INTERVIEW: Up a Tree; Wolens and "Butterfly" Hill's Tales of Survival
by Emily Bobrow
(indieWIRE/ 03.27.01) — While self-distributing his last film, the documentary “Weed,” Doug Wolens heard a radio interview that would change his life. The DJ was chatting with a young woman who was living on a 6 x 8 platform atop a giant redwood. She had already been there for over 100 days, and she refused to come down until a logging company ensured the safety of the tree. Rapt by her story, Wolens dropped everything and was by her side in a matter of days, camera in hand and 180 feet off the ground. Two years and 20-odd miles of film later, Wolens is traveling with “Butterfly,” his documentary about Julia Butterfly Hill‘s remarkable two-year “tree-sit” in a Northern Californian redwood.
Wolens interviews a number of lumber company executives, loggers and members of Earth First!, the local environmental movement that sponsored Hill’s tree-sit, to surface an intriguing story about deforestation in the Pacific Northwest. However, the filmmaker is quick to point out that the film is not really about environmental conservation. Rather, “Butterfly” is an empowering story about the power of conviction. At its center is a compelling and earnest woman whose principles drive her high up into the branches of a 1000-year-old tree, an act that commanded awe from even the most cynical onlookers.
Shot, directed and edited (entirely on his home PC) by Wolens, “Butterfly” is his fifth feature in less than ten years (he was a lawyer in a former life). After airing on P.O.V. last summer, the film is opening in New York City’s Cinema Village on March 30th. indieWIRE talks with Wolens from his San Francisco home about the health hazards of independent filmmaking, the power of love, and how hiking with his film gear made him want to cry.
indieWIRE: There’s a point in the film when Julia says “everyone leaves here feeling different.” Did this experience leave you feeling changed?
Doug Wolens: Well, I’m not the most spiritual person. I’ve always been an atheist; I’m not an “environmentalist.” I just thought she was really neat, that’s why I started the film. She certainly has a side to her that’s extremely spiritual, and for some people all the “love” stuff turns them off. I find it really enjoyable: it sucks you in, it really does. When I was with Julia, she made me feel not only comfortable, because she is just such a very giving, warm person, but her attitude, her lovingness, her lack of judgment, just made me feel so open to whatever might happen. Not only in making the film — because I got really deeply involved while I was shooting it — but also open to her ideas. There was something that I connected to that let me feel so open to whatever she was talking about. That love. I’m still not a spiritual person, but I got to get a sense of myself in the universe.
iW: As a documentary filmmaker, were you ever concerned that you were becoming too close to your subject?
Wolens: [long pause] No. I was always very careful to be aware. The fact that I was becoming close to my subject wasn’t just Julia — whether I was with Julia or Pacific Lumber, I became close to everybody. It became very much a part of my life.
iW: So you would say that the film isn’t really about preserving the environment?
Wolens: I would say that’s not what it’s about, at all. What it’s about is doing what you think is important.
iW: The obvious parallel is in making an independent film. What kind of sacrifices was necessary for you to make “Butterfly,” and how did you get this film funded?
Wolens: When I started the film, I had three days for pre-production — it was really fast — and all my credit cards were maxed out from my previous films. But I had to shoot this film. So I put all the film and gear on my wife’s credit card — my ex-wife’s card, or, well a friend’s card. When I got back from the first 20 days of shooting there was $5,000 on the bill. After thinking “how am I going to pay this” I called all my friends and friends of friends and they really came through for me. That got me underway. From then on it was all grants and donations. I got just about every filmmaking grant in Northern California. I always knew that as I needed money I would find it. But I never went to environmental organizations. I just couldn’t, out of fear that people might associate my film with the environmental movement and dismiss it as propaganda.
As for sacrifices, when I make films I work on them 24-7. I work on my PC, which is right next to my bed, so I crawl out of bed and just work. For two years, my life was like this, and two years is a short time to be making a feature documentary. But I kept saying to myself: “If I only work 10 hours today, it’s going to take me four years to make this film.” So literally, for two years, I worked every day for 16, 20 sometimes 24 hours.
There were a couple of points when I was hospitalized, because I wouldn’t get up from the computer. I became really dehydrated and had a problem with my kidneys, so I was rushed to the hospital. Another time, I had to go because my wrist got so bad with some degenerative disease that I couldn’t even move my fingers. I would fall asleep in front of the computer and my wife would wake me up at around 5- or 6am to come to bed and I would say, “thanks for waking me up” and get back to work. I had to go through physical therapy for six weeks after this. I really pushed myself.
iW: Why was that? If Julia’s lesson is universal and timeless, why did you push yourself to the point of physical deterioration?
Wolens: For two reasons: First, because I really love it. Once I start, I love making films. It’s my reason for being and I can’t help myself. The second reason is somewhat egocentric: I really wanted to get this film out. I want people to see my work.
iW: To film Julia, you needed to be 180 feet up in the tree with her. The film wouldn’t be what it is without your capturing the “tree-sit” from her perspective, with those incredible views, but how did you manage these shots?
Wolens: The simple answer is wide lenses. I couldn’t get wide enough lenses. The last time I went up there I had a 2.8 mm; it was practically a fish-eye.
When I started the film I bought film immediately. I don’t have any problems with video, but it was just crying out for film, because it was so beautiful. The only thing is that film is so heavy. The difficulty was getting the gear up. It really sucked. I’m a city boy and I don’t hike in the mountains, and every day I’d go up into the tree, I would have 40 pounds of gear on my back, a 35-pound camera, and hike this mountainside. Every time I did it, I wanted to cry. Each time I did this, I would take one less piece. The last time I went up with one role of film in the camera, one lens and no accessories. Getting up the tree was no big deal because Julia would hoist the gear up and I would just climb.
iW: Was there a point when you felt more sympathy for the working stiffs at Pacific Lumber than for the young idealists at organizations like Earth First!? A guy like “Climber Dan,” who was just looking to get some food on the table, was seemingly a pawn in a larger fight.
Wolens: Nothing is black or white. There’s no reason to take someone’s job away or to hate them for just doing their job and not thinking about what they’re doing. When I was with any individual I tried to think “this is where they’re coming from.” So I understood that notion “we’re feeding ourselves and our families.” But it’s a little bit more than that. There’s something about the logging industry that was once very proud. Ten years ago things changed; they lost that pride and they feel a little embarrassed. They know what they’re doing is needed, and it’s such a dangerous profession, but people beat up on them. I feel kind of bad for “Climber Dan.” He is such a real person; you can disagree with him, but you can’t dismiss him.
iW: Given your interviews with Julia’s father, it’s interesting that there aren’t any interviews with her mother. Did she refuse to be interviewed?
Wolens: The simple answer was that I couldn’t afford it, because she lives in Florida. The real reason is because I knew if I interviewed mom I would’ve gotten one of three things: Mom would say “What my daughter is doing is amazing” — and every mom is going to say that about their daughter. The next thing I could’ve gotten was the party line: Pacific Lumber is bad. We get that from other people, and it wouldn’t have been as poignant coming from mom. The third thing I could’ve gotten was Julia’s background: the difficulties she had as a child and the abuse. I just didn’t want to do it. There are things I allude to in the film and some people get it, they go: “That dad’s crying out of guilt for the way he treated his daughter.” It’s subtle. I don’t think it would’ve been proper [to examine Julia’s background] because I think that would’ve taken the focus off what she was doing. I just didn’t want to do that to Julia. It’s not the way I work.
iW: Did the mounting cult-of-Julia ever make you feel uneasy; was it justified for her to be heralded as a prophet?
Wolens: When I first met Julia and started talking to people about her, people’s eyes would well up with tears. Everybody was in love with her. As she became more recognized, the country either loved her or thought she was crazy, but she was usually pretty endearing. The people that live in the county are very resentful, and I understand their resentment — she’s not from there, she’s the spokesperson for a movement she’s new to, she is getting so much limelight. To be honest, there have been times when I’ve been really upset with Julia over the past year. But every time I feel upset with her for doing one thing or another that I don’t think is appropriate, I see her and immediately feel that love that she showed me two and a half years ago. There’s something about her that sucks you in.