Bristlecone Pines, Good Luck, and ALW

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.

The filmmaker photographs a Bristlecone Pine tree.
The filmmaker photographs a Bristlecone Pine tree.


The filmmaker caresses a Bristlecone Pine tree.
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.

Father and son in Patriarch Grove

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.


Bristlecone Pine Trees: A Clip and an Argument Between DP and Editor

The Bristlecone Pine Tree


Excuse Me While I Go Schizo

I came across this shot while editing a sequence on bristlecone pine trees and the Milarch’s successful cloning of the Methuselah tree and I immediately got into an argument with the cinematographer who shot it. The cinematographer in this case being me. (I think I shot maybe 6 of the 110 hours of total footage and I’m probably pleased with about 4 minutes of those 6 hours.)

David the Editor:  Why didn’t you just lay off the zoom button?

David the Cinematographer: Dude! It would have been a super long take. And I thought the movement of the shadow combined with the  zooms would work nicely. Do you like them?

David the Editor: I do, I just wish you had committed. Maybe one slow long zoom in or zoom out.

David the Cinematographer: You editors, you’re always looking at what was missed, what wasn’t shot. You know that if I hadn’t touched the camera you would be telling me, “Why didn’t you zoom in and zoom out? Give me some options? No way can I use such a long take!”

David the Editor: Can’t I have my cake and eat it to.

David the Cinematographer: In this case, no.

And so the argument ended and I went back to editing.


For closer views of these ancient and majestic trees, visit these links:

Prometheus, Older Than Methuselah: A Clip

Bristlecone Pine Trees: The Polaroids


The Nerves

Dear Filmmaker,

Were you nervous before your first interview with Paolo Soleri? I mean, he’s kind of a rock star, isn’t he?

R.C. in AZ

Dear R.C. in AZ

Yes, I think he is, and yes, I was nervous before I met Soleri for the first time. And the second time. And the third, fourth, and fifth times, too. I was also nervous before every interview with Jill Tarter, Robert Darden, and David and Jared Milarch. Not dripping-in-sweat nervous, more like a little-perspiration-on-the-palms nervous. The nerves are about logistics, mostly. Will we have enough time? Will we find a good location to conduct the interview? Did I bring everything I need to do the job? Stuff like that.

But I find once we sit across from each other and I ask the first question, the nerves disappear. For me, it becomes a conversation. (Of course, they’re the ones in front of the camera, so it’s not much of a conversation for them.) I’m curious about people, whether I’m interviewing them in front of a camera or sitting next to them on a plane. I want to know how they became interested in their passion, how they wound up living where they live, doing what they do. All of it. So for me it’s just asking questions, listening, responding, and asking another question.

Thanks for question, R.C.

And here’s a song Blondie would turn into a huge hit, performed by the band that wrote it, The Nerves.

If you have a question, just leave it here as a comment or send me an email at:

d a v i d { a t } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s [ d o t ] c o m

Here are The Nerves performing a near-perfect power pop song. They wrote it, but you may recognize the Blondie version.


Is Production Really Over?

Documentary filmmakers frequently encounter a dilemma: how do you know when to say, “production is over.”

You can always shoot more, especially now with video. For Grey Gardens, a film I reference frequently, the Maysles shot more than 70 hours of footage over the course of six weeks. That’s film, not video. And film stock and processing was very expensive back in 1973. It still is. Today, 70 hours of footage would be considered a paltry amount for a 90-minute film.

But expense and shooting ratio aside, the bigger question is, how do you know when you’ve shot all there is to shoot? With a documentary like Spellbound there is a built-in ending. The spelling bee competition. The winner is exalted. The losers cry. Epilogue.
With a film like The King of Kong, though there is a contest to see who can score the most points, there is always the potential for a new record once you’ve yelled, “That’s a wrap.” (This is in fact the case with the chase for the Donkey Kong high score.)

With A Life’s Work I can always shoot more. Stuff always happens. The ATA goes into hibernation, for example. Or the Champion Tree Project changes its name to Archangel Ancient Tree Archive and sets out on a new expedition. Or a new duct is being constructed at Arcosanti that will capture the heat from the greenhouse and passively bring it up a building on the mesa. Or the Black Gospel Restoration Project is sent a piece of vinyl on a label no has heard of before.

And then I look at footage and I think, wouldn’t it be great to have footage of Copemish, Michigan in the spring? Wouldn’t it be great to shoot the Milarchs amidst blooming trees?

But I must remind myself that A Life’s Work is not about documenting the progress of these projects. That would be futile and quite beside the point of the film. The opposite of the point, really.

So I can declare that  production is over because I have the footage I want and the interviewees say things that propel the narrative. I don’t need to shoot latest developments.

But then again, wouldn’t it be nice if …

I’m sure there will be more on this topic as the edit progresses, as I come across sequences that could use a shot of ____ to really make it perfect.

Why These Four?

In previous posts, I wrote about other people and projects I considered for A Life’s Work and why I chose four subjects instead of three or five or twenty-seven. But neither of those posts address why I chose these four people.

A Life’s Work is very simple, really. It’s me searching for an answer to the big question: why are we here? I knew I didn’t want to have four artists or four scientists or four philosophers or four clerics addressing that question. I wanted people who were doing different things. I also wanted people who were doing things I was interested in because I knew I was going to spend a lot of time with this film.

So with that in mind, I proceeded. Actually, it was more like I kept my eyes open and my antennae alert.

Paolo Soleri was the first to sign on. An architect and a philospher: a builder, an artist, and a big thinker all in one. Perfect.

I knew I wanted someone doing something with living things: animals, insects, trees. I was also thinking about water a lot; I was thinking elemental. When David and Jared Milarch of Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (then Champion Tree Project) came to my attention, and when I learned there have been four generations of tree-farming Milarchs, I salivated.

SETI was a no-brainer. I had been fascinated by this endeavor since I was a teenager. The question was, who at the SETI Institute. I was torn between Frank Drake, Seth Shostak, and Jill Tarter. They were all intriguing possibilities, but as I read more about each of them, it seemed Tarter would be the best fit in this film.

I knew I wanted some kind of preservationist, too. Originally I was thinking along the lines of someone who actively seeks out lost silent films. I didn’t know of any such person. Lost silent films seem to become found because someone stumbles upon them, not because someone is actively seeking them out. I toyed with the idea of a conservationist who specializes in Tibetan textiles. I liked this idea because textiles are doomed: at best, you can slow down deterioration, but eventually, it’s going to disintegrate. But when my friend Roland Tec brought Robert Darden and the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project to my attention I knew I had my final subject. Robert is a multi-hyphenate (writer-teacher-musician-gospel music fanatic), and included in that litany is deacon. I thought this brought in an element that had been lacking. The prospect of including gospel music in the film was gravy.

They did very different things. I loved that they lived and worked in different parts of the country. They were articulate and passionate about what they were doing. I thought they would complement each other in ways I couldn’t script, and that’s turning out to be true.

So that’s why these four.

See also the “How Do You Find These People?” posts.
Robert Darden
David and Jared Milarch
Paolo Soleri
Jill Tarter

Happy Arbor Day! A Clip

Here’s a clip I put together just for Arbor Day. The bulk of this clip was shot on our first visit with the Milarchs in 2007. (Please pardon my little artsy interlude which was shot elsewhere.) This is one of my favorite bits of footage and I’m so glad cinematographer Wolfgang Held kept rolling, even though I told him he could stop shooting. (In 2007 I was adamantly against being in the film in any way.) Like several of the other clips on the blog, I don’t know if there’s a place for this in the film, but there’s a place for it here!


For more clips featuring trees check these posts out:

Cloning Redwoods Redux

Ask the Filmmaker: Turning the Tables

Prometheus, Older than Methuselah

Look Up!

What is it that makes us look up?

We look up at trees, at buildings, to the sky to see clouds, stars, planets. If we are inside and we’ve been asked a question, many of us look to where the wall meets the ceiling, as if there’s a clue there, before we articulate our answer. Many times we look up when we listen to music more intensely.

I can’t say when I chose the four subjects this was a primary consideration. “They must all be involved in activities that involve looking upwards,” because in truth I was considering working with people who look down, but that’s another post.

But if it wasn’t a primary consideration, I can also say it wasn’t an accident either.

Milarchs and Reforestation in the News

Yesterday the Associated Press ran a story about the Milarchs efforts to clone the biggest and oldest trees for reforestation projects, and now it’s everywhere. Here it is on the NPR web site.

I thought this might be a good opportunity to revisit a clip from A Life’s Work, so here you go: David Milarch talking about cloning redwoods.


See also:

Here’s a “Trailer,” featuring the Milarchs and the three other subjects of A Life’s Work.

Prometheus, Older than Methuselah, a clip featuring Jared Milarch speaking about Bristlecone Pines and the tragedy of the Prometheus tree.

Ask the Filmmaker: Turning the Tables, a clip where David Milarch explains our relationship to trees.

Michigan 2007: A Clip

Four years ago this week Wolfgang Held and I ventured to Michigan to interview David and Jared Milarch. It seems like both yesterday and a lifetime ago.

I hear you: “David, Michigan in February? Why didn’t you go in May?” We had shot Soleri in the desert the previous fall, now I wanted contrast. I wanted winter, I wanted cold, and I wanted snow! And boy, did I get it.

We captured nine hours of footage, some of which can be seen in the “trailer.” The first thing that comes to mind about that shoot was the Milarch family’s generosity and openness. The next thing that comes to mind was how much driving we did. Michigan’s a big state and it seemed to me we were crisscrossing its entirety, but I know that’s not true at all. We stayed in Traverse City and drove to Interlochen, Buckley, Manistee, Leland, Copemish (Milarch’s home) and a few other places whose names escape me.

In a certain way, A Life’s Work is a travelogue: now we’re in Arizona, now were in Michigan, now we’re California, now we’re in Texas. I always ask the cinematographer to get shots of the landscape we’re driving through, just in case I want to use them as transitions. Michigan was no exception.

As I looked at this road footage I was reminded how variable the weather was: one minute the sky was blue and the sun was blinding, the next it was snowing and approaching whiteout conditions.

So here’s some road footage, just a taste of all those miles. What do you think? Would you like to see more?


What Makes Me Happy? Positive Interaction

I recently went to my doctor and we got to talking about A Life’s Work. He asked me if I knew Cicero’s treatise, On Old Age. I didn’t. He paraphrased a passage about trees.

“Oh, that’s good,” I said. “I’m going to use that in my blog.”

When I came home, waiting in my inbox was an e-mail from my kind doctor:

Since I am sure you want to be meticulously precise in what you write, the exact full quote is:

serit arbores qui alteri saeculo prosint  (plant trees that will only benefit the next generation)

While the quotation is best known for being published by Cicero in his treatise “Cato Major seu de senectute”, Cicero acknowledged that he derived it from Caecilius Status, a Roman poet who lived about 100 years earlier. Also, as a minor curiosity, this phrase is also used as the motto of the Canberra Arboretum.

This kind of response, inspired by a casual talk about the film, really makes me happy.

The passage that follows “plant trees that will only benefit the next generation” is pretty good, too.

“Nor indeed would a farmer, however old, hesitate to answer any one who asked him for whom he was planting: ‘For the immortal gods, whose will it was that I should not merely receive these things from my ancestors, but should also hand them on to the next generation.'”

I’m pretty sure this quote would please David and Jared Milarch of the organization formerly known as Champion Tree Project. And the other subjects of A Life’s Work as well.

Thanks, Dr. C.

[Note: for a less positive interaction, see my post on Extra Criticum, Letters to a Young Filmmaker.]