Whether he’s capturing the chaos of the Chicago commodities market or observing the San Francisco Opera’s staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle from the perspective of the backstage crew, filmmaker Jon Else is a master at revealing the process behind the polished product.
His new film, Land of Gold, makes its West Coast premiere Thursday, April 28, at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, and it’s his latest documentary immersing viewers in a charged creative environment. Shot mostly cinéma vérité style, the film follows rehearsals of the ill-fated 2017 San Francisco Opera production Girls of the Golden West by Pulitzer Prize-winning Berkeley composer John Adams and celebrated director Peter Sellars, who wrote the libretto.
By itself, the film is a concise 73-minute plunge into a talent-laden production that would premiere at three and a half hours. The opera’s conceit is that the main characters were real people, and much of the libretto was taken from historical texts. Focusing on the development of a few crucial, fraught scenes – a “spider dance” on a massive sequoia stump by San Francisco Ballet star Lorena Feijóo playing Lola Montez and the attempted rape of Mexican barkeep Josefa Segovia sung by the stunning mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges – the film is far more disciplined, focused and entertaining than the production itself. Land of Gold premiered last year at Telluride.
“It’s no secret that the first outing got at best mixed reviews,” said Else, who spent some two decades running the documentary video program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. “We scrambled the order of events in the opera. The central through line is the collision course between Joe and Josefa and the simmering lynch mob. In the opera, you don’t see that collision course until halfway through. At John Adams’ suggestion we spilled the beans that this is going to end badly in the first two minutes. It allowed the audience to enjoy the weirdness.”
Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Camille Servan-Schreiber, a longtime Berkeley resident, produced Land of Gold (an interesting companion piece to Marc Shaffer’s Gold Rush-centric doc American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco, which Servan-Schreiber co-produced). Else credits the artful storytelling to Land of Gold editor Gail Huddleson and the fact that his camera was trained on artists who seem to expand before an audience. “In many ways, most good documentaries are about people who are performers, whether the filmmakers know it, whether the audience knows it,” Else said.
In the case of the Land of Gold that means spending time with some extraordinary vocalists on the verge of stardom. The careers of J’Nai Bridges and soprano Julia Bullock (who performs her “History’s Persistent Voice” program May 17 at Davies Symphony Hall with the San Francisco Symphony) have soared since the world premiere of Girls of the Golden West, and almost every moment they’re on screen is electrifying.
“We’ve never had better access to the rehearsal process,” Else said. “If you can gain the trust and enter their sacred space, it’s off to the races. John and Peter and the singers were astonishingly welcoming to us. I come from a family of painters and sculptors and filmmakers, and the creation of works of art was in the air we breathed. I love filming others struggling to make art.”
Sellars based the opera’s libretto largely on letters written in 1851-52 by Louise Clappe, a cultured woman from the East Coast who styled herself as Dame Shirley in detailing life in a remote mining camp with a sharp eye and sly wit. Taking a wider focus, he and Adams sought to expand the story of the Gold Rush to includes the Latin Americans, Chinese and other people often left out of the grade-school narrative. But after half a century of revisionist Westerns culminating with the HBO series Deadwood, the violence and pervasive racism is hardly a revelation.
Else doesn’t rely on Girls of the Golden West to carry the narrative. In the documentary, the opera rehearsals become a vehicle for exploring contemporary tensions and fault lines that ruptured with the 2016 election. When Else’s films go behind the scenes, the drama usually takes place on multiple levels.
“I’ve never made a film simply about the creation of a work of art. Every film actually tells the story of what the opera is about,” he said, citing his first collaboration with Adams and Sellars, 2007’s Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic, which also explored the life of Robert Oppenheimer and the making of the atom bomb. In Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle, “we braid two narratives together,” he said. “It’s fiendishly difficult and fun, and if you do it right the audience doesn’t realize you’re telling two stories.”
Film isn’t the only medium in which Else can weave a mean braid. Published in 2017 after he took on venerable emeritus status at the J-School, his book True South is a fascinating account of the making of the landmark civil rights series Eyes On the Prize (for which Else served as series producer and cinematographer). But it’s also part memoir, part civil rights movement synopsis, part biography of Blackside founder Henry Hampton, the mastermind and guiding force behind Eyes, and a fully unvarnished insider’s account of the shoestring world of documentary film production.
Time for some disclosure. I studied under Else in 1997 during his first year at the J-School. Camille Servan-Schreiber was my documentary partner and our graduate thesis about jazz/cabaret vocalist Wesla Whitfield and her husband, pianist Mike Greensill, Opening Nights, won a Golden Spire Award from the SFIFF in 1999, my last venture into filmmaking. She however went on to co-produce with her husband Jason Cohn the Peabody-winning Eames: The Architect and the Painter, the portrait of Proposition 13 avatar Howard Jarvis The First Angry Man, and an essential chapter in Berkeley’s cultural history, Arwen Curry’s Worlds of Ursula K. LeGuin.
While Servan-Schreiber had hired Else as a cameraman for various projects over the years, “we’d never collaborated in this way,” she said. “He called me out of the blue. ‘Hey, what are you doing? I have a project I need a producer for.’ And then he told me all the difficulties that come with the project, and why I probably didn’t want to do it. But from the second Jon said ‘I have a project,’ the rest didn’t matter. I said ‘I’m all yours’ and I dove in.”
One difficulty they didn’t anticipate was a pandemic that meant that she and Else couldn’t be in the edit suite while Gail Huddleson was working. With dozens of hours of rehearsal footage to whittle and refine into telling sequences, they created a film that captures moments of arresting beauty, particularly the Bullock aria that frames the documentary’s action. What happened after the curtain closed isn’t revealed.
The premiere was greeted by a scathing, almost gleefully harsh Joshua Kosman review in the San Francisco Chronicle that measured the production against Adams’ past operatic triumphs with Nixon In China and The Death of Klinghoffer. “Bloated, repetitive, self-righteous and dull, this commission by the San Francisco Opera … represents a miscalculation of astonishing dimensions,” Kosman wrote. Other filmmakers might have included this as a denouement, the culmination of a misbegotten undertaking. Rather than dissecting what went wrong, Else and his team hewed their own path.
“The review came after we were done filming and we were disappointed that it was that vicious,” Servan-Scheiber said. “If it had been a huge hit the interest in the film would have been much greater, but we never expected that. The film is a work of art of its own and has its own trajectory.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Land of Gold’s West Coast premiere date. It’s premiering Thursday, April 28, at the Castro Theatre.