Time-lapse wizard Louie Schwartzberg, recipient of the 2019 Maui Film Festival Visionary Award, can sum up his 40-year filmmaking career in two words:
There’s a thread that runs from his earliest work filming flowers — turning the miracle of their growth into a colorful, undulating, mind-blowing dance, one frame at a time — to his newest documentary, “Fantastic Fungi . . . The Magic Beneath Us,” which screens opening night in the Celestial Cinema. The film illustrates that the kingdom of fungi we lump together under the name of its fruit — mushrooms — has great potentials to not only feed us and stimulate our minds, but to heal us, and our planet in many hopeful directions.
“As a filmmaker I love to take audiences on a journey through time and scale,” Louie explained during a recent phone interview. “I started almost 40 years ago pioneering time-lapse cinematography. I fell in love with photographing flowers — they seduced me with their color, their taste, their aroma.”
One thing led to another.
“When I heard about the bees disappearing, I realized I couldn’t tell that story without talking about flowers and how they co-evolved.” That became “Wings of Life,” a Disneynature feature narrated by Meryl Streep.
From there he discovered “the importance of pollination — how bees, bats, hummingbirds, butterflies are critical to our survival. Without them we wouldn’t have the food we need — fruits, vegetables, seeds . . .
“So then if plants are critical, what do they need to survive? Well, they need water, they need light, but they also need soil . . . and where does soil come from?”
This led him to mycelial networks — fungi’s fibrous underground strands that he likens to “an underground internet.”
“Mycelial networks break down organic material, and break down rock, and create soil. It started 3.5 billion years ago, before there were animals . . . we actually evolved from fungi. We have a symbiotic relationship with them. Our DNA is more closely related to fungi than it is to plants. This is a giant topic.”
His film, featuring dazzling visuals and a host of scientists, doctors and other experts, makes the case that fungi are “the connective tissue in the ecosystem that knits life together. It’s the bridge between plants and animals. It’s a bridge where trees can speak to each other. It’s like an underground internet that’s a shared economy, not based on greed but encouraging systems where life can flourish.
“It’s also a metaphor for how we need to be connected to each other, working as community, not being greedy. There’s a blueprint how life can be modeled. The biggest surprise for me in making the movie is the whole idea about connection. That’s what the mycelium shows — that it’s all one.”
Economic circumstances drove Louie to time-lapse after he earned an MFA from UCLA Film School in the early ’70s.
“When I graduated from college, I wanted to make high-quality films but I had no money.” He retrofitted some 35-mm movie cameras from the ’30s. A friend who built guitars for the Grateful Dead created motors for him that ran on flashlight batteries capable of shooting one frame at a time outdoors. This revolutionary breakthrough made it possible for him to transform time-lapse from a laboratory tool to an art form.
“Plus, it worked for me because film was so expensive. It took me a month or two to shoot a four-minute roll of film — shooting one frame every 10 seconds to get shots of light, or clouds or fog or a sunset, and then maybe one shot every 20 minutes to shoot a flower.
“It also fulfilled my sense of wonder, because now I could compress time. I could see the world from the point of view of a tree or a flower, or even geological time.”
Forty years later, he says his work opens windows. “The essence of what I do is help make the invisible visible. Zooming into rhythms and patterns of nature that touch your soul.”
It’s fitting to premiere “Fantastic Fungi” at the Maui Maui Festival, which he describes as “a consciousness-raising festival.” In 2004, the festival showed his “America’s Heart and Soul,” the first documentary from Disney since Walt’s “True Life Adventures” in the 1950s.
“It was a celebration of ordinary people doing remarkable things,” he says of that earlier film. “So for me, whether I’m looking at fungi, flowers, pollinators or people, it’s the same thing. Here I am 14 years later looking at the micro world, at the mycelial network. But it’s the same thing — I’m looking at communities that connect.”
* Rick Chatenever, award-winning columnist and former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.