The historic drought that’s settling across California didn’t start in West Berkeley, but the neighborhood has already produced a captivating cinematic response to the impending disaster. Premiering Monday as part of a sold-out program at the 20th annual Tribeca Film Festival, Thirsty is a poetic, cautionary portrayal of rueful regret and haunted decline set amid the forbidding high desert.

Available for home streaming starting Tuesday, June 15, the four-minute musical dreamscape was written and directed by Josh Peterson, a longtime West Berkeleyan and experienced documentary film editor. The piece stars his mentor, Berkeley-based indie film legend Rob Nilsson, whose five-decade-plus career includes numerous honors, playing an old salt wandering through a blasted landscape. It’s set to an acoustic guitar-driven anthem by Berkeley singer/songwriter Alexis Harte, who also wrote the song that powered “Pearl,” the animated 2017 short that became the first virtual-reality film ever nominated for an Academy Award.

Created on a shoestring budget during the depth of the pandemic, the film was made possible by West Berkeley proximity. “We made this at a tough time and the fact that we could drop by Rob’s house to confer or do a costume fitting made all the difference,” said Peterson at a recent meet up at Caffe Chiave with Harte and Nilsson while taking a break from an editing session in the Fantasy Building. “They’re not just in Berkeley, but my neighborhood.”

The project represents the completion of a circle for Peterson, who got his start on the Bay Area film scene after college when he moved out to San Francisco to intern with Nilsson, a college friend of his father’s. He’d seen Northern Lights, the winner of the 1979 Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, which Nilsson co-directed with John Hanson, and Nilsson’s Heat and Sunlight, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1988, “but he was really just a name to me,” Peterson said.

The internship quickly turned into an immersive education in every aspect of filmmaking, including Peterson taking on a role in 1996’s Chalk, Nilsson’s streetwise film noir set in a Richmond pool hall. “That was film school for me, trial by fire,” Peterson said. “Since then I’ve acted for Rob many times, and Thirsty was my first chance directing him. It was a real thrill. I pushed him emotionally and physically. I had him doing stunts, too.”

“I had to fall off a dock backwards into ocean water,” Nilsson concurred with a sly grin. “I hadn’t swum for years.”

“Being in the desert as a third wheel I didn’t know a lot of the history between them,” Harte said. “But watching them work together, the word that came to mind was trust.”

Harte and Peterson connected when their daughters were in preschool together. Their work has been intertwined in various ways over the years, including Harte scoring Peterson’s short film “Blood Makes the Green Grass Grow.” They collaborated together closely on the short film “The Night of My Death,” which was “even smaller than ‘Thirsty,’ just me and him,” Peterson said. “I had a couple of ideas for locations and places. I’d go into the editing room and play with more ideas. It was a wonderful experience.”

The Berkeley team behind Thirsty: Alexis Harte, Josh Peterson, and Rob Nilsson. Credit: Andrew Gilbert

An environmental activist before he dedicated himself to music professionally, Harte has spent the past decade as one of the founding partners in Pollen Music Group, which has earned international acclaim for crafting soundscapes that bring virtual and augmented reality productions to life. Based in Emeryville and San Francisco, the company has racked up numerous creative triumphs, like Harte’s song-driven score for Patrick Osborne’s 2016 animated short Pearl.

Not that Harte and fellow Pollen founders and creative directors Scot Stafford and JJ Wiesleronly work on the cutting edge. The company’s most ambitious assignment came out last November when Netflix released the first season of Trash Truck, a kids show by cartoon scion Max Keane that’s decidedly old school. Pollen helped incubate Thirsty, which started coming together last spring when Harte brought his song to Peterson and gave him carte blanche

“With the pandemic I had to be a one-man band, essentially having a production package I could carry around on my back,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot going on in the song. Obviously the environmental theme, but I was also thinking about generational conflict. I thought if Rob would agree to do this, we could really go places.”

And you think you’re having a bad day… Credit: Josh Peterson

At 81, Nilsson’s grizzled good looks made him an ideal personification for a land that’s fraying. The fact that the film took shape in the middle of the apocalyptic fire season upped the ante. As Peterson was writing the script, “we had that crazy day with that red sky,” he recalled. “We had already planned the culminating scene around the boat. We couldn’t get together to shoot that day, but I did use an image of the orange sky screen captured from a camera at Stinson Beach to overlay over the scenes.”

Harte, Nilsson and Peterson are all neck deep in other projects now, but getting their little film into Tribeca is sweet indeed. For Harte, the son of physicist-turned-ecologist and joint professor in Cal’s Energy and Resources Group and the Ecosystem Sciences Division, creating a work that evokes our impending crisis brings various aspects of his life together.

“As a society, California attracted people for so long with seemingly bountiful water and resources,” Harte said. “But it can go away too. But the song talks any human thirst. It’s about longing and regret and missed opportunities.”

Thirsty is a film that whets the appetite, and there’s every reason to expect another round or three from Harte and Peterson.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....