Darwin: Living in a ghost town

At the London Film Festival in October 2011 we saw Darwin, a documentary about a small ghost town in Death Valley, California. The film was terrific: equally hilarious and moving, it is a fascinating portrayal of the life of an isolated community at the end of a weathered road. We asked its director Nick Brandestini to answer some questions regarding Darwin as a town and as a documentary, here are his answers:

I: How did you first hear about Darwin and what was your experience the first time you went there? Did you go there specifically with a plan to make a film, or did the idea come to you while you were travelling? What attracted you to this place?

NB: The project started in early 2009 when I met my co-producers Sandra Ruch and Taylor Segrest in Los Angeles. I had met them at a film festival in 2007 and I wanted to work with them. So I approached them with the idea of making a documentary about a living ghost town. It wasn’t clear which town it would be. But after I had seen a few similar places on a trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, I was intrigued by these small desert communities in the middle of nowhere, and I wanted to know more. What made Darwin stand out was that it was an old “Wild West” mining town, that it had a huge Navy Base next to it, and finally that it had a very memorable name.

The first time in Darwin was quite surreal. I went there with Taylor and on our way to Darwin, a fighter plane flew over our car, only a few meters above it. It was a huge shock! Then when we entered the town, it looked completely abandoned, like it was already a real ghost town with nobody living there. When we finally met the people of Darwin, they were a bit skeptical about the documentary project, but we got along very well. And eventually they were interested in participating.

I: Could you tell me a bit more about the making of Darwin: how many times you went out there, at what stage (if at all) did you put a script together, how long did it take to cut the film, etc. 

NB: I travelled to Darwin five times during the filming process. Since it is a documentary there was no definite script, but we had certain themes that we wanted to explore further. So the team and I would discuss after each visit where to go from here. Eventually we came up with the idea of organizing the film into 10 different chapters, each having its own theme like religion, history, war, etc. After each visit, I edited the material. Of course, it changed over the course of the project. We finally began submitting the film to festivals beginning in September 2010.

I: How would you describe Darwin to people who have never heard of it and haven’t yet seen the film?

NB: I would say that Darwin is an intimate portrait of a fascinating place the viewers may never experience in real life. I think the film is humorous and entertaining, but also explores serious and philosophical themes. The music of Darwin is also quite amazing. It was composed by Michael Brook who did the music for “Into the Wild”, “An inconvenient Truth”, and “The Fighter”, among many others.

I: One thing I particularly liked about the film was the way you presented these people and their stories with great respect, even when sometimes they voiced controversial opinions or said things which may have sounded completely crazy. The film is very funny at times, but it feels really benevolent, you never laugh at the inhabitants of Darwin. Is this the hardest thing to do for a documentary filmmaker, to respect your subject even when you find yourself in disagreement? How do you do that?

NB: To portray the people of Darwin in a balanced way was very important for me. I think it is safe to say that they are more eccentric and unconventional than the average person, but I think people who watch the film can relate to a lot of the problems and stories the Darwin residents tell. I personally got along with all of them, and they were very kind to me.

I: Are there any plans for the film’s distribution in Italy? (We hope so!) 

NB: There will be a DVD of Darwin sometime in 2012. If Italian festivals contacted me and wanted to show the film, I would of course be happy to send it to them. So far the film has not played in Italy, but I hope it will.

I: I read on your website that you were born in Switzerland but grew up in the United States. Can you tell us a little bit more about your background and how you came to direct films? Did moving between different countries have an impact on you as a film-maker? 

NB: Well, I wouldn’t say that I “grew up” in the US. I was there from 2 to 6 years old. But I have a strong connection to the US, and I have been there many times since returning to Switzerland. My interest in film making started when I was given a video camera as a child. For a long time, I only did home movies. But at one point, I wanted to do a proper film, even if it was “only” a documentary. So I did a short documentary called “Return to Florence” about an art school in Florence Italy, where my father was actually taking some painting lessons a few years earlier.

I think the fact that I am Swiss helped during the filmmaking process in Darwin. The residents saw me as an outsider and were maybe somewhat less threatened by that. They also found it very strange that someone from so far away would be interested in them. They thought that Darwin was just a boring little town.

I: Where do you live now? Would you make a film about your hometown? Why or why not?

NB: My hometown is Zurich and I like it very much here. But at the moment, I wouldn’t know what to film here. Like many other people, I am more interested in things that I am not too familiar with. I see fascinating things somewhere else. But I would not rule out that I will do a film that is set here, and I am sure that there is a lot of interesting material here in Switzerland.

I: From the photographs on your page it looks like you are a keen traveler. What – if anything – do you think cinema and travelling have in common?

NB: I like traveling very much. 2011 was a very exciting year because I got the chance to travel with the film to places like the Czech Republic, Israel, or Canada, etc. There were other place where I wish I could have gone, but they were too far away.

I think cinema, and in fact things like Google Earth or other modern tools allow you to travel and learn more about the world without having to leave home. But to experience the real thing is much more interesting of course.

I: If you had unlimited resources, both human and financial, where would you shoot your next film, and what would it be about?

NB: I have a few ideas for a new project, but it is too early at this stage to elaborate. I don’t think having more financial resources would necessarily make a better film. For me, the people that you portray are the most valuable part. Maybe in the future, I’d like to do a fiction film, but my next two projects will be documentaries, which require much less money to produce than fiction films.

I: Who, what, or where inspires you?

NB: In terms of which film makers inspire me, there are quite a lot of documentaries and docmakers that I like. I am a big fan of Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA”. I also like the Maysles’ style of film-making, especially their documentary “Salesman”. I am fascinated by the fact that this film uses no interviews at all. It is also funny and sad at the same time – something that always intrigues me. Alex Gibney’s “Enron” was highly entertaining and enlightening too! Another filmmaker I admire is Lucy Walker. Her first film “Devil’s Playground” that also deals with an isolated community, the Amish, was one of the inspirations for Darwin.