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The Feeling of a “Doomed, Endless Scroll on Your Phone”: Marnie Ellen Hertzler on Crestone

Deep in the desert of Crestone, Colorado live a group of Soundcloud rappers who live carefree off the land, growing marijuana, recording music, and posting goofy videos to Instagram? Crestone, Marnie Ellen Hertzler’s debut feature, journeys deep into the isolated, sandy abyss, placing her camera amongst an eccentric group of lost boys who have no use for the outside world, even as it steadily burns around them. If influential TikTokers can erect a California-based Hype House to stock up on “content creators,” Crestone is as appropriate a place as any to discover where these wild things are.

Hertzler, a 25 New Face of Independent Film in 2018 (the summer she visited Colorado to shoot Crestone), places herself in the story as she struggles with the group’s carefree attitude and life of unregulated excess filtered through social media. They scrounge for food in abandoned homes and desolate caves, but the rappers’ reality paints a drastically different picture of their needs and resources. Even so, Crestone, while critical of its subjects, never condemns the men who have found a sense of belonging amongst the rubble of the abandoned desert. It also features the best excuse yet for incorporating drone cinematography within a documentary.

As Crestone is now available to stream across digital platforms, I spoke with Hertzler about the personal origins of the project, discovering the story in the edit, putting herself in the film and collaborating with Animal Collective on the sound design of the Crestone desert.

Filmmaker: I know you had several inspirations, both personal and cinematic, for making Crestone and I wanted to ask how these influences seeped into one another. Did you reach out to your high school friends with the goal of making a film? Did you have the intent of making a specific kind of documentary? What came first?

Hertzler: It’s interesting to think back, as making the movie was not a very conscious decision on my part and there wasn’t one thing that inspired it. Sadboytrapps is my best friend and we had been in touch, off-and-on, for the last decade and wanting to work on something together. He knew that I was a filmmaker and I knew he was making music in this desert town in Colorado. One day, a friend, Theo Anthony, and I came across a YouTube video of Sadboytrapps and Sloppy taking a “hot sauce challenge,” and it prompted us to consider toying with the idea of making a short film out there in Crestone. But then Theo got busy with his feature, Rat Film, and it was some time before I had the opportunity to travel out there and visit.

Once the opportunity arose, however, I began pulling on all of my favorite things to protect me as I went out into the desert and shot the film. I was watching a lot of Agnès Varda, David Byrne’s True Stories, Harmony Korine’s Gummo and some films by Les Blank. I also watched a ton of music videos, anything via Lyrical Lemonade, and my cinematographer, Corey Hughes, had a whole log of videos we pulled to watch together. We wanted to have some kind of structure in place before going out to Crestone, even though we had no idea what was going to happen once we got there. Acknowledging those films and videos as a mood board of sorts was really helpful for us.

Filmmaker: When you went out to Crestone in the summer of 2018 to make the film, was it just yourself and your DP in tow?

Hertzler: Yeah, just me and Corey and the guys [we were filming].

Filmmaker: The film is partly about its own making,  as you let the viewer in on the process of how it’s being formed in real time. For example, you feature footage clearly shot by a drone, then inform us who is operating that drone and how you wound up with a drone in the first place. You let the viewer partake in the filmmaking process. Was that a choice you made while on location?

Hertzler: Well, I had made a short film, Hi I Need To Be Loved, the previous summer that experimented with the relationship between the filmmaking process and the final result. It was about spam emails I had received and the strange disconnect between the bots sending these spam emails and the people [receiving them]. I’ve previously studied sculpture and I’m really interested in the sculptural and structural elements of films (and film sets) and wanted to explore that in relation to how we possess a need to be loved. The short was an experimentation that I think went really well, and it created a language that Corey and I developed together while shooting. That shared language slid naturally into the production of Crestone.

We had a rough plan of what we were going to do out there, but didn’t know who was going to show up or what the surroundings were going to look like or what kind of access we’d have when it came to locations. A lot of what you see was built pretty heavily in the edit, and in the editing process we decided to revisit the story’s relationship to filmmaking. It was a really hard, difficult edit and I think I needed to share with the viewer the vulnerability of making a film like Crestone. I wanted you to see the structure involved in the filmmaking and, also, the vulnerability of being a filmmaker, especially in the documentary film world where we pretend that what you’re seeing is real (but it’s actually filtered through a filmmaker’s eyes and through their vulnerabilities). None of that was very planned out. It was more a natural evolution.

Filmmaker: The film is also in conversation with the look and feel of social media. Photos and videos uploaded to social media seem to have their own aesthetic: various selfies, the breaking of the fourth wall to speak directly to you and the viewer, artificial filters, spur-of-the-moment confessionals, etc. A persona can be created (and branded) via what the user posts. Was that something you were wishing to break through in your film? To mirror?

Hertzler: I think there are a few answers to that question. Corey and I like setting goals for ourselves before we shoot and, under the pressure of it just being the two of us out there, it was important that we establish rules for our camera, its personality and how it was going to move. We wanted to use Corey’s camera to pretend that it was one of the guys’ [cameras], maybe of a friend that’s a little too high and is wandering around and hanging out and bumping into everyone. That cinematic eye would be a bit of a departure from the social media aesthetic elsewhere in the film. It helped to map that out.

In terms of translating the social media aesthetic you mentioned into the film, I really wanted the film to feel, above all else, like an endless scroll. There’s the kind of doomed, endless scroll on your phone where you’re stuck in an endless feedback loop, scrolling and scrolling. If you scroll for too much time on TikTok, there’s now a little notification that pops up like, “hey, you should probably take a break, you’ve been scrolling for way too long!” In hindsight, maybe that’s what Corey’s camera was, a notification to take a step back and take in the mountains surrounding us rather than participate in the endless scroll. The film goes in two different directions, through the anti-social media lens and the leaning into that very social media lens as well.

Filmmaker: At times, the film feels anthropological in its inquiry, as we’re observing something of an isolated culture that lives by its own rules. However, I imagine that as a filmmaker, there could be a fear of being too clinically removed from the people you’re documenting. Was that a concern of yours? Or did the personal backstory and connection you have with these characters strike you as a “way in” for the viewer?

Hertzler: Establishing my relationship [with our subjects] early on (even as early as including it in our logline) was important in shooting real people in these settings. Like you were saying, the audience knows the point of departure, and if it’s out in the open, there’s a level of honesty I’m providing them with. By revealing my relationship to these men, it hopefully makes my character more understandable. You know when you love and admire someone who you’ve known for a long time? There’s scrutiny involved in a relationship like that. Or when two of your friends break up and then get back together…there’s scrutiny there too. In order to explain my scrutiny of the people in the film (and, in turn, their scrutiny of me), it was important to establish our relationship early in the film. It amplifies the depth of what we’re shooting. To not put that out there early would have made the film a little more confusing than it is.

Filmmaker: And you also provide us with your subjects’ personal views and interests, often via voiceover, as we’re given some “alone time” with each of them. For example, one person questions if we’re living in a matrix and if extraterrestrial beings exist, all the while your camera is observing a trail of rubble and debris on the sandy grounds. While on location, were you mapping out these segments? They feel like character strands that emphasize their individual personalities.

Hertzler: I think that came from being on the ground with them. You know, a few of them, like Sadboy, I knew very well ahead of time, and I was in similar circles with Phong and Keem (I met Sloppy a little later on and Ryan I knew only briefly). I didn’t know them as in-depth as it seems in the movie, but we quickly had to form that relationship since we only had eight shooting days. The situation got pretty intense and, as you see in the film, we really were trapped by a wildfire, so those reflections and introspections for each character came about through the brief time we shared. I knew I wanted to do something special, individually, with everyone. I really wanted to shoot a music video for each person, or, when that wasn’t possible, at least show them doing what they do best. That might come from sitting in a car with them and talking and seeing what happens. We filmed all of that and then formed [these segments] in the edit. However, it was really during the shoot, while being on the ground, that the idea of including these small bios or profiles came about.

Filmmaker: And what about Huckleberry? The way you introduce him is special, as if he just appeared out of thin air and wanted to be in your movie. Even the way you describe your encounter with him in the movie is its own kind of charming display of who he is as a character. It’s as if he teleported down and is now in the movie, and that’s that. Of course, I don’t know if that was actually the case.

Hertzler: I love that you experienced him in that way, because he really is a special guy. I really like Huckleberry and he did just kind of appear. He hopped in someone’s car in Denver when he heard we were shooting a movie and just appeared and I was like, “Great, this guy is perfect.” He’s really creative and funny and a really special person, so I wanted to do something fun with him.

Many of the voiceovers in the film were written by Corey and I, and the guys loved it and adapted them as their own. Corey and I were writing the whole time we were on location, especially on those voiceovers. I had the guys read through everything we wrote and they chose their favorite passages and stuck to their characters pretty seamlessly.

Filmmaker: That’s interesting. You wrote the voiceover narration and then had the guys pick and choose what fit them best. So it’s fair to say they were an active part of the creative process?

Hertzler: Yeah, the film was definitely a collaborative give-and-take. It had to be. We were featuring real people while simultaneously forming a new “conceived reality” together.

Filmmaker: You mentioned wanting to film music videos for each character. Well, you do get that opportunity a few times in the film, in visual effects-heavy sequences that mirror the filter-enhanced, artificial aesthetic of social media and online culture. What is it about that look that appealed to you? And how did you go about recreating it?

Hertzler: That’s a good question, as the experience of being online is, for me, definitely the experience of clicking between still photos or a FaceTime with a friend and then going straight into a music video. For whatever reason, my brain sees that as a totally normal way of consuming information and online media. But when you take a step back, within a cinematic space, it becomes rather strange to consume things that way. If you’re lucky, maybe it feels a bit poetic. I wanted to include music videos in the film for that reason, to be true to the online experience while also collaborating with the guys to showcase what makes them special.

I was influenced by Lyrical Lemonade’s work, of course, and I worked with a visual effects artist here in Baltimore, Meredith Moore, watching a lot of music videos and selecting themes we wanted to explore together. I then spoke with Ryan and Keem to see what they liked and we built out the visual effects from there.

Filmmaker: When you returned home from Crestone with countless hours of footage, did you need to divorce yourself from the material for a little while, to mentally step away from your visit and recompose yourself? Or did you jump right into the edit with the experience still fresh in your memory?

Hertzler: I think there was a bit of reverse culture shock when I came back home. I had never made a feature film before and my short films were nothing like [Crestone]. I didn’t know what to do when I got home. I threw the hard drive on my editor’s [Albert Birney] desk and was like, “Just take a look and we’ll figure it out eventually.” I did take some time off to reflect on what had happened on the trip and to make a plan and script the film again. We were scripting the film while we were shooting, then I got home and re-scripted it, making an outline based on stuff I knew we had shot. I scripted that stuff out for our editor and he worked off that script to edit to. It was a game of back-and-forth over the following few months.

Filmmaker: The film participated in the U.S. In Progress section of the American Film Festival three years ago in Poland. That must have taken place soon after you completed your shoot. Did you even know how to describe the film to people at that point? It was the beginning of the film’s public life, at least when it came to public awareness and journalist coverage about its existence. What was that experience like?

Hertzler: That was a challenging experience for us, as the cut we had for U.S. In Progress was such an early cut. At that point, we didn’t even have me in the film. I don’t think my voiceover was in it either. The film was just this really long, anticlimactic music video. I thought it was really cool, but it was a different movie and not the movie I wanted to make. Walking away from that experience, I knew we needed some sort of spiritual guide throughout the movie, so we really leaned into Benz Rowm’s character and I put myself in the film as well. I walked away from the festival feeling that we needed to share the experience of being [at Crestone] with the viewer,, rather than merely providing the viewer with the end results. The most interesting part of what we had captured was what happened on the ground. We needed to show that.

Filmmaker: How did Animal Collective get involved in the project? They have a very specific sound as a band, one that’s quite different than the work of the SoundCloud rappers you feature in the film.

Hertzler: Josh Dibb (Deakin) happened to be my neighbor when I lived in New Orleans. We met while we were both living there, then both happened to move to Baltimore around the same time and remained friends. I think I had Animal Collective in mind for this film before I even went out there for the shoot. Josh and Brian Weitz (Geologist) of Animal Collective are really good at sonically describing landscapes within their music and chosen sounds, and I really wanted the landscape of Crestone to be its own character in the film. I essentially wanted to remove and separate the sounds of the Crestone landscapes from its residents. By asking Animal Collective to come in and be the voice of the Crestone landscape, it really helped bring out Crestone’s character. They were incredible to work with. I gave them a super early cut and said, “here are all the scenes, I think,” and they just went for it from there. I barely had any notes for them. I feel bad because I gave them many cuts of the film to work from (after they had already begun composing for a previous cut), but they were very, very patient with me.

Filmmaker: The film had its world premiere at the True/False Film Festival last March, in what was (I believe) its only public exhibition before the pandemic shut everything down one week later. The theater experience is great to have for a myriad of reasons, of course, but with your film being very much about a shared online culture, I was wondering what the experience has been like primarily screening the film in film in digital/virtual spaces?

Hertzler: First, I should tell you that the leadup to True/False was pretty scary. I had made a film that was very personal and so online that bringing it into the real world in a real room with real human audiences was very strange. It was challenging but, looking back now, ultimately really fun. I definitely enjoy making films more than I do showing them. That being said, having the film play in a virtual space has been great, as I feel that the audiences that Crestone truly works for are comprised of online kids and people who wouldn’t necessarily have the money to attend a film festival. By shifting to a digital environment as a result of the pandemic, we were able to further interact with our online audience. I wasn’t very mad about that shift. Of course, I would’ve loved to continue celebrating the film in person (especially with the guys we feature in the film) but in the long run, I think we were pretty lucky.

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