Interview with the Filmmaker
Was making "Land to Life" your first trip to Yellowstone?
Like so many Americans, my first visit to Yellowstone was a family pilgrimage when I was a boy, station wagon pulling a trailer, staying in the park campgrounds. My parents visited Yellowstone on their honeymoon, as did my wife and I, so I've had a lifelong relationship with Yellowstone. I recently found out that even President Obama made the trek when he was a boy.
President Obama went to Yellowstone as a child?
I was surprised too, his story is so much that of a city guy. He was 11 years old and went on a car trip through the West with his mom, grandmother and sister. They stayed in the park for almost a week, and he said the experience of seeing wildlife in Yellowstone was just magical. And it is, no matter how often it happens, it's still a thrill to see a moose or a bear or a bison, particularly for kids who don't spend as much time outside in the natural world the way I did growing up. I remember being electrified by the sight of a bull elk in a meadow at Yellowstone. I still have the picture I took, with a little Kodak Brownie Holiday I bought at a yard sale for a quarter.
Your previous PBS films profile wild landscapes most viewers have never heard of -- Wrangell-St. Elias, Cape Lookout, El Malpais. What was it like making a film about the most famous national park in the world?
Actually, I came to this film dragging my feet somewhat because I tend to be most interested in profiling places that are less well known. Yellowstone can be quite daunting since it's the most famous national park in the world, an international icon. And it seems to be on television every other week, the wolves of Yellowstone, the grizzlies of Yellowstone, the supervolcano of Yellowstone, hidden Yellowstone. There's definitely the "It's been done" syndrome to deal with. How can you make a film on Yellowstone that hasn't been done before? That problem afflicts me every time I start a film, because everything has been done before -- but not through my filter of interests and personal experiences and aesthetic sensibilities.
What is different about this film from the dozens of Yellowstone films on other channels?
Many of them are travelogues, or what to see and do, or the latest science, emphasizing threats to the place, or filmic monographs on a particular species, like wolves. This film doesn't address current issues in the park, nothing on wolf reintroduction or snowmobiles or even global warming. The threats are real, climate change is already having an impact on the environment. Warmer winters, hotter summers, earlier snowmelt, all have an effect on plants and animals.
But this film takes an even longer view, a really long view: a look at the big picture geology, bigger even than the volcano, which last erupted only 600-thousand years ago. That's not long in geologic time. What we tried to do was show that Yellowstone's geological story is more than the volcano and the park is more than geysers and wildlife--and that the two -- geology and biology -- cannot be separated. Geology is destiny: it dictates where life exists and how it evolves. Hence the title, "Land to Life".
How did you get the idea for the treatment/what story did you want to tell?
On an early location scout, the park geologist said something that struck me. Rather than a science film full of geological explanations, he thought what the place really deserved was an "Earth Appreciation film". That's exactly what I try to do in every film, tell a story about a particular landscape that melds geology and biology but in a lyrical rather than didactic fashion. There's plenty of hard science in the film, but I hope it reveals the significance of the place and inspires viewers to care. The theme of humankind in the natural world is important to me, showing that homo sapiens are as integral to the landscape as any other element, not set apart or above it, but part of it. Being a part of it, whether a back yard in suburbia or a wild place like Yellowstone, brings certain responsibilities. As (conservationist) Aldo Leopold said, "When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." It's easy to love Yellowstone; we need to apply that to all aspects of the natural world.
The film features some really striking imagery. Can you tell us how you obtained that footage?
Great images are easy: just work with great cinematographers. Jeff Hogan is ridiculously talented with a wonderful photographic eye. He lives near the park, as does Bob Landis, who shot "In the Valley of the Wolves" for PBS. That was my goal, to find cinematographers who know the place thoroughly, know the migrations and behavior of the wildlife, know how to film in Yellowstone in ways that go beyond the standard postcard images we've all seen. I don't know how many days Jeff ended up spending in the park, but an incredible time investment is how you get wonderful pictures of the natural world. I've seen a lot of films on Yellowstone, but Land to Life has to be one of the most beautiful.