Happy Earth Day

Thanks to Nancy B., whom I’ve never met but know through one degree of separation. Nancy sent out an e-mail to her friends directing them to the “Cloning Redwoods” clip that’s here on this blog.


Sounds like a good way to celebrate Earth Day.

Share the love on Twitter or Facebook or etc. by clicking one of the cute icons below.

How to Conduct an Interview, Part 2: Asking the Questions

Andy Bowley, Cinematographer

Last week in How to Conduct an Interview Part 1, I dealt with preparation. This post features some pointers once you are sitting across from the interviewee with your questions in hand. Ready? Go!

(Note: Make sure to read this post’s comment by Andy Bowley. He’s worked with some great interviewers so he knows what he’s talking about. That’s him operating the camera, and me in the corner, trying to be invisible.)


You’ve organized your questions and they have an arc and everything. That’s great. But don’t be a slave to the pages in front of you. Interviews are best when they are more like conversations. With Jeff Stein, President of the Cosanti Foundation (Arcosanti) and Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, I’d ask one question and they’d answer it and the next few follow-ups as well. I’d then ask the next logical question without having to look at my printed questions.

Shut Up and Listen Some More

You are not there to impress the interviewee with your knowledge of their subject. You are also not there to tell them your personal history. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, when you talk to you’re saying something you already know; when you listen you might learn something new.

That being said you don’t want to be a question-asking automaton. Be friendly and personable, and judiciously share a brief anecdote  or two to show that you can relate to interviewee , but don’t go over do it.

Be Expressive and Responsive

You will not see or hear me in A Life’s Work, so it is important that I not talk while the interviewee is talking, and that includes no hmmms, ahhhs, or ooohhhs. And those interjections, under ordinary circumstances, propel a conversation.  So I nod a lot, smile a lot, frown a lot, raise my eyebrows a lot. This gives the interviewees something to respond to. You need to show you’re interested, after all, because then they’ll be excited to tell you their stories.

Silence Is Gold

Don’t be afraid of silence. There is the small silence necessary after an answer so you’re not stepping on the toes of the answer and making for difficult edits, but there is also a bigger silence. I will pause once in a while and check my page of questions to make sure I’m covering ground, and this bigger silence can lead to unexpected places. Often subjects thinks they’ve finished answering, but then something comes to mind that they want to add during that silence. This is often the real good stuff. Another reason to do this is you may want a shot of the subject sitting silently — these can be interesting shots — and these pauses can provide that.

Be Ready to Improvise

Some people are talkers and don’t need you to ask questions. David Milarch of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive is one of those people. I had the great, mind-blowing pleasure of shooting an interview filmmaker Roland Tec conducted with David Hockney and he was this way as well. They are unbridled and there is no way to control them, so you just have to let them go. When they give you a chance, sneak in a question and get out of the way.

You’re the Boss

While some folks cannot be reined in, it’s important to remember that you are still the boss. Be confident. You did the work and deserve to be where you are. There’s nothing to fear.

This is not always easy to do, believe me, I know. When I had to interview Robert Darden of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, I was very aware that I was interviewing a man who not only had been interviewed many times, as all of the subjects of A Life’s Work had been, but also a journalist who conducted hundreds, maybe thousands of interviews.

Full disclosure: The first few interviews I conducted, I had this at the top of each page of questions.

Rephrase Questions When Necessary

Come up with a couple of different ways to ask the big questions. The big questions deserve being asked more than once, and sometimes a simple rephrasing will yield the answer you could only dream of. Do this, too, if you feel you were misunderstood or if the answer given wasn’t deep enough for you.

Take Your Time

Don’t rush it. And if you can, conduct interviews you think will be lengthy over two days. As I’ve said elsewhere, everyone gets tired after a couple of hours. Sometimes though, you are hard pressed for time. In that case, try to take a little break, go to the bathroom, get water, stretch your legs. Talk about something unrelated to the topic, joke around.

Don’t Be Selfish

Though you are the boss, there’s no reason to be selfish. Invite the interviewee to ask you questions. I always ask the cinematographer I’m working with if s/he has any questions they’d like to ask of the interviewee. Their questions, and the subsequent answers, have been very valuable.

This has been a public service from A Life’s Work.

Was it helpful? I’d love to add to it. If you have questions or tips, please send them my way.

How to Hug a Tree: A Clip

The Best Way to Hug a Tree

I was in a patch of Michigan forest admiring a pine tree, one tree among thousands. I stopped and stared at it. “There’s something about that tree,” I said. “That tree speaks to me.” I felt a little embarrassed that I said such a New Agey thing. David Milarch then instructed me how to hug a tree.

It was like a dream, or a memory of a dream, but the video below tells me that it did in fact happen.


When Milarch started schooling me, I told Wolfgang Held he could turn off the camera , but he kept rolling. I’m so glad he did because this is one of my favorite bits. I suspect it won’t make it into the film, but I’m so glad I have it. And I’m glad I can share it with you.

The other shots: writer Jim Robbins (The Man Who Planted Trees) relaxing against a giant redwood tree in Roy’s Redwood Preserve, California (where I’m told they shot the speeder bikes scene in Return of the Jedi), David and Jared Milarch visiting some of their friends in a forest in Michigan, me among the Bristlecone Pine trees in the White Mountains of California.

Also see: Jim Robbin’s guest blog post.

About the Clips

There are a bunch of original clips using footage shot for A Life’s Work on this blog. You can see a list of posts that contain clips by clicking here. If you visit the A Life’s Work Youtube Channel you can watch them without reading the text.

What’s With the Clips, Anyway?

Each time I put a clip up I have a little fear that someone will see it and think it’s part of the finished film. And then look at another clip and say, “Huh, what the hell are these two clips going to be in the same film?”

Editing at the MacDowell Colony, 2010.

Some are taken from the 36-minute sample editor Cabot Philbrick and/or I put together (“The Redwoods,” “Looking for Rare Gospel Vinyl,” “Jill Tarter on Growing Up in the 50s”), but most I edited especially for the blog. The film right now has a somewhat sturdy outline and many of those clips don’t fall within its parameters. Does that mean they won’t be in the finished film?

My Notebook

Some most definitely won’t be (“First Shots”)*, and others will most likely not be (“What’s My Favorite Tree,” though part of David Milarch’s answer and the archival footage might be). And the rest? Who knows? This blog has become a notebook for me, a way for me to focus what I’m working on and try some new things. Editing the clips makes me review footage and think of new possibilities. “Paolo Soleri Discusses Arcosanti Residents” is a good example of this. It’s quite possible that some of those shots and edits will make it in the final film, and that clip was really put together exclusively for here.

So, when you watch a clip, you might be seeing something like the birth of an idea that will be in the final film, or something that might make it to the DVD extras, or, in the case of something like “Ends,” just a favorite shot of mine that will only be seen here.

No matter where they wind up, it’s exciting for me to share them. Do you enjoy watching them? Let me know.

You can view most of the clips I mentioned and a LOT more by visiting the A Life’s Work Youtube Channel.


* “First Shots” and nine other clips are on Vimeo. These clips are mostly tangential, more like outtakes. They are usually just a series of shots or some weird little one offs such as this one: “Banter at the Allen Telescope Array.”



Ask the Filmmaker: Why Didn’t You Shoot That?

Dear Filmmaker,

It seemed like there was big news recently involving the Milarch’s and the planting of some redwoods they cloned in Oregon. I noticed that you put a link to the event on the A Life’s Work Facebook page, but didn’t blog about it. Does that mean  you didn’t shoot the event? 


(yeah, me, one in the same)

Dear Filmmaker,

It’s true. I did not shoot the planting in Oregon.

Every time one of the subjects does something that makes the news (and this happens quite a lot), my first instinct is to go and film. But as I’ve written before, production is over (sort of). I feel like I have shot the stuff necessary (mostly) to tell this story.

That being said, I will be shooting another interview very soon. More on that in the coming weeks. I will just say it’s an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

But there is another reason I didn’t rush out to Oregon.

This planting was a media event. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that’s all it was, it was another example of the Milarchs’ important work. But I’m not interested in shooting any more media events. I’ve shot all the media events I need.

Another reason I’m not interested in showing up to media events is it’s nearly impossible to get time with the subject at these things because they are swamped by the TV crews and they , understandably, take precedent over what I’m doing because they’re airing their stories that evening. Me? Well, you know, I’m not airing it the evening of. (To hear NPR’s story about the event and a brief interview with David Milarch, click here.)

And there are budgetary considerations, too.

So, those are the reasons why I didn’t fly out to Oregon.

Thanks for playing Ask the Filmmaker, Filmmaker. I hope it eases our mind some.



The Filmmaker

You, too, can play Ask the Filmmaker. Just leave a question in a comment and I’ll answer it as best I can.


Cabinet of Wonder

I wrote a post about summing up A Life’s Work in one word: legacy. But there is another word that runs a close second: wonder.

The work Robert Darden, Paolo Soleri, Jill Tarter, and David and Jared Milarch do keeps them asking questions and searching for answers, and that’s what wonder is, right? Each embraces this. I don’t know if they all have an object or objects in their offices or homes that represents or reminds them of their life’s work, or inspires them, or reminds them why they do what they do. I didn’t think to ask them. But if you’re a regular reader of this blog and you’ve read the “what’s on my corkboard?” posts, you know that I do.

Cabinet of WonderBut there are many things that aren’t on my corkboard that I wished were. Actually, I’d like to get more 3D than my corkboard will allow. I’d love to have a wunderkammer, or “Cabinet of Wonder.” And what are some of the things I’d have in my fantasy cabinet of wonder? A chisel used by Michelangelo, a moon rock, a pine cone from the oldest bristlecone pine tree, one of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s electric guitars, an Etruscan vase. These are just the first things that come to mind and have some relationship to A Life’s Work. I’m sure there’d be a bunch of other stuff in there as well.

What would be in your Cabinet of Wonder?

A Quote About Trees and a Calculator

A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
William Blake.

I’m not one for name calling, but it is certainly true that when a person like David Milarch or Jim Robbins, author of The Man Who Planted Trees, looks at a tree, they see it differently  than, say, a person who worked for the Pacific Lumber Company.

Jim Robbins (in the tree) with David Milarch.
What’s a Tree’s “Worth”?

Would you like to calculate the value of a tree planted near your home? Use the National Tree Benefit Calculator. Type in your zip code, the species of tree, and its diameter, and the calculator will tell you how much stormwater runoff that tree will intercept,  how much CO2 it will sequester, how much you will save in your summer electric bill, how much the tree will add to the real estate value, and more! It’s informative, fun, and couldn’t be easier. Give it a try!

Soul Crushing Work

There is a phrase David Milarch of Champion Tree Project (now Archangel Ancient Tree Archive) used a few times when I interviewed him for A Life’s Work: “soul satisfying.” I like that phrase, it’s self-explanatory and it’s what we all aspire to do with our time. Soul satisfying work for me is shooting, editing, interviewing; writing and revising; practicing guitar and performing for friends or just for myself.

There is work, though, that is “soul crushing,” and this work need not be of the operating-a-jackhammer-in-the-middle-of-August-in-Phoenix variety. No. Soul crushing work for me is grant writing, hustling for money, submitting stories, and sending out query letters to potential publishers. (I understand some people enjoy doing this work. I would like to meet them and hire them to work for me.) I mention this because it seems like I’ve been doing only this work for the last two and a half months. I suppose this work can be satisfying when you see results, but that satisfaction is very fleeting, at least for me.

What bothers me the most about the soul crushing work is that it takes away precious time from soul satisfying work, the real work. But it must be done. I suppose if I want to keep my marbles, I should do it in small doses, but some times that’s just not been possible.

What work do you find soul satisfying and soul crushing, and how do you deal with the latter?

Okay you turkey necks, gather around and listen to The Crusher.


The Man Who Planted Trees – Guest Blogger Jim Robbins

I met Jim Robbins when I followed David Milarch around a grove of Redwoods in Northern California in the fall of 2007. It was a tense shoot (you can read about it here), and Jim’s cool presence did a lot to settle my nerves. We’ve kept in touch, and when he comes to NYC, we try to catch up in person. I asked if he’d write a few words about his recent book, The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet, for the humble A Life’s Work blog. He graciously agreed. Thanks, Jim.

Screenshot of writer Jim Robbins taking a photograph at Roy’s Redwoods.

In 2007 I visited Roy’s Redwoods, a park in Marin County, California with David Milarch and David Licata. I was writing an article for the New York Times on Milarch, the founder of the Champion Tree Project, and his efforts to clone some big honking redwoods. The project was struggling, things seemed a long way from the goal of cloning the big, red trees and growing hundreds of copies. But five years later seems like an eternity. After several years of looking into the role of trees in the world I realized how precious little we know about them. Based on the few things we do know, I realized they are vital to life on the planet. In the meantime, Milarch raised millions from an angel investor to help realize his goal, and I not only wrote an article about Milarch, I wrote a book, The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet, which comes out this week.

You can order the book on Amazon. I’m reading it now (the perks of being a friend and a blogger, you get stuff early!) and I can tell you it’s worth picking up. And not just because I’m mentioned on page 90.

And if you’re eagle-eyed, you can spot the camera-totting, camera-shy Robbins in the Redwoods section below. Don’t blink or you’ll miss him.

The Giving Trees

Did you read yesterday’s New York Times Op-Ed Why Trees Matter, written by friend of A Life’s Work Jim Robbins?

That's Jim in the tree.

Well click the link and check it out. You may be surprised to learn (or re-learn) all the good things trees do for the planet and its inhabitants. I re-learned that aspirin comes to us thanks to willow trees. I knew there was a reason it was my favorite tree.

Jim ends the piece with one of my favorite quotes.

“When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. The second-best time? Today.”

Jim Robbins’ book, The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet, will hit books stores on April 17. You can pre-order it on Amazon.