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‘Apocalypse Now’ in the Desert: The Filmmaker Who Went to Burning Man, Lost His Movie, and Gave Up on Filmmaking

The "Four Eyed Monsters" creator had an ambitious idea for his next movie. But legal problems and creative struggles have kept it in limbo for a decade.

arin crumley

Arin Crumley at Burning Man

Arin Crumley

A decade ago, Arin Crumley was a trailblazing filmmaker at the epicenter of the American DIY movement. “Four Eyed Monsters,” the semi-fictionalized look at his digital relationship with co-director Susan Buice, gained an online following through its web series; it eventually generated an international fan base and became a groundbreaking example of crowdsourcing for the creative community.

After Crumley and Buice parted ways, Crumley faced the usual filmmaker pressures to produce something new. In keeping with his “Four Eyed Monsters” trajectory, he rejected offers from agents and leading producers, choosing another ambitious and unorthodox project: “Matter Out of Place,” which he envisioned as a group effort to create a semi-fictionalized drama at the center of Burning Man, the annual communal art gathering in Black Rock Desert.

This time, it didn’t go so well. Crumley found himself swept up in myriad complications that turned his experimental production into a microbudget “Apocalypse Now.” Ten years later, it remains unreleased and potentially unreleasable, while Crumley says he has sworn off filmmaking for good. Nevertheless, he’s confronting the full scope of the experience for the first time.

“It’s crazy being here talking about a movie I shot 10 years ago,” he said, on a recent evening in Queens. He was sitting in the kitchen of the Long Island City apartment rented by his producer Karl Jacob, where Crumley lived for a year and a half while finishing work on “Matter Out of Place.” “I shoot from the hip,” he said. “I make stuff, I put it out there, and I move on. I’m not going to sit around writing things forever and painting over the perfection of stuff.”

“Matter Out of Place” fell into disarray as he returned to Burning Man year after year with new attempts to gather material. In the process, he alienated collaborators equally infuriated by the delays and the intense California heat, endured a falling out with his original producer, and eventually lost permission from Burning Man to make the movie. “It was just guerrilla filmmaking — what sort of environment would be a cool environment to shoot in?” he said. “It was a filmmaking value. The desert would be really cinematic.”

matter of place

A scene from “Matter Out of Place”

Crumley had no interest in a script. Instead, he planned to attend Burning Man 2008 with a group of peers documenting their own experiences, then film recreations to build a semi-fictionalized narrative around them. He derived much of his financial assistance from Mike Hedge, a young fan of “Four Eyed Monsters,” who initially invited Crumley to develop a project around Burning Man.

“I had this process I’d tried in the past, which was to live life, experience things, reflect on those experiences, and synthesize that through media in as much real time as possible,” Crumley said. “I thought that if the artistic tools used in the ‘Four Eyed Monsters’ project were effective — we did get some attention for the film — then maybe I could use those tools in a different environment, with different levels of complexity.”

Pushing the Limits

He cast Buice as one of a dozen subjects, and in 2008 they traveled to Burning Man for their first attempt at production. But Crumley faced immediate pushback from Burning Man representatives when he filled out a form seeking permission to shoot a documentary. “We said that throughout the week we’d created reenactments of things that happened earlier in the week,” he said. “They weren’t sure about it. They were like, ‘This is actually a documentary form that you’re filling out right now. If what you’re presenting to us is any kind of documentary, then you’re OK.’ So where do we draw the line? We were coming out to document the experience. We wanted to find the limits of what was OK.”

He decided on a workaround: There would be no script, but they would return the following year to shoot scenes from 2008.We’d have the actors come back to play themselves more authentically than anyone else, except good actors, who are expensive and require more planning,” he said. “I figured this could work.”

His producer wasn’t interested in another year. “[Hedge] was like, ‘I put money on the table and you need to produce something,’” Crumley said. “I said, ‘Listen, trust me, it’s a good idea to go back.’” Hedge begrudgingly submitted an application for Crumley to return, but said he was done supporting the project with his own finances. (Crumley declined to further discuss his relationship with Hedge, and Hedge did not respond to emails requesting comment.) As the 2009 Burning Man approached, Crumley ran a last-minute crowdfunding campaign for $2,500 to cover the cost of a generator. Most participants from the previous year returned with him.

When that shoot ended, Crumley decided he still didn’t have enough footage to assemble the storylines he wanted, and in 2010 he coaxed his dwindling team to return for yet another shoot. That year, with the influx of smartphone cameras and social media postings, Burning Man encouraged participants to share their experiences online. Crumley thought that gave him carte blanche to shoot whatever he wanted, but once he arrived, he was summoned by the organization’s legal team.

“Their lawyer is just laying it into me about how outrageous it is that I’d come out with a team even after we’d been told we didn’t have permission to continue shooting,” he said. “I was like, well, what about this other thing about uploading experiences? They were like, ‘Come on, that’s just for people taking pictures of their friends!’ So I was like, OK, that didn’t work.” He was told they would be removed from the premises if he continued work on the project.

The Black Hole of Failures

Back at the camp, he had to convey the bad news to his team. A few dropped out, but others remained faithful. “Most of the team said, ‘We’re going to do what we came here to do, this is not how art works,’” he said. “We were able to shoot what we wanted to shoot, but it definitely put a hugely negative disease in our production. There was no way out for me, and for everybody else, it was hard to be enthusiastic and excited about it. Now they had to do it just because they were there.”

matter of place

“Matter Out of Place”

Arin Crumley

Many other project participants don’t speak kindly about the experience. “Whenever someone asks us to describe the black hole of time, money, and collaborative failures that this project became, they invariably become lost in a confusing string of timelines, legalities, and the actual number of movies that this project produced,” said Josh Steinbauer, who was Buice’s boyfriend at the time and one of the movie’s central characters. “Thankfully, after 10 years, most of us have moved on, and people have stopped asking.”

Crumley acknowledged the ongoing physical toll of doing anything in Burning Man, much less focus on making a movie. “It’s a blizzard with dust,” Crumley said. “It’s just a nightmare. You’re feeling lightheaded because of the heat.”

As “Matter Out of Place” became a continuing object of dispute, other movies did materialize from the event. Hedge’s short film “When the Dust Settles” was approved by Burning Man and screened at a few festivals. Steinbauer produced his own documentary feature, “Paper Stars,” which was accepted to the New York Film Festival, among other places. But Burning Man, known as a litigious company with a proclivity to protect all footage shot on the ground, denied the release of Steinbauer’s film. “It’s a colorful backdrop and had personal meaning for us,” he said, “but impossible to deal with the litigious, hippie country-club that is the Burning Man office.”

Some people around Crumley at the time recalled their experiences in a more positive light. “It was total chaos and pure magic,” said producer Isis Masoud. “Staying hydrated and fed, trying to organize shoots with specific meeting times and places, was cumbersome. We had to be inside the experience and outside of the experience at the same time. We had to be free to create and structured to produce simultaneously. It was such an incredible adventure.”

Crumley spent the next several years trying to assemble a version of the movie that he hoped the event would approve. “I thought we could make something compelling that we could show Burning Man and that, in the end, they’d come around,” he said. “That’s what I’d assumed would be possible. I just had to keep working on it long enough to reach that caliber. The problem was that I thought that could happen.”

After his third Burning Man shoot, Crumley realized he still didn’t have enough footage to assemble the ensemble drama he had in mind. He began toying with animation and shooting material outside of Burning Man in an effort to develop a finished cut. In the meantime, he crashed at a cooking retreat center in Massachusetts where he was allowed to live for free in exchange for editing corporate videos.

“This movie gave you a big hug”

“I was just living there doing nothing, eating their food, and editing the movie,” Crumley said. He went to Burning Man on his own for another two years, hoping to gather extra footage he could use as cutaways. Some of that did help with his developing edit, but the project had essentially become a hobby for him. “At that point, it was not a serious production,” he said.

matter out of place

Arin Crumley shoots “Matter Out of Place”

Eventually, he met Jacob, a New York-based actor and producer who attended Burning Man for years and took an intense interest in the project after watching a rough cut. “When Arin was ready to move on, I caught whatever bug he had,” Jacob said. “The structure of the film itself and the energy it creates when you’re watching it gives you an experience kind of what it’s like to actually be at Burning Man. All the rest of movies that exist about it are just looking at this thing. This movie gave you a big hug and made you a part of the experience.”

 

Jacob thought he could engage his Burning Man contacts to discuss permissions, so he encouraged Crumley to keep going. “Considering however many hundreds of thousands of dollars and sweat equity they’d been through, I was like, this should at least come to completion,” Jacob said.

Now living at Jacob’s four-story building, Crumley transformed it into a home studio. He built an ADR booth in the basement, shot fictitious Burning Man art, and pitched a tent in the living room to shoot interiors. At this point, Crumley thought that less than 25 percent of his latest cut was actually shot at Burning Man.

In the meantime, a representative for the organization expressed willingness to grant festival rights, but with several provisions: They couldn’t include any footage of nude attendees without permission, and they wanted him to cut an opening detailing how Harvey founded Burning Man, in all likelihood to avoid an unauthorized explanation. Crumley could live with that, but a third request chafed: The organization wanted him to cut a comedic scene in which one character makes out with a woman in the middle of the desert, only to be disgusted moments later when she urinates on the ground. “It’s against the rules at Burning Man to pee on the surface,” Crumley said, “but people do it.” (A representative for Burning Man did not respond to request for comment.)

“It’s really a heartbreaker”

Crumley spent months blurring out faces of nude Burning Man attendees. Screening “Matter Out of Place” on the festival circuit seemed like a distinct possibility — and then Crumley hosted a feedback screening in Detroit. When Burning Man found out, reps felt he’d violated the organization’s trust and again stopped negotiations. Crumley tried to find new allies, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but Burning Man refused to speak to any mediators. Jacob questions whether Crumley even needed to endure the hassle. “Because we don’t have the money to hire a lawyer, our real question is how valid are their legal claims that we’d even need their permission,” he said. “We aren’t going to crowdfund to hire a lawyer and get that answer.”

However, at least one legal expert has been here before: entertainment attorney Michael Donaldson, who consulted on Sundance hit “Escape From Tomorrow,” which was shot without permission at Disneyland and eventually given a proper release. He said Jacob was probably right. “This is one of those situations we come up against probably one a month in our practice,” he said. “A filmmaker comes in who tries to do all the right things, but by doing that he ends up shooting themselves in the foot because they came under an agreement that they made that they might not have had to make.”

In the case of “Escape From Tomorrow,” Donaldson said, the filmmakers simply never engaged with Disney in the first place. “If you just go in, make the footage, and put that together, and it turns out to be a releasable film, you release it,” he said. “The rights of the property owner are very, very limited … It’s really a heartbreaker when you see somebody who tried to do everything right and because somebody who doesn’t like the film or doesn’t like them, and tries to block their efforts.”

escape from tomorrow

“Escape From Tomorrow”

Donaldson was unconvinced of Burning Man’s claim that their tickets’ fine print makes it clear that it owns any documentation produced there. “It doesn’t sound very persuasive to me,” referring to the ticket lingo as “a contract of adhesion” that’s hard to enforce. “They’re declaring ownership over facts, and facts are in the public domain,” he said. “If you record something wherever you are, it’s happening, those are facts.”

Crumley eventually presented “Matter Out of Place” as a secret screening at the Cucalores Film Festival in Wilmington, N.C. But even then, his relentless creative energy created new roadblocks. The night before the event, he recut the entire movie with a voiceover that tied in the narrative with “Four Eyed Monsters.” The audience responded well to the movie, but cast in attendance was baffled. “The last cut was stripped of the raw potential and unpolished beauty that existed in previous efforts,” said Steinbauer. “It was less a burning man than a dumpster fire, and by the end, I wanted everyone involved in the film to die in a fire.”

Steinbauer acknowledged that Crumley had a penchant for capturing striking visuals and assembling them into an immersive collage. “Arin Crumley is a remarkable cinematographer, and ‘Matter Out of Place is a collection of arresting imagery,” he said. “But like a lot of films directed by a cinematographer, the acting and plot are out of focus.”

Nevertheless, the cut made available to this journalist does deserve an audience. Like “Medium Cool” meets “Mad Max,” the movie at once captures the physical extremes of the environment and the emotional intensity of people wrapped up in the moment. Many of the more intimate scenes between the couples have a profound romanticism, and Crumley excels at generating a unique aura of mystery about the nature of their desire to come together under such uncomfortable circumstances. But he remains unhappy with the results. “I couldn’t imagine releasing this film on a digital platform and capturing people’s attention,” he said.

“I’d be better off with a heroin addiction”

At one point, he cut together a fake trailer for a documentary about the project, hoping that transforming his experience into a more conventional nonfiction context would finally allow him to make use of his footage. (Watch it below.)

Donaldson was impressed by the idea. “I think he would be on much stronger ground, and it would be quite a wonderful project,” the lawyer said. “That’s the kind of project I’d sink my teeth into. It’s a little guy that somebody more powerful tried to squash and bully. I love it.”

For now, however, Crumley said he isn’t interested. He recently moved from San Francisco to Charlottesville, N.C., where he hopes to start a new company to develop creative solutions for helping the environment. “I’m done making movies,” he said, and chuckled. “There would be no way to make another movie except to completely sacrifice a place to live, a way to get food. I’d regularly do that for this movie. But I’d be better off with a heroin addiction. At least there are some high-functioning heroin addicts out there.”

Pressed to explain why he chased the project for so long instead of pursuing a new one, he hesitated. “I mean, that’s a really good psychological question,” he said. “I was hooked by the endless math problem in my head. Like, how could this become something so it wasn’t a waste of my time?”

Now, Crumley has had enough. “I wouldn’t want to get involved in another movie for fear that it would be equally unhealthy,” he said. “In the end, not only can’t it be released, but it has questionable value.”

He had been talking for 90 minutes straight, veering from optimism that his movie might one day get out in the world to utter despair and back again. “If I wanted to orchestrate a slow and gradual letting go of a lover that is filmmaking, this would be a good way,” he said. “There’s nowhere to move. It has to end.”

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