Telling a remarkable story in a gripping and memorable movie is a dream that filmmakers are always striving to achieve. Documentarian Matt Wolf is continuing his pursuit of highlighting epic, ambitious historic stories on screen is continuing with his latest film, ‘Spaceship Earth.’ The director-producer’s upcoming documentary showcases how a scientific story that was so vital and prevalent in the American media nearly 30 years ago has since faded from collective memory. He was determined to highlight how the forgotten history of the experiment is once again inspiring people to consider not only how they’re influencing the environment around them, but also how they should never dismiss that extensive impact.
Neon is set to release ‘Spaceship Earth’ on Hulu and VOD, as well as in virtual cinemas and at participating drive-in theaters, this Friday, May 8. The official distribution comes after the movie had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
‘Spaceship Earth’ tells the true adventure of eight visionaries who, in 1991, spent two years quarantined inside of a self-engineered replica of Earth’s ecosystem called Biosphere 2. The experiment was a worldwide phenomenon, as it chronicled the biospherians’ daily existence during a life-threatening ecological disaster and a growing criticism that it was nothing more than a cult. The documentary’s narrative offers a lesson of how a small group of dreamers can potentially re-imagine a new world.
Wolf generously took the time recently to talk about directing and producing ‘Spaceship Earth’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he was drawn to make a documentary about Biosphere 2 and the biospherians when he was researching ideas for a new movie about a historic event that has since been forgotten. He subsequently wanted to stop the initial media perception that the experiment was a failure. The helmer-producer also hopes that after watching the documentary during the current pandemic, audiences will develop a better sense of their impact on the world, and their responsibility towards each other.
The conversation with Wolf began with him explaining what it was about the subject of the Biosphere 2 ecosystem that encouraged him to direct ‘Spaceship Earth.’ “I’m always on the lookout for what I call hidden histories. These are stories that were big at one time, but have been forgotten, and have faded from collective memory,” he explained.
“I was doing research for film ideas, and I came across these striking images of eight people in bright red jumpsuits. I assumed they were from a science-fiction film, but then I was like, this actually happened! As soon as I realized that, I learned more about Biosphere 2 and the biospherians,” the director continued.
“I tracked these people down, and was determined to tell their story. I quickly realized that the group that conceived of Biosphere 2, who called themselves synergists, had an incredible history themselves,” Wolf divulged. “So I went to Synergia Ranch (in New Mexico) to meet with them. When I got there, my producer, Stacey Reiss, and I were brought into this small, temperature-controlled room. Inside, there were hundreds of 16 mm film canisters and analog video cassettes with thousands of images. I was awestruck. It was clear that this group recognized their history.”
The helmer added that “It was clear that when Biosphere 2 was in the media in the early ’90s, it was taken down. The major take-away and perception was that it was this spectacular failure. So I set out to make a film that looked at this legacy, and show why it might be relevant today.”
Further speaking of the research he did into the biospherians’ lives before, during and after their two-year experiment, Wolf added that he “read everything that’s out there. I read a great book by Rebecca Reider (‘Dreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities’). Also, many of the biospherians have written about their own experiences. I also studied the media’s portrayal of the experiment, which was often quite sensational.
“But the biggest learning experience for me was to meet the people, and hear about the experience straight from them. By doing that, I was able to build some trust,” the filmmaker noted. “I was able to access the archives the synergists had accumulated. I was also able to access footage that the late biospherian, Roy Walford filmed for his own documentary. His daughter, Lisa Walford, gave us the access to his footage.
“I make films that have tons of archival footage. So looking the 600 hours of footage we had wasn’t an unusual task for me. But I had the benefit of working with a really great team, which organized that footage, and organized it by the topics I wanted to cover in the film,” Wolf added. “They identified when every one of our characters was present. Through our collaboration with our story producers, archivists and editor, we were able to come together as a small group around our common goal for the story.”
Following up on collecting the archival footage for ‘Spaceship Earth,’ the director also spoke about what the process of deciding which clips he would include in the documentary. “I think with an archival film, it’s the same as any other feature; you want to create scenes where there’s a clear idea and an emotional take-away. The difference with an archival film, however is instead of going through hundreds of hours of footage you shot in the field, you have to work with the footage that already exists,” he pointed out.
“But this movie was like any kind of filmmaking; we were telling a story, and engaging in a process of problem-solving and creative exploration to tell a story that not only makes sense, but also has a deeper emotional resonance, and grapples with big ideas,” Wolf also shared. “I don’t think that challenge is ever different, whether it’s an archival film, a cinema verite documentary or a fiction film. It’s the fundamental art of storytelling.”
“The material on this subject was eclectic. So it takes the art of an editor like ours, David Teague, to make that material really come together, and feel like a whole, cohesive story,” the filmmaker also noted.
“David came on board as soon I began to film the interviews. So our discussion about the story began early in the filmmaking process. I think our collaboration really took off when the interviews were coming into our system,” Wolf continued.
“I like to shoot all of my interviews for a film at once. I know the story I’m interested in telling, and I think about how I might present that narrative from many points of view,” the helmer revealed. “That’s how I craft the questions and ideas I want to cover with the interview subjects.
“As David was then screening the interview footage, we started to conceive of the story together. He took a pass on the first 30 minutes of the film on his own. I rarely work that way; I’m usually hands-on from the onset during the editing process,” Wolf admitted. “But I trusted him, and he came back with this beautiful exploration of the synergists. After he put that together, we were quickly on our way to crafting this whole film.”
Further speaking of the interviews, ‘Spaceship Earth’ features commentary from several of the people who were involved in Biosphere 2, including John Allen, Tony Burgess, Freddy Dempster, Kathelin Gray, Linda Leigh, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone, Marie Harding, Kathy Dyhr and Larry Winokour. The filmmaker then delved into what the process of deciding who he would speak to for the documentary was like.
“One of the biggest parts of my job is to build trust with people, and part of how I do that is to do my homework. I learn a lot about their work, and I try to be clear about my intentions. I’m also open-minded to hear what they think would be a meaningful story to tell,” Wolf disclosed.
“To me, filmmaking is about building relationships, including with the subjects. It takes awhile to build these relationships, but they’re built on trust. So during the long-form interviews, the subjects went deep, and made sense of their huge variety of experiences,” the director added. “Sometimes that was difficult, because a lot of times, this group’s life work was not only taken away from them, but also discounted in the media.”
In addition to helming the documentary, Wolf also served as a producer. He then discussed what the process of balancing his directorial and producing duties during ‘Spaceship Earth’s production was like. “I have a really amazing collaboration with my fellow producer, Stacey. We’ve made other films together, and it’s a total creative collaboration,” the producer revealed. “She’s there every step of the way, including developing the story, and sitting through all of the interviews.
“But it’s also a divide and conquer relationship, and we handled different parts of the process. But there’s a labor intensive aspect to what I do, and I need that space to be protected, so that I can focus. Stacey has been an incredible resource, in terms of protecting the creative process,” Wolf added. “She’s fantastic in bringing everyone’s ideas into the room, and helping everyone collaborate.”
In light of Covid-19, people are currently living like biospherians, and will reenter a new world when the quarantine is over. The filmmaker feels the current quarantine and pandemic have given society a visceral sense of the fragility of the world, and how people should protect it.
“I could never have expected that we when we made this film that we’d now be quarantined like the biospherians,” Wolf admitted. “But I think my biggest take-away about their experience was that it was transformative. They went in with one point-of-view about the world, and came out with a new perspective.
“Inside Biosphere 2, they could feel the consequences of everything they did. They couldn’t take anything for granted, and were responsible for their own atmosphere. When you have that visceral connection to your world, and you come out, it’s impossible not to thing about every action you take, and how it affects your world,” the helmer added.
“I hope as a result of the pandemic, we have a sense of our imprint on the world, and our responsibility towards each other. It’s not just about protecting ourselves; it’s also about protecting people who are more vulnerable than us,” Wolf emphasized.
Once ‘Spaceship Earth’ was edited, it premiered at Sundance, which was an experience the filmmaker cherished. “I feel so luck that the film played at Sundance. It gave us a platform to find partners like Neon, and start the conversation about the film,” he noted.
“But there are so many filmmakers who won’t have the opportunity to share their films in theaters with audiences in person. That’s a really special and important experience,” Wolf also pointed out. “I’m hopeful that film festivals will happen again. But I’ve also come to accept the new circumstances in which people are coming together to watch films.”
With Neon officially releasing ‘Spaceship Earth’ digitally this week, the director shared what the new distribution experience, without the added push by national theaters, has been like. “I think Neon is trying to find ways that don’t let go of the communal experience that we’ve had with cinema, and how we can simulate that in our current conditions. So I’m excited to pursue a different type of release with this film,” the director shared.