From Concept to First Day of Shooting

I was having lunch with my friend and colleague, cinematographer Wolfgang Held (who shot Tango Octogenario), and I told him I was thinking about making a documentary. Wolfgang’s background is in documentary film, so naturally he wanted to hear more. I  pitched him two ideas. The first was a film about cover bands–not the casual kind, but the hardcore cover bands, the groups that think they actually are U2 or Led Zeppelin. He liked this idea.

Then I told him about A Life’s Work and his ears perked up a bit more. He recognized that this would be  a very personal film and that excited him. He has that European cinematic sensibility. He asked me if I had subjects in mind. I told him I did. When I told him about Paolo Soleri and Arcosanti, he told me I needed to make this film and he’d be interested in shooting it. Wolfgang’s belief in the idea meant a great deal to me. Shortly after our conversation, I decided to proceed.

I sent an e-mail to a nameless  Arcosanti e-mail address and received the following reply:


Please give me a call any time this week to discuss your proposed film–or better yet e-mail me a brief description of what you’re hoping to do, so I can be educated before we speak.

Looking forward to speaking with you.


I e-mailed and he replied that he’d discuss the idea with Soleri and get back to me. Stefan  called a week later. “Hi, David. I’m putting Paolo on the line.”

I didn’t have time to be terrified. I told Soleri the premise and he liked the idea. “Perhaps you’ll come visit the Grand Canyon and maybe stop by here too without your camera?”

I told Soleri I’d like that very much. I met with him in Arcosanti in August, and we arranged an October shoot. Simple, right?

A thousand and one thanks to Stefan Grace for making the Arcosanti shoot smooth smooth smooth.

By the way, before you decide to run with the cover band idea, you should be aware of two things. 1. Getting the music rights will make you pull out all your hair, and 2. A documentary on the subject has already been made, Tribute. It received good reviews  and lots of airplay on one of the premium cable stations. I’ve never seen it, but would like to.

How Do You Find These People? Jared and David Milarch

I was at my gym riding the stationary bicycle and looking through the gym copy of the March 2004 Audubon Magazine. I came across the following sidebar:

This is the clipping that brought the Milarchs to my attention.
This is the clipping that brought the Milarchs to my attention.

I stealthily tore it out of the magazine, filed it, and forgot about it. (I clip, file, and forget many articles about all sorts of things.) In March 2004 I wasn’t thinking about making A Life’s Work or a documentary at all. At this time I was riding the festival success of Tango Octogenario and hustling a script I wrote and wanted to make into a feature film.

But when I decided to embark on this adventure, the sidebar came to mind. The age of the trees was mindblowing. I went to the URL and found out that the Champion Tree Project was started by Jared and David Milarch,  his father . This hearkened back to my inspiration: medieval cathedrals that were often constructed by generations of stonemasons.  Stonemasonary, like most everything else then, was a family business. If your father was a stonemason, chances were his father was a stonemason and you were going to be one, too. Jared, his father, his father, and his father all farmed the same land in Copemish, MI.

I e-mailed Championship Tree Project and David Milarch called me. We spoke for at least an hour and I knew they were right for the film.

And that’s how I found the Milarchs.

(Note: My gym seems to be some kind of locus for finding people I’d like to capture on film.)

Breaking News!

The fourth subject is interested in participating in the film.  Shooting is scheduled for early August in Chicago.

I’ll reveal more details as the Ts are crossed and the Is dotted. Don’t want to jinx it. But I will say this, I believe this subject (and his work) will be a great addition to the folks (and their work) that are already in it.

The Inspiration for the Film

I can usually pinpoint the moment one of my works was conceived. With A Life’s Work, I cannot precisely state day and date, but I can say with certainty the events that inspired it. When I was nine years old or so I remember being told by my teacher that medieval cathedrals took hundreds of years to construct, that their architects would not see them completed, that generations of stonemasons would work on them. This bit of information made quite an impression on my young mind. To this day, whenever I see a cathedral I become that awestruck nine-year-old.

After completing my previous film, Tango Octogenario, I had decided I wanted to make a documentary. I had several ideas and was researching them. In September of 2004 my mother died after a lengthy battle with cancer. Sometime during my grief, this time of sorrow and contemplation about purpose, mortality, time, and legacy, I thought about the cathedrals, and the idea for A Life’s Work was born–a documentary about people doing work they may not see completed.

But going from conception to actualization is an enormous step, one I’ll write about in another post.

It's Paolo Soleri's 90th Birthday

Paolo Soleri in A Life's Work
Paolo Soleri in A Life's Work

Happy Birthday, Dr. Soleri. I hope you enjoy the day.

Where to begin?

In the middle.

That’s where I am in this documentary. Three out of four subjects interviewed: architect and Arcosanti’s guiding force Paolo Soleri; astrophysicist and Director of SETI Research at the SETI Institute, Jill Tarter; father and son tree farmers and co-founders of the Champion Tree Project, David and Jared Milarch. 70+ hours of footage shot. A 27-minute sample edited. I’m very pleased with that sample and I’m sending it to people who may want to be involved with the film in some way.

The fourth interview is on the horizon. And then I’ll be returning to the other three for follow ups. And then returning to the fourth for a follow up, no doubt.

And then post-production.

All the while fundraising and networking.

That’s where I am with A Life’s Work.

Where are you with your life’s work?

A documentary about people engaged with projects they may not complete in their lifetimes.