The Public Humanist

My McElwee-McCandless Film

 Thirteen years ago two things conspired that eventually led to my film on Chris McCandless: Into the Wild was published, and Sherman’s March was rebroadcast. Of course, I was already familiar with the McCandless story, having followed it closely in newspapers when it first broke in September 1992. And I had long imagined, for years prior to the book, that I might someday make an Alaskan pilgrimage all the way to “Fairbanks 142,” the abandoned bus where Chris died. But it wasn’t until 1996—when I first became interested in documentary filmmaking—that it all came together. Into the Wild gave me the rest of the story, and the roadmap. And seeing Sherman’s March was a revelation. I decided then and there that if I were ever to make a film on Chris McCandless, Ross McElwee’s first person, one-man band style was the way to go.

In any case, ten years of false starts, new babies, and other projects passed before I was finally able to take on my McElwee-McCandless film. And it turned out to be just in the nick of time. Now there’s loads of semi-profound things I could try to say about how making The Call of the Wild reshaped yet resurrected my original estimation of Chris McCandless. And there’s lots more to the backstory too (see tifilms.com for that self-indulgent saga). But this is a piece on process, and the ever-perilous craft of shooting a documentary by the seat of your pants. And so, fellow public humanists may be asking, what did I learn from my foray into reflexive direct cinema?

The first thing I discovered was that I needed to become a fearless and untiring shooter. It’s like getting your direct cinema “legs,” so to speak. Essentially, this means one thing, albeit a bit self-evident: You need to always, always be rolling tape. If you don’t, you may miss a moment of vérité gold. In fact, I learned this lesson on my first day while trying to thumb a ride onto Route 2 in Acton, when an arriving police officer asked me—following a series of questions that revealed me to be a thirty-seven-year-old man from nearby Concord, who owned two working cars, was a Ph.D. candidate, yet was hitchhiking to Alaska—if I were on medications of any sort. During this priceless exchange my camera was propped up next to my backpack on the curb, rather than attached to my eye as it should have been. A corollary rule, as it turns out, is that the stuff you think is digital refuse and would normally end up “on the cutting room floor” is often some of the best, most authentic video you shoot.

A big part of this initial lesson, however, was establishing my own comfort zone as a practitioner of this bold form of filmmaking. For me, ultimately, this meant making the decision—out of respect for my subjects and for my own self-integrity—that I was not going to ambush people a la Bowling for Columbine. No disrespect to Michael Moore, but it just wasn’t in me. Sometimes this decision had negative repercussions, like the time I gently pre-interviewed rather than shot an edgy Gail Borah in Carthage, South Dakota, before she was reminded later that evening that her “life story rights” were owned by Hollywood. There’s a sense that develops, I think, as to where and when to simply roll tape and at what point you’re about to cross a line. But in most cases I found that the Golden Rule worked best.

The second big lesson I learned making The Call of the Wild was the importance of balancing scrupulous pre-production with sheer serendipity. This means doing your homework yet being open to unexpected circumstances and encounters. Regarding the former, leaving no stone unturned paid huge dividends for me in the making of this film (see Into the Wild debunked at tifilms.com to see what I mean). And yet, the flip side of this coin, not always easy for anal-retentive types like myself, is to allow pure chance to play a role in the filmmaking process. Learning to do this, in fact, paid equal if not greater dividends for me than diligent preparation. This was especially true when hitchhiking, obviously, by its very nature prone to unusual situations and odd characters—whether it be my first ride out of Lake Mead, from an ex-con just released from the Utah State Penitentiary, or the three crazy teenagers who drove me across Nebraska while they threw trash out the window, launched bottle rockets at eighteen wheelers, and scoured cow fields for hallucinogenic mushrooms.

I also ran into Sean Penn and his Into the Wild crew twice, purely by accident. And this was how I found Steve Tolley too, the man who first made “Fairbanks 142” inhabitable when he used it as a trapping cabin back in the 1970s. And it was this serendipitous encounter with Steve that then led me to Will Forsberg, the dog musher who found Chris’s wallet in a backpack left on the bus—a discovery that turned out to be one of the most bewildering moments in the entire film. The list goes on and on. How different this was from my experience making The Political Dr. Seuss, when I would meet my DP and soundman for bagels at Rein’s Deli on our way to New York, where we would shoot prescheduled, artfully lighted sit-down interviews with ex-Random House editors and cultural historians.

Indeed, one of the beauties of this subgenre of documentary, I was to discover, is that whatever you experience while shooting a film—the good, the bad, and the ugly—can become part of the story you are telling. In fact, these unforeseen elements often turn out to be more “real,” and ultimately more revealing, than what you had originally planned. When the aforementioned interview with Gail Borah fell through, for example, and I suddenly appear on Sean Penn’s radar screen, it almost becomes a more interesting sequence than it would have been had everything worked out perfectly.

I remember once reading Paul Theroux saying that when he wrote his first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar, he was groping in the dark, but knew when he was done that he would be able to do it again. I feel the same can be said for my experience making The Call of the Wild, a fledging homage to McElwee that will perhaps pave the way for future road docs and autobiographical films. Though next time I’m going to avoid “swimming” in glacial outwash rivers.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate