Tuesday, 24 January 2012

[533] Interview With Nick Brandestini

Darwin was my surprise film of the London Film Festival. Buried relatively deep in the programme, it nevertheless stuck out because of its rather compelling hook. The first feature-length documentary from director Nick Brandestini, Darwin is a documentary about a small town in Death Valley, whose ageing population numbers less than three dozen. Who are these people? What has led them to live in one of the least hospitable areas of the globe? And what are their lives like?

It reads like an episode of the NPR radio show This American Life, where erstwhile esoteric stories can give great insight into the workings of the USA and its inhabitants. Darwin fits this mould perfectly, quickly moving away from the freak show titillation of its premise and finding great depth in the personal histories of the town's residents.

It is remarkably well-judged, especially as Brandestini becomes more intimate with his subjects, and, considering the budget level, it is more beautiful than a shoestring, festival-bound documentary has any right to be.

At the LFF, I had the pleasure of chatting with Brandestini about Darwin, over coffee and macaroons. Naturally, I had to ask about both the act of interviewing and the process of putting together this mostly one-man production...

- This film has a great set-up. A town in Death Valley with just 35 people living there. It’s so compelling. How did you find out about the place to begin with?

I didn’t find Darwin at first, but similar places, because I was driving to Las Vegas in the desert, and there were other areas, and I was curious about who would live in such an environment, with this heat and nothing to do around. So I was looking for a documentary project, I only did two short documentaries before, and I thought, okay, this is something that fascinates me, and it looks great. So I thought this is the perfect topic.

I just wanted to know more about the people. It was a boom town in 1874, when it was founded, until 1877. So, like, three years, it had 3000 people and then whoops, it just died. Now there’s 35 people.

- And most of the population is in their middle age, or older, so you got the sense that this is a community with no future. How did you go about making contact first time?

The hippie lady was organising these parties. She’s the unofficial mayor, more or less. Or she thinks she is. She was the first that I contacted. She was a bit reluctant - she said ‘yeah, you can be here, but no cameras allowed’. But then later on she trusted me, and said ‘okay, let’s do this’. But it took her two days for her to say it was okay. And the other people had no problem at the beginning.

- How long were you there for?

Five times over a period of two years. A week each, or ten days each time.

- Were there people there that were cautious about you, or reluctant to speak to you?

At the beginning, yeah, but after a while they opened up.

- There’s a difficulty with this kind of documentary... When you have a set-up like that, it could be easy to all into the trap of exploiting the ‘kooky people living in the desert’, and making them figures of fun. How did you go about dealing with that?

It was 100% clear that I didn’t want to make fun of them. I never wanted to make a ‘freak show’ out of them, because Darwin has a very bad image in the surrounding areas. And I know that it’s not like that, and people have the wrong impression of these people. So I just wanted to make it real, while still keeping it interesting and exciting. Because that’s part of what attracted me to the place, because it’s not a normal suburb place. It is special, and I wanted to show it in a positive way.

- In the second half of the film, you get quite intimate with some of the residents, and we see beyond the kookiness of their living circumstances. Was that because you’d grown close to them over time?

One thing that I’m sure helped is that I’m Swiss, I think they found that funny and curious. And if it were an American, they would be more reluctant or skeptical. And also, even though I told them that I hoped this film would play in festivals, they didn’t believe it. But I always told them that that was the big hope. And the crew was only me, so the camera was a professional one, but it was only a camera and they didn’t feel threatened. And I don’t know, they just wanted to share their stories. But it took a long time for some of them to open up.

- Do you think the film will turn Darwin into a minor tourist attraction?

That’s a common question. Everybody asked it. But it’s kind of funny, because it implies that the film is seen by many people, and so far it’s only at festivals, so it’s not likely! You have to really want to go there, because it’s quite far off the regular track.

- This is your first feature-length documentary, what were some of the major differences or challenges that came with the larger canvas?

Well, the structure was a big challenge. This is where my co-producers helped, to shape the film, because it would not have turned out so good if I’d not had them on board to make the film as it is. Now, it has these chapters, and before it was more of a random thing. There’s not one story, but there are different themes, so it took a long time to figure out how to deal with it.

- The cinematography in this film is fantastic. Of course, the landscape lends itself well, but the film looks particularly good for a one-man, low budget documentary.

I just like to make things look good!

- There’s even a helicopter shot in there, with aerial views of the surrounding area.

That was actually not a helicopter, but an old plane. I hired a pilot for very little money, and it was very scary, because it was shaking like crazy, and I was leaning out of the window! Everybody says it looks like a helicopter...

- It looks like you spent a lot of money...

Only $300! [laughs]

To find out more about Darwin, visit http://www.darwindoc.com/. This interview was co-conducted by Paul Weedon.

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