I arrived in Yosemite Valley on the Fourth of July weekend in 1970 with the notion of making an idealistic student film that would explore nature’s inherent power to heal. Instead, I became an eyewitness to the infamous Yosemite Stoneman Meadow riot. As it turned out, I shot the only film that exists from the horrific day.
What unfolded over that holiday weekend marked the beginning of a filmic journey that continues to the present. I have spent most of my life producing and directing films and videos in some of the world’s most remote and spectacular places. In the process, I have learned more than a few things about adventure.
After working together over four decades, cinematographer Christopher Tufty and I have developed a well-tuned creative partnership. One of our most memorable films was an episode for the PBS science series Infinite Voyage aptly titled, “To The Edge of the Earth.” Our focus was wildlife biologist Ian Sterling and his work with polar bears in the Canadian High Arctic. In 1987, Sterling had a hunch that a warming planet would reduce arctic sea ice, which in turn would have dire consequences for the great white bear.
With daytime highs cresting at minus 70 degrees, Chris and I faced unique challenges that went well beyond filming. We hung the toilet seat on the wall of the heated research station, and carried it to the outhouse to keep our asses from freezing to the seat. Through the open door of the outhouse, I contemplated the alien Arctic landscape with a shotgun balanced on my lap to ward off the errant polar bear. Though I knew a shotgun wouldn’t stop a half-ton charging bear until well after it had eaten me.
A few years later, Chris and I rafted the 180-mile length of the Grand Canyon with the Paul Winter Consort—a classically trained, five-piece jazz ensemble. We filmed the musicians’ three-week creative process as they improvised and recorded new music in the acoustical perfection of remote sandstone amphitheaters and intimate side canyons. Their goal was, “to find music that was of the Grand Canyon, rather than about it.”
After completing the rough-cut of Canyon Consort, I returned to the Grand in October to film additional scenics. We set out from Lee’s Ferry with five people in two boats and arrived at Phantom Ranch two days later. My plan was to hike out with the exposed film, catch a plane to New York City, and film the premiere performance of the Consort’s ‘Canyon’ music.
Running a day late, I chose instead to leave Phantom under a full moon. Three quarters of the way up the 4,800-foot pitch to the South Rim, temperatures dropped into the twenties and the trail turned to ice. I stopped at a spring to refill my canteen and half an hour later was crawling on my hands and knees, doubled over with stomach cramps. Bad water. Eventually I sensed that the light from the El Tovar Hotel was not a hallucination and found my way to the front door. The place was deserted say for the desk clerk, who took one look at me and opened the bar. To him, I remain forever grateful.
In 2001, Chris and I embarked on our most ambitious film to date, making a new visitor film for Yosemite National Park. To capture the magnificent park in all four seasons required 48 days of shooting spread out over two years. These were the days long before GoPro and RedCam. Our full 35-mm camera package with lenses, dolly, and track weighed two-tons and was carried by mules to base camp, then backpacked to shooting locations throughout the High Sierra. Spirit of Yosemite continues to run 363 days year in the Yosemite Valley Visitor’s Center. It has booked well over 60,000 screenings with an estimated audience of more than one million people – in one theater that seats 125.
Standing in waist-deep snow in February to film sunrise for Grand Teton Video Rivers was not as cold as the Arctic, but at zero degrees it wasn’t exactly balmy either. The camera crew set a ‘dance floor’ of 4×8 plywood sheets on the snow and erected a 30-foot camera crane to catch first light.
My producing partner, Sally Kaplan, picks up the story. “We were finally set up and rolling. Suddenly, the crane froze in mid-air. The zoom lens wouldn’t budge. As the Tetons began to reflect the rising sun, we knew we were losing it.” After a tense half-hour, the crane finally began to rise, and the zoom motor began to spin. “As we floated the 30-foot arm out over the Snake River, a cow moose and her calf entered from screen left as if on cue, splashing the fast moving shallow water, now backlit by the sun. It was truly a magic moment and we caught it on film.”
Nothing in our experience prepared Chris, Sally, or me for the adventure of making our current film, Exquisite Wasteland (theatrical release, 2020). With the immersive documentary, still in production, we aim to shatter the popular myth that deserts are lifeless, barren, and worthless. In fact, they are home to astonishing biodiversity, magnificent animals, verdant oases, soul stirring landscapes, and a Native American story that spans 10,000 years. The misperception of desert as ‘wasteland’ continues to justify massive industrialization that now threatens one of the largest intact and undisturbed natural areas remaining on the North American continent. We want to show the desert’s drama and complexity, the forces that endanger its future, and the activists who have dedicated their lives to its protection. We’ll complete the film in 2020.
Our filmmaking journey throughout the desert southwest has turned into a four-year odyssey. Rather than a hair-raising adrenaline rush, making this film has become a transcendent adventure into one of nature’s most astonishing realms.
It is precisely the experience we want to create for our audience. When the story begins at the end of the road, the journey is unforgettable.
David Vassar is an Academy Award nominee and Emmy Award winning documentarian. David and Christopher Tufty made their first film together in 1975. David and his producing partner, Sally Kaplan, founded Backcountry Pictures in 2001.
Photos, top, middle: John Reed. Bottom: Megan Holzer