Burning Man is happening at this very moment out in the Black Rock desert of northern Nevada. (You can catch our coverage starting Tuesday.) Also noteworthy is the just-released documentary Spark, which chronicles Burning Man 2012 and the year leading up to it .
It's told through the eyes of the event's founders and a variety of artists who created projects for the playa, and captures the creative spirit that drives Burning Man — as well as a time of crisis for the event. It's also visually spectacular. (The trailer is below.) We spoke with the film's co-director and producer Steve Brown.
Was the intention of Spark to demystify the reputation of Burning Man as some desert rave drug frenzy?
We didn't have any agenda…When we started the film, Burning Man was the point of inspiration for the characters we featured, who were going there to act on one of their dreams or do a big project or go on some quest. We were exploring the storyline of what happens after someone musters the courage to act on their dream, which is usually a lot of work and struggles and challenges.
What we discovered when we were making the film is that the story of the Burning Man founders is very similar. The whole thing started with this idealistic vision of creating a new society, and that's gone through various transformations as they've hit challenges. Burning Man chucks traditional values out the window and says 'We don't care about money and power and status. We care about self expression, creative collaboration and art.' When people leave the old world behind and spend time in this other value system, it has a big impact. That story had never been told.
How did you get such comprehensive access to the Burning Man founders, especially while they were dealing with last year's fallout from the controversial lottery ticketing system?
It started with us asking if we could come in and film for a project we were working on about the artists' journey at Burning Man. They let us film around the office and staff retreats, and then started letting us film their board meeting. When we first started, those meetings were all about converting Burning Man into a non-profit, expanding around the world and changing the world.
See also: Why I'll Never Go To Burning Man
Then what happened as we were filming is that they fell into this crisis. It seemed like everyone in the world wanted to go to Burning Man, and Burning Man couldn't handle it. They didn't have room, and that caused this really deep existential crisis about what Burning Man really means and what values are the most important and what to do when this little utopia of abundance that has been created hit scarcity for the first time.
It was a moment when their life work was being called into question. They let us keep going through the whole thing, through the frustration internally and externally in the community. We didn't know if they were going to be able to resolve the issue. We thought we might have filmed the last Burning Man ever.
Were you surprised with any of the footage you got during this period?
What was really surprising is that their board meetings were really driven by values and principles and whether or not something was in alignment with those principles.
I've been in lots of board meetings in my career, and they usually end up being about money. Here are board meetings in a decently sized organization, and they never talked about money, ever. They talked about how to reconcile their principle of radical self-expression with this idea that someone needs to be the judge of who can get in and who can't get in, because there's not enough room for everyone. It was fascinating to see board meetings that were philosophical debates. Larry Harvey the founder is like this philosopher. Everything he says it's like he's Socrates or something. He's a fascinating leader.
From the outside in the community, there was a lot of noise and mistrust about what was going on and people assumed that it was all corporate and greed driven, all these terrible things. When you're on the inside actually filming it, we saw that that absolutely wasn't true.
Let's talk about the soundtrack.
The soundtrack comes out in a month. It's a double album with artists including Rudimental, Cazzette, Missy Higgins, Michael Franti, Tycho, Coastal Breaks, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and Infected Mushroom. One CD is music from the film and the other is music inspired by Burning Man.
Michael Franti has been to Burning Man multiple times and it moved him and he was interested in writing something for the film. We were filming out at the site a month before the event, and Michael had played the night before in Reno. I called him up his manager and said, 'We're filming in the desert starting at 4am on Monday. Maybe Michael would want to stop by.' He came right when the sun was going down and started playing. He wrote a song for the scene we filmed that particular day. It was really special.
The film has been criticized for not touching on the more salacious side of Burning Man in terms of sex and drug use. What do you make of that?
That story is so overplayed that it's a cliché, and it's something that's not really that accurate. If you get 60,000 people together at any festival anywhere, you're going to have all kinds of things going on. There's nothing unique about Burning Man in that aspect, and it wasn't something that really surfaced with the characters and art projects we were following.
The sort of general public hears that 60,000 people are going to this harsh remote desert and dress up in funny costumes and they're going to work on art projects through dust storms and 100 degree heat, then they must be on drugs because normal people don't do that. Once we committed to following a certain set of stories from beginning to end, that was the quest we were on. I'm sure though that if you watch the movie a couple of times and watch closely, you're going to find all of that, actually. It's all there, it just wasn't a central character.
What were the logistical challenges of filming in the desert?
There were dust storms and challenges to equipment, but the challenge of a film like this with such a scale is that we're following so many people over the course of a year. The logistical challenge is really that all dozen stories have the same ending, so how do you make sure you're there at the right time and the right place when it's all going down. Our solution was to have a lot of cameras and multiple crews.
We wanted a shot of the founders while the man was actually burning, and it was tricky because no one could find Larry Harvey. Then I found him. I wasn't a photographer, but I had my consumer DSLR, so I spent the entire burn lying on the dust looking back at Larry. We had to have that shot. If you're not there with a camera rolling it's like it didn't happen.
Spark is currently playing in limited release in Los Angeles and is available for download on iTunes and Amazon. It also premieres this week at Burning Man.