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“You Always Hope the Film Surprises You When You’re Done”: Editor David Teague on Spaceship Earth

A still from Spaceship Earth by Matt Wolf (courtesy of Sundance Institute).

In 1991, a Texas oil tycoon funded an experimental project meant to test the limits of America’s technology when it came to space exploration (and colonization). Known as Biosphere 2, the project consisted of sealing eight people in an airtight terrarium in the Arizona desert meant to perfectly replicate the Earth’s natural atmosphere. Many of the findings of this project have been long destroyed, but documentarian Matt Wolf used a medley of archival footage and interviews with surviving Biospherians in order to capture the daily realities of those enclosed in Biosphere 2. Editor David Teague speaks to Filmmaker about the lengthy editing process and crafting a narrative arc for the documentary Spaceship Earth

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?

Teague: Spaceship Earth is about the Biosphere 2 project, a giant terrarium where eight people were sealed inside for two years in the early 1990s. The thing that really struck me as I started to review the footage was that there was something much bigger going on here than the Biosphere 2 project itself (which was already pretty big). I was fascinated by the story of the small group of people who built it and all the things they had done decades before the Biosphere project was even conceived. This part of the story is what originally drew director Matt Wolf to the film and was something he wanted to focus on. To me, it called to mind the scope and themes of an epic novel—it had a large cast of characters spanning their entire lives, and big themes like tragic idealism, what makes change, and the responsibilities of being a human on this planet. The bounty of the archive that Matt and his team had assembled meant that we could actually tell this bigger story in a cinematic way. Matt, producer Stacey Reiss, and I had a lot of early conversations about how we could do something more ambitious than a film just about Biosphere 2 and how we could make the film’s themes more novelistic and more universal. 

Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?

Teague: The main thing was to approach the subject through its characters. Every scene of the film was crafted around specific points of view so you always felt like you were following these characters’ lives, not just learning facts about Biosphere 2. The arc of the movie is really about how a small group of people bonded together and tried to change the world. So every scene ultimately had to be about that. The film is almost entirely archival, and most of the archival footage was actually shot by two of our characters. So it was important to let people know who was filming and why. The fact that our own characters were documenting themselves became a form of character-building, a way to show how strongly they felt that what they were doing was important—they felt they were making history. We also thought a lot about style—using and tweaking dramatic forms like tragedy, melodrama, and absurdism to provoke particular emotions and effects and also to be playful. These theatrical styles were used by the Biospherians themselves, so there was an intentional cross-pollination of form and content.

Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?

Teague: Before settling into editing documentaries, I worked in a bunch of different areas in film—as a music video DP, a commercial director and I ran a small production company making films for arts organizations. I also used to teach cinematography and editing. Having had experience in different parts of the filmmaking process is something I really find valuable as an editor—whether it’s understanding how to communicate with a DP, how to write questions for an interview, or being able to take a more top-down view of the entire creative process while you are focusing on story in the edit. I think it’s important to at least dip your toe into these other realms—so much of my work as an editor is informed by these experiences. And in terms of influences, that could be so many things. To just name a few: I have learned so much from Robert Caro’s thematic and narrative approach to non-fiction, Su Friedrich’s intuitive and tactile approach to editing, Mike Leigh’s eye for character and relationships, Tsai Ming-liang’s ability to draw emotion from stillness, Derek Jarman’s radical fusion of form and content, and Susan Sontag’s embrace of ambiguity over meaning. Those are just a few among many artists who have deeply influenced me.

Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?

Teague: We used Avid. It could robustly handle the volume of footage we had (we had over 600 hours of footage and thousands of stills) and scriptsync allowed us to find key words and ideas across Matt’s interviews and all the archival. I edited a lot of the film remotely, and Avid made it easy to work back and forth with our team in the production office. We had an incredible team in the edit—Marley McDonald was the associate editor who did wonderful work roughing out scenes and finding moments of beauty and strangeness in the raw material, and our story producers Brian Becker and Annie Salsich courageously logged the material and were an invaluable resource in navigating fifty years worth of story, countless characters, and whatever questions I had while cutting.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?

Teague: I don’t know if there was a most difficult scene, but one of the biggest challenges of editing this particular movie was that there were so many plot points and a LOT of exposition that was needed. There are so many little things that the audience has to understand for big moments to really land later in the film. Making it feel like you were not just learning information, but that you were still swept up in a story and staying with your characters was a real challenge throughout. I kept Billy Wilder’s line about screenwriting in the back of my head (and I paraphrase)—”If you make the plot points entertaining, the audience will swallow the medicine without noticing.” But you can’t do it two or three times in a row. Then they’ll notice. So you have to have some funny stuff in between. This was really helpful to me, especially since my background has been mostly cutting verité films with very minimal plot. The film I cut before Spaceship Earth, Lana Wilson’s The Departure, had literally one plot point. Spaceship Earth probably has about 50. So that was a big learning curve for me and definitely the biggest challenge of editing the film. It was all about making the plot points entertaining and then building quiet places to feel, character moments, visual moments, and of course funny stuff in between. 

Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?

Teague: You always hope the film surprises you when you’re done. This isn’t a job of assembling something based on plans—it’s a job of experimenting, failure, and discovery. I learned so much in the process of making the film, from the footage itself, and especially from working with Matt. But I certainly haven’t reached a final understanding of the film yet. In many ways, I haven’t even had a chance to truly “see” it. That process will start at our premiere on Sunday, so I’m looking forward to being surprised and hopefully learning a lot from the audience too as they watch it. 

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