In “Naked Gardens,” Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan want you to see the body, but not necessarily the one you think. Entering the Sunsport Gardens Naturist Resort, there are people all about in various stages of undress, ranging from a few wearing shirts to light caftans not necessarily meant to conceal while others are fully in the buff and naturally, it’s a little unsettling for anyone not in the lifestyle to see people going on their daily routine without a stitch of clothing on. However, as the shock value wears off – quite quickly when Lucas and Bresnan’s interests are hardly lurid – something else startling begins to set in as Lucas and Patrick get to know those who have made Sunsport Gardens their home, finding out that while the residents may appear free-spirited, lounging about, knocking back beers or taking their kids out fishing, but the filmmakers make clear the parameters around them as they describe the circumstances that brought them here, with more than some attracted to this enclave not so they can be nude, but to hide from an world at large that hasn’t treated them well.
As they did in the previous feature “Pahokee,” which spent a year in the life of high schoolers in the Florida town and the directors invested much more time to gain the proper perspective, Lucas and Bresnan are able to show the bigger picture of how current socioeconomic systems shape people’s lives not with panoramas but with intimate portraiture. What may seem like casual meandering at first around the community in “Naked Gardens” grows into a steady march towards the Mid-Winter Festival, Sunsport Gardens’ biggest event of the year which brings in visitors from across the country and there is concern among some leaders that more people are drawn to the resort as a cheap place to stay rather than the nudist lifestyle, though the compound’s longtime owner Morley is loathe to insist on anything more than saying Sunsport is “Clothes-Free.” At least, Lucas and Bresnan can remain nonjudgmental throughout as they’re able to capture both the appeal of the living outside of larger society and how its strictures begin to creep in organically.
On the eve of the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Lucas and Bresnan spoke about how they found their way into Sunsport Gardens, letting down their own guard and making a far more revealing film than mere nudity would allow.
How did this come about?
Patrick Bresnan: We were making “Pahokee,” and it was a Friday night and I was getting groceries at a Costco parking lot and a lady came up to me, an older hippie, and she said, “Hey, you should come to the nudist resort tonight. We’re having a bonfire and a drum circle, and entry is free.” And I was really into it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go that night, but I just loved the idea of being recruited to go to a nudist resort, so I started e-mailing with the owner and he seemed to be a really nice guy and really into having a movie made at his resort. Which you wouldn’t think would be the case, but Ivete and I met him and got a tour. It was a very cinematic place because it felt like the Garden of Eden, but it also had the feeling of a trailer park.
Ivete Lucas: That was a very interesting thing that we saw right away while talking to Morley the owner of the resort. Morley is an old hippie and a socialist — there’s Bernie signs everywhere, you see it in the film — but to him from the start, he wanted the nudism to be accessible to all, so he had very low [rates to stay]. There’s different tiers that you can come and camp at the resort, but this resort ends up being the cheapest place to live in all Southern Florida. And being that we are in a housing crisis right now and Florida is one of the worst places for it, what we observed was happening is that people were coming in to the resort for the affordability to live with their families, [so] to use the pool you have to get naked, then they started becoming nudist or adapting to the lifestyle so they could afford to live somewhere beautiful. This place is called a family naturist resort, and we wanted to explore what that was like and we ended up following different families, some of which were pure nudist, and some were just there for the affordability and adapting to it.
I know sometimes you start out thinking something will be a short and it evolves into a feature. Was that the cast with this?
Patrick Bresnan: We love making short films and when I was looking on the resort’s Web site, there were these group photos at the pool of 150 naked people posing then jumping into the pool, so I really wanted to make a short that was just about the creation of the group photo. But this was always a feature film. After making “Pahokee,” we really wanted a film where we showed a lot of restraint and respect for the community and we’re both artists much more than documentarians, so we just really wanted to make a work that was very artistic and pushed the medium of cinema. And a way to do that was by really trying to show that the human body is not explicit, that the human body is beautiful, we shouldn’t oversexualize it and be scared of it in cinema.
You never leave the premises, but you do feel the outside world. Was that a difficult thing to convey in the edit?
Ivete Lucas: What we did editing-wise, and also shot, is we shot the boundaries of the resort a lot. It’s a gated community. You see that from the start, they have a sign up there and there’s people driving by, and they’re pointing, so we the fence around it, then we’d go inside, but there was always this feeling of an outside world and it’s in conflict, and a form of pressure. But then they’re inside this place that feels like an island and it feels cut off from the outside world. That really is how you feel there. Once you start taking in this lifestyle and being naked all the time, the people who really do enjoy that end up looking for employment inside the resort so that they don’t have to put clothes on and go outside almost ever. Some of them just order their groceries, and it becomes that thing where they’re just very separated from the world that you and I live in.
This gets into different ideas of exposure, so was it as easy as talking to Morley about filming there or would go have to talk to residents one by one?
Patrick Bresnan: Yeah, other residents of the resort were not as excited about it as Morley. Morley is the owner, he’s a showman, he’s been on “The Maury Povich Show,” he really enjoys publicity and he really enjoys being filmed. Those are the worst people to film, so Morley was really our entry point and through Morley, we got the courage to take our clothes off and start to get to know people there. Morley would say, “You need to talk to this person,” and that person would say, “Oh, you need to talk to this person.” After about a month of that, we got to know almost everybody at the resort and we started to curate people who would be interesting to film with.
Ivete Lucas: But there are some [different] levels of who is at the resort. There’s a small community of people who live there year round, and then there’s people who come in for the snowbird season, which is what we filmed. Then there’s the people that come to the Mid-winter Festival, which we also filmed. The work that we do now requires that we spend a lot of time in a place and many months [before filming], so everybody already knew us by the time we were really in filming and the people that wanted to be filmed, we knew who they were, and the people who didn’t want to be filmed, we distributed bright red arm bands to the people who didn’t want to be filmed, and just avoided them. Then, the people that would come in, we would explain to them who we are.
Was there anything that changed your ideas of what this could be?
Ivete Lucas: All the time.
Patrick Bresnan: Yeah, I think you see a character like Morley and he has such a compelling backstory on paper. He went to Harvard, he became a nudist at Woodstock, he was an activist for nudist, topless rights and on all these TV shows and you think, “I have this really interesting protagonist,” but like we said, he wasn’t that interesting cinematically to us. The families that were living there were really on the complete edge of society — some were formerly homeless, some [had] just gotten in their truck and drove to Florida without a place to live and wound up there. One family who’s very prominent in the film left Kentucky because they were persecuted by their family there. Those were really compelling stories, but people were on very hard times, so we couldn’t apply any pressure to record their lives and a reason we have so many characters is because [when] we’re filming with a family, then [we’re] giving that family a break and filming with another family. That was always evolving because they’re living on the edge, so something very dramatic happened to them from day to day.
Ivete Lucas: And the way that we make films, we don’t come in with a preconceived notion of what the film needs to be. That is our ethos for making films. We don’t want to be the voice of God. We want to allow the world to tell us things that we don’t know before. We came in wanting to know [more] and to go beyond the stereotype of the funny, extreme nudist is and really get a sense of who these people are. Why are they choosing to do this? What does that mean for their lives? We come in with these questions and let the protagonists drive the stories. With that in mind, when we started breaking through and really [started] understanding why people really chose to be naked all the time, [where] you have to forego a large segment of the population and a form of lifestyle that they were used to, we discovered a lot of pain, trauma and shame from previous lives. They were using this way of shedding their clothes, being vulnerable and being completely bare in front of each other as a way of therapy and to commune with other people like them. That was the most startling and beautiful thing that we discovered while making this movie, and we hope people will discover when they watch it too.
“Naked Gardens” will screen at Tribeca on June 10th at 5:45 pm at the Village East, June 11th at 5:15 pm at the Tribeca Film Center and June 16th at 5:45 pm at the Village East.