On our second and main day of shooting, it started raining as soon as we reached Simi Valley. I had checked the forecast ahead of time, so I was prepared. Michael wasn’t. Granted, we live in sunny Los Angeles where rain is practically unheard of, but the chance of precipitation that day was 100%! I had warned Michael and our subject, Terry, to bring their rain gear. I was in lots of layers with wool socks and well-worn hiking shoes, a floppy canvas hat, and a bright red semi-waterproof pullover leftover from my Cornell days. I matched Jake, Terry’s collie-shepherd mix, who was sporting a new red raincoat himself. His was about as funny looking as mine was, but then, I wasn’t getting filmed. Michael was in a dress shirt, jeans, and nice shoes - not really appropriate for hiking into a canyon on a rainy day. He didn’t even have a jacket. Terry had on some kind of cowboy hat that made him look radically different from the person we filmed on the first day, but at least he and Jake would be dry(er). The hills were a gorgeous lush green with thick fog oozing over the tops – visuals which more than made up for any mishaps in wardrobe. We had to shoot.
“We can’t shoot in this.” Michael turned to me with an incredulous look, shocked by the damp reality streaming off the overhang in front of us. Despite my warnings, he had never considered the possibility of rain. He held the camera in one arm like it was a puppy. “I can’t get the camera wet.”
We had five days to make a short film as part of the International Documentary Challenge (docchallenge.org). We had been given our genre “social issues” and theme “dream/nightmare” on Thursday morning and had until Monday afternoon to send out the completed film. We lost Thursday due to our jobs, so Friday and Saturday were slated for videotaping interviews and b-roll. Sunday and Monday were reserved for editing. We had to shoot.
“I told you it was going to rain all day. It’s supposed to rain tomorrow too.” I was finding it hard to be diplomatic. “We don’t have a choice.”
He had brought a big plastic bag, so Terry gave him a jacket, and we coaxed him into at least driving over to the canyon. I was hoping for intermittent rain with breaks for us to shoot. We got the camera all covered up in the bag, and I shielded the lens with a baseball cap (the rim of which we sometimes caught creeping into the edges of the shot). Once we got Michael out there, he was fine – unstoppable, really - at one point running across a busy street, camera swinging in the wind and rain, to get shots of the runoff gushing from the mountain. We were very lucky to get the bulk of our interview in a long intermission from rain at the canyon, and thankfully we were already driving back to town when the hail fell. I was chilled through and my numb fingers were aching for some gloves, but I kept myself going with the thought that Francine, our editor, would make us hot tea in her cozy home when we got back to LA to watch the day’s footage.
Terry and our other subject, Patty, were two “Radiation Rangers,” concerned citizens who were fighting City Hall in Simi Valley, CA, to stop the development of land that had been contaminated over the years by the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. At one time the lab, a complex of industrial and research facilities, had been owned by Rocketdyne, and later it was bought by Boeing. At the different facilities, employees managed liquid rocket engine testing and development, an experimental nuclear reactor, and a liquid metals research center. While it seems that the area of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory is being cleaned up under the auspices of the federal government, there has not yet been a full characterization of Runkle Canyon at the base of the “toxic mountain” on which the laboratory sits. It isn’t clear how much radioactive and chemical waste has been buried in the mountains and canyons, how much has seeped into the groundwater, or how badly the soil has been affected by this pollution. When KB Homes wanted to build on Runkle Canyon, the citizens were understandably disturbed. Wasn’t the land unsafe for families to live on? Wouldn’t digging up the soil release radiation and toxins that had lain dormant all these years? Wouldn’t future lawsuits cost the city millions if this problem was not addressed now?
When City Hall ignored their concerns, the Radiation Rangers used their own money to have testing of the soil done. They found dangerously high levels of various toxins – high enough that the city decided to do an examination itself. The results of the city’s analysis were also well beyond the scope of what is considered normal and nontoxic. Those tests were limited though; the residents of Simi Valley would like to see a thorough characterization of the canyon before any building occurs on the land. KB Homes and Boeing claim to have completed full-scale investigations that indicate the area is completely safe. The Simi Valley citizens would prefer a comprehensive assessment performed by an independent body. While City Hall has not refused to do this characterization, it has not taken steps to ensure its fulfillment either. The federal Department of Toxic Substances is involved, and the people of Simi Valley are hopeful that a favorable decision will come soon.
The issue is a complex one to understand, and simplifying it for a seven-minute film was challenging. We found Terry and Patty and the work that they had done incredibly inspiring and decided that their activism would make the most compelling focus for the time that we had. Terry was eager to tell his story and hoped that the film would spread awareness about the issue. Having agreeable subjects made our job easier, particularly given the short time frame for the project.
Then again, Terry’s willingness to tell his story was problematic – he had already told it a lot! While any anecdote gets more polished with the retelling, it also loses some of its freshness. We were less concerned with getting a fancy sound byte and more interested in getting some real emotion that didn’t feel rehearsed. It was completely understandable; Terry had honed his ideas down to their absolute essence in order to fit them in the meager time slots City Hall allowed for public comment. He had sound bytes as effective as any campaign slogan. At public meetings Terry needed to appear smooth and poised, but for a documentary, it is the vulnerable “off” moments of honest emotion that are the most interesting. We hadn’t expected to film Terry on the first day, but it was still light when we met him at the canyon, so we hooked him up with a microphone. We got some great material, especially while he was hiking up the hill to the overlook point where we could see the Rocketdyne facility. He described his frustrations passionately, but we were particularly touched by his feelings of betrayal and wanted to convey them truthfully.
Terry was so overflowing with enthusiasm for our project and eagerness to assist that I expected the contacts he recommended to us to be equally as forthcoming. That was not the case. When we first contacted Patty, she was very reluctant to meet with us and had no interest in being interviewed on camera. She hadn’t been as active in the cause for the last year and was worried that she wouldn’t remember all of the facts correctly. I reassured her by explaining that we were focusing on Terry, on how his struggle to stop the development on contaminated land had become personal when his sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. Terry had told us that Patty lived within view of Runkle Canyon and Rocketdyne, so we wanted to get b-roll shots and some comments from her about Terry and their work as Radiation Rangers.
Once we began filming, however, Patty became more cooperative. She walked us halfway up the steep hill next to her house to show us the canyon and the Rocketdyne facilities, explaining the situation to us as we climbed. Since she had done the bulk of the research when the Radiation Rangers originally approached City Hall, the information she presented was really indispensable to the film. The deeper we got into the interview, the more she opened up, taking us further up the hill and eventually right into the canyon, affording us the best possible views.
One of the difficulties recording subjects who are not actors is that they are usually bursting to talk before we are even ready to film, whether out of nervousness, excitement, or passion for the topic, and Michael has become remarkably adept at shooting the subjects without much setup. We mike them early and Michael records, whether he has the camera ready to shoot visuals of them or not. It makes the process a little chaotic for us, but the early conversations often do yield interesting material. Once Patty started talking, the words gushed forth, and up until the last minute she had allotted for us, she was still handing us copies of newspaper articles to use in the film.
Another of the Radiation Rangers never returned our call, despite Terry’s assertion that he would be eager to assist us. It was just as well; we decided to keep the focus on Terry and Patty. Explaining the Radiation Rangers – and getting interviews from all four of them - seemed a little too involved for the scope of our short film. We had also hoped to interview Terry’s sister, but he wasn’t sure she would agree given how poorly she had been feeling, so we decided to focus on both Terry and Patty and their fight without involving their families.
One journalist that Terry insisted had promised to help us – supposedly with the reassurance that “any friend of yours is a friend of mine” – not only refused to share any information, but also tried to dissuade us from the project and threatened us with legal action if we tried to steal his photos. (Why would I write to ask for photos to use in the film if I planned to pull them off his website without permission?) Most upsetting to me, he did all of that using an unnecessarily rude and nasty tone in his correspondence. It definitely made me wonder what his relationship was to Terry. If the journalist was so upset by people contacting him for more information about the Simi Valley contamination, why didn’t he ask Terry to stop referring him? It seemed to me that spreading awareness about the situation could only lead to more clarity and possibly an organized cleanup of the area in question. Of course every individual has his or her own agenda and point of view as well.
The people involved in the issue didn’t know me or Michael and had no reason to trust us or the integrity of our project. We were very fortunate that we had a link to Terry through my boyfriend who is a sales rep to Terry’s company. Terry and Drew have a good rapport, and I’m sure that Terry’s readiness to help was partly due to his friendship with him. I guess it’s logical that people who have been let down by the government that is supposed to protect them would lose some of their trusting nature. It’s nice to know that despite that, there are people like Terry and Patty who are willing to put in the effort to right what has gone wrong. Sometimes only a nudge is needed to start the momentum that can overcome inertia and reluctance.
I think the need to create, the drive to express oneself, is universal. This process is hard to begin, but once initiated, it charges forward relentlessly. My favorite part of making the documentary film was piecing together the story in the editing room. Michael and I argued bitterly at times (I suppose as all artistic people do when they think they are right), but I was always amazed at the solutions we found. I am absolutely convinced that the project resulting from our collaborative effort was much better than the same project would have been if completed by either of us alone.
The art of editing is in the connections between the shots, in the juxtaposition of visuals and sound that results in a new meaning not defined by either aspect individually. Michael and I are able to work together because while we may not always agree on the best way to reach a particular result, we generally have the same parameters for evaluating the effectiveness of an edit. When we achieve a magical combination, the feeling is intoxicating, and the rush can push us to keep going, even into the wee hours of the night.
Michael and I will continue to create in the way that satisfies us best while hoping that our work provides some sort of motivation for others, as we were inspired by Terry and Patty and their work together. People can refuse to address a problem for a long time, but it is never too late to see and begin repair efforts. Once the movement starts, it is unstoppable.