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All This and World War II: 'Loot' Finds Treasure in the Hunt

By Taylor Segrest

A food-styling singing cowboy, a surfing Internet entrepreneur, a treasure-hunting used car salesman, a Mormon Bishop, and a pack-rat of epic proportions walk into a documentary...

Far from a joke, but well conscious of its own wry humor, first-time director Darius Marder's Loot, which airs May 20 on HBO, is a magically meditative vérité journey with three men: an amateur treasure hunter (Lance Larson) and two American World War II veterans (Darrel and Andy, the Mormon Bishop and the pack-rat, respectively), both of whom stashed separate treasures in far-away places, long since forgotten, before returning home at war's end. While ostensibly about the two parallel hunts for these treasures over half a century after their burials, Loot is actually an investigation into the hunts themselves, and their poignant rewards are unearthed in the form of torturous memories, mystifying synchronicities, rich character studies, seemingly banal moments at places like Denny's, and America's naturally deteriorating understanding of World War II and the Depression.

Documentary spoke with Marder by phone and discovered a rigorous craftsman guided by an abiding appreciation for "the magic of life."

Documentary: What's the story behind how you came to this story?

Darius Marder: Well, it's funny, I'm actually taking a walk in the park right now, which is where I met the guy who connected me with the story [Dan Campbell, the executive producer of Loot.]. It was at a time in my life when I was dreaming about film, but I was in the grind. I was a chef at the time, doing food-styling. I just had this realization that it wasn't going to happen if I kept doing that work. And so I quit everything.

I walked out into Central Park, and a guy sat down next to me and we started to have a conversation as we were watching our kids in the sandbox. He said, "I've always thought that this would make a great film..." And he starts to describe Lance [the main character of Loot], who knows this mostly blind veteran, and they want to find the treasure that the guy left in World War II. And I just thought, "Wow. This is perfect." I looked into his eyes and said, "I want to make that film." And he said, "Well, cool. I'll produce it...Have you made a film before?" And I said, "No." And he said, "Perfect." He didn't even know what being a producer meant. I think he knows now that he basically pays for it. We flew out a couple days later, committed whole hog and never looked back.

Darrel, one of the World War II veterans featured in Darius Marder's Loot, which airs May 20 on HBO.

D: I think there's a kind of analogous harmony between you coming into the story the way you did and the way that you tell the story; they're both very intuitive, shared processes. The film itself seems to be a metaphor for vérité documentary filmmaking.

As a storyteller, you seem able to process these experiences that your intuition is leading you toward and then construct a film out of them through which an audience can then access those experiences. How conscious was that process?

DM: From the beginning, I obviously didn't know what was going to happen in the story, but that's where it lives for me...What I thought about a lot during the process was, "What is this to hold a camera up to this experience?" Well, it's really not holding a camera up to this experience. On some level, you are engaging in a process. It's kind of like physicists know that when they observe an atom that the atom actually molecularly changes.

And I really did try to experience that from a place of intuition and faith, trying to stay in tune with the depth of the situation--not the surface reality, but something else that was going on in the moments as they unfolded and not try to suffocate those with my own agenda.

D: Part of the struggle, then, is that the more experience you have as a filmmaker, the harder it is to stay in touch with that naïveté that is so integral to the process. You were very conscious of that, it seems. And Lance, as a character, seems to embody it--he calls himself a "rainbow-chaser."

DM: Absolutely. He's not intellectualizing the process, even though the film has a lot of intellectual ideas. He tends to move through the process from a place that comes from his heart, which is often a naïve and sometimes denial space, but not usually calculating and not a place of some vast experience that would corrupt the process.

I was just talking to a group of UCLA students and I didn't really have any answers, but I did feel this overwhelming sense that we were all at the same place: I had just made a film and they were about to make a film. Every time you finish a film, hopefully you're at square one again. Hopefully, you enter the next one not thinking you know very much. I do think that's the kiss of death: thinking that you are in some way in charge, and thinking that you are wise.

I edited as I went, and I shot also. I found that doing all of those things was really important for me. Cutting as I went informed the degree of sensitivity I had when I shot.

It often really helped me back off from the story. The process of editing didn't really make me want to manipulate more. It made me trust more.

Lance Larson searches Andy's garage for a map for buried treasure in The Phillippines. From Darius Marder's Loot.

D: What was your creative process with regard to the archival footage?

DM: I really struggled with this because the war is an important aspect of the film, but the last thing I wanted was a historical kind of documentary. I didn't want it to be an examination of history. History isn't something that was; history is.

I went to the National Archives in Washington and I was so blown away by the footage I found. It really is a treasure hunt because it's not easy to find things. You're looking through cards and things are labeled strangely--if I wanted to find "American GI torturing Japanese man," that might come under the heading, "What's in my duffel bag?" So you really have to get in there and look.

I didn't have any money, so I just brought my camera with me and shot it right off the flatbed. I didn't change any colors or do anything to it. It was exactly that sepia tone.

One of the things that was so surprising for me about it was that the footage is so cinematic. Again, getting away from that word "document," because these guys that were filming the war were not documenting the war. Everybody wants to tell a story. For me, it's the essence of everything that life is about: a good story. I feel like it's at the heart of who we are. These guys that went and filmed this, they wanted a story, too. They wanted to be making movies. They didn't want to document.

I found stuff that was so exactly what I needed that I couldn't use it. It was so cinematic and so horrifying and too close.

D: You said in your director's statement that you had these long months where you didn't think you had a movie. How did you deal with that?

DM: It was a really dark process. I went through a phase where every time I entered the office, I - [laughs] I never told anyone this - I would say "Hi" to everyone. I would walk in and say, "Hey guys, how are ya? How is everyone? Great, good to see you. So listen people, we're gonna be working on..." And I would go through that. I did it every day for a little stretch. [laughs] It was so goddamn lonely.

One of the interesting things about this process was that that moment in the field [the climax of the film] happened pretty early on in the [shooting] process. And that moment, not just when you see it in the film, but that whole experience was so profound and so unbelievable, I always knew I had to fulfill that. I had to create a movie that supported that scene.

D: It seems that your film is partly about people who didn't experience the war trying to understand all the stuff that's beneath the surface that you can't directly present in your film because you didn't directly experience it.

DM: Absolutely. [The war] is integral to the film itself, so I think that gave me a lot of permission to enter into it. My grandfather escaped from Austria when he was young. There was a lot of consciousness about the war from the Jewish perspective, and so I was really interested in coming at it from a completely opposite place. This was about the American experience of the war and how it is now. The document of the war is just as important as Lance's reaction to the war because he represents us--the current American mindset, which is at times apathetic. I could feel myself a part of that, not like Lance, but there's an apathy here that has to be here because we haven't been through that. And it wasn't just the war, it was the war and the Depression, and they were both wars of sorts.

And this is really the last moment. Loot obviously couldn't have happened any later, even a few weeks later it wouldn't have worked because the characters were dying. But it is an amazing time to reflect on it now.

Andy, one of the World War II veterans featured in Darius Marder's Loot.

D: Part of the beauty of your film to me is that, while it has this kind of veneer of life unfolding and all of the banality and subtle humor that entails, there's still this symphony of coincidence going on that's exhilarating. So while these veterans have these memories and experiences that we as an audience feel the remoteness of and can't identify with, they have a connection to Lance that is totally mystifying.

DM: At the risk of sounding flaky or creepy, I feel like frequently in my life I am guided by synchronicity more than anything else. So often, synchronous events show you that you're on the right path and doing something relevant.

My next project is a film that follows this one guy in Vegas, a father of five beginning to prepare for the end of the world in 2012. He has these four Native American cousins whose father's in jail for murder and he's going to pick them up. They kind of revere him like Peter Pan, a savior. We're going to go on a tour to look for a Cold War era missile silo for him to purchase in order to protect those he loves from the apocalypse.

It's another film of Americana and denial and all these good things. And again, it's gonna be another wonderful leap of faith.

Taylor Segrest is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He is a principal of Cinelixir, a consultancy for independent filmmakers, and co-founder of DocAngeles: The Los Angeles International Documentary Film Festival, to be launched in the Fall of 2010.  Segrest is a contributing editor to Documentary.