Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Nick Brandestini--'Darwin'

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 12 through September 1 in New York City and August 19 through September 8 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Nick Brandestini, director/producer of Darwin.

Synopsis: Darwin is a documentary film about an isolated community at the end of a weathered road in Death Valley, California. Propelled from society by tragic turns, the people of Darwin (population 35) must now find ways to coexist in a place without a government, a church, jobs or children. The near-ghost town's survival depends on a fragile, gravity-fed waterline that descends from the mountains, where top-secret weapons are being tested. The film tells the story of a uniquely American place--one that is unique even in America.





IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Nick Brandestini: My passion for film started when I was about 10 years old. My aunt worked at the Swiss public TV station, and she would let me re-edit footage she didn't use for the actual broadcasts. I would create my own admittedly nonsensical films by cutting various film strips together. This was in the mid-'80s, when TV, at least here in Switzerland, still used 16 mm film. I remember having a great time in the editing room.

But my own filmmaking started some years later when I received a video camera as a birthday present. For many years, I just made home movies or music videos, always wanting to do a real
movie. Later, I worked at a music TV station called VIVA, where I produced a show about the latest movie releases. And in 2005, I finally decided to try and do a proper documentary. So I did a portrait of an American art school in Florence, Italy, that had an intriguing atmosphere and a charismatic leader. The film turned out to be 50 minutes long and is called Return to Florence.


IDA: What inspired you to make Darwin?

NB: It happened by accident. I was looking for a topic for my first feature-length documentary. So I kept my eyes wide open for something that would hit me. While driving through
the Californian desert on vacation, I spotted odd-looking houses and trailers in the middle of nowhere. I wondered who would live in such a desolate place. I also fell in love with the desert, its vastness and cinematic feel. This environment was very unfamiliar, yet very attractive to me. I was so captivated that I knew that this was going to be the setting of my new film. I was further encouraged when my co-producers and main collaborators, Sandra Ruch and Taylor Segrest-who
is also the writer of Darwin-shared my fascination with desolate desert communities. The two of them became an invaluable part of creating the film. After researching different places for a
possible film, they suggested the town of Darwin. It seemed to be the perfect place for a documentary because it offered a wide range of interesting elements, such as a wild history, a shady reputation, a critical water situation and a close proximity to one of the most secret military bases in the country.

While making the film, I found that the Darwinites were not the crazies, drug addicts and low-lifes some people from surrounding areas would have you believe. Their lives, characters and
opinions were far more complex. I wanted the film to truthfully reflect my experience in Darwin, while still exploring the weird and eccentric aspects of the place. With this film, I am hoping to give the audience a chance to learn more about people and lifestyles they would otherwise not know about, and perhaps be inclined to pre-judge if they did.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

NB: One of the things that surprised me was how much the people of Darwin opened up to the camera. After all, many of the people in Darwin live there because they prefer to be away from conventional society and might not want to be bothered by strangers. However, it did take a while before they would share their more intimate stories with me. It may have helped that the filming crew consisted only of me, and that I was a complete outsider to them and not American. And
even though I told them repeatedly that my goal was to get this film into festivals and on TV, they probably did not believe that this would ever happen.

Still, there were some challenges. One of them was that the people of Darwin rarely interact with each other, and that not much is ever happening there. Many first-time visitors actually think the town is abandoned because there's nobody on the street. In fact, the residents stay in their
homes most of the time, which also has to do with the frequent sand storms and extreme heat.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

NB: As with most documentaries, you never really know how the final film will turn out. It was clear to us that the material we found in Darwin was rich, but it was not obvious how it would be used in the film. Having recently read a book on documentary filmmaking, I was desperately looking for the so-called "train"-one main story that would carry the viewer through the whole film. The quest for this train became something of a running joke among the filmmaking team. For a while, we thought there might be a big story that would evolve around the fragile water system. But in the end, to focus on logistical problems did not seem to do the place or the people justice. So we dropped the train idea and decided to tell a number of individual human stories, while exploring major themes such as the American dream, civilization and its discontents, family conflicts, religion, violence, the specter of death, survivalism and the essence of community. The final structure developed over the course of the filmmaking, and became clearer with each visit to Darwin. Eventually, ten different themes were organized into ten chapters. Taylor Segrest, as the writer, was
particularly involved in this process.


IDA: As you've screened Darwin-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

NB: Even though I have seen the film dozens of times, I always love to watch it again with an audience. One of the highlights was when the film screened at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic. I was not sure if the film would play as well to non-American audiences who might not be so familiar with the historical or social context that is referenced in the film. But their reaction was incredible! They laughed and cried like no audience before them, and they asked the most interesting questions after the screenings.

Another highlight was the Darwin premiere of Darwin, just for the residents. I was a bit nervous in the weeks leading up to this event. To my delight, the response from them was very similar to any other audience, but with more interaction among audience members. Most people in Darwin knew very little about their neighbors. So the film offered quite a few surprises for them. I was very happy that they liked the film, approved of it, and seemed to really appreciate seeing themselves portrayed with respect.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

NB: There are quite a lot of documentaries and docmakers that I like. I am a big fan of Barbara Kopple's Harlan County USA. It's just amazing how she could capture all this rich material. I also like the Maysles' style of filmmaking, especially their documentary Salesman, which I have watched many times. I am fascinated by the fact that this film uses no interviews at all. It is also funny and sad at the same time-something that always intrigues me. American Movie is another one I have seen many times. Twist of Faith and Jesus Camp are also very good docs. Alex Gibney's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was highly entertaining and enlightening. I also enjoy the films of Errol Morris, especially Mr. Death and Gates of Heaven. Anotherfilmmaker I admire is Lucy Walker. Her first film, Devil's Playground, which also deals with an isolated community, the Amish, was one of the inspirations for Darwin.


Darwin will be screening August 12 through 18 at the IFC Center in New York City, and August 19 through 25 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles

For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2011 program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Darwin in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for Darwin in Los Angeles, click here.