Burn, baby, burn | August 16, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - August 16, 2013

Burn, baby, burn

Peninsula filmmaker rides the indie-movie wave with a new documentary on Burning Man

by Kate Daly

"It's a great time for a new generation of directors to enter the film industry," says Steve Brown of Woodside, a first-time filmmaker who this week is releasing his documentary on Burning Man, creative-expression gathering in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. The movie has already been popular with Palo Alto audiences. Now it's heading for a wider release.

A combination of factors — like Hollywood's dependence on blockbuster sequels, and the new outlets for films such as streaming video services — may make more room for Brown and other independent filmmakers.

He calls himself a "technology entrepreneur," and notes he holds more than 160 U.S. patents and a bachelor's degree in physics from Stanford. He founded the Palo Alto-based Health Hero Network, sold it and serves on several boards of technology companies. But even after spending a chunk of the last two years not drawing a salary for co-directing, co-producing and now distributing "SPARK: A Burning Man Story," he says what he really wants to do is make more movies. For him this project is his "beta."

Curiosity, he says, drew him to attend his first Burning Man in 2006. He felt attracted to the "environment where people can truly be themselves" and "the transient way in which people collaborating and being artists, burned down their works, so each year they're born ... it's like a chance to start over."

The event originated in 1986 when Larry Harvey gathered a small group to burn a wooden effigy of a man on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Over the years Burning Man grew into a week-long party around Labor Day where artists, musicians and other fellow so-called "Burners" set up a temporary community of trailers and tents in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, 120 miles north of Reno.

Numbering close to 60,000 these days, the participants bring in all the food, water and supplies they need. They are urged to follow basic tenets of self-expression and self-reliance, and to give and swap things.

Some people collaborate to create art, while others decorate vehicles. An effigy of a man and a temple and other structures are erected, and then burned. In the end the idea is to leave the desert without a trace of their being there.

This year Burning Man takes place Aug. 27 through Sept. 3. Tickets went on sale in December for anywhere from $190 to $650 each and sold out. Brown is planning to go with a group of friends from Woodside and visit the people he filmed, but this time he is not bringing a camera.

The year 2011 was pivotal for Brown. As co-organizer of TEDx Black Rock City, he met the team behind Burning Man and remembers the founder using the words "permission engine" to describe it, and telling him, "It's a community, and a place designed to allow people to be whoever they want to be."

That theme hit home with Brown. He admits that back then, "I was on a career path where I couldn't be who I wanted to be."

He realized Burning Man was going through growing pains and recognized a story unfolding where "a small community of artists and dreamers experience a collision with the outside world. ... It's kind of a universal story every nonprofit, every startup, every band goes through this when they confront the world," he says.

So he decided to make a documentary about it. "My job was starting Spark Pictures, building a team, articulating the vision, raising the money (primarily from local investors), and gaining access to that story."

He procured "hundreds of hours of archival footage" and received permission to film everything at the event in 2011 and 2012 except for "illegal activities like taking drugs or porn."

"There are naked people out there," Brown says, but most Burners wear costumes and clothing to protect themselves from harsh weather that ranges from thunder and dust storms to almost freezing temperatures at night, and to days when the temperature can climb well over 100.

Through a Burning Man connection, he met the East Bay resident who became his co-director and co-producer, Jessie Deeter. She had already produced a documentary, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" They brought in Chris Weitz as one of five executive producers. He has worked on movies such as "American Pie," "About a Boy" and "The Golden Compass," so he lent some Hollywood expertise to the independent filmmakers.

"SPARK" ended up focusing on the organization's story, plus following three participants: a woman who welded together a large heart sculpture, a man who built and burned a multi-story installation entitled "Burn Wall Street," and another man who organized a theme camp for 150 members. The film features music by Joachim Cooder, Australian singer Missy Higgins and the Bay Area's Michael Franti.

The documentary runs 90 minutes and has been playing at several film festivals this year including SXSW, Ashland Independent and Seattle International.

Brown has been his own distributor, using companies such as Paladin to book theaters and Tugg to coordinate and sell tickets. He prefers the idea of "contingent booking," where a theater is booked and if enough online sales are made in advance by a certain date, then the showing is a go.

Last May, a showing at the Aquarius Theatre in Palo Alto sold out at $14.50 per ticket. In part, the screening was a fundraiser to help put "Aurora," a 2012 Burning Man interactive light sculpture, on display at the Palo Alto City Hall plaza. That installation is forthcoming.

Woodside resident Wendy Burger has gone to Burning Man eight or so times. She saw an earlier screening of "SPARK" and says it captures "the spirit" of the event and what she likes best about it: "the accidental artists, the garage tinkerers who are the most fascinating element." She particularly liked last year's El Pulpo Mecanico, a large flaming and waving octopus on wheels that was made out of trashcans and scrap metal by a man in Humboldt County.

Another Woodside resident and Burner, Jessica Lonegran, also saw the film and says she was impressed with the cinematography. As for the event, she likes "the impermanence" and the "bringing out of your alter ego for a while, bringing your freak-on, and then going back to your desk or cube."

The film had a different kind of value for another Woodsider. After watching it, Steve Patrick says he feels he's seen enough of Burning Man to know, "Now, I don't have to do that."

Tonight, Aug. 16, the film is scheduled to make its debut in theaters in Los Angeles and New York. It will be rolled out in at least eight more cities after that, and is set to run at the Roxie in San Francisco starting Sept. 6.

On Aug. 17 the film will be available on video-on-demand; it will then be released as a DVD with some additional footage in October or November.

Info: For more information about the film, and to watch its trailer, go to sparkpictures.com.


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