On September 26, 1993, a crew of eight people emerged from a huge ecological desert facility after two years of isolation. The facility, named Biosphere 2 and located in Oracle, Arizona, was constructed to replicate the earth’s various habitats in a closed environment as a forerunner for speculative ‘off world’ colonization. While the whole thing sounds akin to the 1972 movie Silent Running (an inspiration in fact), the project had strong scientific backing and – for a time – attracted avid media attention.
Dreamed up in the 1970s by a group of eccentric outsiders led by charismatic ecologist John Allen and later funded by billionaire philanthropist Ed Bass, the project would ultimately suffer from structural mis-management, infighting and a nasty corporate takeover – leading to it now being remembered by many as a wasteful folly.
Matt Wolf revisits both the experiment and its origins in Spaceship Earth, and here talks to us about his film which is as much a story about the strength of community as it is about the failure of grand ambitions.
Interview by Gabriel Solomons
GS: Thanks for your time Matt. Can you first talk a little about Owen Pallett’s score for the film, as it’s really powerful and epic in scope. Was that always intentional?
MW: I never really thought I’d make a film with such a big orchestral score as that’s never been my aesthetic per se. But as I was making the film – which spans half a century and shows this group’s ambition to create a new world – I realized that it was a very epic story, so a big orchestral score and a kind of operatic approach felt really appropriate. My editor David Teague and I were temping in Michael Nyman cues and that kind of stuff when we were first putting the film together, then we just started to move in a direction of making this feel like a big experience; this big orchestral score contrasted with 1990s Beta cam, archival footage. It felt like a fun juxtaposition to us.
GS: The score has a very cyclical feel to it – using repeating patterns and scaling them up with more instruments as the music builds. It reminded me a little of Arvo Pärt’s compositions. I also found it quite fascinating that the film itself is quite cyclical. The beginning is very hopeful, telling the story of a small group of people in the late 1960s with big dreams and aspirations and then returning, 50 years later to the same ranch which they first built and had full control over – you know, going full circle in a way?
MW: I like that reading of it, I think it is very much a film about bigger, not always being better. It’s a cautionary tale in that respect. So, in a sense, it’s a group of people trying to imagine the world in a scalable way on a commune in the 1960s. And they scale this idea of a closed system to such an ambitious vision with Biosphere 2, but in the end, they actually go back to the sustainable model they created as young 20 year olds, at the same ranch. So there is a kind of homecoming aspect to it; of recognizing that the ideas they were pursuing on such an epic or grand scale could actually be more sustainable and ongoing at the place where they started.
GS: It reminds me also of artists like Picasso when he spoke about the idea of trying to get back to being a child, trying to recapture that curiosity and ‘newness’ to your work that is sometimes lost when you perhaps start to follow accepted rules and conventions.
MW: For a lot of people who make things, the naivete that comes with your first project, or that naivete that comes with being in your 20s making something is hard to recapture, and it’s clear that this group operated with a lot of naivete. If they had had the wisdom and the depth of experience that they have as people now they probably would have been too fearful or I think too trepidatious to pursue the projects that they did. So in their naivete, they were able to do different, new things, but also they suffered the consequences of inexperience. So I think there is something to be said about naivete being an important kind of position to embrace when you’re pursuing something that’s new or high risk, but that the consequences of failure, shortcomings or not measuring up to expectations is something that a lot of young artists have to grapple with. So it’s both empowering to be naive to pursue new things and it also can be to the detriment of the perceived success of a project.
GS: I’ve always loved the early documentary filmmaker John Grayson’s ideas around the ‘creative treatment of actuality’; acknowledging that it’s not just about presenting factual truth but more about how you interpret, edit and construct. As a documentary filmmaker, what are the specific challenges that you face?
MW: I think balancing a respect for my subject matter with an objectivity in looking at them. It’s this conflict of interest in working with real people, but also maintaining some critical distance to them. Also using the raw material from the archives of my subjects and appropriating it as my own while recognizing that it’s not mine. I think that tension between empathy and objectivity is always at play. And a big part of my job is stepping back and watching a film as a viewer, not as someone who’s familiar with the subject. To jump off that Grierson quote, I think it’s very important not to just lean into what happened, but to interpret those things; to ask not just what happened, but so what? What are the consequences of this story and why tell that story today?
So in terms of this group, the Synergists, they had done a lot of different things, which I don’t think was necessarily legible. And a big part of my job was as a translator; to bring more clarity to their life’s work, and to also frame that as a story which resonates today. To show their story as a cautionary tale of the consequences of trying to reimagine the world on new terms, particularly in the context of capitalism and catastrophic climate change. It also was a story to me that looked at the kind of residual impact of the 1960s counterculture, and the promises and failures of that.
My films are mostly character studies that are led by people and the human experiences that animate these bigger ideas, and so I’m always looking for metaphor. I think with this story there were lots of metaphors handed to me on a silver platter. Whether it’s contemporary political villains like Steve Bannon literally taking over this microcosmic model of the world, to John Allen existing as this godlike figure overseeing the miniature world that he’s conceived, but whose ecology of human experiences kind of spiraled out of his control.
GS: So how do you go about constructing a story or narrative once you begin collecting all of your material?
MW: It’s really just looking at the material, and then interpreting it, and then crafting something based on what you have at hand. So instead of coming into a film with a prescriptive notion of what it’s about, or what the point of it is, it’s more important to accumulate material – whether archival or interviews – and then to shape a story in your interpretation around that material you’ve collected. A challenge of documentaries is that there usually is no ending to those stories because they’re based in reality, so it requires some craft to create an ending, particularly about people who are still alive, or whose story is ongoing.
GS: So was this story of John Allen, the Synergists and Biosphere 2 something that you were already aware of and interested in before making your film?
MW: No, I discovered the story of the group through archival material that I found online. When I learned that this was a forgotten history of an epic project like Biosphere 2, it was the kind of story that appeals to me generally. I was not necessarily interested in a story about environmentalism or climate change, but I liked the opportunity to look at this kind of subject matter and the challenge of how I was going to present it.
GS: You mentioned before that many of your films are character driven, but you seem to have a particular interest in unusual artists or outliers as you’ve made films about the writer Joe Brainard, activist Marion Stokes and musician Arthur Russell. Where does your interest in these types of people come from?
MW: I was always interested in artists as kind of role models in a way. Growing up in the suburbs as a gay teenager who was interested in punk rock and other kinds of underground culture, I think I was looking for models of what it could look like to live in the world in an unconventional way. I was particularly always interested in figures who operated outside of the mainstream while participating in mainstream culture, but from a different and alternative point of view; outsiders who walked a tightrope between mainstream culture and the underground or the countercultural. Through research, I was always interested in discovering stories that were lesser known and that begged to be reappraised or reconsidered, and as I started to make films, I kind of stumbled into that.
I made my first film about the musician Arthur Russell partly because he was in the midst of experiencing a significant critical revival a little more than a decade after he passed away. I became intrigued with his biography which seemed to resonate with a lot of people and recognized that portraiture of individuals is something that is a compelling way ‘in’ for people, and an interesting way for them to look at the world.
GS: Do you identify in some way with the characters you choose as subjects for your films?
MW: I do find myself in the characters that I often make films about. Sometimes those characters are much more extreme than I am, but I have to relate to them in order to make you relate to them. I think that’s something I always say, whether it’s climate change, or a large personality, I have to find myself in the material so that I can express myself, but also find empathy with people.
GS: At the start of Spaceship Earth, the eccentric thinker, founder and leader of the Synergists, John Allen seems to be at the center of the film, but he comes into the story via other people talking about their experiences of him and his influence on their lives. He’s a very mysterious character, dipping in and out of the film, not actually appearing for very long in interviews. Was this a reluctance on his part to participate because of the media fallout of the whole Biosphere 2 project?
MW: No, it’s a little bit of two things. He has dementia so we were lucky to capture him in a place where he was able to talk about his experience. But even prior to that he speaks in very opaque and circuitous ways that are laden with some inaccessible rhetoric. He dodges explanations, or dodges a certain kind of clarity, but that’s also where he was in his life. So there were limits to how we could use that material to drive the story and I found the people who gravitated around him to be a little more accessible to tell the story. Sadly a few of them have passed away since we made the film including the desert ecologist Tony Burgess and Sally Silverstone, one of the Biospherians.
GS: That’s really sad as I found Tony Burgess to be one of the most interesting characters in the film. I particularly like his comment when John Allen was being portrayed as a ‘wacko’ and cult leader by the media, saying that “I don’t know of any innovative human organisation that doesn’t have cult-like aspects, especially in the corporate sector. We are hard-wired to create cults in the innovative phase of an organisation”. It brings to mind people like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg. I noted that Tony and the Biospherians Mark Nelson and Linda Leigh were all quite introverted; loners in some way looking to connect with like-minded people or a community they could belong to. Was it your intention to get that across in the film – this search for a common purpose and a small group’s ability to make a difference?
MW: I think of everybody in the film I related and empathized most with Linda. She’s just a character I really connected with. But I think that everybody in the film plays a different role and in a lot of ways the film is about the power and dynamics of small groups and what they can achieve together in their differences. So it was important to emphasize and to depict the unique aspects of each individual, and to show them both in conflict and cooperation with each other. To show how small groups work, particularly as they either revolve around a cult of personality like John Allen, or how they manage when there’s a kind of disorder or collapse of leadership in the context of an ambitious project.
GS: Well it seems that at the start of the film, the group have a lot of control over their situation at Synergia Ranch, because they’re a self sustaining community. But as their ambitions become grander and there are more corporate interests involved and the media starts to get involved, things start to fall apart. I’m wondering if that’s an eternal dilemma that the film presents – that when idealism meets corporate interests, things naturally tilt towards the corporate and economic?
MW: Yeah, that was the idea I was hoping to express; that pursuing idealism within the context of capitalism… those two things are not good bedfellows. I think that was the cautionary tale of the story, that the ultimate failure of Biosphere 2 is that it no longer exists as the closed system it was designed to be. The ambition and the idealism surrounding that project did not prove to be sustainable from an economic standpoint. And for that reason, bigger is not always better. So that is kind of a takeaway of the film that I was hoping to create, for sure.
GS: So can the dreamers, the innovators and the searchers ever have full control?
MW: No, and I think that’s something I experience with filmmaking, too. As you take on more resources and you bring on more partnerships, control becomes relative. So, often, the clearest and most pure expression of people’s ideas and idealism comes when they’re helming something with total control. But that’s not possible on a big scale as the pressures of scaling up often compromises the clarity of vision from those who seek to pursue those projects.
GS: Absolutely, and once the project was in the public eye and there were more vested interests involved, it seemed like the spirit of the group’s early adventures and projects was tainted, even though the Biospherians inside the complex kept that spirit alive. So in one way there was a public story on the outside with everything going wrong and a more intimate story on the inside of these 8 people who had to work together in maintaining this little world they were responsible for.
MW: Yeah, I I think people were really expecting the film to be about vicious interpersonal breakdowns inside the complex, but just speaking to the Biospherians, that’s not how they frame their experience. They frame their experience as being extremely rewarding and lots of hard work. There was of course conflict on the inside and factions of people agreeing or disagreeing with the leadership of the project or retaining their loyalty to John Allen, but at the end of the day, they were all committed to completing their mission and staying in there to the best of their ability. They had to co-operate to achieve that. So whatever kind of differences existed between people, they were able to put them aside to complete the project, even though they certainly would have had the agency to leave.
GS: And what about the people that weren’t interviewed, because there were quite a few of the Biospherians that didn’t appear in the film?
MW: Some people refused to be interviewed because they wanted the story to focus more on their experience. I think they understood that the film was looking at the Synergists and that early prehistory of Biosphere 2, so those that weren’t part of that weren’t interested in participating. People have to want to tell their story after all, but the point of view that drives the film is led by the people who are committed to enhancing the legacy of the project; those that were open to my approach of looking at both the experience of Biosphere 2 and the history that came before it which led to its creation.
GS: There seem to be two camps presented in the film. On one side there are the corporations, the scientific community and the media and on the other side are the group of pioneers, adventurers and performers represented by the Synergists and Biospherians. As the film goes on we see a tension created between the two sides especially with criticisms directed at the second group about their lack of professional and/or scientific credentials. They were often seen or labelled as ‘wackos’ or amateurs.
MW: Yes and I think that tension between amateurs versus professionals reveals both the power of people trying things differently and also the limitations of that approach, particularly when people begin to question the veracity of what they’re doing and the value of it.
GS: It also made for great TV because the whole event seemed to capture the public’s imagination, and was a bit of a fore-runner of reality television back in 1991. So many news channels covered it; they had celebrity endorsements and a fashion designer even created the Biospherian’s ‘space’ suits – it just seemed to be everywhere!
MW: I think that it was predictive of reality television and the media spectacle that is driven by a particular voyeurism that was present in that project, but it also in some ways was predictive of dot-com and startup culture. This idea of “disruptive models” in which people outside of the mainstream pursue different ideas and want profit to be part of that vision, and are kind of fueled by the investment of those who are willing to take high risks.
GS: The argument towards the end of the film is that the whole Biosphere 2 project was a failure and so therefore John Allen and his team had to be ousted by Ed Bass and replaced by the more conventional and ruthless Steve Bannon. But was the project a failure?
MW: I think the conventional wisdom around that project is that it’s a failure. And I think there was a failure of management, there was a failure of transparency and communication. And ultimately, the failure of that project is that it’s not being used as the closed system it was designed to be, but flawed things can still be special and important.
GS: There is a very optimistic and hopeful sense to the film and it’s amazing to see that members of this small group are still working together back at Synergia Ranch 50 years on.
MW: It’s about pursuing projects, it’s about being in the world and doing stuff, not just talking about it. And that group are real doers, whether or not what they do succeeds or has significant impact. They continue to live in an intentional community that they created as young people which I think is rare. The fact that they stayed together over the course of half a century to me is a real triumph despite the disappointments of Biosphere 2, which you could argue is their life’s work.
GS: What is the key thing that you’d like people to take away from the film?
MW: I think it’s important for people to have an idealism to reimagine the world. It’s probably going to be younger people who can think that way and perhaps see that the world is broken, but we have to honour people who are pursuing that, even if there are shortcomings to what they do or the impact of it is hard to measure. I think that impulse to reimagine the world germinated from the 1960s counterculture and there’s a lot of skepticism and rejection of that generation’s models, but people need to create new models in which they can actually do things instead of just talking about them. I think Biosphere 2 is a case study of that to some extent.
Spaceship Earth is available on various streaming platforms.