Back in August of ’09 I linked to editor (and new dad!) Cabot Philbrick’s website. He had included a portion of the redwoods section on his reel. That clip was truncated and sized for Cabot’s web site. Here’s the whole redwoods section (6 minutes 29 seconds–you get to see two and half minutes more) and the screen size is a wee bit bigger, too.
To be honest, when you’re making a film, there’s always a period when maybe you’re less than enamored with what you’ve been working on. It’s like anything else you might find yourself doing for a long time.
But I’m lucky because I periodically have new material to become excited about.
An archivist, I’m guessing, and maybe it’s just my own bad interpretation of the term, is somebody who would study this particular disc and glean everything out of it and go do the history. I would like to, but I don’t have the kind of time to do that on anything… What I know about it other people have told me.
The closest thing I can make an analogy to is apparently in Scandinavia, there are underground bunkers and there are scientists who collect seeds. And they have all the different kinds of wheat varieties. And in hermetically sealed, safe conditions, so even if there’s a nuclear holocaust, if there’s another Dutch Elm disease, we can recreate this kind of wheat again. Because if we lost this wheat, then we’ve lost the ability to feed millions. And that seems to be a closer analogy to what I’m doing than to a collector or archivist.
I feel this urgency that we’re in the midst of this, and have been for 50 years, of not valuing this seminal music. To me it has more passion and power than any other musical art form. And if I can do something towards preventing this universal Dutch Elm disease… if I can help stop that by making sure that song has a copy digitally and we have multiple redundancies built into the system, both on and off campus, short of a direct nuclear strike, Baylor will have a copy somewhere of this song. Maybe that’s what I’m doing. I’m saving these seeds, not for the end of the world, but for a time when people will appreciate this music and want to know where that music they love came from and can now take it back to where it came from because somebody at some university thought that this was of value.
I’ve always seen thematic similarities in the work that the four subjects do, and here Robert was handing me a nice metaphor that bridges what he’s doing with what the Champion Tree Project is doing.
But wait! That’s not all. Look at the blog’s header. Do you see that image between the Allen Telescope Array and the Mahalia Jackson album cover? That’s a captured still of David Milarch trekking to visit an old friend, the Buckley Elm in Buckley, Michigan, a one time champion tree that is now dead. Champion Tree Project had the foresight to visit it while it was dying, but still alive, take cuttings, and clone it. Today exact genetic clones of that elm tree are thriving in select locations, including this one at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Interlochen, Michigan.
David Milarch, Paolo Soleri, Jill Tarter, Robert Darden.
I recently watched “The Making of Touch the Sound,” one of the extras on Thomas Riedelsheimer’s film about percussionist Evelyn Glennie. In it Riedelsheimer reveals that he envisioned the staged improvisational musical segments between Glennie and composer Fred Frith to be the spine of the film. The director planned on showing them footage of the film with the idea that the musicians would then improvise based on those images. But the musicians balked.
Frith tells the filmmaker, “I think the danger is when you give an idea which has got too much information and therefore whatever we do tends to become descriptive and I think descriptive music is not good. It fails. It doesn’t describe anything.”
Cut to the director addressing the camera–
“My idea was to give them ideas to which they could improvise. At the time I didn’t know that this is a contradiction in terms, as improvising requires the liberation from any conception or idea.”
And so Glennie and Frith let the space, the moment, and each other inspire them, not the footage. Riedelsheimer was clearly not pleased. At the time, he saw what he imagined as the entire structure of his film fall apart.
This struck a chord. Before filming began, I had many ideas about what A Life’s Work was going to be and not going to be. I am sticking with many of these ideas, but I have jettisoned just as many if not more. Some because they were impractial, some because they were incompatible, and some because they were just stinker ideas.
For instance: No talking heads. I was going to use just the subject’s voices over images of their work and images of them working. Talking heads, I convinced myself, were a crutch. I carried this idea to an extreme and conducted my first interview with Arcosanti architect Paolo Soleri audio only. Not surprisingly, this did not please Wolfgang Held, the cinematographer. We had an animated discussion about it the day of the first interview and I won that battle. The next day we interviewed Soleri in front of the camera.
Look at these faces. I can’t believe I thought my audio only idea was a good one. And the thing is, I love the human face and find it a fascinating subject to photograph. There is no living thing on the planet more expressive. Since that interview, I conduct all interviews in front of the camera. So, what was I thinking? In my defense I can only say that I have a tendency to be reactionary. And you know, the idea isn’t always a terrible one. It worked brilliantly in Al Reinert’s For All Mankind, a wonderful documentary composed of NASA Apollo footage and audio only interviews with Apollo astronauts. But Reinert’s film is a special case and that approach wouldn’t work for A Life’s Work.
Thankfully, I was saved from this idea very quickly. I’m awfully glad I have people around me who will call me on stuff, because in the end, it’s not about implementing all of my ideas, it’s about what works best for the film.
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:
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.)