Winner of 32 awards for best documentary, ‘Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea’ airing this week on Iowa Public Television
Co-director Chris Metzler, formerly of Hesper, talks about how John Waters got on board as narrator
Thursday, August 14, 2014 9:58 AM
A documentary co-directed by former Hesper resident and North Winneshiek student Chris Metzler is being shown several times this week on Iowa Public Television (IPTV).
“Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” airs Tuesday, Aug. 12, at 7 p.m.; Wednesday, Aug. 13, at 7 a.m. and 1 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 16, at 9 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 17, at 2 a.m., 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.
The film was a hit at festivals across the country after its world premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival, and is narrated by John Waters.
Metzler is the son of Lynda and the late David Metzler, and the grandson of Ernest Corson, of Decorah.
About the film
This award-winning film details the rise and fall of the Salton Sea, from its heyday as the California Riviera where boaters and Beach Boys mingled in paradise to its present state of decaying, forgotten ecological disaster.
From wonderland to wasteland, “Plagues and Pleasures On The Salton Sea” captures a place far more interesting than the shopping malls and parking lots of suburban America, a wacky world where a beer-swilling Hungarian Revolutionary, a geriatric nudist and a religious zealot building a monument to God all find solace and community.
Crisply and hilariously narrated by oddball auteur John Waters, and featuring music by desert lounge rockers Friends of Deans Martinez, “Plagues and Pleasures On The Salton Sea” melds high camp with stark realism, offering both a sobering message about the consequences of tampering with nature and a heart-warming tale of individualism.
“Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” premiered at the 2004 Slamdance Film Festival.
Conversation with the filmmaker
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Chris Metzler currently lives on the west coast; but he attended North Winneshiek in his early elementary school years and has been returning to Northeast Iowa on an ongoing basis to visit family who still live in the area.
“That and the occasional barn dance and lutefisk dinner has always provided me with enough fun incentives to visit,” Metzler says.
Decorah Newspapers recently had the opportunity to ask Metzler about his work -- and, in particular, about “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea,” which is airing several times this week on IPTV. (See article, above, for showtimes).
Decorah Newspapers: When did you first get interested in film-making?
Chris Metzler: I’m not someone who grew up dreaming they wanted to be a filmmaker, nor playing around with video cameras as a kid, but I was always curious about most everything and I think that is what led me to filmmaking. As luck would have it, I wound up attending college at USC in Los Angeles and started taking film classes on a lark, where I soon discovered that it combined all the things I loved doing and thinking about. Particularly storytelling, travel, and always learning about new things.
DN: Who have been your greatest inspirations, in terms of the work you do?
CM: I’m often inspired by those who have carved out their own paths; so with filmmakers it’s folks like Stanley Kubrick, Gus Van Sant and Errol Morris. But writers like John Steinbeck and Douglas Coupland influence me. And in the end, you can never get away from your roots and family for laying the groundwork you follow, so my Mom and Dad probably trump all those things and probably always will.
DN: What’s the best film you’ve seen in recent years?
CM: I grew up loving comic books, so I’ll go for a recent audience fave with “Guardians of Galaxy.” It’s a movie that shouldn’t have worked, but it took a risk of just being itself and the final result is something that captures the spirit and humor of any kid’s imagination.
DN: What is the single most important thing about making a good documentary film, in your opinion?
CM: Being open minded. If you’re myopic and you think you already know the story you want to tell when starting to make a film, then it’s probably not worth telling and you’ll likely miss the best story that lies underneath. Being open to discovery results in not only a more fun experience, but a much better film.
DN: What do you most enjoy about making films?
CM: Meeting new and interesting people from different walks of life that I wouldn’t have encountered if not making a film on that particular subject. And then when that film is done, get to start all over again.
DN: What can you tell us about the film airing on IPTV this week?
CM: Growing up in the Midwest I never thought there’d be a giant lake in the middle of the California desert, but yes indeed the Salton Sea does exist and it’s a weird place. It’s a place where you’ll find Hungarian revolutionaries, Christian nudists, pop stars, land sharks, hard drinkers, empty cities, failed resort towns, tons of dead fish, a dying café and a man who built a mountain.
DN: How did John Waters get involved with the project?
CM: A little bit of serendipity ... We always thought he’d make a great narrator for the film, based on his voice and the style of humor he brings to his own films. But we didn’t have any Hollywood connections or at first even dare try to figure out how to reach him. But as the film was getting traction on the festival circuit -- with a more generic, anonymous narrator -- a festival programmer asked for a copy of the film to share with her neighbor and friend John Waters. Taken with this random chance, we asked her if she wouldn’t mind asking him if he might be interested in recording the narration for the film and so she did. A week later he called and said if we came to Baltimore to record it he’d be jazzed to. The rest is history, as he just really liked the film and had an affection for the type of people you find at the Salton Sea.
DN: What project/s are you currently working on?
CM: Since making the Salton Sea documentary, I went on to make another award-winning documentary, “Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone” about the all-Black punk band Fishbone. Right now I’m working on a new feature doc, “Rodents Of Unusual Size,” which is about these semi-aquatic giant rats called nutria and the threat they pose to Louisiana’s wetlands. As one might expect from me, the film will be a little offbeat, funny, maybe even strange, but at the story’s core are some important issues affecting both Louisiana and other parts of the world. I’m working to finish that film by early next year.
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