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“While It’s Not About the Experience of Being Quarantined Per Se, It Taps into a Kind of Universal Experience”: Director Matt Wolf on His Moving Saga of Human Ambition, Spaceship Earth

Spaceship Earth

“Theater engages the whole organism,” says Biosphere 2 Director of Systems Engineering William Dempster. “Movement, through emotion — [it] gives you insight into yourself. Building a foundation from which we could go on and do other projects.” Accompanying Dempster’s voiceover early in Matt Wolf’s engrossing and unexpectedly stirring documentary, Spaceship Earth, is black-and-white footage from the first public activity of John Allen’s band of “Synergists”: a traveling theater production called The Theater of All Possibilities. The artistic value of the production is indeterminate; seen in brief clips, it falls somewhere on the continuum between The Living Theater and an Allan Kaprow Happening. (Indeed, the Theater of All Possibilities performed at New York’s experimental theater home, La Mama, in 1972.) But whether the Synergists were good artists or not is besides the point. Their spirit of creative adventure is what’s important here, and it’s Wolf’s lovely capturing of that spirit — threatened but not extinguished by politics, mercantilism and a rapacious television media — that distinguishes his elegant and surprisingly moving documentary.

The backstory of the Synergists — Allen’s gathering of collaborators, many of whom speak on screen here; the touring of their company; and their foray as amateur boat-builders, constructing a surprisingly sea-worthy vessel, the Heraclitis, used to travel the world — is the focus of the movie’s first half. But the Synergists weren’t to be just theater-makers; their art practice would include scientific research as well, with Biosphere 2, backed by billionaire Ed Bass, being their largest-scale project. A self-contained, hermetically sealed three-acre ecosystem built in the Arizona desert, Biosphere 2 would contain eight researchers who’d live inside for two years, growing their own food, recycling their own air, and all the while conducting experiments, the results of which would be of use someday when humans have to depart this crumbling planet of ours (Biosphere 1).

By the time Biosphere 2 is ready to house its eight red-suited “Biospherians” in 1991, the project, guided by sophisticated publicists, has become a media spectacle, covered on nationwide television as both genuine science experiment and gimmicky “ecological entertainment.” Needless to say, the two years don’t go entirely smoothly; there’s even a surprise third-act villain who ironically underscores the group’s alliance with neoliberalist ideologies.

It would have been easy for Wolf — but tremendously unnecessary — to make a Fyre Fraud type documentary lampooning the group’s foibles. (Something that was done, actually, but in the form of a 1996 Pauly Shor comedy, Bio-Dome.) But Spaceship Earth earns its feature form through Wolf’s empathy for these explorers and his recognition of the tale’s longer and deeper emotional arc. As he says in our conversation below, “It’s an ethos of learning by doing, about a kind of human achievement — what people can accomplish when they put their minds together towards a common goal. But it’s also about the limitations and shortcomings of that.”

Spaceship Earth’s early focus on the Synergists as artists connects back to various works through Wolf’s filmography, such as his 1982 debut feature, Wild Combination, a biographical portrait of composer Arthur Russell, who Wolf contextualizes within the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s and ‘80s. And in theme Spaceship Earth could be seen as linked to Wolf’s most recent doc, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, about a hermetic woman who becomes a kind of critical media savant — they are both films about people who go inside. Of course, we’re all inside right now too, which gives Spaceship Earth an unexpected of-the-moment resonance. Before talking about his archival strategies, searching for metaphor in old footage, and locating his own interests and obsessions in past-tense stories, I ask Wolf about the meanings produced by the collision of his film and our quarantined state. 

Released by NEON, Spaceship Earth is currently in release, with virtual theatrical screenings hosted by a variety of theaters and other organizations now. For places to view, as well as to see Wolf’s Q&As, visit the Spaceship Earth site.

Filmmaker: So what is it like doing a press tour in the midst of this pandemic? I’m sure when you prepared for your Sundance premiere you thought about how the story of the Biospherians and their bubble was perhaps a metaphor for the algorithmic bubbles we live in. Now, four months later, the metaphor has become literal — we are all living in the bubbles of our homes and apartments, sequestered from our friends and society.

Wolf: The metaphor of us all being quarantined, it’s interesting, because that experience didn’t really sink in for me until late. Even as I was facing the reality that I was going to be quarantined and that social distancing was going to become a universal phenomena, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that there was some sort of explicit connection to my film. 

Filmmaker: When did you start grappling with the implications of the shutdown for your film and the way you’d wind up talking about it?

Wolf: Spaceship Earth was intended to have a theatrical release with NEON, and we had a kind of “state of the union” call with them. [NEON Founder and CEO] Tom Quinn said, “We’re not releasing this film theatrically. We’re doing something different.” And that I would say was a real kind of wake up call for me that this was a whole paradigm shift. I left the call slightly disappointed, but then within an hour, I felt really energized by what he described and the ambition that NEON had with this release. More and more people started to text me saying, “Your film should come out now.” I quickly realized that the film had taken on a different kind of significance. While it’s not about the experience of being quarantined per se, in the larger thematic sense it taps into a kind of universal experience, and if that’s an entry point for people to engage with bigger ideas then I hope that the film is useful or meaningful in the context of a particular time in our lives.

You know, when I make a film, I want it to be meaningful forever. I would never make a film that’s topical and timed to a present tense moment. Those kinds of things I guess happen by accident sometimes, but it’s rare that they happen so quickly after something is made, you know? The release of the film has been a real boon for me because it’s given me something to throw myself into. I think for most people, work, or just having actitivies to structure time, is how to deal with this. I can have conversations that I feel are meaningful and related to what we’re going through, but that aren’t just talking about COVID-19, which is kind of the last thing on earth I actually want to talk about. At first I thought, is this going to be in poor taste to promote a film while people are experiencing tragedy and devastation? And as weeks went on, I realized people are settling into a new normal and that we have to have conversations, we need to engage with culture, and, also, people need to be entertained. You know, when artists face an emergency, they often feel like they have to do work that relates to the thing. But so often people don’t really want to look at or watch or read about that thing when they’re engaging with culture. It’s hard to make something that is kind of about the thing without being about the thing, and I lucked out in the sense that that’s what I made. 

Filmmaker: So let’s go back to the beginning. Was this an idea that you had been developing for some time? Was it brought to you? And where did your locating of the different archives involved enter into the process?

Wolf: I came up with the idea pretty haphazardly by doing internet research. I saw these striking images — the Biospherians in their red jumpsuits in front of a glass pyramid. They look like the band Devo. I assumed they were stills from a science-fiction film.  

Filmmaker: What were you researching that led you to those stills? 

Wolf: I follow so many blogs and news sources in an RSS reader so that I can peruse quickly in case a headline or image grabs my attention. And that’s how this came up. I quickly realized that this wasn’t science fiction and that most of these people are still around. This story had been largely forgotten, which, you know is my sweet spot — these hidden or forgotten histories. Of course I wanted to gain access to the individuals, but the first question always is, what kind of archive exists to tell a past tense story?

Many people have tried to make this film and faced complex issues of rights and access. And so it was a, a puzzle to decode. And the producers — Stacey Reiss and the executive producer, Stanley Buchthal — were really central in figuring out how to make this film possible. We went first to Synergia ranch to meet John Allen and the group who called themselves the Synergists. We were brought into this temperature-controlled room that had hundreds of 16mm films and analog videotapes and thousands of images. It was remarkable that this group had recognized since the ‘60s that what they were doing was of historical consequence and that they continued to film everything — often very well with multiple cameras and with cranes — for decades. And that this archive was sitting there, well-preserved but untapped. And so it felt like a pretty enormous opportunity but also a big responsibility to do justice with this history that’s largely been discounted and overlooked. And to look at a group who I immediately felt was doing something that was significant to our current moment and ready for reappraisal.

Filmmaker: Why were you able to succeed in telling this story when others who had tried to secure access had failed? And how did you handle the legal aspects of securing them?

Wolf: There was a complex history of rights and also trust associated with the material. The Biospherian Roy Walford had shot hundreds of hours inside [Biosphere 2], and he had attempted to make his own documentary but was unable to complete and release it before his premature death from Lou Gehrig’s disease. His daughter Lisa Walford, was really generous in letting us use that [material]. But we also were able to tap some additional archives that had previously been part of [other] films, one from a Mexican filmmaker, and another from a former British television documentary producer. So we had access to a couple large bodies of footage, and we optioned them much the way that producers option literary properties. 

Filmmaker: How old were you when Biosphere 2 happened, and do you remember it?

Wolf: I was around nine-years-old, and I have no recollection of it. 

Filmmaker: I’m older than you, and I have no recollection of it either, which, after seeing your film, I found strange because at the time I was producing experimental theater and performance art. The Synergists came out of experimental theater, so you’d think I would have taken note of them since it was such a major news event. 

Wolf: But I don’t think [the experimental theater aspect] was reported. What was reported was this space-age, scientific, pop culture story. Nobody knew these people were engaged in avant-garde performance. I think they just came off as kind of weird. Also most of the Synergists were behind the scenes. It was the Biospherians who were put in front of the camera. And, you know, avant-garde people don’t really thrive on Good Morning America. 

Filmmaker: So there was no nostalgic connection to the material for you. What was it more specifically, beyond the recognition that there was cultural resonance here that made you want make this?

Wolf: Whenever I make a film I would say I have to find myself in the material, and that’s a bit of a process. I’ll say, “That’s a good idea for film, but why would I tell that story? Why am I emotionally involved with these characters?” And I have to start engaging to answer that, to know. When I started engaging, the pre-history of the group was fascinating to me because it’s about the counterculture but in a very unusual, neo-liberal way. But when I heard about all the activities they had done, the rhetoric they used, their reference points, it all just felt all over the place. I [thought], there is no underlying logic to this — it’s just a stew of stuff. But I liked the challenge of trying to find the line of thinking, the logic, behind it. And I discovered that in the Heraclitus. When I saw the actual footage of the ship taking off, it was just very emotionally charged. I felt very emotional and throughout the entire editing process would really cry every time I saw that scene. I was like, this is the spirit of the film. This is what it’s about. It’s an ethos of learning by doing, about a kind of human achievement,  what people can accomplish when they put their minds together towards a common goal. But it’s also about the limitations and shortcomings of that. You know, I never would have said to myself, “I want to make an inspiring film in this moment.” That’s not really my M.O. But I ended up finding inspiration in the material and also a cautionary tale about the limitations of human ambition. 

Filmmaker: The concept of people in some kind of bubble is such a staple of reality TV right now, from Big Brother to all the new Netflix dating shows. Those shows are all driven in some way by interpersonal conflict. You have a little bit of that in the film but less than many people would expect. 

Wolf: I’ve been talking to so many journalists, and that has come up in a way that it never came up when I was making the film. But I realized it’s totally true that the film’s focus is not on the interpersonal dynamics and drama inside the Biosphere. There are very practical reasons for that — mostly [because] that’s now how the Biospherians framed their experience in the interviews. Their significant conflict was over the management of the project. People were either loyal to John Allen, or they felt he was mismanaging the proejct and sabotaging their work. And they were contending with really extreme ecological calamities and interpersonal stress as a result of having oxygen deprivation and being hungry. John’s primary flaw was that he lacked transparency, and by withholding information from the media, he made them look bad and was potentially sabotaging all of the work that they were doing. So there was a lot of conflict in that regard, but it wasn’t like everybody was lying around having sex and screaming at each other. 

What I had to work with was the raw material shot with Roy Walford and then the recollections of the Biospherians on camera. When I saw the footage by Roy, I said to my editor, David Teague, “Is this stuff going to be boring?” And he was like, “I like how it’s boring,” in the sense that there’s this kind of shift in consciousness to this meditative state inside Biosphere 2 in which time becomes compressed. They all said that two years flew by, and I find that to be very true about our own kind of quarantine right now. 

Filmmaker: Your previous film is a portrait of media critic and archivist Marion Stokes, but I felt your own presence and personal point-of-view as a creator in the film — in the montages, the little mini-essays that you created on historical moments of interest to you. Your hand there was overt, visible. In this film, you’re working with a more constricted vocabulary in that there’s the archival material and the interviews, and that’s enough. I appreciated very much that that was enough, and that I was engaged with the film without feeling a heavy editorial presence, or you making explicit the historical parallels. I wasn’t feeling your hand on the scales, so to speak. I’m interested to hear you talk the vocabulary that you chose for the film and then your ability to be confident of that vocabulary.

Wolf: I appreciate that observation because this film is so different than any film I’ve made. It was about showing a certain kind of constraint in the filmmaking. A lot of the reason it’s so different for me is that it involves this Byzantine plot with this huge network of characters. I usually try to make films that have as few subjects as possible so that they’re really characterized, and this film is about groups of people that demanded a multitude of subjects. When David came on board, he said, “This film is like the Great American Novel.” And I don’t mean that in a self-congratulatory way, but it is epic in its scope and involves very archetypal themes related to aspiration, family, success, failure, and survival. I realized this isn’t a film that demands formal experimentation from me. It’s not about me trying to be virtuosic with archival footage. It’s a film that has baked into it incredibly rich, thematic material and metaphor. 

Part of what was really exhilarating for me in my collaboration with David is that is he’s interested too in in literary conceits through documentary filmmaking. He had never made an archival- or interview-based film before, and he came up with an amazing framing device for the film that I never would have come up with. It was to use this anecdote from [Synergist] Kathelin [Gray] about this book she was reading, Mount Analogue, by René Daumal. It’s about a group of people who go on a journey to an island that doesn’t exist on any map. [David] uses that right at the beginning of the film to frame the story, and as we describe the conceptualization of Biosphere 2, he cuts back to that. What a beautiful metaphor! I felt so emotionally involved the first time he showed me that cut, and that became a kind of guide for the story — how to track theme and metaphor, in a way. I learned so much from David because usually my films are engaged more so in portraiture and cultural history. I’m interested in using archival footage in collage that to some extent tries to break away from the literalism of a lot of archival filmmaking. And in this film there was so much footage to support a Byzantine plot that the editorial challenge was to simplify a kind of endlessly complex and epic story, but to do it in service of supporting rich themes. I’m sure there are viewers who want to go really geeky on Biosphere 2, and I chose to go really macro and to take this very, very wide lens on the story.

Filmmaker: When we spoke about Recorder, you told me about some of the incredible methods you found to handle the huge volume of material on that project. What can you tell me about how you approached the management of the archival on this project?

Wolf:We had a really robust team on this film, and that’s why it came together so quickly. We had two very talented story producers, Brian Becker and Annie Salsich, and a very talented young associate editor, Marley McDonald. They had to index the entire collection at Synergia ranch; they screened all the footage and organized it by subject and put searchable metadata on it. They put markers on every single character, created greatest hits. So there was a bigger support system for me to organize the corpus of material. Also, Impact Partners had come on immediately and it was just resourced appropriately to manage that volume of material.

I’ve learned what it takes to really find depth in these enormous collections and to manage them without having an editor sit there for a year, screening everything in real time and pulling selects, which is not viable. If you want to find material in archives that doesn’t just literally illustrate what’s being said but has a kind of metaphorical significance, you need a robust process to find that material. One shot in the film, which is one of my favorite shots is a wide shot of the group of synergists running a staircase to nowhere. It’s after they build the Heraclitis. What a meaningful and rich image! If you want to use archive to express ideas, you have to have real storytelling collaborators with the sensibility to something like that and grab it, you know?

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