The area surrounding the doomed Salton Sea is home to a singular collection of kooky characters, even by California standards. Fifty miles from Palm Springs, the “sea” is a manmade lake that was once a major Southland vacation spot and real estate developers’ dreamscape. Now it’s Nowheresville, populated by iconoclasts, free thinkers, and sunbaked lunatics. Yet they were kindred spirits, in some unexpected way, with San Francisco documentary filmmakers Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer. The duo’s acclaimed debut, “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea,” brims with affection for these freaks and their freaky, freaky habitat.
Jeff bounces between San Francisco, Berlin, and London, and provided his answers via email from Germany. Chris was a bit more conventional, offering his responses via a cordless phone in his S.F. apartment. We patched their comments together, which is to say we fixed it in post.
Editor’s note: Their film, which originally opened the Red Vic Movie House in February (when this interview originally appeared in SF360), returns to the Red Vic for an encore this week, Tues., Aug. 1-Thurs., Aug. 3.
SF360: What compelled you to leave Los Angeles and relocate to San Francisco?
Chris Metzler: I do love L.A., unlike many people in San Francisco. But I’m sure glad to be up here. I worked in a lot of different facets of the entertainment industry. Jeff and I directed music videos. I was an assistant for an agent and a postproduction supervisor for really bad B-movies about giant man-eating ants and lesbian serial killers. The one thing L.A. has going for it — but in a way it has too much of it — is ambition. I ran into an acquaintance every week. I’d ask how he was doing and he’d say, ‘I wrote a new script. Jackie Chan is going to be in it.’ The next week, when I asked how that project was going, he’d say, ‘Oh we’re not going to do that anymore. I got a new script, and Tom Cruise is going to be in it.’ This went on for months and months. Finally, I realized, ‘I’m not sure I want to be here.’
Jeff Springer: I was really burned out. I was spending all my time making TV promos for shows that I didn’t even like. I had saved some money and had always wanted to live in the Bay Area, so when I heard that Chris had an extra room in dot-com-era S.F., I knew it was time to change my surroundings. I wanted to experiment, learn, and work on a project that I could be passionate about. San Francisco provides a free and supportive environment, without the need for a job description.
Metzler: I could drive down to LA any time. Film work pays well, so I could live on someone’s couch for a month, edit something and come back with a nice check so I could live in San Francisco. The first few years here I met some great people, but documentary filmmaking is somewhat of an isolated endeavor. Now I’ve lived here more than 5 years, and the transition has finally happened. Ironically, it took finishing up the documentary and traveling around the festival circuit for that to happen. ‘Oh, you’re from San Francisco too?’ It took having to leave San Francisco to meet the community of documentary filmmakers that I knew existed here.
SF360: Is there a Bay Area filmmaker you particularly admire? Do you have a favorite Bay Area doc?
Metzler: Les Blank. I love his sense of character and storytelling, and his all-around celebration of individualism where eccentricity is taken as par for the course. I’ll say his ‘Gap-Toothed Women’ and Bradley Beesley’s ‘Okie Noodling.’
Springer: Does Errol Morris count? He did his first film while at Berkeley…
SF360: What are the plagues of making a film about the Salton Sea and its residents?
Springer: The shooting was incredibly hot and dusty. I am not particularly fond of the heat, so that was hard. That is why I love S.F. But I guess the most difficult part was finding the story. We would shoot and edit, and then shoot and edit, and then…. shoot and edit. The topic is so huge that the amount of material was a bit overwhelming. There were so many stories we could not tell. The challenge was finding the right mix of stories that fit together well.
Metzler: Strangely enough, the plagues were entertaining in their own right. When you’re standing in the hot sun for eight hours and 120-degree weather, and I’m from the Midwest, let’s just say I added a lot of freckles and I sunburned a lot. Rotting fish carcasses, too many 40-ouncers of malt liquor during production, and all of this culminated in two cameras melting. When your camera goes out in the middle of the desert, there’s nowhere close to replace it.
SF360: What are the pleasures?
Metzler: I have huge affection for the offbeat and quirky, and the Salton Sea was my fantasyland come true. Your Christian nudists, your Hungarian revolutionaries and the good old ladies that drive around in golf carts.
Springer: Meeting the people. No matter what your preconceptions were, it was always a surprise what you discovered after speaking with people for a while. With a small camera and an informal attitude, people really open up to you. Discovering that human connection in someone you just met was always a pleasure. One time when Donald the roadside nudist was telling an emotional story, I suddenly felt compelled to hug this sweaty naked man in the middle of the desert. Things can get quite personal. Your ‘characters’ become friends, as you begin to really understand their life and point of view.
SF360: One senses in ‘Plagues and Pleasures’ an affinity for Errol Morris’s films. Is there an influence, and are you pleased or sorry if it shows?
Springer: We are delighted that people see that. I think that after we saw ‘Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control’ our entire perception of what documentaries could be was redefined. He really demonstrated that a doc could be visual, creative, and poetic.
Metzler: The affirmative to everything. I don’t believe we necessary simulated his technique but there is a tone and style that we definitely have an affinity for. For a long time, I underestimated the power of documentary filmmaking. I saw docs as lightly disguised propaganda, and they always seemed to ignore that the power of filmmaking comes not just from the story you tell, but by making choices in the way you shoot it. As a guy who comes from a background of traditional fiction filmmaking, there are two documentaries that made me realize what might be possible. ‘Seventeen’ and ‘Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.’ When I walked out of the Nuart in L.A. after ‘Fast, Cheap,’ I said, ‘Documentaries can rock.’ He told it in this dynamic visual style. The thing I admire most about Errol Morris is he treats documentary as real filmmaking, not newsgathering. I have no problem giving my props to Morris, and if anybody wants to draw favorable comparisons to his work, we’ll take it warmly.
SF360: At what point in the making of ‘Plagues and Pleasures’ did you declare that entertainment value was a key aim?
Metzler: That was our intention from the beginning. Even before we knew the Salton Sea was our subject, any documentary we were going to make was going to have offbeat, quirky, wacky elements with a bit of irreverence. The story always dictates style, no doubt about that. But for this film, we were going to be drawn to a story that had these underlying elements of tone and style. Our choice of story was in response to our feeling a lot of documentary filmmaking takes itself too seriously, and that documentary filmmaking is much more conservative in its approach than it should be. We wanted to celebrate the independent narrative filmmaking aesthetic and bring it to documentary. Whether we succeeded to not, that’s what we were trying to do. That’s why it was so great when John Waters agreed to narrate the film. Those are the folks we wanted to be embraced by.
Springer: I think any good film has entertainment value. That is what keeps you watching. You can’t just give an audience a message or a theme — you’ve got to entertain and captivate them. You have to give them humor and sadness and story and connection to the human condition. Or at least, that is what entertainment value is to me. That is what is lacking in most traditional documentaries I have seen. This is why ‘the D-word’ has such a bad rep.
SF360: What trick, technique or guideline did you use to stop short of mocking or looking down on your oddball interview subjects?
Springer: Respect. We made a point of spending a long time with each person. We let them talk on camera as much as they liked. Most of our conversations were surprisingly personal and had nothing to do with the Sea. We got to know each one as a multi-dimensional person, rather than merely as a documentary subject. And we also took great care during the editing process to remain faithful and honest to the people we could now call friends. Although the people might seem to be a bunch of oddballs at first, once you get to know them they become quite human and normal. Once you find that understanding, it is hard to look down on them. Whenever we have shown the film to the people at the sea, they never have a problem with the way they are portrayed. I think this is because we have always remained faithful to who they are. I think this is why John Waters is such a good fit, as he does the same thing in his films. He always has respect for his characters, even if they are a bit different. When we recorded the voice-over, John made some great suggestions and changes. He was very concerned about not crossing the line. We changed a few words here and there to make sure that we could laugh about the situation without mocking or looking down on the people.
Metzler: It’s really easy not to mock people who might be considered odd or different-not normal by traditional societal standards – when you feel you’re one of them too. The people of the Salton Sea and people who live on the fringe of society celebrate their ow individualism, but it’s not in a selfish way. Good old-fashioned libertarianism, maybe. I have an admiration for their celebration of their outsider status, and the risks they decided to take to live life in the way they want to.
SF360: Your affection for your characters is palpable.
Springer: They truly feel like good friends now and I think it shows in the film. We have kept in touch with many of them. It was especially hard, as many have since passed away. We even used to get calls at strange hours from several different people at the sea. They would just want to talk about life or family issues. I guess it is a bit lonely down there, so when we show up and really listen I think it is something they really respond to. There were so many times when wonderful stories and observations would pop up out of nowhere. I think making them comfortable, showing an honest interest and letting the conversation go wherever it may helped us discover some wonderful material. Many documentary crews are pressed for time and are only looking for what they want to hear. I think you have to be open for anything.
SF360: What is your favorite piece of filmmaking gear, and why?
Metzler: C47, a.k.a. clothespin, because I can hang a gel or my clothes all in one day. It’s ridiculous to call a clothespin ‘C47,’ and I might as well choose something that has multiple uses. Filmmaking in general takes itself too seriously.
Springer: IEEE 1394 Firewire. A camera is a camera, and an editing system is an editing system. Despite the huge technological advances and drops in price in recent years, they are basically still the same tools that I have used since film school. But Firewire and digital video has allowed you to connect all the tools together, which has helped tremendously.
SF360: Finally, what’s the one question that no one’s ever asked you that you wish they had?
Metzler: ‘Is Hunky Daddy crazy?’ [Hunky Daddy emigrated from Hungary in the ’50s and worked in the film industry before settling at the Salton Sea.] Answer: Yes. The question I ask myself: ‘Why didn’t we watch Jamaican porn with him the first night?’ Answer: But I’m glad we didn’t.
Springer: ‘Who is your favorite person in the film?’ Answer: The Landman, a.k.a. Manny Diez. He was born in Cuba, helped build the McDonald’s on Haight St. and then wound up at the Salton Sea. We could do an entire film just on him. There are so many interesting stories he told us. I guess that’s what the web site and DVD is for. The most dreaded question is, ‘What camera did you use?’ That is the only question I don’t like. I mean, do you ask a carpenter what kind of hammer he uses? It’s just a tool. Technology is fantastic, but it doesn’t make a good film.
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