A SCENE FROM LOOT. PHOTO COURTESY OF HBO.
An initial description of Darius Marder’s mysterious and hypnotic documentary Loot can be a misleading one. Because it follows an earnest treasure hunter, Lance Larson, who travels across continents with two World War II veterans, Andrew Seventy and Darrel Ross, each of whom buried stolen goods after World War II, the film might seem to be a documentary version of a classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre-type adventure thriller. But as the journey goes on the real drama winds up coming from within the men as their search allows them to overcome past horrors and reconnect with their families. And while the film details the lives of the veterans as they undertake their trek, it’s just as much about Larson as he struggles to maintain a relationship with his own son, who is battling drug addiction.
For Marder finding these rich characters for his first feature was a stroke of incredible luck. More luck came during the film’s premiere at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival. With his credit cards maxed, he won the fest’sTarget-sponsored Best Documentary award and $50,000.The film was subsequently bought by HBO, and it will receive its television premiere on HBO2 May 20. I talked to Marder while the film screened at the 2009 True/False Film Festival.
LOOT DIRECTOR DARIUS MARDER. PHOTO: LILIA TEAL.
I had watched the film on DVD in order to do the interview. But just now, seeing the start of the film again, I completely forgot about Lance’s mine in the Philippines, which you only introduce briefly. That story is so rich, you could make a doc just about him going to the Philippines and digging a hole. But what I understood after three years of editing is that “kill your darlings” thing. You have to kill the things you love when you are editing. [That story] was so big, if I did too much with it, [I would have had to] have seen it through. Really the whole damn point of it is just to show Lance and the extremes he will go to for the dream. I love nothing more than that the first image of this movie is a hole in the middle of the jungle that he sunk 100 grand into to [search for] lost gold. It was a major miscalculation. That’s Lance in a nutshell. People think he had millions. Nope, he’s just like that.
Everything about this story is so intense that you wouldn’t write it in a script. It would sound too ridiculous. Even the way you started the film. I’ve always been a filmmaker in my own mind. That’s why I moved to New York with my family, wife and two kids. My daughter was just about to be born. I was a chef and food stylist for a living. And I’d been writing and doing production work and shooting other stuff. One day I was talking with my wife. I said, “You know what, I’m gonna quit everything.” There was no connection between doing production work and getting my own film going. My wife said, “Okay.” She is amazing, and we are impractical — we have rent and kids. But it wasn’t going to happen unless we committed. I called every job and said, “I’m done.” I knew going the usual route was not my path. A week later I’m sitting on a bench in Prospect Park, writing and watching my son in the sandbox. This guy Dan sits next to me, and he had just moved from Utah. He asked me what do I do. I said, “I’m a filmmaker.” I didn’t mention [being a] chef. And he says, “Cool, what did you make?” “Nothing.” He says, “Great,” and he starts describing Lance and this veteran and the story. I looked him in the eye and said, “That’s it, I’m making that film.” He said, “Cool, I’ll produce it.” Then he asked what producing was. I said, “Well, I guess you are paying for it.” A couple days later we flew to Utah and started.
How did he know Lance? [Executive producer] Dan [Campbell] was down and out in Utah. Both [he and Lance] were brought up Mormon. Dan isn’t religious now but Mormons share this zeal for adventure, and that often translates into business. You see it in Darrel in the film. What other 86-year-old guy is going to tromp off to Europe? There is some spark there. Dan had no money but had an idea to start an Internet company. Lance, being unpredictable in every way, invented this neoprene sleeve that went on mountain bikes. He had started a bike accessory company from nothing and made millions. Then he sold the company for a good chunk, which is why he was in the rain forest. Dan got to know Lance and one day asked him for some money to start the Internet company. At that time Lance was out of money. But the next day he found a stock [certificate] in his drawer worth a quarter of million bucks and gave it to Dan. No contract! Dan starts his Internet company and it does very well. I mean, not very well by Internet standards, but well. Dan gives Lance a share in the company, which he still has, and never anything on paper. That’s what I love about these guys. Working with Dan has been so great. You look in someone’s eyes, you see what they are made of, and you go do it. But we have a contract now because we sold the film. The first day we met, in fact, Dan and I got into an argument about where Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was born. I’m not a Mormon and I don’t know shit but I was pretty sure I knew where he was born. We decided whoever wins this bet gets all the rights to the film. I won the bet. Dan was still going to put all the money up. But I gave half back to him.
How much time does the film cover? So much happens that I forgot about the opening scenes. I made it over three years, editing the whole way, which absolutely informs what and how you shoot. I can’t imagine shooting footage and sitting on it. You get consumed.
Your film has a very character-based style that is as visually attuned to the emotions of the film’s subjects as it is to the events that transpire. Was it always your intention to make a film with such a strong, character-based narrative thrust? The doc is entirely narrative. There is nothing conflicting about narrative and non-fiction. You have a strong push in the beginning that shows the flavor of this film. I knew this was going to be a journey into darkness, but I didn’t know Andrew even existed when I started. Andrew, the guy with all the clutter, is where the darkness comes from in the film. In the beginning [of filming] I had a crisis of faith. I got Lance, and I liked the fact that he is an open vessel. He doesn’t know where he is going, which means there is somewhere to go. I know the journey was [going to be] very deep for Darrel, but I knew it wasn’t the thing I smelled from the beginning. A month into shooting Lance says, “By the way, I’m going to Arizona this weekend. I got this other guy I know. He’s a WWII veteran and has this treasure…” I said, “Holy shit! You didn’t mention this? For a month you failed to mention you have another guy?” That’s Lance. The rain forest and Utah are the “ordinary worlds” of Lance.They set the platform for the story. For me that’s really classic structure. The ordinary world, a call to action, and then this Heart of Darkness kind of journey.
When the two men finally confess their actions during the war, did you think that these guys had been waiting forever to get it off their chests? Or did you have to pull it out of them? They both exist at the same time. I think both of these guys want to talk about it but the “it” isn’t fully understood [by them] yet, so they are hiding a lot too. It goes without saying that these are things you just don’t talk about. I didn’t want it to come up right away. I really wanted to see how the events of the journey triggered this rather than me [provoking it]. I’ve gotten some shit-ass reviews that imply that I wasn’t involved….
What do you mean by involved? That implies that because you don’t see my hand in the film very much, I’m not a character, I’m not narrating. People imply that I was just a fly on the wall, which is the farthest thing from the truth. I have 550 hours of footage and hundreds of hours of interviews. Most of this [film] comes from that. It was a vérité interview process:“Let’s sit down and put a light on this.” As we went I found my rhythm and [my ability] to respond to a moment when it came up and see if I could pull that moment to a deeper place. For Darrel you don’t really get his depth until the end.
Did you learn ways of speaking to draw your characters out, for instance? The best tool is “What? Can you repeat that?” The most effective tool sometimes is you ask what you think is a good question and someone skirts it or ducks around it. You then reiterate it and often they will go much deeper the second time.That was remarkably effective. I think the most important thing was these people understanding that I was genuinely trustworthy. I spent years with them. I was never out to exploit these characters and they knew that.
How long into the filming was it before you began to see that there was a story between Lance and his son? My first day with Darrel and Lance was the second day shooting. It was interesting because Darrel started talking, and I didn’t want talking head interviews to be the way things happened. Not this “I am on camera” sort of thing. I did do an interview with Darrel to make him feel comfortable, basically. We got around to his son who had died. The grief in him that came up not just about his son but about his father was so overwhelmingly powerful, and it clearly dictated what the motivating factor was for everything he did. [It was either] the ghost of his father, who he said he woke up with every morning, or his son. It was everything. I didn’t know [when I started] that Lance had a son with heavy drug problems.
It never feels forced or brought up too soon. I really trust the audience. If you start thinking about commerciality you start to lose this thing. I feel so lucky. I owe it to Dan. He never gave a shit if he ever saw this money again. He is so unusual and I owe it to him. Others would have wanted to throw a narrator and Tom Hanks in.
Then after all those years, you got saved one more time, at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Yeah. I hadn’t worked all those years. Not to say I didn’t do the odd job here and there, but I was in debt. I never went back [to full-time work] because I knew the film would have been over. I would still be editing. Any amount of debt is worth it. It wasn’t about a payoff, it was about seeing it through. I was in turmoil about festivals, and I entered them because [I knew a festival premiere] would push the film to get [finished]. But as it turned out it was really perfect. I finished the film the day before I went to L.A. Had it in hand. I borrowed money to get the sound done. I had an amazing experience there, everyone was not Hollywood but passionate about all the films in the fest.
But midweek it got hard. I got to a point where I questioned making the film. I was living out of a hotel room. My landlord called saying my rent check had bounced. I have kids, so it was scary. Then I got a bad review. I tried to get another room and all my credit cards failed in a row. I went into the bathroom at the hotel and was really thinking about sleeping there. I looked into the mirror and thought, “You stupid asshole. Why did you do this?” Over the course of a day I pulled myself up and realized if I didn’t enjoy myself that I was a bigger ass-hole. It was a blessing to be there with people coming to see my film. By the third screening I had a great show. I stayed with some friends. The fest called me to see who was coming to the Hellboy 2 premiere so at the last minute a friend and I went. Guillermo (Del Toro, director of Hellboy 2) gets up and starts introducing his film. But first he starts announcing the fest winners. The award ceremony was the next night. I thought he ruined my night as I find out I lost. He then mentions some other award, starts describing my film and says “Loot.” I couldn’t believe it. I went up and he said, “You fucking deserve it, man!” I say, “Oh, you saw the film?” “No.” [laughs] So, great.