Interview with Filmmaker/Producer John Grabowska

The American West has been mythologized both in the national psyche and throughout the world, and the iconic landscapes of New Mexico's high desert are featured in the PBS documentary REMEMBERED EARTH. Filmmaker John Grabowska relates some of the background and inspiration for the film.

Q. What parts of New Mexico are profiled in the film?
It’s a big-picture look at the landscape and ecosystem of northwest New Mexico, that part of the Colorado Plateau that lies within New Mexico. The land is strikingly beautiful, sacred to many Indian nations, exploited for its minerals, filled with oil and gas wells, home to wilderness and protected areas like El Malpais National Monument...a paradox, like everything in the American West.

Q. Where did the title “Remembered Earth” come from?
A few years ago I made a film called “Crown of the Continent” on Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and in doing research for that film I read a quote in the book Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. I thought I’d use the quote in that Alaskan film, but oftentimes films seem to have a life of their own and evolve in ways the filmmaker doesn’t expect, so I kept it in mind as a valuable element I might use somewhere else.

The quote was by N. Scott Momaday, a poet, artist, novelist, scholar, a true man of letters, the first American Indian to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. The quote began, "Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth," and went on to contemplate particular landscapes in our experience, to wonder about them, learn them intimately until they’re absorbed into the genetic makeup of the individual. It was just perfect for this kind of film, more of a reflective environmental essay than a typical nature documentary, and was enhanced by the fact that Momaday grew up in New Mexico’s high desert and has often written about it.

Q. How did Momaday come to be personally involved in the film?
I read innumerable books on the region, several of them his, like his memoir, "The Names," and "The Man Made of Words," and "The Way to Rainy Mountain." Originally I had planned to include quotes from multiple sources, in several voices, but besides that “Remembered Earth” line I found so many of Momaday’s writings that fit the ethos and mood of the film that I began to think about using just his quotes, to make the film more personal. In some cases his writings were about the specific areas covered in the film, in others they were more about the entire Southwest. He agreed to some slight changes in wording, which I thought was most gracious.

Q. What kinds of changes?
Well, for example, I wanted the opening of the film to reach out to the audience immediately and be universally inclusive, and he agreed. Now the open reads, “Once in our lives, we ought to concentrate our minds upon the remembered earth.” It’s a subtle change, from third person to first person plural, but it embraces everyone, it’s a welcome that invites the viewer to share the same reverence for the landscape. I also revisited that phrase at the end of the film, and was thrilled when Professor Momaday liked the idea. I was a little worried that a Pulitzer Prize winner would say, “Thou shalt not mess with my verbiage, young man,” and stomp away in a huff, but he really liked the way I fit his quotes into the film. A high compliment, really.

I knew he still lived in New Mexico, so when I settled on the idea of using only his quotes, I gave him a call and asked if he would be interested in participating. He has a wonderful voice and is quite experienced in recording and filming, which was a bonus. His role evolved until he became the conscience of the film, the voice of moral authority, the personal voice that isn't afraid to confront his mortality and resolve that with the importance of learning a landscape so intimately that it becomes a part of the self.

Irene Bedard, Disney’s Pocahontas, did the narration, and she too has a personal connection to New Mexico, having shot films on location there.

Q. What were some of the other environmental inspirations for the film?
Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, definitely. Leopold was a forester in New Mexico in the early part of the 20th century and came to see the land as a community to which we belong, rather than a resource to be exploited. Leopold is a guiding light of the modern wilderness and conservation movement. In the book he proposed the idea of a land ethic, a conservation approach that described our moral responsibility as human beings to include not just other people, but the soil, the water, the biotic community, all of which he called, collectively, “the land.” The first designated wilderness area in the world is in New Mexico, thanks to Aldo Leopold.

Q. How did you get the idea to use clips of Hollywood Westerns?
On my first location scout I drove northwest from Albuquerque toward Chaco Canyon. As the sun set I could see this volcanic tower called Cabezon off to the west as I went past red rock cliffs near Jemez Pueblo, and I was just captivated by the landscape. At Chaco I went winter camping and at 10 degrees it was pretty brisk, but I was getting chills that weren't from the weather. The solitude and that landscape were simply breathtaking. In December I had the entire place to myself and went for long hikes on the mesa tops. Shiprock is a peak I've seen in photographs all my life and it was a thrill to see it firsthand, and the long line of red sandstone cliffs from Gallup to Thoreau are spectacular.

As I drove this big circuit I thought it all looked just like scenes from John Ford Westerns, like the locations of every Western I'd ever seen. I started doing some film research and found that in the '40s and '50s, Hollywood did shoot lots of Westerns in northern New Mexico, so I got copies of several of those films and started looking at the landscapes in the background, and recognized quite a few. I thought juxtaposing beautiful landscape cinematography with those old Hollywood Westerns would strike a chord in viewers the way it did in me.

Q. Which films did you ultimately include?
“Four Faces West” was a 1948 Joel McRae vehicle that was shot at and around Inscription Rock, now El Morro National Monument. The other film is a gem, a 1929 silent called “Redskin” that was startlingly sensitive and sympathetic to Indians for that era, the story of a Navajo boy hauled off to a boarding school so that he wasn’t at home in either white society or when he returns to the reservation. Ironically, he saves the day for everyone by discovering oil.

Q. There's an amusing series of shots of signs featuring the word "rock."
That was a lot of fun, both to shoot and to edit. I'd read a line in a Tony Hillerman novel in which a character remarks on how there's no shortage of rock in the area, and I started noticing the sheer number of places that had the name "rock" in them. The film is a big-picture look at the geology of the region, so it seemed to fit and added an irreverent change of pace to the scientific weight of a geology sequence. The bouncy music is clever, too.

Q. The music is particularly evocative throughout the film. Who composed it?
Todd Boekelheide is a brilliant composer in the Bay Area and I consider myself fortunate to be able to work with him, he's such an artist. I write short scripts with musical sequences in mind, sort of a “Then a musical miracle will occur,” and Todd knows just how to compose gorgeous, elegant music that shapes the mood of the sequence.

Q. There was also a series of interesting shots you call the fractal sequence. What is a fractal, and why did you include this?
A fractal is an irregular shape in nature, like clouds or coastlines or landscapes, that when examined more closely or even magnified, seems to repeat itself. While we were out filming the landscape I would notice how miniature images seemed to reflect the wide shots we were capturing. Juxtaposing extreme closeups of the veins on a leaf with the spidery etchings of dry creek beds from an aerial, for example. Things look different when you’re 3000 feet above them or three inches from them. Our eye isn’t accustomed to seeing from that distance or that proximity. Since the scale of the place can be confounding, I decided to put together a sequence based on that idea. Not to perplex the viewer, but to provoke and intrigue. (Watch video of fractal sequence from Remembered Earth.)

Steve Ruth, who shot the film, did a marvelous job. He’s equally adept at filming huge, wide scenics of cloud shadows on the desert floor as he is at finding those tiny details that can illuminate a story, like backlit spines on cholla cactus. In this film the land itself is the main character, and I don’t know of anyone who shoots better landscapes. Often I wouldn’t have a specific idea of what I wanted shot but would just develop a general thematic concept, get Steve to a location and turn him loose. You can see the results.

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When to Watch

Remembered Earth: New Mexico's High Desert
premieres February 13, 2006

Check your local listings.