Interview with the Filmmaker

What is the story you tell in Sky Island?

John Grabowska: Broadly, it's the same theme I return to in every film: humankind's relationship to the natural world. Specifically, it is the story of a landscape in the high desert of northern New Mexico, that of the Jemez (pronounced hay-mess) Mountains. The Jemez are a volcanic range on the western banks of the Rio Grande, west and a little north of Santa Fe. The film profiles the entire desert and alpine ecosystem, from the canyon floor along the Rio to the peaks of the Jemez, with Bandelier National Monument a protected area at the heart of it all.

It's a stunningly beautiful mountain range, sacred to several Pueblo tribes. There is a huge, breathtaking valley at the very center of the mountains, which is actually the caldera of a giant volcano.

What does the title signify?

JG: There are "sky islands" throughout the desert southwest, mountains that rise up from the desert floor and thus are isolated, not unlike nunataks in the Arctic, peaks that are surrounded by ice fields and glaciers. Sky islands harbor unique populations of plants and animals that evolved on those mountains and can't migrate elsewhere because of the desert that surrounds them. A natural history writer, Weldon Heald, came up with the name in the 1960s. No doubt he was a student of Darwin and saw these mountains as analogous to island evolution.

I was roaming around with a desert ecologist, Dr. Craig Allen of the US Geological Survey, and observed that the collected peaks of the Jemez were akin to the individual sky island mountains but on a massive scale. He agreed, hence the name.

How do you go about telling the story of this landscape?

JG: It's always a challenge to create some sort of compelling narrative arc for a landscape without the film becoming a series of interesting but ultimately trivial factoids, a wikipedia entry on film. A landscape doesn't exactly cooperate with Aristotle's three act structure, there's no obvious beginning, middle and end. I would like the film to be a true cinematic experience, not simply a document of a place, so coming up with a way to capture the essence of a place in a way that feels like true storytelling is the most difficult thing for me.

The vague structure of this film reflects that of the mountain itself: we start at the Rio Grande bottomlands and go to the top, examining how the elevational change creates different zones of life. This idea was inspired by some of the early scientific research done in the desert southwest by C. Hart Merriam, a biologist and co-founder of The National Geographic Society, as well as the first chief of what would become the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He noticed that going uphill on a desert mountain was similar to traveling north to arctic latitudes -- that the elevation change when going uphill on a desert mountain brought increased moisture and lower temperatures, not unlike going from Mexico to Canada. At the base of the mountain we are in desert steppe with grass, sagebrush and scrub oak. As we ascend, the flora and fauna change, first to pinyon-juniper scrubland, then open Ponderosa pine forest and finally to alpine forest with aspen, fir and spruce. At the highest elevations are montane meadows, little pools of grass surrounded by forest, locally referred to as rincones. And after we reach the summit, it comes back down to a reality check regarding climate change and its dramatic impact on desert mountains.

But I try to go light on the verbal exposition--there's probably less in the entire script than in this explanation. Film is usually more effective and compelling when it shows more than it tells and the audience is, in effect, filling in their own personalized script, bringing their own associations into an engaged act of experiencing the film, not simply taking in some delivered truths delivered by a filmmaker. I hope the audience reacts to what they see and hear, makes some unanticipated connections and responds with some emotion. One way to elicit a personal response without contrivance is to take a contrapuntal approach with a primary but understated narrative voice and a lyrical voice that reflects on each sequence.

And N. Scott Momaday is that lyrical voice. Who is he?

JG: Momaday is a giant of American letters, a scholar, poet, artist, performer and teacher, the first American Indian to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. I've heard him described as the Voice of the Desert Southwest, and he is that for me. We've worked together before on another natural history film about a New Mexico landscape, Remembered Earth, and his essays have informed both films. His role in Sky Island may be even more apropos since he spent his boyhood living in Jemez Pueblo and until recently had a home up in the Jemez, so the mountains mean a lot to him personally. His role provides poetic and meditative insight into certain sequences and locations, as well as a reflection on his, and by extension our, mortality.

This doesn't sound like a typical nature documentary.

JG: I hope not. My films aren't journalism, nor science documentaries, nor traditional nature docs that explain animal behavior. They are definitely steeped in rigorous science because I do a tremendous amount of research and strive for scientific accuracy, a portrait of "the land" as the conservationist Aldo Leopold defined it: a community of interdependent parts including the soil, water, plants and animals. That also includes the animal known as homo sapiens sapiens.

But the intent is to create films that reflect the transcendent moments that Rachel Carson writes about, films that embrace the sense of wonder that Carl Sagan brought to the natural world.

In addition to the science, your films seem to incorporate a great deal of art and literature.

JG: Art and literature inform the films as thoroughly as does science. References, both visual and literal, are everywhere; it's a salmagundi of influences. This isn't some unique personal style, I think it's simply the reality of all the creative arts, that we inevitably revise and polish and reinterpret through our own lens all things that influence us, and thereby make it our own. A literate audience can probably detect influences of which the filmmaker is unaware since so much of what we read and see and hear just seeps into our consciousness without our being cognizant of the provenance.

However, in Sky Island, several of Momaday's sequences are inspired directly by his own writings, which I've been reading for years. He's a superb essayist, in addition to everything else he can do. The script refers to "the Faraway Nearby", which was a phrase the painter Georgia O'Keeffe used to describe the landscape around her home in Abiquiu on the north side of the Jemez. I linger over images of datura, a flower sacred to the Pueblos and painted frequently by O'Keeffe. They're quite ephemeral, blooming only at night and then withering soon after sunrise. In several sequences we see Cerro Pedernal, a peak O'Keeffe painted so often she called it her own private mountain. Her ashes are scattered on top.

There's a degree of the romantic and sublime in some images, some hints of the Hudson River School and some Ansel Adams, and I think all landscape artists owe a debt to JMW Turner. Most of the images were shot by Steve Ruth, my long-time collaborator, and I didn't have to explain my aesthetic to Steve since we developed it together over years of making films. We aim for something deep and evocative of a particular place, reflecting the singularity of that landscape, whether it is a glacially carved valley in Alaska or a sand barrier island in the Carolinas or a plateau in New Mexico.

From a literary standpoint there are echoes from numerous writers. Ed Abbey, Mary Austin and Leslie Marmon Silko, they're all in there somewhere, or at least I thought about them while I was writing. A significant passage was inspired by Frank Waters, the author of The Man Who Killed the Deer; a few ideas from William deBuys, a little Wallace Stegner here, a little John Brinckerhoff Jackson there, and touches of Loren Eiseley's The Immense Journey are present throughout. Other than Momaday, Eiseley's presence is probably the most felt when it comes to literary inspirations. My copies of Eiseley's books are practically illegible because of the scrawls and circles and underlines and all the "How can he be this good!" shouted in the margins. He makes it seem so effortless.

There's a captivating sequence on fire in the forest. How did that come about?

JG: These are the mountains where the 2000 Cerro Grande fire burned out of control, but fire is integral to the health of the natural landscape and profiling this ecosystem without including fire would be anathema. These forests evolved with fire and depend on it for regeneration. In 2008 Bandelier National Monument conducted a prescribed fire to reduce the amount of duff and brush on the forest floor to avoid future catastrophic fires, but burns are dependent on many variables like soil moisture, air temperature and humidity, wind. It's not like they could set a date that I could count on, so I had to be able to respond on short notice.

Similarly with snow, which doesn't last long in the canyon country below the alpine level, so I needed a rapid-response photographer. Fortunately I knew of a superb cinematographer living right in northern New Mexico who could respond to weather conditions like sudden snow squalls and the prescribed fire. That was Dyanna Taylor, who learned photography in the darkroom of her grandmother Dorothea Lange, the great still photographer from the 1930s and 40s.

But as beautiful as that sequence is visually, the music really makes it for me.

The music throughout the film is wonderful. Who composed it?

JG: I love the role film music plays in shaping emotions and whenever possible I work with Todd Boekelheide, who is simply a brilliant composer. While editing this film I used his recorded music, usually from my own previous films, as temporary music cues for editing purposes, to indicate the mood of a sequence or to get the timing down. Then poor Todd had to do battle with his own previous compositions when writing the new score, which must have been frustrating. He always surprises me, which is a delight, and the music is so beautiful that my teenaged daughters put it on their iPods. There's a lot of music in Sky Island, I should be embarrassed by the sheer amount, but Todd's scoring is so good I can't help myself.

Many people still think of global warming or climate change as something that is coming, yet the film asserts that it is already happening.

JG: Some effects have already happened and are dramatic and clearly visible in the Jemez. Mountain environments are some of the first affected by climate change. The snowpack, a vital source of water for the entire American West, is diminishing. Entire forests of pinyon pine have collapsed and died from the heat. The effects are always complex and poorly understood, involving multiple variables like heat, drought, bark beetles -- but the common denominator, the primary accelerant, is rapid climate change caused primarily by fossil fuel use.

Since the 1980s James Hansen of NASA has been warning of ecosystem collapse due to climate change caused primarily by human actions. The White House science advisor John Holdren has said there are three options in response to climate change: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. The question is what will the mix of those three be? That's an observation that the film makes, so poignantly voiced by the incomparable Meryl Streep, that climate change poses no threat to the continuation of life on Earth, but it will determine which lives survive -- and how. Some of the endemic species in the Jemez, like the Jemez Mountain salamander and the population of pikas, have nowhere else to go. They can't migrate elsewhere because they're on this mountain island and both depend on cool temperatures and moisture, mostly from winter snowpack. That's one small instance concerning wildlife in the Jemez; the changes will have tremendous impacts on the entire natural world and human society in the Desert Southwest, and worldwide.

Some scientists are calling the time in which we are now living the "Anthropocene Epoch", a new stage in Earth's history in which the actions of humankind have altered and will continue to alter the entire natural world. Climate change is the illustration of that. Will the pika and salamander survive in the Jemez? How many species will disappear? How will the forests change, will they continue to die off and contract? How will communities and agriculture in the Southwest cope with the coming water crisis? The transformation is dramatic and continuing at a rapid pace. The Southwest will be a different landscape than the one we've been used to. Actually, it already is. I've been traveling to New Mexico for 25 years and I can see the changes.

Some are surprising; it's not all disaster and collapse. Craig Allen of the US Geological Survey notes that over the last 100 years, the pinyon forests so frequently painted by Georgia O'Keeffe had expanded their range into former grasslands on the Pajarito Plateau, and they did so because of human interference. Over the last century, those former grasslands on the plateau were invaded by woody plants like pinyon because the grasses disappeared due to overgrazing and suppression of natural fires. Now, because of the heat-related forest death, grasslands are recolonizing areas where they once were. That's an example of adaptation to global warming that may be a positive, since grasses are more resilient to heat and drought.

Some of the effects of anthropogenic climate change may be unpredictable, but the reality of it is not.

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