SXSW ’13 Interview: Steve Brown & Jessie Deeter on Igniting “Spark: A Burning Man Story”

After being inspired at SXSW, a tech entrepreneur teams up with the producer of "Who Killed the Electric Car?" for a rare all-access look at the festival for nonconformists...
The effigy burning in a scene from Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter's documentary Spark: A Burning Man Story

It’s not by accident the title of “Spark: A Burning Man Story” refers to just one tale out of the thousands that can be told year in and year out of the weeklong event held out in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. With nearly 60,000 attendees, a gift economy and massive art projects intended to be reduced to a fiery rubble by week’s end, it doesn’t lack for intriguing plotlines and has grown in the 26 years it’s been in existence into a kind of utopia beyond what its founders believed was possible when they gathered on the shores of a beach in 1986 to set a bonfire as a symbol of freedom from a consumer-driven world.

Yet what Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter’s remarkable documentary captures is the moment when Burning Man is confronted with the reality they’ve become a commodity, with the unprecedented demand for tickets forcing an organization that has rebelled against institutions to suddenly begin making decisions like one. While unfettered access to the organizers gives a rare peek behind the curtain, the film shows what’s really at stake by following three Burning Man attendees – Otto Von Danger, a former Marine who doesn’t want to be mistaken for a hippie in spite of mounting an effigy of the big banks, Katy, a nanny-turned-welder who works tirelessly to construct a heart-shaped sculpture for other Burners to sit inside, and Jon LaGrace, a former banker who found more fulfillment in planning shindigs in the desert and wants to use his own transformation as a template for change in the outside world.

That last idea is a theme that runs throughout “Spark,” something easier said than done for an event that physically leaves behind no trace the moment it is finished, except for the countless, contextless pieces of evidence on YouTube that it happened. Shortly before the premiere of their film at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, Brown and Deeter spoke about creating a far greater snapshot of the event than has ever been taken before, the challenges of filming in the desert, and tackling a story so compelling that it led Brown to take a hiatus from his career as a tech entrepreneur to pursue his interest in making films.

I understand SXSW is actually a homecoming for this film, so how did it come about?

Steve Brown: I’ve been to SXSW three times before and twice as a speaker on the interactive track, talking about mobile technology and various tech topics. But when you’re a speaker, you get the gold pass and you also get to go to the film festival. I’ve always been involved the creative side of the businesses I’ve founded and what I learned at SXSW is a little bit of how it’s done and [got] a little bit of encouragement that it’s possible to do. I think a lot of people in Northern California look at Southern California and feel like film is sort of foreign territory, but when you’re at SXSW, there are all kinds of people interacting with each other and you see that it’s not unlike any other startup. It’s about finding a great team and a great story and putting it together.

Is that how you came onboard, Jessie?

Jessie Deeter: We have a mutual love-in with Chris Paine, who was the director of “Who Killed the Electric Car” and “Revenge of the Electric Car” so it was kind of this TED X, very fortuitous, I happened to be available coming back into the country and Steve happened to need an experienced filmmaker.

SB: Then [I became one of] the organizers of TED X Black Rock City, which was the first time that had been done in 2011 and I’d already decided to do a documentary on the what I felt was the untold story of Burning Man. The stories that come out of Burning Man, the impact of Burning Man on people’s lives and not having done a film before I knew that I needed to find a partner who was really a successful, accomplished filmmaker to help get it done.

Was the TED X Burning Man event actually the unofficial start of production?

Steve Brown: It’s where some of the conversation and some of the connections started. When you do a TED X, you need a film crew and it’s what led to some of the initial conversations with the founders of Burning Man because I wanted to interview the founder of Burning Man at our TED X and we needed to go to them to get permission.

Why I wanted to make a film on this subject was what I had seen [in other depictions of] Burning Man seemed to be recurring over and over again. People are going to this sandbox in the desert, creating wonderful, amazing, and crazy projects, having a real transformative experience and they’ve decided to leave their day job as an accountant and then decide to start a new venture of being an artist.

We see these stories of transformation coming out of Burning Man all the time, so I knew it was interesting experience, but from presenting TED X to the board of Burning Man, I could see that the Burning Man organization itself was at the beginning of a big transformation in their thinking. It was similar [to the people who attend Burning Man] in that [the organization’s] dreams are to not just stay this kind of little secret in the desert, but to take the culture that they’ve helped foster there and grow and spread and make a difference in the world. So when we were talking about doing the TED X, it was quite a debate is how do you do that? They were having that conversation back then in the board room, so we knew it was a very interesting time to be telling that kind of a story.

You actually can feel that tension in the film, just in how you balance out how much to show of what’s going on backstage versus how much you focus on the people who attend Burning Man? Did that evolve during the course of filming?

SB: It’s hard to tell the dream of what the founders of Burning Man is without also seeing it through the eyes of participants because what their dream is is about creating a new kind of culture. We live in a world that’s been so polarized for the last 100 years between people who believe that the individual is the most important thing versus people who believe community is the most important thing. With Burning Man, they basically say that’s a false dichotomy. It’s possible to be highly individualistic and highly community- driven at the same time and they’ve been successful at doing that. How do you explain that dream if you don’t show the impact it’s having on people’s lives, people who have been inspired by the place and the idea to do something different with their lives?

We knew we had to tell both, but when you set off to do a documentary, you don’t know exactly where the story is going to go and you don’t always know exactly what you’re going to have access to, so you have a working hypothesis. The working hypothesis that we started with [for the film] followed more from the perspective of participants because that’s what we had access to. We asked to be able to interview the founders of Burning Man and they let us in. And they let us in to really a lot of the inner workings of Burning Man that had never been filmed before. I don’t think anybody anticipated this would be such a dramatic year for the enterprise of Burning Man, but our cameras happened to be rolling and we realized this is a much richer, more significant story because we’re there witnessing their dreams colliding with reality in a big way.

If Steve has attended Burning Man for a few years and Jessie not so much, did those different perspectives help anchor the film?

SB: From the beginning, there have been a lot of films done about Burning Man by people who are going to the event. In fact, I think everybody who goes to Burning Man with a camera says, “Wow, this is so fantastic, I have to record some of this,” but those films don’t translate very well to people that have never been there before because you’re preaching to the choir. The story that we were looking for was a more fundamental kind of human dilemma of finding and following your passion, acting on a dream and that’s not something that’s specific to Burning Man at all. It’s just particularly colorful when you see it happen in the context of Burning Man. So to be able to tell a story that’s for a general audience, it was very important to have a team that was comprised of some people who have been there, some people who have been there more than I’ve been there like our director of photography, and some people who have never been there before.

JD: I had never been before. I had a lot of vicarious experience – again, Chris Paine was a huge Burner – and I had always been intrigued by the idea of the event, but I was very leery of this notion of tackling this type of thing because I was aware of all these films that had come before. I knew one of the big pitfalls was people getting very much enamored of the subject, so what Steve had that I thought was so interesting for me as a filmmaker was this access to the Burning Man organization because we had a chance of actually doing something that could rise above just another Burning Man story for Burners and could really become, as Steve was saying, a universal story. Then it just got better and better as Burning Man was faced with all these challenges that happened over the course of the year. We got access to things like the fabulously rich archival footage from 1996 [cited by founder Larry Harvey as the “dread year” where organizers completely lost control of the event], which was just kind of a treasure we unearthed. Once we had those things, those components, I felt as a filmmaker we were really going to have something [which projected] a greater message.

Logistically, is this a difficult event to cover? The size would seem to be one thing while the fact electricity is in short supply would seem to be another.

SB: If you look at the pictures from the Playa, it’s actually a full functioning city because everyone’s bringing in their generators, their food and power and everything. But we [too] basically had to bring everything in and we had our trailers and we had a whole crew that we brought in. It’s very hard to communicate the scale of [Burning Man] just because of the setting. There’s 400 square miles of nothingness, then you have this city that’s several miles across of 60,000 people. It’s really hard to translate that onto a screen and actually capture the magnitude of it, which is why we were doing things like aerial photography and even photographing from skydivers, just trying to get a sense of the magnitude of it.

JD: Logistically, I think too what Steve’s talking about is we had to gear up just like any other huge art project. Never having been there, I had to rely on my director of photography who had been there many, many times before and he knew things like we had to have extremely good radios, for example, so we could communicate because we had at any given time, five or six cameras in the field and sound people. We had to decide where the sound was going to go, where the cameras were going to go, and coordinating even a burn was incredibly challenging and coordinating the helicopters and coordinating with Steve and which director was going to be where with those crowds and that noise and that magnitude of space and people not to get diverted and to keep your crew on target even when some of them hadn’t been there before and of course, it’s a very heady, distracting, extremely experiential place, that was a real challenge. Our crew surprised even me with their professionalism and their ability to pull off something like that in that very, very, very challenging environment.

SB: Why we have the film we have is because we’d been following stories for a whole year. Now, you’re in this place that’s with 60,000 people and no cell phone service, it’s pretty hard to get ahold of anyone, you don’t know where anyone is and we needed to be able to follow those stories through to the conclusion. The biggest risk is we just wouldn’t find someone, but [thanks to] all this planning and coordination that Jessie and the team did, we were able to follow our main characters to the natural end of their story. It all came together amazingly.

How did you choose who to follow?

SB: We were looking for stories that started at Burning Man, this culture that encourages people to act on their dream or do something they wouldn’t have otherwise done in their life. That was the intention of the founders of Burning Man, so we wanted to find people who are actually doing that this year. We didn’t want people talking about ancient history. We wanted to find people that set off on a quest to do something big that they’d never done before and we could witness it unfolding. There are tons and tons of stories like that from Burning Man, but we needed to narrow it down to a combination of people who were on that story arc and also people that had something visually interesting and colorful and where we had access to follow it through from beginning to end.

“Spark: A Burning Man Story” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at SXSW on Sunday, March 10th at 5:15 p.m. and Friday, March 15th at 11:15 a.m. at the Vimeo Theater and Wednesday, March 13th at 1:45 p.m. at the Alamo Ritz 2.

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