What’s that saying? It’s better to be lucky than good. But being lucky is one thing, you then have to recognize what you stepped in. I’m not always lucky, but one day on my shoot in California’s White Mountains . . .
I went there because David and Jared Milarch (father and son) had been there several years before to clone the world’s oldest known living thing, a Bristlecone Pine tree. This was what brought them to my attention, and brought the Champion Tree Project (now known as Archangel Ancient Tree Archive) a lot of press. There was no video of Jared and David in action there, but I had interviewed both about the experience, so I knew that their story was going to make it into the film. That meant I needed footage of those trees.
Day 1: The Bristlecone Pine Trees at Schulman Grove
I had spent the first day shooting beautiful old, Bristlecone Pine trees at Schulman Grove. Lots of them. There were few people on the trails. I enjoyed the pristine quality of these places and I was very pleased not to have people getting all up in my business. Still, I inserted myself in a couple of shots just in case I felt, during editing, that there needed to be a human presence.
Day 2: The Bristlecone Pine Trees at Patriarch Grove
On the second day I went to Patriarch Grove. Again, it was unpopulated and again, it was a wonderful day of shooting. But as I was ready to pack it up, a father and son arrived, and I knew right then and there that filming them would be very useful. They would be surrogates for the Milarchs. And perhaps, I thought, they could be more than surrogates.
A Life’s Work is the story about four people doing work they will not complete in their lifetimes. But it’s also everyone’s story, because none of us finish our work in our lifetimes. Here was a father and son outside of my four subjects. I recognized (or hoped) that by including these “ordinary people” in this sequence — they walk on trails up a mountain, take photos of the oldest living things on the planet — the viewer will see in this father and son something of themselves and then make the leap that film is not just about Jill Tarter, Paolo Soleri, Robert Darden, and the Milarchs, but about them, too.
I know that’s a lot to ask of a few shots, but I have other things in mind to help make this connection as the film progresses, and hopefully there will be a cumulative effect. You’ll just have to stay tuned to find out what those other things are.