biophilia and evolution? Fodder for the psychotherapist, if I ever need one. My therapy is usually to put a kayak on the river and paddle upstream until I'm too exhausted to continue, then float downstream looking at green herons and ospreys. Or climb down the cliffs to go fly-fishing and laugh at my ineptitude.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Who were your childhood heroes
(outside of film) and why? Where did you go to high school, and to what college?
JG: As a boy lost in books I dreamed I would grow up to be a novelist, in adolescence I thought foreign correspondent was romantic and adventurous enough. My mom wanted to be Brenda Starr, Reporter, so I came by that honestly. I admired John Muir, Jacques Cousteau, Jack London, William Shirer, Carl Sagan—men who wrote well about their discoveries and travels.
I attended high school and college in South Dakota, the same small state university where my parents taught. To compensate for the isolation and monoculturalism of a small town in the Midwest I knocked around Europe a couple of summers, studied in Austria for a semester, then spent a year after graduation studying and traveling in Spain, running across the Strait of Gibraltar to go backpacking in Morocco, taking the Marrakech Express south into the Sahara. Near Essaouira we saw goats climb argan trees for the fruit. Nothing like that in South Dakota.
But the finest education I received was around the dining room table and in those rooms full of maps and books at home, discussing news and music and politics and literature with my parents and brothers.
What were some of the cultural touchstones in your life, the things, events, or
people who graced your existence with those ‘I
remember exactly where I was’
JG: I was too young to remember the Kennedy assassination. My most vivid memory of the moon landing is the hours of boredom watching the interminable animations CBS had up on the screen while we listened to the chatter between the astronauts and Mission Control. Dad loved the moon shot. Watergate qualifies as a touchstone since I watched so much of the proceedings, though keeping track of the blizzard of names and all the twists, turns and obfuscation bewildered me. Woodward and Bernstein impressed me and contributed to my belief that journalism was an important contribution to society as well as an outlet for a curious mind.
The single most memorable event in my youth had to be the 1967 trip to Alaska, only eight years after statehood. I’m still astounded by the details I can recall. Once on the Alaska Highway (a thousand miles of gravel, it took gall to call it a highway) a big bear emerged from the brush and loped along ahead of us on the road, looking back occasionally but seemingly unperturbed. We saw golden eagles, beluga whales, a weasel that ran right between our legs at a campsite. (I now know this is not unusual weasel behavior. They are fearless little predators that look up at you and think, “I can take him.”) We camped in a gold rush ghost town in the Yukon, camped under bridges, sometimes just pulling off the road because there were so few tourist amenities. We clambered all over a glacier and dug for clams on the Kenai Peninsula. For a six-year-old boy enamored of the outdoors, this was heaven on Earth.
You served in the Peace Corps. During what time period? Why did you join? What
things still stick with you from those times? How have they aided or hindered
JG: My wife and I joined during the tail end of the Contra War against Nicaragua. We wanted to serve in Latin America because we spoke Spanish, knew little about Latin America and wanted to go where we were most needed for development work. Honduras was (and still is), after Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, and in the 80s it was the staging ground for the US military and the contras.
We had multiple reasons for volunteering. One was the legitimate desire to contribute to a better world. To a post-modern ironic hipster that would sound painfully earnest but it is very true; I don’t have a problem with ceremonies of innocence, just ignorance. Most volunteers admit that there is both idealism and self-interest in joining. We wanted adventure, to see the rainforest, to challenge ourselves, to experience life the way most of the planet’s people do, to use our Spanish as well the desire to serve. I also wanted to offset on a village level the grotesque death-squad-supporting policy of the Reagan administration in Central America by demonstrating, at least to the people in our pueblo, that not all Americans were callous imperialists. (Honduras was the original banana republic since United Fruit essentially ran the country in the early 20th century. The term was coined by O. Henry, who was hiding out in Trujillo since he was wanted for embezzlement in the US.) There was also an element of Thoreau, a wish to live more deliberately rather than merely as rich gringos, to pare things down to the essentials. It reminded me of stories my dad told about growing up in the 1920s with kerosene lanterns and washboards. I learned very quickly to stop wearing jeans because it's a pain in the ass to scrub them on a washboard and wring them out. More accurately, it's a pain in the hands because of blisters, and in the rainy season they would never get dry. Don't wear jeans in the tropics.
There was still some unpleasantness in Honduras as the war wound down. An anti-US protest got out of hand and an embassy annex was burned down just before we arrived in country, which gave us pause. I like adrenaline but I don’t have a death wish. Some leftists blew up the Peace Corps office while we were in a hotel a few blocks away. Occasionally a military convoy would get fired on. But these weren’t really pertinent to our experience; whenever anything untoward would occur, someone in our village would appear at our door and say, “Why don’t you come over and stay with us until things cool down?” We were the only gringos in our village and it was considered hip to be friends with Juan y Mónica. We were also respected because we worked with killer bees.
Our job started out as an excellent development project, one that was environmentally beneficial and at the same time put cash in the pockets of farmers. We taught management of Africanized “killer” bees to those intrepid farmers stubborn enough to have continued keeping bees after the killer bee swept through Central America. The job ended up as more of a public safety project in that we came to see that moving apiaries (collections of hives) away from homes and schools to more remote locations was desperately and immediately needed.
The individual sting of an Africanized bee is no more potent than the European bee we’re used to, but they get very upset at very little provocation and sting in masses, so they can indeed kill. But if managed correctly they can be an excellent bee. I liken the difference between the European and Africanized bee to that between domesticated cattle and bison. Both are bovine but one has been bred for specific characteristics, one of them docility, and the other is a wild animal. The Africanized bee is a seriously wild animal, but it can be managed for increased honey production and pollination if you know what you’re doing. I rather like a bee you have to reckon with.
Moving hives of killer bees was one of the most harrowing experiences I’ve ever had. It’s done at night so you don’t deplete the population of the hive, and hives are really heavy, weighing hundreds of pounds when they’re full of bees and comb and honey. Here in the States it's done with forklifts and tractor-trailers; we did it by hand. Stumbling around in the dark carrying a hive of killer bees that bellows with rage every time the hive is bumped, imagining what would happen if they escaped…an angry colony can kill a horse. It was nerve-racking and exhausting in the extreme but it was one of the most beneficial things we could do for the community and we moved several apiaries. No doubt it saved lives—some of these apiaries were right next to schools, some in back yards. Those hives were bombs waiting to go off and kill someone.
A filmic aside: After several months out in our pueblo I lost considerable weight, and I was already thin, but it was the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life. A primarily vegetarian diet (one visit to a rural Third World slaughterhouse will do that) combined with daily manual labor in the tropics dropped me from 190 to 170 pounds, and I’m 6’5”. Because of sanitation I skipped the contact lenses and got some little round Lennon glasses. After I got a particularly short haircut, a Honduran coworker looked at my bones-and-sinew frame, the short hair and the round glasses and said, “Tú pareces una estrella de Hollywood…no me acuerdo su nombre pero la película fue Papillon.” So he compared me to a movie star, but it was Dustin Hoffman portraying an emaciated prisoner on Devil’s Island.
Some of the things we experienced in Honduras didn’t register at the time but were simply aspects of the life we were living. Recently I was looking through A Forest Journey by John Perlin and saw a woodcut of the entire process of growing, cutting, milling and cooking sugar cane on the island of Madeira in the 1500s. It looked just like our experience in Honduras. We lived in a cane growing area and the process had not changed in 400 years—the same labor-intensive work, the same machetes, the same wooden mill powered by donkeys, the same cooking of the sugar syrup in open air vats, using wood recently cut from the vanishing forests. The subtropical rainforests of Madeira—Portuguese for “wood” because of those extensive forests—are nearly gone. Sacrificed for sugar.
Are you married? What does your wife do? And how did you meet? Is she a critic,
JG: My wife just completed her Master’s in education to become an elementary school teacher, once again demonstrating our unerring pursuit of filthy lucre. She used to work for a civil rights and anti-censorship non-profit in DC and for years wrote a column on native plants gardening. She's a talented writer who found herself substitute teaching in a class when our daughters were young and said, "Oh, so this is where I belong." Her philosophy of education is in line with how I make films: that people construct knowledge and meaning based on their previous experiences—including play, an important part of children's cognitive development—and on new experiences, guided by rather than directed by the teacher. Kids are not bank accounts into which a teacher can deposit knowledge. That applies to audiences too.
The first time we saw each other was on television. I was a rookie field reporter out in a bureau and sent in a story on something really exciting like property taxes, then watched the news and saw this fetching young anchor introduce my story and even pronounce my name correctly. I broke out in my best Ezio Pinza impression. She saw me on the studio monitor and didn't sprint for the exit, so that was good. We ended up working together during legislative sessions and covered some national stories together in DC, but we knew we didn’t want to stay in daily news. The day the news director literally jumped up and down, celebrating that we got the murder and the other stations didn't, was the day I said, "Okay, time for something less soul-deadening."
What sort of child were you- a loner or
center of attention? Did you get good grades? Were you a mama’s boy or a
JG: I was and still am a loner, the fox at the wood’s edge like Eiseley but without the reputation, accomplishments, stature, etc. (I also breathe a nitrogen-oxygen mixture like Eiseley so we have that in common too.) I did well in school although I was perfectly capable of getting poor grades if I was uninterested in the subject or thought the teacher was incompetent. With the parents I had—professors of education who were knowledgeable in so many areas—I had very high expectations for teachers. There were no mama’s boys in our family. My mom was a willful, independent, strong-minded sort who took the lead in raising us and as breadwinner after my dad’s health declined rapidly starting in 1968 with the onset of multiple sclerosis. There was no real need to test the boundaries of restriction and rebellion because we were given free rein. Mom's only question, whether in response to a low grade or a hazardous experience due to teen idiocy, was "What did you learn?"
Ah, Loren Eiseley! All
The Strange Hours is one
of the greatest published memoirs, and Eiseley is the best prose writer in
science history, and one of the 3 or 4 best of the last century. Severely
ignored. Although the science is sometimes outdated, his insights are nonpareil.
Any siblings? What paths in life have they followed?
JG: Two brothers. One is a mechanical engineer specializing in the thermodynamics of turbo machinery. He’s a Shakespeare-quoting Libertarian who has a sign on his office door reading “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate.” The other is a professor of Spanish language and literature, a flamboyant character who looks like a Hells Angel in a suit. Neither was as influenced as I was by landscapes and wildness and the natural world.
DS: Any children? What paths have they followed in life? What are their interests?
JG: Two daughters, still at home. Both have worked as production assistants on my films, recording sound, shooting stills and hauling film gear. Everyone thinks making films in wild places is a dream job and wants to come along on the shoots but my daughters know that lugging a big Gitzo tripod with a fluid head and several magazines of film negative up a ridge at ten thousand feet isn’t exciting or glamorous.
What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your
JG: My parents were the first in their families to attend college, both from families that lost almost everything in the 1929 crash and the Great Depression. My father's family were ranchers and farmers in South Dakota and came close to losing their land in the 1930's. Dad credited New Deal programs for saving it, hence his hero-worship of FDR. Both became public school teachers after college (my dad started his teaching career in the same one room schoolhouse he had attended in the 1920s), then went to grad school at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950's and caught each other's attention after hearing that the other had spent time in postwar Japan. Dad had been a drill sergeant, then a lieutenant in WWII. At their wedding in Iowa all Mom's brothers were prepared to be suspicious of the tweedy guy with the pipe but after talking to him they said, "Hell, he's just an educated farmer."
Though ours was a household with an educational bent, my parents never emphasized grades but always encouraged curiosity and supported any passions we expressed. Dad was a playful sort and delighted in exposing us to unusual things, whether foods or concepts or experiences. Since he was well versed in cognitive development he enjoyed asking his three little guinea pigs questions about abstractions to see how we responded at different ages. For a while he ran an audiovisual lab at the university and would bring our family in for movie nights, screening everything from historical documentaries to educational films, including that wonderfully compelling Bell Lab science series hosted by “Dr. Research”, Hemo the Magnificent and The Unchained Goddess and Gateways to the Mind. Once Dad showed us Birth of a Nation and I remember thinking, “Dad, I’m only five. Is this really appropriate?” It was terribly uncomfortable because I knew he revered MLK and loathed the Klan.
DS: In your youth, did you have adults or teachers who recognized that you were brighter than most other kids (as great artists are) and encourage you? Or did they not notice anything at all? Was their a Prime Moment, or a First Person who said to someone, ‘Hey, this kid has something.’?
JG: Still waiting for that pesky prime moment and the attendant recognition. There was a bit of the halo effect in my formal education, a recognition of the intellectual curiosity that came with growing up in my family and an expectation that I would shine academically, but no key teacher who changed my life. I wish there had been. Even today I occasionally hear from 75-year-olds who see my films on PBS, somehow find my address and send me letters about how my mom had an impact on them when they were in high school in the 1940s, getting farm kids in St. Peter, Minnesota to stage Othello, bringing animal parts from her father's butcher shop to biology class so the kids could slice open pigs' eyeballs to see the structure and put a trachea to their mouths so they could blow up cows' lungs and see how they worked. I wish I'd had a teacher like that.
At home, I did. One of my earliest memories is loading archaeology screens into that aircraft carrier of a station wagon to drive to the Missouri to dig for "Indian artifacts". Several main stem dams had been built on the river and the reservoirs were filling. The Smithsonian and other academic researchers had raced through in a lightning round of archaeology before all the bottomlands were flooded, then invited anyone interested to come in. This was 30 years before NAGPRA and would never be allowed now. Mostly we found tools in Arikara sites, animal hide stone scrapers, some points, some hammers, bison scapula fashioned into hoes. But what an adventure for little boys. There were multiple prime moments with parents like that. The informal education they provided, at home and traveling, was the best encouragement imaginable.
DS: Why do so many political fictional films suck? Is it the same reason as any other political art, because they are so shallow, and use noxious ideas like, ‘all art is political,’ or ‘art is truth.’ These nostra are as meaningful and meaningless as stating that ‘all art is about poodles,’ for anything can be parallaxed against any other single thing. If the art does not explicitly reference poodles, as example, this manifests the artist’s aversion to talking about poodliness. No?
JG: This is truly puzzling since politics provides elements for great filmic storytelling: raging ambition, massive egos, fascinating characters, all combined with idealism, altruism, greed, hubris, sex, money, power, legitimate desires to change the world for the better and pathological efforts to destroy not only opponents but everything within blast range (witness the current Republican party, which seems to have adopted nihilism as a plank in its platform). Shakespeare certainly mined the subject to advantage. Perhaps few feature films about politics approach art because politics itself is such absurdly entertaining theater. The ancient Greeks likely would have considered the U.S. Senate high comedy, or perhaps farce, though it takes the fun out of dysfunctional. The best political films seem to be satires like Dr. Strangelove. But frankly, I don't watch that many features, political or no. When I have spare time and I'm not reading, I'm usually out in the woods or on the river.
However, I did happen to see a political film recently that had been important in my youth, All the President's Men, and I was taken aback by how poorly it held up. I had fond memories of the film since it sparked a greater interest in becoming a reporter (in me as well as an entire generation), but when I watched it with my teenage daughter I was struck by how specific it was to its time, more of a detailed reenactment documentary than a feature film with a compelling narrative arc or character development. It is an "Important Film" but from a storytelling standpoint it does not impress. I had to pause it constantly to explain to my daughter who the cacophony of characters were, what CREEP was, whence came the title and the name Deep Throat, the significance of this or that. If I hadn't lived through Watergate, knew of the event's salience and seen the film before I would have thought it interesting but forgettable. Well made, but neither life changing nor universal, at least in retrospect.
To end with history, I’ve often argued vociferously against the notion that
‘art is truth,’ but journalism, science, and history are or should be about the
search for truth. Do you agree? If so, what truths have you encountered in
researching your films that debunked some well held fallacies you had? What was
it like to have to let go of your presuppositions?
JG: I do agree. I don’t know that I have had fallacies debunked in researching my films, but I have learned over and over again that solid, skeptical science is an ongoing process of discovery, one of open inquiry and ambiguity and for which I have a tremendous amount of respect. The more I research, the more I discover the coolness factor of science that was never taught in school.
Only a small percentage of this makes it into my scripts because I try to avoid the didactic; too much is boring for the audience and more so for me, but some of these things are just delicious. The capillary action of water that separates each intertidal grain of sand from the other, and that there are living things in that film of water. The surprising importance of military bases in providing a haven for endangered species. Paleobotanists studying fossilized pollen to track flowering cycles from the classical Mayan period. The role of sunlight in diminishing myopia: the more time children spend outside, the lower the odds of nearsightedness. The towering importance of predators to overall ecological health: I just read an outstanding book, Where the Wild Things Were, by Will Stolzenburg, and it goes on the shelf next to Leopold and Carson. Scientists finding middens of fish bones in South Texas, extracting the tiny otoliths and sawing them open, then counting the rings as in dendrochronology to track spawning cycles when Cabeza de Vaca hiked through. How isostatic rebound, in which the land actually springs back after a great weight is removed—like glaciers—is creating new coastline. (We spent an entire day shooting multiple takes of a hiker's boot stepping on spongy moss, then the moss slowly springing back to illustrate isostatic rebound. Never made it in the movie.) Geologists discovering ocean foraminifera in soil cores from beneath estuaries showing that the Gulf Stream flowed there in the year 1500. Biodiversity increasing at the site of a moose kill since the carcass feeds far more than the wolves that brought it down. Reading how brown bears communicate with jaw stretches and popping sounds and cowboy walking, then in Alaska seeing a thousand pound bear 20 yards away lay her ears back and charge. I didn’t know she was bluffing.
Yet, despite my above claim, documentaries seem the perfect place for political
filmmaking, such as Errol Morris’s great The
Fog Of War. Do you agree?
JG: I see no contradiction in your position, documentaries can do an excellent job on politics. Frontline has been turning them out for years, though more in the well-crafted journalistic vein than the artistic. Originally I thought I would make films about politics: exposés, serious investigative efforts to affect public policy. But I’ve been drawn to a much longer view and a less journalistic approach, perhaps simply because of my outlook and by how much I need to spend time in the natural world. Aldo Leopold opens A Sand County Almanac with “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” I cannot.
My films could be described as being about Big Geology, the idea that geology dictates where life can exist and how it evolves. Or perhaps Deep Ecology with its holistic approach is a better pigeonhole. I simply explore those concepts as evidenced in a particular landscape and how we relate to it. The goal is not to avoid immediate “political” issues, such as the societal madness of building houses on migratory sand islands because of runaway development or the impacts of anthropogenic climate change, but I’m trying to make films that will be as meaningful and compelling 50, 75, 100 years from now as they are today, both from an artistic and scientific standpoint. I don’t have to worry too much about whether I’m successful in that effort because I’ll be fertilizer by then.
Having mentioned Morris, I guess I need to mention the other great financially
successful documentary maker of our time, Michael Moore. What is your take on
him? My opinion is that he is a brilliant technician, but he wastes his time
pandering to the liberal choir rather than, like Morris, seeking out a broader
audience. Thus, I think time will consign his work to a ghetto, like that of
Leni Riefenstahl, whereas Morris will be seen as one of the greats in
documentaries. Agree or not, and why?
JG: Glorification of the Nazis vilified her but Riefenstahl's propaganda films are tremendously influential; though she didn't concern herself with story, filmmakers have been copying her visual aesthetics and camera techniques since 1935. I don’t consider Moore her equal as a filmic technician (tactician, perhaps) but making four of the top eight grossing documentaries is reaching a pretty broad audience. There have been must be someone other than libs in those theaters, not that he was convincing anyone who didn’t already agree with him. Morris is a technical and creative virtuoso—I laugh in admiration every time I see the PBS photobooth spot—but his stylistic flourishes, the constant Dutch angles and the interrotron shtick, get distracting in long format. The systems analysis equations falling like bombs in The Fog of War was quite clever and I liked his use of music but I was disappointed in that film despite his obvious talent. I suspect the Oscar was more of a lifetime achievement award, or perhaps guilt for the category fiasco surrounding The Thin Blue Line. Oscars often say less about film than about the Academy; An Inconvenient Truth was a phenomenon but it wasn't so much a film as a recorded lecture.
Moore doesn’t compromise his message, which can quickly become tedious. History may treat him and Riefenstahl unkindly because of the subject matter and stances they take, both so very much of their time, though most film audiences don’t know of Riefenstahl’s technical and aesthetic influence on later films. I do like the irony of your prediction, that a Nazi propagandist’s work will be consigned to a “ghetto”.
DS: Art speaking a truth is fundamentally different from its being a truth. Looking at the root of the word art, after all, shows it derives from the same place as artifice. Therefore, art can NEVER be truth, only an instrument that CAN get at a truth. But, it can also illumine aspects of existence utterly disconnected to truth, like emotions, bad ideas, politics, etc. Do you also find the ‘art is truth’ equation laughable and silly?
JG: “Art is truth” is merely a pretentious, attention-seeking stance. Art and the process of creating it definitely reveal other aspects of existence, oftentimes aspects the artist did not even intend. I read that Tennessee Williams intended the Blanche Dubois line about depending on the kindness of strangers to be comedic, that he would sit in the back of the theater and find himself the only member of the audience howling with laughter. We find it poignant and pathetic.
Following in that claim, as a documentarian, are you even interested in
‘truth,’ as a concept, or is your concern more multivalent- to affect mind,
heart, eyes, ears, etc.? And, if so, what are the pros and cons of this approach
vis-à-vis the more blatantly promotional sort of ‘documentaries’ a Michael
JG: My intent is to stimulate and provoke the senses, emotions and intellect of the audience and let them arrive at their own insights. Interpreting the ecology of a landscape in a gestural and mimetic fashion is more intriguing than mere information delivery or opinion-mongering, both for the audience and for me. The con is a smaller audience; the pro is that it’s a quality audience.
DS: As a coda to this arc, what of your views on politics? How, if in any way, do they affect your films? Are you politically active, and what are your thoughts on the world today- the ongoing wars, the economic woes, etc.? Do you fear such things will put an expiration date on your work?
JG: If Stephen Colbert attempts to run for president again I would sign up and volunteer. Like environmental films, politics is in desperate need of more wit and humor. I'm a voracious consumer of political news and commentary but politics don’t play an overt role in my natural history films which, since they deal with the ecology of landscapes, examine a much longer time frame. A geologist drolly pointed out to me that all of human history will one day be a thin striation in a cliff. That puts the sturm und drang of the moment in perspective.
The one time a film of mine came close to politics was mere juxtaposition. The Smithsonian screened Crown in early March 2003 and it was a great pleasure to engage with a large, informed, curious, formidable audience. (I heard a filmmaker describe television broadcast as dropping a pebble down a well and waiting... waiting... waiting... and never hearing the splash.) After the screening, on a filmic and intellectual high our family walked out onto the Mall and down to the Washington Monument where we picked up signs and joined a march through downtown DC protesting the impending invasion of Iraq. The day after 9/11 I reacted like anyone else, ready to declare a retaliatory war and only then find whomever was responsible, but it quickly became clear to me that Iraq had nothing to do with it and that the subsequent WMD fabrications were cynical excuses to topple a regime. Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei were infinitely more credible than any of the mendacious and cretinous neocons in the Bush administration. Containment was working, Iraq was no threat and "preventive war" sounded like something out of 1984.
We wanted our then-nine-and-eleven-year-old daughters to see the walk behind the talk, some courage of conviction since I blather that all it takes for evil to exist is for good people to do nothing. The girls thought all the cops lining the streets were pretty cool, and I was very glad they were there. As we rounded a corner in Lafayette Park, a red-with-rage guy stepped off the curb, pointing right at us, spluttering and screaming, "Fucking traitors! Fucking traitors!" My daughters had never seen anything like it, a grown-up losing complete control, spittle flying, practically incoherent. He had to be restrained, a good thing because as my daughters shrank to my side I got ready to pound the maestro of incivility if he came at us. A young hippie dude in dreads had a better idea: he waved happily and called out, "We love you too, man!" The crowd laughed, situation defused. The cops did their job and the protesters did theirs. Our saucer-eyed girls wondered why that man had been so angry. We continued our protest march past the White House without incident and without success, other than providing our daughters a small example of civic engagement in a free society. Five years later they asked if we could canvass for Obama in the primaries so we hauled them to the housing projects in Youngstown, Ohio to go door-to-door in the snow. They were with us at the inauguration and saw Obama wave bye-bye on the East Front steps of the Capitol as the helicopter whisked the worst president in American history out of DC.
So engaged, yes, but active... The Earth is warmer than it’s ever been since scientists started keeping records and we are the primary cause. The acidifying oceans are imperiled and we are the cause. The Earth is in the midst of the Sixth Extinction and we are the cause.
But the degree of art in a film decreases in proportion to the amount and volume of ax-grinding. I refuse to make environmental porn, the pretty but innocuous pictures that frame out the power plants and rampant development, but I resist the doom-and-gloom formula of many nature docs, an approach that can lead to disaster fatigue. The disaster docs seem to enable hopelessness and I am not much of a pessimist. If I were I’d just go find a quiet place in the woods and open a vein. Making films about the Long View, about the authentic, about the eternal feels important to me. I’ll do what I can to create artistic films about the natural world and submit them to the audience. That’s my political statement.
In the DVD of his latest film, Three
Monkeys, Turkish film director
Nuri Bilge Ceylan is interviewed and says something really remarkable. He claims
that too many filmmakers (and artists) in countries with oppressive governments
use censorship as an excuse to not be creative, thus essentially ‘giving
in’ and writing only moralistic political art rather than using the limits
as a way to be more creative. Thus why so much writing in Latin America, as
example, is so bad and laden with political screeding. Do you agree? If not,
why? And to what degree, if any, does politics play a role in your films?
JG: Some of the most inventive and imaginative art has been created by those enduring oppression. Politics play little role in my films because they are so much of the moment, and the subject matter I choose has preceded and will outlast any construct of human invention. Whether my films will last…well, their themes are rock and water and sky and, as Jeffers observed, those are constant.
Why do you think so many artists believe that politics take precedence over
JG: Easier to make and sells better.
Before we get on to more specific areas, have you any ideas on what is the cause
of the lack of introspection in modern American society- from Hollywood films,
television shows, book publishers, etc.? Is American or Western culture simply
as shallow as man of its detractors claim? In the arts, Political Correctness
and Postmodernism have certainly aided in the ‘dumbing down’ of culture.
What are your thoughts on those two ills- PC and PoMo?
JG: American popular culture has always embraced spectacle, as PT Barnum and James Cameron crow on their way to the bank, but there is a wealth of depth and richness and authenticity to be found. Exhibit A: this interview series. The introspective sorts will always find what they're looking for, or they will create it. Those who are not, the ones Ray Bradbury called the happy animals of the universe, will continue eating Twinkie cheese dogs, which really exist.
All the -isms make me tired. Balkanization doesn't work well in statecraft or art and strident ax grinding is insufferably boring. I relish diversity of cultures as much as biodiversity because it brings spice and flavor and delight to existence, but as far as art— Identity is not art. Either the work is worth your effort or it is not. Either it speaks to you or it does not. If you don't like it, go create something and submit it to an audience.
And, to what extent do you think PBS counteracts that, since your work has
become a staple of PBS programming, especially during pledge drives?
JG: I do think PBS is a beacon and it is no coincidence that it is non-profit and supported primarily by its viewers. Despite my lone wolfishness, I deeply admire public phenomena that serve communities: public television, public radio, public lands. (Pardon me while I break into a chorus of “This Land is Your Land.”) There aren't many avenues for intelligent investigative reporting on television and Frontline is consistently excellent. Other major strands, Nature and Nova and American Masters, have created some wonderful things and POV is outstanding. I wish I could stay up to watch it more often but I'm an early riser.
The other thing I like about PBS is that it isn't a monolithic, top-down organization. The hundreds of member stations create their own local and regional programming and I've seen some fine stuff that never goes national but is a legitimate contribution to the art and culture of the community. And except for the big stations like WNET and WGBH and WETA, they do it on miniscule budgets. I salute them, those underfunded Quixotes of culture.
Most of the cable channels that program natural history disappoint me, although I understand they labor under the tyranny of 24/7 programming and atomized channels. So much of their programming demonstrates that they live in fear of the remote control, hence the flashy editing, melodramatization of every item, pounding drums, breathless wall-to-wall narration. You’ve heard of the Slow Food Movement; I’m a member of the Slow Film Movement. Trust the subject matter, trust the image, trust the art.
Yes, I think cable documentaries ‘jumped the shark’ for me when, on a break
at work, I saw the History Channel do a doc on the history of concrete. While it’s
nice to know concrete is more than cement, I wondered if they could have really
covered all the events and people of note in human history. Anyway, I’ve
argued that film is really literature with pictures- i.e.- closer to literature
than the other visual arts. It is, to neologize, cinemature. Do you agree or
not? And, if so, then documentaries are really the filmic equivalents of a
newspaper, to a degree. Or does a documentary do things unique to its medium? If
so, what? Thoughts?
JG: Film is
analogous to literature in that it often has similar storytelling elements: a
narrative arc, character development, etc. I think documentaries, in all their
permutations, are singular enough that finding a written equivalent is
unnecessary. A cinema vérité doc is more immediate, more direct and has more
impact than most newspaper articles. Sound, music, motion, editing, writing,
lighting, camera angles and perspective commingle so many more of the arts than
a newspaper article. I don’t remember too many individual news articles but I
sure remember Apted’s Seven Up
films. I don't remember any news articles about cerebral palsy but King
Gimp had me transfixed.
Let me now turn to specific queries on your films; especially the three that I
have seen: Crown Of The Continent,
and Ribbon Of Sand.
The first I saw was Crown, and I think it’s a splendid documentary. Your mix
of the personal with the place is outstanding. Can you expand a bit more on your
boyhood adventures in Alaska with your father and what the film is about?
JG: This is the place where the landscape was so overwhelming that I initially and flippantly thought any script would be superfluous, that stunning images would be all the audience would remember, but I reckoned without the power of story. Most comments I hear relate to the inclusion of the home movies and the father-son relationship, although they are in the film only briefly. My father is really the one who put me on the course to the natural world since he so loved the outdoors, fishing, hunting, camping, poking around historical sites in the West. He read an adventure novel about Alaska when he was a boy in the 1920s and that started his fascination with the Last Frontier. He and my mom prepared for their expedition for a year and in order to afford it Dad taught both summer sessions. That left them a one-month window to drive six thousand miles, and it almost didn't happen. Dad came home from the summer session exhausted while Mom had been doing all the purchasing, packing and loading. He said he was so tired and the time so short before the fall term began that he wasn't sure he could do this. Mom set her jaw—I can see her now—and said, "Get behind that wheel and drive." A year after we returned from Alaska multiple sclerosis started his slow and inexorable decline, so the memory of that trip, when he was still in top physical condition, is special to me.
Mom shot 8mm movies with a windup Kodak Brownie, leaning out the window most of the time as Dad drove since we were on such a tight schedule. When I first went to Wrangell-St. Elias as a filmmaker I hadn't realized we had camped our way through the area in 1967 but some locations awakened memories and I asked Mom about them, then oh-so-casually asked if I could take a look at the 8mm films, "just to cross-reference locations with what we had been shooting". It's usually not advisable to lie to one's mother, particularly one as formidable as mine. I had her 8mm color reversal blown up to Super 16 negative, then transferred it to HD, added some Proenneke footage and used it as the home movie bookends to the natural history story. The first Mom knew of it was when she saw it on PBS and watched the credits roll in which she got a national television credit for additional cinematography. This black sheep went way up in the family polls, though that wasn't my intent he hastily protested.
In the film, there is a small segment that features Dick Proenneke, whom you
just mentioned. He is sort of an Alaskan folk hero, and I wrote of him in this
essay- one of the briefest on my website- yet it’s gotten almost 27
million hits over the years. What
is it that is so intrinsically Alaskan about folks like Proenneke that make him
a literal modern day legend?
JG: Proenneke is an American archetype, the solitary man who proves himself against the elements but he puts a twist on it by thriving within rather than conquering the wilderness. Americans have always admired the lone man of the wilderness, from Natty Bumppo to the cowboy myth to Dick Proenneke. (The cowboy myth was just that—the West was settled via corporate welfare, big government handing over land to big railroads which platted out towns. I grew up in one.) Alaska itself appeals to the romantic, a place to escape generica and challenge oneself, the ultimate destination for fulfilling frontier longing, which seems to be an American affliction. And it remains one of the last outposts of real wilderness; to illustrate that, just try recording sound in the Lower 48. It’s hard to find a place without noise invasion, from traffic to distant trains to the constant jets. I was on a float trip in Alaska where, for the eight days we were on the river, we heard no sound but the natural world. Not even jets. A lone wolf tracked us from the riverbank for most of a day, seemingly just curious. The wolf loped along, keeping pace with our raft, then would stop and stare as if it had never seen anything like us. Probably hadn’t since the river hadn’t been floated in twenty years.
I noticed a consistent behavior by everyone in wilderness Alaska, whether native or newcomer. When dropped off somewhere by bush plane, we would stare at the plane after it took off until it was out of sight, and stand there straining to hear it until the buzz of the engine faded away. There is no greater realization of how vulnerable you are, how many things can go wrong, how resourceful you have to be than when you are that dependent on a bush plane coming back to get you.
Yet, there is the other side to Alaska, as well. The side that brings out,
let’s face it, idiots and morons like Chris McCandless and Timothy Treadwell,
who end up dying. Both were profiled in films; McCandless in Into
The Wild and Treadwell in Grizzly
Man. Yet, both men are scorned
and ridiculed for their folly (and rightly so) by native Alaskans. Why do you
think they capture the American imagination more than a positive role model like
Proenneke? Also, if you ever got a chance to direct a feature film, rather than
a documentary, do you think you might gravitate more toward a Proenneke-like
JG: An Alaskan buddy of mine says bush Alaska attracts three kinds of people: Churchers, Birchers and Searchers. Treadwell was none of these, he was just a seriously disturbed man who committed suicide by bear. It’s outrageous that his actions caused the death of two bears that he deluded himself into thinking he was protecting. Great film, though, Herzog is a master. I had nightmares featuring that wild-eyed coroner.
The cult of McCandless is grotesque. Romantic kids from the Lower 48 make pilgrimages to the bus where he starved to death, if you can believe it. He was utterly unprepared for the Alaskan wild, which is unforgiving of ignorance and mistakes. Unforgiving, period, though I don’t subscribe to Herzog’s pathology. A park ranger at Denali said what McCandless did “wasn’t even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic and inconsiderate.” I would add cruel since he never once let his parents know he was alive while he was on his vision quest. They must have died a thousand deaths to his one.
I doubt I'll ever direct a feature, too many people, too little control. Would be fun, though. Know anyone with a few million to invest? Someone who never wanted to direct, preferably.
This film shows off a felicity with wordplay, as well, such as ‘the vitality of geologic genesis.’ To what degree do you script the narration of your films? And do
you consciously aim for poesy rather than prose? The film’s end, which talks
about knowing not just the parts of existence but the ‘sum of a life,’ inspired
the title of a book my wife wrote. To what degree do you think this sort of
influence is a vital part of your work, and to what degree incidental?
JG: I script my films very carefully, incrementally and slowly. It takes me months to write and refine a script and it ends up being only about five or six double-spaced pages for a half hour film. I very consciously aim for poesy and work hard at it, attempting to allow for multiple interpretations by approaching science as an artist would. Having an influence on other writers and artists is a thrill but it's not something I could ever consciously attempt. It's hard enough just to make a good film.
There are some remarkable shots in the film- such as from what seems inside a
glacier, underwater, and from assorted peaks of the Wrangell-St. Elias
mountains. How did you get them- by yourself or via how many different
JG: Except for the underwaters, only one cinematographer, Steve Ruth, created those images. I worked with him for fifteen years, so closely that I hardly had to direct. I would just get him to locations, talk about what I was looking for, point out a few specifics and then go on my figure-eight hikes, roaming around looking at flowers and rocks and landscapes, loop back to Steve and ask for a pan from that ridge over to that feature and Steve would say, “I did three takes of that because I knew you'd want it, and some zoom outs from the negative space between the clouds to reveal the water, and some tilts from these rocks to the lake.” I'd hike another loop and come back to say, "Let's move over there, I found some backlit leaves and there's a ptarmigan clucking somewhere." We were dropped off once by a bush pilot at Iceberg Lake, an otherworldly scene of a glacier-dammed freshwater lake studded with icebergs, surrounded by mountains and the Bagley Icefield. Before leaving the pilot watched us, expecting to see filmmaking in action. He laughed and said, "Now I know how you guys make a film. John and Steve stand there looking around for ten minutes with their arms crossed, and they grunt."
Our visual aesthetic was identical, developed over years of getting up at 4:00 a.m. to shoot sunrise time lapse, driving thousands of miles of back roads, lugging gear up endless trails. He’s no longer shooting but is providing full-time care for his invalid dad. Making films without him is like trying to breathe with one lung. Steve is one of the best landscape cinematographers anywhere, and a great friend.
One shoot illustrates the logistics of capturing great images in Alaska. We wanted to get some shots of Mount St. Elias, the highest coastal mountain in the world, from one of the most remote locations, Icy Bay, which has been created by glacial recession only in the last 100 years. We had to hire three bush planes to get all our gear there, flying out of the bush community of Yakutat on Disenchantment Bay. The three planes were loaded down with a Zodiac boat, a collapsible kayak, a couple of boat motors, camping gear, food for two weeks, a crew of four and seventeen Pelican cases. We took off in a row, Ride of the Valkyries playing in my head, an enviro film fighter squadron! We landed on a beach studded with icebergs left by the high tide, unloaded the gear, the bush pilots rushed to take off and left us to four days of cold rain and ceilings of about 5000 feet. There was no sign of the 18,000 foot mountain.
Camping on a beach in the rain gets sand on absolutely everything, and the air temperature was about 40 degrees. We slept so much we got our days and nights mixed up. We would go hiking just to relieve the boredom and found wolf tracks all over the sand where they stopped, right where they would have come around some vegetation and seen our tents. Out in the bay we would slalom around icebergs that had calved off all the glaciers we could hear but not see; we wore big orange Coast Guard float coats for safety but they wouldn’t have done much good. Ten minutes in that water, if we’d hit a berg and flipped, and some fisherman would have found some very well preserved filmmakers. The water was about 34 degrees.
Four days of listening to unseen glaciers calve like constant thunder, four days of rain, four days of not opening a case of film gear because of the miserable conditions and I was hemorrhaging my production budget. The ranger guiding us finally said we could be there for two more weeks with no clearing, so we called in the planes…and they couldn’t come because the weather made landing too chancy. So we crawled back in the tents.
I awoke to an unfamiliar sight: a yellow film seemed to have settled over the outside of my tent. In my addled state I had no idea what it was until I crawled out and saw blue sky and bright sun. St. Elias was huge and bright and rising above us. I pounded on Steve’s tent frame to wake him up and we shot for four solid hours, getting time lapse and icebergs, scenics of the beach and glaciers and the mountain, and then we heard a bush plane and our hearts sank. We thought the planes had come to collect us—but the sound wasn’t coming from Yakutat so I shouted at Steve to turn and shoot the mystery plane when it came over a ridge. It turned out to be another pilot we knew—it’s a small community in Alaska, bush pilots all seem to know each other—and he was out because of the good weather. We arranged to shoot him taking off from the beach and he flew his plane right along the base of St. Elias. Steve shot him as the plane receded into the distance, getting smaller and smaller, then had one chance to be tight on the plane and zoom out to reveal the immensity of the mountain, which has greater vertical relief than the Himalayas. One chance and he nailed it. The sequence in the film is non-narrated, just demonstrating the sheer scale of the place through visuals, effects and tinker-toy music.
Do you fear that, with global warming (the melt of glaciers, etc.), in a few
decades this film will be more of a time capsule of a since gone place rather
than a reflection of something still vital?
JG: Two of the ecosystems experiencing the most rapid changes due to climate change are high elevations and high latitudes. The Wrangell and St. Elias ranges are both and Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the global average. Huge swaths of the boreal forest are dying because spruce bark beetles, their populations usually knocked back by cold winters, are taking advantage of warmer temperatures and stressed trees. Less spruce forest cover means more grasses and willows, good for moose, bad for red squirrels and the animals that prey on them. The concatenation will create some winners and a lot of losers, including biodiversity and stream health. Permafrost is thawing, releasing methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The glaciers in most cases are receding. The land will still be vital, but dramatically altered in ways the average eye might not notice but gaspworthy for an ecologist. Change is the natural order of nature but what makes this significant is the pace and the cause. The pace is more accelerated than anything we've ever seen, and we are the cause. In a few decades Crown will be an elegy for a changed land.
In that vein, in her review
of the film, my wife Jessica wrote: ‘Wrangell-St.
Elias National Park carries the continent’s largest glaciers and offers a
spectacular step back into time. In one scene, for example, global warming is
evoked by the mere solitary drips that quickly begin to cascade off a melting
glacier—and in contrast to that, is the image of large glacial pieces breaking
off the sides of mountains and then tumbling into the sea. Then we are shown the
quiet drips again, followed by the loud, plummet of glaciers. The very fact that
this is done via way of images rather than being functionally told what is
happening (and why) is akin to reading a metaphor in a poem, leaving viewers
with implication and reflection, rather than didacticism.’ Is she correct re: claiming your film uses implication and
reflection as tools mnemonically? And, do you think this subliminally affects a
viewer more by making the film more ‘participatory,’ in a sense?
Homo sapiens has a very evolved brain
that loves challenges, detecting patterns and solving problems. We have been
conditioned by years of unimaginative education and media to sit passively and
accept spoon-feeding but more synapses fire when the mind is provoked, when
associations are only implied, multiple meanings are available and the audience
can make the connections themselves. The endorphins flow, imagination is
stimulated, cognition is fully engaged. The viewer is active, not passive, and
the experience enters long-term memory. The audience is participating in the
making of the film—it becomes their
Let me now turn to Remembered Earth,
a film about the New Mexican desert. This film also turns some nice phrases: ‘wonder
comes upon my blood.’ Part of the
film is narrated by American Indian writer N. Scott Momaday. How and why did he
get involved with the project?
Momaday is the voice of the Southwest, an artist and writer I’ve been reading
since college. He grew up in Jemez Pueblo and on the Navajo Rez and still lives
in the area. His essays on the New Mexico landscape and his memoir are
wonderful, lyrical and insightful whether he’s writing about culture or
geology. I always try to absorb the literature of an area and found myself
exclaiming over passages, circling them, underlining them, wondering how I could
incorporate them into the script. The line you cite was his. He also has
extensive experience as a narrator, with a rich, credible, mellifluous voice.
His writing was so good, so attuned to the region and yet so universal
that I just called him and asked if he would be interested in doing some voice
work and that I hoped to incorporate some of his writing. He was very receptive
to the idea, so I pounced, asking if I could rewrite some of his passages. This
of course gave him pause, as it would any writer. (Old film joke: "How many
scriptwriters does it take to change a light bulb?" "None! Not one
change! You will not change anything! Get away from my script!")
My purpose was to make some of his personal writings even more universal
and inclusive, such as changing the third person singular to first person plural
in order to engage all members of the audience from the outset of the film. For
example, he wrote a well-known passage in The
Way to Rainy Mountain that was the source of the film’s title, beginning:
“Once in his life, a man ought to contemplate the remembered earth.” I
changed it to “Once in our lives, we
ought to contemplate the remembered earth.” Momaday was delighted with the
change, which speaks so well of him. I don’t know that I would have been so
This film, perhaps even more so than Crown, illustrates why I think your
documentary films will last; and that is because they are less focused on the
human trivia and more on the essential things of a place. I think one of the
negative things to arise, in the last few decades, has been the popular success
of the documentary films of the Burns Brothers- Ken and Ric. While their films
are generally good (with the expected peaks and valleys), I think their
‘style’ has become so formulaic, especially when copied by other filmmakers.
Talking heads, the reading of written passages, the use of still photographs as
if they were moving pictures, etc. It
seems to have been so successful that many documentarians lazily fell into the
formula. How have you avoided that trap?
Formulaic filmmaking is anathema. The
Civil War was a good match of a measured, calm, understated approach with
such controversial subject matter. Your question about John Brown [see below]
led to a long and stimulating conversation this morning with my wife. She looks
at Brown and recoils because of his violence and extremism, I because of
testosterone and a rebellious nature admire the courage of his convictions.
Fanatic or sage, terrorist or martyr? Would the Civil War have been fought
without his effort to incite a slave rebellion? Was he justified in attempting
to start the conflagration? (Did the flat savannah of Kansas, so much like the
Serengeti and South Dakota, drive him mad?) Was the Civil War inevitable? Would
slavery have ended anyway because of changing economies and technology?
Great stuff, and Burns' deliberate style was suited to questions that
today can bring men to blows. Every filmmaker develops a personal style but I
could never use his formula, it's too confining and predictable, particularly
when applied to such diverse topics. Films aren't widgets to be stamped out,
even if intended to be straightforward informational fare. For beginning
filmmakers, being influenced by a successful approach is no different than an
art student's master study, but everyone should find their own style.
Let me speak of editing. Each of the three films mentioned runs under half an
hour. How much footage do you shoot just to edit down to that length- in terms
of hours and minutes?
The ratio works out to be about 40:1, sometimes 50:1. That’s not a shooting
ratio I consciously aim for but if you want great natural history images, you
have to expose a lot of film. For a half hour show that’s 20 to 30 hours of
footage, not an inordinate amount for a critter film but I usually don't do
animal behavior. Vérité often has a much higher shooting ratio, hundreds of hours
for the poor editor to wade through. Mine is economical by comparison. I'm
usually happy with the quality of all the shots that make it into the show but
as we near picture lock I'm always wishing we had more to choose from.
Do you have the same sorts of criteria for what sort of material stays and goes
in each film, or does that vary per film, subject matter, and even per section
of a film?
Other than being great, according to my own nebulous criteria, it varies per
sequence. I’m very particular about the quality of shots, both from aesthetics
and simple technical aspects. I like asymmetry, playing with scale,
abstractions, shadows, backlighting, reflections, images that contain a great
deal of visual information and interest so that the viewer could watch the show
without sound and still find it compelling. It's enormously gratifying when
someone like a biologist can see a shot and note that we captured all aspects of
a biome in one image and a fellow filmmaker can see the same shot and love it
because of composition and light. (I've always wanted to watch one of the shows
upside down just to see if the composition holds up.) I've heard great
cinematography described as filming the light reflecting off objects rather than
the objects themselves, but that sounds rather esoteric for what we're doing
when we're scrambling around on a hillside or a ledge. Half the time I'm just
trying to avoid falling off a cliff, or waiting for the rain to stop, or
wondering how in hell I'm going to make a movie anyone would want to see.
The shots that make it into the film are occasionally but infrequently
preordained. I knew I wanted to start Ribbon
of Sand with an Outer Banks lighthouse in the darkness because of Rachel's
enthralling "flashes of insight" quote. I develop a love affair with
certain shots as I’m logging but fortunately a certain ruthlessness enters
into the editing process, just as with the script. Does it work? Does it move
the film along, bridge successfully to the next sequence, foreshadow something,
set the mood, fit the mood, fulfill the intention? Does it feel right? Does it
convey multiple meanings? If not, it’s out, no matter how beautiful it is.
This is something of a cliché but it’s absolutely true: even with a strong
script, much of the film is discovered in the editing process. It always amazes
me, and how bloodless I can be in letting certain beloved shots go because they
just don’t work in the fluid dynamics of the edit, and how thrilling the
creative and intuitive process of editing always is.
As with Crown, this film establishes you as more of a
poet with a camera than a prose documentarian. I
know that terminology is beaten to death, but I mean it, as I would cite the use
of implication my wife mentions. Do
you think, though, that you could adapt your ‘style’ to the subject matter,
if need be? And what sort of material might interest you enough to do so?
I think the style can be adapted to any subject matter as long as the intent of
the piece is not strictly expository. It might be more difficult to pull off in
a biography, but an artist can do almost anything if desire and determination
are great enough.
How often do you strive to get a narration and an image consonant with each
other? Or do you seek to have them, more or less, play off of each other?
Consonance is the goal, between concept, language, image, music and sound
effects. It takes a lot of striving and doesn't always work, but when it does...
ah, bliss. It's an intuitive process, not methodological; I wish it were, it
would be easier. What surprises and pleases me, once again, is how ten different
people can watch the same film and come away with ten different magic moments,
some I intended, some I didn't even know were there because of the viewer’s
own body of experiences, brought to the film as a creative, engaged audience
Now let me turn to the third film, Ribbon
Of Sand, which profiles North
Carolina’s Outer Banks region. Yet again, there are a number of poeticisms,
like, ‘land sings to adaptation and
evolution’ and the alliterative,
‘ephemeral world of wind and water.’
These are simply not happenstance. They also bring to mind the aforementioned
Loren Eiseley. He
was a science writer whose supernal prose is as poetic and cogent today as it
ever was, even if some terms are outdated, for he has an ability to tie things
back into the personal makes for such compelling reading. You seem to do similar
things visually. Have you ever read his science essays?
JG: Eiseley is a hero, I have read and underlined and circled and starred lines from his books. I’ve also stolen shamelessly. One of his lines is in the film I’m currently finishing: “We cannot pluck a flower without disturbing a star.” I deeply admire subject matter experts like Eiseley and Carson who were not only good scientists but also fine writers. Silent Spring isn’t my favorite Carson writing because she was making a scientific case in the face of great opposition and was pursuing it diligently in that book, the one for which she is legitimately best known. But previously she had written a trio of best sellers about the ocean, her first love, and they are as beautiful as they are intelligent. Rachel and Eiseley were contemporaries, both born in 1907 and Eiseley defended her science in Silent Spring.
Eiseley is a constant revelation, like looking up at the night sky and being awestruck anew by the spray of the Milky Way. How could such an accomplished scientist be such a great writer? I’ll read and reread his books for the rest of my life and wish that I could write like that. I may make the attempt, I've been thinking about writing a collection of essays. Master studies after Eiseley, stories from film productions interwoven with more explicit descriptions of natural history than I allow myself in film scripts.
Eiseley might make for a great
biographical documentary. If you ever do so, let me know, as I have tried to
promote two neglected and great writers- him and poet James
Emanuel. I’d do what I could to help you in terms of research, exegesis,
etc., and so would my wife. She has been greatly influenced by his nature
essays, and his ‘hidden personal essay’ style. Eiseley’s one of quite a
few folks I wish were still living so I could interview them. But, back to film:
although the scoring in your other films is good, it seems that this film is the
most musically attuned, even down to a great fast-paced jazz montage on diatoms.
How did that particular sequence get conceived, evolve, and done?
JG: Seeing fiddler crabs on the intertidal flats below the salt marsh made me wonder what they were eating when they were plunging their claws into the mud. Any estuarine biologist would know they were after diatoms, a basic producer in the marine food chain, and when I read that they have silica shells, I wanted to see them. That led to admiring their forms and patterns, so much like fractals and snowflakes, and put me in mind of some sequences of radiolaria illustrations I’d seen in a film called Proteus, about the zoologist Ernst Haeckel, the recapitulation promoter.
I tried to get images of diatoms from Harvard’s herbaria but they were still on glass plates and hadn’t been digitized. The curator offered to put out a call on an international diatom listserv—who knew?—and suddenly emails with diatom images started pinging in from all over the world, from scientists eager to share. The fiddler crabs are amusing to watch, the male posturing with his size-does-matter claw like an orchestra conductor, and Todd Boekelheide wrote a cool jazz cue to meld with the kaleidoscopic diatom sequence. We kept shortening and shortening the length of the shots because I wanted it to be a pulse changer, to make the audience sit up and stop falling asleep already.
The film is dedicated to Rachel Carson. For those people who may have stumbled
upon this interview, and are not familiar with the name, who was she, and why is
the film dedicated to her? What sort of an influence did she have on you? Did
you ever meet her?
JG: Rachel died in 1964 so I was too young to meet her. She wrote three very successful books, The Sea Around Us, Under the Sea Wind and The Edge of the Sea, and was living a quiet and content life when she became alarmed by the disappearance of songbirds, leading her to research and write Silent Spring. It was an uncharacteristic move for such an unassuming researcher and writer because she knew the hornet’s nest she would be kicking, and she was attacked by the chemical industry and the Department of Agriculture. But her science was unassailable and she was calm in the face of the hysterical attacks. No one knew that as she was gracefully defending her research she was dying of cancer. The book came out in 1962 and she was dead two years later. What a gutsy, classy, intelligent, tough, talented writer.
How did the actress Meryl Streep become involved in the project, and did you
actually meet her? Or was it just narration dubbed in later?
JG: Rachel’s writings played a major role in Ribbon and I knew that Meryl had been associated with a biopic about Rachel that had been floating around Hollywood for years. That film never did get produced. I also knew Meryl cared deeply about legit environmental issues and actually did something about it, not a celebvocate who travels with a retinue and needs the spotlight to display her generosic awesomeness. I simply approached her through the front door, contacting her agent, sending a brief description of the film and making the observation that Rachel died of breast cancer at 57, the same age Meryl was when I approached her.
I directed the voiceover session and in person Meryl is just as you would expect: warm, authentic, charming and funny. And, of course, breathtakingly talented. That sounds ridiculous to mention considering her reputation but I was shaking my head throughout the read. She showed up for the recording session in Manhattan incognito, workout clothes, sunglasses, ponytail, a Mets ball cap. I asked if she was a fan and she said she wore it just to annoy her husband.
My wife is also a big fan of Streep’s work. The film uses a term I’d not
heard before: anthroposphere. What does it mean, and did you coin it?
JG: I wish I were responsible, I would love to contribute a neologism to the lexicon. Anthroposphere is an earth sciences term referring to a division of the Earth like atmosphere, lithosphere, biosphere. It refers to those parts of the Earth modified by Homo sapiens, including the obvious, like cities, reservoirs, croplands, mines—the built environment—as well as deforestation, pollution and global climate change.
A related phrase made its way into my latest script: “the Anthropocene Epoch”, meaning a new stage in Earth’s history, subsequent to the Holocene, in which Homo sapiens has had an impact on the entire biosphere, every place on Earth, from Antarctica to the deep oceans. The Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen coined that one in 2000.
I wonder if that’s a bit too anthropocentric, but, nonetheless, it is an
interesting term. I’ve yet to see Yellowstone:
Land To Life, your latest
documentary, on PBS. What is its theme, and how would it differ from, say, the
recent PBS episode on that park that the Ken Burns did?
JG: Burns makes historical docs emphasizing individual people and their stories. I make films profiling individual landscapes; the people I try to bring into the films are the audience. I want the audience to contemplate their relationship with the land, not only the specific environment interpreted in the film, whether desert or barrier island or glacier, but by implication the entire natural world, from distant wild places to their own parks and back yards. The Yellowstone film is about the connections between the geology of that unique place and the life we see there. However, while I co-produced the Yellowstone film, I didn’t write the script, so I don’t consider it “mine” nearly as much as those I do write. I can't be the auteur without being the author.
You work (or worked?) at the Harper’s Ferry office of the National Park
Service, so do you think you’d ever profile John Brown, or stick to places?
JG: Brown is such a
fascinating figure, wildly controversial in the years leading up the Civil War,
which he helped spark, and still so today. I've seen people turn red and
apoplectic when talking about him. If I were to make a film on an individual he
would be a temptation, but my love is profiling landscapes and natural processes
so I don’t see a biographical film in my future. Eiseley, Leopold, Ricketts
and Rachel all deserve biographical films but I don’t know that I’m the guy
to make them.
DS: John, I say this unhesitatingly: as a man who has mastered words and loves film, you are the closest thing to the perfect candidate to synthesize Eiseley’s words with the image, still or moving. Again, if you even have a remote inkling, pursue it, and my wife and I would help in whatever ways possible. I would love to contribute even a small part in helping rescue Eiseley from the dustbin of history. Hell, helping on such a film might even enable me to edit a republication of his greatest and collected works, and get him the audience he deserves. But, enough urging; please define what constitutes a good documentary from a bad one. Give me the parameters. Also, what is the difference between a good and a great documentary?
JG: Well, there are degrees of badness. Some are worthy of spitting vituperation, some merely invective, others simply cry out to be ignored. Being too obvious is a sin; I hate watching a film and knowing what the filmmakers will do before they do it. Then there are the cynical purveyors of crap; I cannot forgive disingenuousness. I saw a show about a photographer of Alaskan brown bears recently on Animal Planet that was forgettable cable fare until they used the same shot of the photog bushwhacking through an alder thicket twice, implying that it was new and in a completely different location. Then they did it again with a second shot, another illustration of laziness and contempt for the audience.
Most sentient beings can learn to push buttons, can be shown the basics of design and composition, can be taught to assemble the elements and follow a template for how to structure a story. That is craft, and it defines most of what's out there. Good films respect the intelligence and creativity of the audience and introduce multiple arts in creating a synthesis: polished writing (if there is any), superb photography (in some cases, just getting the shot qualifies), sensitive music (if it's used) but most importantly the singular vision of the storyteller aiming for art, so that I think about the film days and years later; so that, to some degree, my life has actually changed from having watched that film, I see something in a new light or have had revealed to me a new aspect of existence. It seeps into my genetic code and becomes part of me. And, when I can watch a film without mentally deconstructing it technically and aesthetically, the filmmaker has me under a spell. I love being captivated and becoming a member of an audience rather than a filmmaker watching a film.
One natural history film I consider great is Yosemite: The Fate of Heaven by Jon Else. It captures the dilemma of encouraging people to get out and experience a magnificent natural area while examining how those crowds change it by their very presence. It does not shy from complexity but embraces it and explores it by showing more than telling. The film is a blend of vérité, some well chosen and well conducted interviews, gorgeous, sensitive music and fine cinematography paired with quotes from a journal by Lafayette Bunnell, a US Army medical officer sent in the 1850s to remove Tenaya and his band of Ahwahnees from the valley. It is subtle, powerful and makes me weep every time I see the ending, which is ridiculous since I have introduced the film at several festivals. You would think I would see it coming, but when aged, wise and eloquent Carl Sharsmith falls to his knees in the snows of Tuolomne Meadows...any other filmmaker would have cut the shot earlier and missed the moment, but he held it longer and longer, the music is perfect and it's just beautiful filmmaking.
One of the most memorable aspects of this film for me is the music, the first time I ever heard music by Todd Boekelheide. I use cues from this score as temp cues in almost every film I'm editing. Todd must be sick of hearing his own stuff in every picture lock I send him, he must roll his eyes at my obsessions, but the score of this film does everything a score should. It subtly, almost subconsciously tells us how to feel and when. It sets moods with sensitivity, goes away when appropriate, gets big when necessary but never manipulates. There's not even that much music in the film but it is superb.
It's a lot to ask of a film, for it to be a life-changing experience, but that's what every documentary filmmaker aims for. Or should.
Often in cinema, the people who are visuals first seem to always make bad films.
The film director John Huston, is paraphrased as stating that ‘all
good films start with a good script.’
And I agree that cinema is basically literature with pictures. Ideas?
He was referring to good fiction films, which do start with a good script. My
non-fiction films end with a good
script. Writing is one of the last things I do in production or, to be more
accurate, one of the last things I finish. Partly this may be because I know
that writing is incredibly hard work and I procrastinate, avoid, evade, hide
under the desk and make excuses until I have no choice but to retreat to my
aerie, plunge in and forget about a good night’s sleep for several weeks.
There’s a great quote Momaday related, one that's attributed to the
scriptwriter and journalist Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare
at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
I suspect most documentary filmmakers work this way, particularly the vérité
types who don’t write a script at all but piece together a narrative in the
editing process from recorded conversations or interviews. I start with a
concept for a film, a broad framework of an ecological story I want to tell,
with thematic sequences tied to something in a specific environment. I do write
it, in treatment and outline form, but it's nowhere near a script. Then I go
shoot in those environs, all the while thinking about what I’m going to write
about that biome or elevation or phenomenon while contemplating an overall
approach that ties it all together, a narrative arc of concepts that will speak
somehow to the personal experience of the viewer even if the landscape is
utterly foreign to them; otherwise it would be a series of interesting, perhaps
even fascinating, trivia. My process of making a film doesn’t progress in
strict linear fashion, pre-production, production and post-production. I may
start shooting on the first location scout, I’m thinking about the script from
day one and it isn’t complete until the narrations are recorded, I may ask
Todd early on to start thinking about instruments and approaches tied to what
I’m reading. He’s as adept with symphony orchestras as he is with accordion
and mbira, gamelan gong and bansuri.
So I suppose I start with a good outline, but I could never write a
script first. I don’t yet know the subtleties or personality of the place.
That comes from spending a lot of time out in the landscape, driving it, hiking
it, flying it, talking to locals and scientists and artists about it, thinking
about it, reading about it, shooting it, just being there long enough that I
start to absorb it.
Very good points on the 180° difference between fictive and documentary films.
You place great emphasis on technical craft in your work, and this is something
that is lacking in much art across the world. Are you a perfectionist? What pros
and cons does this have on your work?
JG: I am as much a perfectionist as circumstances allow, considering Melville’s Lament: “O time, strength, cash and patience!” I just wish I could sleep better when I'm writing a script. Visually I tend to be very demanding, and working with Steve Ruth spoiled me. I see some other stuff out there and can't believe how some bottom feeders can make a living at this. If lockdowns aren't locked down, if I can see the DP's heartbeat at the edge of the frame, if pans don't start smoothly, ramp up, slow to an elegant stop, if pans are purposeless, if tilts aren't going somewhere and reveal something or are helping the editor out, if the composition makes me harrumph...those shots won't be in the film and I'll look for a DP who shares my visual aesthetic. They're out there.
For a year or so after completing a film it is difficult to watch because I'm still too close to the process, I remake it every time I see it. "Wish we'd had a better shot of the waterfall. Should have held longer on the salt grass. That horizon line is too close to center. I could have written that line better. I hate the burble in that helicopter aerial. I should have done another take of that line." The compromises inherent in the process are galling. I think Keats said something about lovers of beauty are their own worst critics. With some time and distance, though, the film becomes its own entity rather than the collection of instances I recall and I can observe it with some detachment. And fondness. And nostalgia. Then melancholy.
DS: Auguste Rodin once mentioned that his sculptures were always there, and he just removed whatever material needed to reveal them. Do you slowly accrete ideas and images? Does a photo almost come to you fully made, meaning you then just have to shoot it, the hard work is done? Or do you create a set of circumstances where a ‘happy accident’ is almost inevitable?
JG: Pasteur: "Chance favors the prepared mind." I long for inevitability but the hard work is never done. A film is never done. I can't remember the source but some author said, "You never finish a book, you abandon it." That probably applies to all arts, including filmmaking. You never finish a film; at some point you just give up. I could spend the rest of my life working on one show, tightening an edit, improving a line, replacing an image (see the whining in the previous answer) but deadlines, whether real or self-imposed, are useful things.
Some specific image ideas do come to me and we go out and shoot them but it tends to be a less prescribed, more intuitive process once we get to a location. My films profile landscapes, so we go spend time in that landscape, create the circumstances and become image collectors. The first time I location scouted northwest New Mexico is illustrative. I was excited because I would be visiting two areas I had long dreamed of, Chaco Canyon and Shiprock. It was December and I planned to do some winter camping in the high desert. As I drove north from Albuquerque I could see off to the west a volcanic tower, a diatreme, the solidified core of a volcano. It turned out there were dozens of them in that valley of the Rio Puerco, Cabezon Peak, Cerro Cuate, Cerro de Guadalupe, so many it looked like a Monument Valley in miniature and put me in mind of all those John Ford Westerns. The towers were illuminated by magic hour, glowing in the evening light and it looked like that entire American West mythos illustrated right there. I wondered if many Westerns had been filmed in the area and it turned out many of them had been shot throughout the region, including a 1929 silent shot in color in 35mm. I'd had no idea anyone shot color 35 that early.
At Chaco I rolled in about midnight in a howling wind, temps around 15º and I couldn't see much in the darkness. I crawled into the back of the truck, took out my contact lenses and discovered that in my haste and excitement to get out there I'd left my glasses back on the East Coast. Shrugged, rolled out a sleeping bag and went to sleep. In the morning that gorgeous light had returned and I could see even through blurry eyesight that I was in a pretty sandstone box canyon. I opened the contact lens case and saw...two ice cubes. No glasses, contact lenses encased in ice, four hours from anywhere, a myopic filmmaker on a location scout who couldn't see. No cell phone, not that there would have been a connection out in the middle of nowhere anyway. I sat there wondering what to do while the truck warmed up, looked at the ice cubes, held them under the heater and when they had melted, popped the lenses back in and went hiking. The manufacturer doesn't recommend freezing contact lenses but I'm glad they thaw out so well.
The loop continued northwest to Shiprock (also a diatreme), then down to a long line of red sandstone cliffs from Gallup to Thoreau along I-40. The cliffs looked like a Hollywood backdrop, and they were. I started collecting films that had been shot in the area, recognized many of the landscapes and narrowed them down to two, that 1929 silent, titled Redskin, and a B-Western called Four Faces West. Over the next two years we returned to all the locations, shot scenics and time-lapse and aerials of the region, a very slow accretion of images, sometimes returning to the same locations to get different light, different clouds, different seasons.
My scriptwriting process is an exercise like that described by Rodin. First attempts are voluminous, multi-page compendia filled with quotes and ideas, words that capture my fancy, lists of shots and locations and striking images and long passages of my deathless prose. They're a mess. Then I take a deep breath and start cutting, reducing, clarifying and carving it down until only the essential remains. It’s a long process for such a short script; it takes me months. I take solace in the Lincoln quote in which he apologized to a friend for having written such a long letter: “I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
But scripts for natural history docs are only one leg of the tripod. They aren’t subordinate to picture but work in concert with it. John Sayles described filmmaking as “thinking in pictures” and I write with a shot log next to me, so I’m constantly thinking about the images I have and how the words can work with them, foreshadow them, underline them, emphasize them. I watch and re-watch the images, describing them in extreme detail in a shot log, writing lines next to them, highlighting those I like the best or that illustrate a concept, thinking about how sound will work with the words and picture, what musical concepts will fit.
My aim in a script is to illuminate, stimulate and provoke with as few words as possible, hitting that sweet spot between diegesis and mimesis. I hope the audience leaves contemplating the land, in a filmic reverie. Their lives should be changed in some way, however small. The scripts are exhaustively researched and thoroughly grounded in science but the intent is to guide the viewers and rely on their thought processes. The imagination of the audience is a powerful thing and I intend to use it.
interview you state: ‘I have
such respect for the audience, because the act of watching, listening to,
thinking about a film, is as creative a process as making the film. Similarly,
the act of reading a book is as creative as writing it. Everybody who comes into
the theater is an individual, is unique, has their own experiences and their own
feelings and interpretations about those experiences. People see things that the
author or the creator of that work of art may not have intended.’
I agree that you do not dumb down your work. Yet, manifestly, you are a rare
breed, for so much of published books, released films, television, the Internet,
video games, painting, in fact, all of contemporary art, is dumbed down for a
Lowest Common Denominator audience. Why do you think that is? Why have you not
gotten on that bandwagon?
JG: Schlock is easier, faster and makes more money. I, a natural history filmmaker married to a public school teacher, display a gift for the difficult, the slow and the unprofitable.
In that same piece you state: ‘My
poor daughters have grown up moaning that they never got to go to Disney World.
Because their evil ogre of a dad says, “No, we are not going to have a
contrived experience.” Let’s not seek out a fake experience, however
wonderful it might be. There’s already an audience for that—they don’t
need us.’ Many folks would bemoan
that as an elitist sentiment. And I agree. But it’s the good sort of elitism;
one where actions trump words, and the elitism rewards the great, and those who
seek it. Why do you think so many people settle for the second rate? Is it
merely cost, such as why more people eat junk food than fish or vegetables?
JG: Cost, ease, and diabolically clever marketing. When I was a boy I wanted to ride in those spinning teacups too.
Let me follow up on that point, now, and ask a few queries that I ask almost all
my interviewees; because this is a series, and the parallax of replies is of
interest to me and my readers. I
started this interview series to combat the aforementioned dumbing down of
culture and discourse- what I call deliteracy,
both in the media, and online, where blogs and websites refuse to post
paragraphs with more than three sentences in it, or refuse to post anything over
a thousand words long. Old tv show hosts like Phil Donahue, Dick Cavett, David
Susskind, Tom Snyder, even Bill Buckley- love him or hate him, have gone the way
of the dinosaur. Intellect has been killed by emotionalism, simply because the
latter is far easier to claim without dialectic. Only Charlie
Rose, as a big name interviewer, is left on PBS, but near midnight. Let me
ask, what do you think has happened to real discussion in America- not only in
public- political or elsewise, but just person to person? And, even in a small
way, do you think films like yours help to counteract such willful ignorance?
JG: I sure as hell hope so. But again, I think the depth is out there, we just have to cut through the kudzu to get to it. Kudzu, by the way, was promoted by the Soil Conservation Service and planted by the CCC to reduce soil erosion. (Sorry Dad, FDR is responsible for The Vine That Ate The South.) As growing zones shift northward because of climate change, kudzu will continue its conquest of the US! Along with hemorrhagic dengue, tamarisk, permanent drought in the Southwest, etc. No doubt George Will will blame all this on FDR and Obama while continuing to deny anthropogenic climate change.
But—despite the sheer amount of crap out there, I am continually surprised and pleased by what I find after digging deeply. Small regional presses are still putting out meaningful and important books, PBS affiliates occasionally make little gems and I don't know how I ever made a film without the Book of Knowledge that is the Internet. Just keep the bullshit detector set at eleven.
DS: I also believe that artists are fundamentally different, intellectually, than non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more greatly different. Let me quote from an essay I did on Harold Bloom, the reactionary critic who champions the Western Canon against Multiculturalism: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this. It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply- especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And also to be able to lead observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic (Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3.’ What are your thoughts on this concept of mine? Have you discerned any differences between non-artists and artists, or average artists and the greats? And, if you are copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would you place yourself? And do you think disciplines like teaching or criticism are 180° from creativity?
JG: Anyone who thinks great teachers aren't creative should observe my brother in action, and I don't say that just because I'm a loyal family member. (He's my brother so I think he's an idiot most of the time, but I must admit that he is a virtuoso teacher.) Great teaching is incomprehensibly difficult; unfortunately, lousy teaching is unspeakably easy, which is why there's so much of it. No one sees the hours and hours of research, creativity and preparation that go into a seemingly effortless teaching performance. I think Chaplin was the one who said, "True art is the concealment of effort." The great ones make it look effortless, but it never is.
I think everyone is born with the potential to be creative to some degree, but potential is useless if it isn’t exercised and it certainly atrophies. I’ve met plenty of people who are much cleverer and more creative than I am but lack motivation and determination, or circumstances got in the way, or the phone rang, or the dog ate their homework. An artist creates art, and I've never heard of a great artist who didn't work really, really, really hard. Technoids crow about the democratization of filmmaking with the low cost and easy availability of tools like digital video and nonlinear editing software, but it exponentially increases the amount of ordure that's out there. Anyone can make a film, that just involves pushing buttons, but few can make a film that captivates an audience and will last. The invention of typewriters and word processing software didn't increase the amount of great writing. Certainly technology can create avenues for undiscovered or underprivileged talent but it also makes it harder to find the few grains of wheat among all that chaff. Winnowing is hard work.
What mystifies me is how some people have one good work in them but the rest is dreck. I know a guy who made dozens of films, none noteworthy, but then out popped one that is a beautiful little jewel, creative, intelligent and affecting. Nothing in his previous corpus would lead one to believe he was capable of such a work. Where did that come from? Never happened again.
Being a Visionary doesn't sound like much fun to me, requiring too much obsession and not enough time to go hiking, but your percentages feel about right. On the scale, I'm still waiting for some diploma mill to award me the honorary degree of Ph.K.: Philosopher King. Until that honor arrives, I will happily submit my works to the audience and critics. So far they haven't been sending me boatloads of cash, the ungrateful wretches.
DS: The thing you describe is called The Dart Tossing Phenomenon (at least by me). Do you believe in The Muse? Divine Inspiration? I find that many artists use the idea of a Muse or Divine Inspiration as a crutch for times when their productivity is fallow. I call this the Divine Inspiration Fallacy. Any opinions?
JG: Pasteur again. I always marvel at the seemingly capricious nature of inspiration, when it strikes and how, but it only comes about through hours and days and weeks and months of hard, incremental, tedious, grinding, wonderful work, paired with the human mind’s ingenious ability to detect patterns and solve problems. There’s no deus ex machina that will swoop to the rescue, it always requires intellectual heavy lifting. Reading voluminously. Spending days and days in the field. Thinking. Organizing. Writing, Rewriting. Rewriting again. And again. Taking a break to play and recharge. Staring out the window. Getting back to work.
Are there any other arts that have influenced your films? How and why do you
think they’ve had an influence?
JG: Josh Billings quote: "About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment." All arts influence and inspire my films, probably more so than other films do. I am in no way unique, I'm sure all artists look to all arts for inspiration. I'm quite mercenary about it, an opportunistic scavenger ready to incorporate any idea, image, rhythm, word, pattern in a film. JMW Turner paintings influence time lapse. Sebastiao Salgado and Ansel Adams influence landscape composition. The music of Aaron Copland, Todd Boekelheide, Cole Porter, Cesaria Evora, NPR buttons, anything. The inflections of Meryl, the resonance of Momaday, the sculpture and imagination of Andy Goldsworthy, the cinematography of Steve Ruth. I soak up ideas from poets, painters, musicians, science writers, ecologists, anywhere I can find anything that strikes me, run it through the internal filter of my experience and see if it will feel right in a film.
DS: A few years back I co-hosted an Internet radio show called Omniversica. On one show we spoke with a poet named Fred Glaysher, who- in arguing with my co-host Art Durkee, claimed that, in art, change does not come until some giant- or great artist, comes along, and buries the rest of the wannabes. It’s akin to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Agree or not? And name some film giants you feel who’ve buried past tropes or styles with their canon.
JG: I haven't read Kuhn's book. My inclination is to agree with the logic of it because my default explanation for almost everything is to point to natural selection. Someone wins, therefore someone has to lose, whether a graminivorous quadruped or a wannabe artist. This is a more Manichean stance than I usually take regarding the arts but you're talking about the greats; for the rest of us, cooperation is a necessary survival technique. When I think of examples they are polymaths rather than filmmakers, particularly since my knowledge of film history is slim. Leonardo and Aristotle and Ibn Rushd come to mind. I hear Hildegard von Bingen should be in the running.
DS: You mentioned earlier that you had watched Michael Apted’s The Up Series documentaries for the BBC. What are your thoughts on it as a longitudinal study of human development? How about sociologically? Do you agree with its epigraph, the Jesuit proverb, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’?
JG: Apted's Up series is one of the finest examples of documentary film I've ever seen and it is a masterful contribution to longitudinal studies of human development. There is some credence to the Jesuit proverb but it gives short shrift to genetics, the dramatic changes in adolescence and neurogenesis in the adult brain. Old dogs can learn lots of new tricks and I'm counting on that to be true in my dotage. Anecdotally, I look at my Libertarian engineer brother who was raised in the same house with the same experiences by the same parents and think, "Who is that space alien?"
A few less intense queries. That old chestnut- name a few folk from history
you’d like to break bread with, and why?
JG: This reminds me of the PBS series Steve Allen hosted and wrote, Meeting of Minds, so I’ll cheat and make it an all-night party:
Antoine de Saint-Exúpery, who wrote Wind, Sand and Stars and disappeared during a reconnaissance flight in 1944.
Rachel Carson, although she'd rather be out tide-pooling somewhere.
Charles and Rae Eames. We all steal elements of The Powers of Ten sometime in our filmic careers.
Lincoln and Carl Sandburg, hero and worshipper.
Dorothy Parker and Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
Leonardo, Aristotle and Hildegard, since I mentioned them above.
Edward de Vere and Will Shakespeare, just to annoy my Bard-worshipping mom.
Stephens and Catherwood.
Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White.
Oscar Wilde and H.L. Mencken.
Tecún Umán and Lempira, resistance fighters.
Emerson and Thoreau.
John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt.
Mary Renault and Theseus.
Mildred Bailey and Louis Armstrong.
Carl Sagan and Arne Naess.
John Brinckerhoff Jackson, essayist and publisher of Landscape magazine.
Maria Martinez, who single-handedly created the modern art of Pueblo pottery.
Alfonso el Sabio. I put some of his Cantigas in a film.
Spinoza the lens grinder, although I'll bet he wouldn't be the life of the party.
Joseph Conrad — I’m astounded he could write like that in a second language.
Beryl Markham, who flew West With the Night. Adventurer, aviator, non-conformist.
Ibn Rushd, aka Averroes. I want to be an Andalusian polymath when I grow up.
Carl Sharsmith, a lovely man who knew Tuolomne Meadows better than anyone.
Björn Kurtén, Finnish paleontologist, author of the Ice Age novel Dance of the Tiger.
Ibn Battuta, who should be far better known than Marco Polo. I want to invent a swimming pool game in which kids shout out "Ibn!" "Battuta!"
Bob Marshall, a wealthy socialist and intrepid explorer who thought wilderness was a societal as well as environmental benefit.
Archie Carr, intrepid naturalist-adventurer, author of The Windward Road, known as The Man Who Saved Sea Turtles even as he planned various ways to cook and eat them.
Ed Ricketts, maverick marine biologist who loathed academic writing even as he wrote a landmark textbook, Between Pacific Tides, which is still used in universities.
Aldo Leopold: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve
the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it
I won't include
Loren Eiseley because he would shun such a large group of people, as would I. I
also have a policy of not meeting my heroes. They invariably turn out to be
distressingly human, and I like having heroes.
I loved Allen’s old show, when I was a kid. At this point in your life, have
you accomplished the things you wanted to do? If not, what failures gnaw at you
the most? Which of those failures do you think you can accomplish yet?
Accomplishments? Here’s the bio I send to every film festival:
environmental filmmaker John Grabowska has published nothing of merit, won no
awards of significance, mounted no exhibits in august venues, secured no grants
of any substance, nor does he sit on any boards, committees, panels or task
forces even remotely prestigious. He doesn't have an advanced degree, much less
an honorary doctorate, or even a Wikipedia entry. In short, he is a complete and
utter failure by the standards of our celebrity-obsessed and credential-crazed
culture. Grabowska's only redeeming feature is that in a society in which every
delusional and obsessive parent thinks his or her kids are uniquely bright,
adorable and creative, HIS REALLY ARE.
festival has yet printed it.
Let me close by asking what is in store, in the next year or two, in terms of
JG: I’m just
finishing a film on an isolated volcanic range in northern New Mexico, the Jemez
Mountains. It’s titled Sky Island, an ecological term for southwestern mountains surrounded
by desert and thus home to endemic species, not unlike nunataks in the polar
regions. It explores the Life Zone concept of C. Hart Merriam by traveling
uphill from the Rio Grande to Cerro Grande, an elevation change of more than a
mile. Some Georgia O'Keeffe visual references creep in with aerials of Cerro
Pedernal and extreme close-ups of datura. I thought I knew the region from
having hiked over much of it but then I got up in a helicopter and was stunned
by the beauty and diversity of that rugged landscape. The Jemez are also an
epicenter of galloping climate change effects in the Desert Southwest so that
gets some examination.
Last year, Jess and I spent some time in the Sky
Island of the Chisos
Mountains, in Big Bend. Wondrous place. Thanks for doing this interview, John
Grabowska, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like.
JG: Thank you for the opportunity, Dan. This has been stimulating, challenging and provocative—your series is a blow against deliteracy.
Return to Cosmoetica