william gazecki: the interview
Part 2, films of personal commitment
Interview by Jason W. Ocker
January 21, 2002
TiC: Central to your film on Waco was the concept of injustice. Similar veins run in your film on Brandon Hein, Reckless Indifference, as well as your upcoming The Great Darkness: The Orphans of Duplessis. What is it about the ideas of justice and injustice that draws you to them or that you find especially valid?
WG: Justice is a very honored and regarded part of our world. It’s thought of very highly. I mean, we’re fighting a war right now over issues surrounding what’s just, you know, we’re fighting an injustice in our war against terrorism. So justice is a big part of how we govern ourselves, how we keep ourselves an organized society. So injustice, I think, is where we, they are examples of a weakness in our overall functioning. Injustice is where we have screwed up, basically. And I also think it’s like in our individual lives, we learn from our mistakes, you know, and injustice is a mistake. It’s something where the justice system, or justice process went awry, something went wrong. And it’s unfortunate that some of our institutions that are charged with guarding justice, they don’t like to talk about their mistakes. That’s not what they’re there for, they have other concerns, other factors that they put above, you know, complete access to everything that they’re about, complete, what do they call it, disclosure. Institutions don’t like to disclose, they’re selective. But I don’t think people are as selective as that. And, again, we get to this sort of collective idea that I think people as a whole learn from knowing about the errors that have occurred, either in the past or in the present. There is a value there in knowing when things have gone wrong. I mean, I know that in my own life I learn from my mistakes. Sometimes my mistakes hurt, but I learn from them. That’s part of the process of life. I think that on a larger scale, the same principles still apply.
TiC: Now, besides what you’ve already told us about justice and injustice, what is it that drew you in particular to this case which involved Brandon Hein?
WG: Well, Brandon is Mr. Everyman when it comes to teenagers. He was not that unusual of a kid. The film, you know, is actually about Brandon and a couple other kids. Brandon was the only person that I could get into the prison to film because of restrictions in the California prison code. Brandon and those kids are pretty much Joe Blo Everybody as far as teenagers are concerned. They were not really, radically dysfunctional young kids. They weren’t model students, but they also weren’t, you know, serial killers, either. Yet, they got life without parole. And I think that the mixing or the confrontation between what these kids did and the system is something that deserves, you know, circumspect observation. The other thing that that story is about is their parents. You know, their parents were not prepared for what happened to their children. Their parents went into this thinking, you know, the system is behind us. You know, we trust our system, we trust our district attorney, we trust the justice system. You know, we live in America, we live in an American suburb. We are model citizens in one regard, we work hard, we pay our rent, we pay our taxes, we believe in, you know, God and country. And the experience of the parents was absolutely devastating, let alone for the kids, because at the end of the day, their kids are in jail for life. And only one of them really did anything that was criminal, certainly in their perspective. And since I made that, I’ve gotten reports, about three or four that have managed to trickle into my personal life of other teenagers who are confronted with very similar situations here in Los Angeles. Kids who have, you know, one friend of mine, his son is in jail now for, I think he got 11 years, and it was almost for the exact, it was a very similar story to what happened to those kids in Reckless Indifference, very similar. So I think, you know, the thesis that these kids are the teenage examples of Joe Everyman is valid.
TiC: Now, you have three projects, if I’m correct, three films that are due out imminently, Quest of the Croppies, Into the Mystic, and The Great Darkness: The Orphans of Duplessis. What can you tell us about those?
WG: Quest of the Croppies is about, basically centers around the crop circle phenomenon over, which is primarily over in southern England. I stumbled onto this a few years ago, and thought it was quite fascinating. These pictures appear in the cornfields over there every year during the summertime. And there’s quite a social milieu around this phenomenon. There’s people who have been studying it, writing about it, photographing it, you know, in general trying to document it. And it’s quite a worthwhile pursuit. What I found interesting was the degree of knowledge and sophisticated data that has been collected over the last ten years or so, related to this phenomenon. And once I investigated it and found out it was a real phenomenon, it wasn’t some sort of man-made trickery or something, you know, there’s a little bit of that, but the actual phenomenon is really huge. There’s like a hundred of these things that appear every year, every year for ten, twelve, fourteen years now. And the British press kind of, you know, pooh-poohs it and the American press has pretty much ignored it, and when I went over there and actually saw them and sat in them and met people who were associated with researching them, I was very impressed. I was very impressed by the level of intelligence and objectivity and scientific acumen that a lot of these people possess. They’re very media-shy, they don’t like the media, they’re not really media-hungry. And it’s very, really quite an interesting subject.
TiC: Did you come to any conclusions about these crop circles, any theories you think are the most accurate?
WG: That’s what’s going to make the film fun is that there is nothing but theories, because nobody really knows what’s going on. Even the people that have been there ten or twelve years, that was one of the things that I found quite fascinating, the people that have been there ten or twelve years, their bottom line is, “We don’t know. We have no idea.” I think there are a few little things, they’ve been doing some scientific, some biological analysis of the plants, and the plants showed some very specific biological anomalies that indicate heat, high heat, very short term, high temperatures, a couple other, you know, sort of unusual biological specifics that from a scientific standpoint, indicate something out of the ordinary, something that we can’t recreate just by taking, say, a board out and laying a bunch of crop down and making a picture out of it, making that formation. So there’s something going on, but beyond a few little scattered pieces of scientific evidence, the most compelling aspect of this is the actual design themselves which to a great degree in many instances incorporate a lot of higher level mathematics. A lot of geometry involved. And that’s what really piques people’s curiosity, why they keep coming back to that there’s something going on here that looks like it could be some sort of communication, some sort of obtuse. . .people don’t know. But there’s a lot of very sophisticated mathematics in these things. You’ve probably seen pictures of them.
TiC: Sure. But all I really know about them is what I’ve learned in the School of Pop Culture, you know, aliens and hoaxes.
WG: Right, and both of those are a waste of time. The alien thing is really more of a, sort of pop cultural kind of pigeon-hole. We don’t know what it is, so it must have something to do with extraterrestrials. That’s the only pigeon-hole we have to put them in. The people who research and have been involved in it say they don’t have any evidence for that at all. There’s no, there’s no evidence for that, you know, it’s just the press heightening stuff. The hoaxing part of it, the fact that they’re hoaxes, there is a small group of guys who take great glee in professing to make these things. This has been going on for about ten years, but when you get down to the facts, when you get down to the fact that there are like, like in southern England last year there were like 106 formations. Do you know how hard you’d have to work? Even if you had, you know, ten guys to go out there, they’d have to make them at night, and nobody’s ever been caught making them. There’s never been one found that has a mistake in it, and nobody’s ever been caught. It just doesn’t add up. The facts don’t add up that they’re man-made, so there’s something going on over there.
TiC: Now, Into the Mystic deals with psychedelics. I’ve read that it is “not a pro-drug opus,” but that neither is it a demonstrative condemnation of those substances.
WG: We have a lot of confusion in our culture about things that affect the mind. There’s a lot of legislation and control and fear about anything that affects the mind, any kind of, you know, psychotropic, or what they call these days, entheogenic, initiated experience, you know, an experience that you can initiate on your own that will purposely affect your mind in a very powerful manner. We don’t really have the architecture in our society to really handle that. What I found interesting is that in indigenous cultures, in native cultures all around the world, for centuries, the purposeful ingestion of some sort of plant or herb combined with some sort of ceremony, some sort of ritual that is very highly regarded in a spiritual sense, is very commonplace, it’s very common. When you talk to an anthropologist and ask them, you know, where in the world do they eat herbs or bark or roots or whatever and combine them with some sort of ceremony or ritual to expand their consciousness or to somehow access some alternative state of consciousness. And what anthropologists will tell you is, well, that’s very common, it happens all over the world. It doesn’t happen in our current society. So then when I started researching this issue more and tried to find some parallels, like, what is it in these indigenous cultures, why do they do this? Is this just some sort of useless, arcane, ancient pastime that we don’t have any use for anymore? And I did not find that. What I found was that these experiences in these indigenous cultures are very important for them to manage themselves. They basically seek insight into issues that are of concern to them. And I think there’s a need for that here. I think we have a lot of issues in our contemporary world that could use some insight, that could use some new thinking, some alternative approaches. And we already have a lot of ways to sort of, you know, brainstorm outside of our normal, everyday consensus reality. And then I started finding out that in some of our more progressive industries, like computer programming, for example, software design, that the use of psychedelics, the use of some of these plants and herbs from other cultures are very common. A lot of computer programmers, a lot of graphic designers, a lot of people in the arts are experienced in altering their consciousness for a purpose, for a reason. You know, it affects what they do in terms of being creative, in terms of finding alternative methods. When I found out how popular psychedelics work in the computer programming world, and in the graphic arts world, and I started finding out the history, for example, in the late 1950’s and the early 1960’s, people like Henry Luce, who was the editor and publisher of Time magazine took LSD under a psychiatrist’s supervision, because in those days things like that were considered to be experimental and potentially very valuable. Cary Grant had like a hundred LSD trips, and credited his experiences with LSD in helping him work out some issues with his dad. I actually talked to his psychiatrist, who is a wonderful woman, who is still alive, she’s quite elderly now, but I found out the whole story. And, you know, in that very short period of time, the late 1950’s, early 1960’s, there was a tremendous interest in what I’m talking about here, in the possibility that there may be a tool available to expand one’s consciousness or to, you know, create an opportunity for insight and insightful examination of oneself. So the film is really about that, that possibility.
TiC: It’s definitely true that we know very little about the mind, the physical apparatus certainly, but also most definitely regarding the more intangible mental workings, but it also seems that there would be at least some valid reasons to combat that kind of optimism toward these substances, or I guess potential optimism, about a possible tool for, say, health reasons or what have you.
WG: Well, what I’ll say is this, it was important to me in working on Into the Mystic, to be aware of the climate that exists for a subject as this. And I think that concern over drug abuse is valid. Concern over any kind of abuse, drug abuse, emotional abuse, you know, anything like that is a very valid concern. But I think it’s unfortunate that the topic gets blanketed in sort of an overall categorization. That anything, you know, that is in this area is potentially harmful. There’s a lot of information out there as well, I’ve talked to pharmacologists, people who are working in the brain chemistry field, and pretty much all these things that involve psychoactive properties that are in the plant and herbal domain are non-toxic. There’s no toxicity, you know, chemically, there’s no chemical toxicity. So, there’s a lot of false information out there that I’m interested in straightening out.
TiC: Moving on to your third film due out, The Great Darkness: The Orphans of Duplessis, it seems that you’re moving back into Waco territory as far as tone and heaviness of subject matter, especially when compared to Quest of the Croppies and Into the Mystic. What can you tell us about that?
WG: The Orphans of Duplessis is another, again, like Isaid before, my hope is that we learn from our mistakes. What happened in this story was a monumental set of unfortunate circumstances and just downright deceptive practices that hurt a lot of people, and my basic objective in this is to sort of be a part of the process of rectification, of sort of, you know, setting to right. Because I met a lot of these adult orphans who are now in their fifties and sixties. It’s, you know, very compelling. Because these people were children, and they had no idea, they had no control, they had no power over what happened to them. They had no choice, they did not choose this, this was imposed upon them as children. And the real crux of it is the fact that the church, the Catholic church was involved in this. And the approach that we’re taking is that within the church itself are traditions of forgiveness and traditions of reconciliation and traditions of setting to right injustices. And, you know, what happened was in Quebec during this time, all the orphanages were turned into psychiatric institutions basically overnight, and all the children, even normal ones were treating as mentally ill patients and subjected to all sorts of inhumanity as a result. In fact, my partner is somewhat involved in this story. She remembers from her childhood, you know, a time when you think that everybody’s nice, you know, the world that everybody wants to remember, and when she found out that right in the middle, in fact, I drove up there to where she grew up, about a quarter of a mile away from her home was one of these institutions and when she was a little girl she remembered that it was like, you know, don’t go there, don’t walk down there, don’t go over there because it’s, you know, it’s scary there. Well, it was one of these orphanages. And when she grew up and read an article on this, she said, we have got to investigate this and find out what’s going on, because I was a part of this.
TiC: Yeah, that’s pretty amazing to be able to pull that subject matter out personally, out of one’s own personal experiences.
WG: Yeah, she’s a part of the film, too. She’s actually going to be in the film. Her name’s Christiane Schull. We got her going around discovering all these things, you know, talking, discovering what really happened, what really went on, why it happened, you know, all the things that the story’s about.
TiC: I noticed on Waco your credits for the film included writer, director, editor, producer, and probably some others that I missed, and I’m sure on your other films it’s similar, but that seems like a lot of involvement for a single person on a film.
WG: It’s fun because they become very much a part of your life, and then they’re done. And the funnest part is for me, and one of the things that keeps me engaged in all this, is I love to see what the impact is. It’s like throwing a pebble into a pond and seeing where the ripples go, and how the ripples shape themselves. And I really like seeing what it’s like to take, to devote myself to something that I really have a commitment to, and a connection to, and I do my best, I do what I do, I make my films, I put it out there and see what happens, see how people, how it really impacts people’s lives for real. And that’s one of my favorite things about it. I’ll tell you a little story, when I was nominated for the Academy Award, one of the special things for the nominees is this luncheon that they have every year where all the nominees in every category come together down over in Beverly Hills and have this lunch. They take a big picture, take like a class picture that you get a copy of later on and whatnot. You know, other than the Oscar ceremony itself, it’s one of the more special moments for a nominee. So I went there, and I overheard a conversation. And somebody said to somebody else, well, what’s with the documentary thing, you know, why do they even do documentaries. They don’t make any money. It’s not like they’re blockbusters, why do they even do it. And the response was, listen, these are the last filmmakers left, these are the only guys that still make films. They shoot them, they cut them, they have hands-on themselves, they touch them. They make the movie, like Chaplin used to do. You know, Chaplin was a consummate filmmaker-type. He shot and edited and, you know, he did everything. And I thought that was a very, because I was concerned about what the answer was, too, and I thought that was a great answer. I really felt honored with that kind of response. Because that’s really where the Academy is coming from, is to honor the form, the art form. So I think that says a lot about what documentary filmmaking is about. It’s not filmmaking by committee, it’s not selecting projects that have toys that can be marketed with them, or, you know, ancillary products or, they’re not films that are green-lighted by marketing staffs, you know, they’re films of passion, and they’re films of personal commitment.