A Natural Bridge

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 29, 2005


It's spitting rain on a warmish spring Tuesday on the northern end of Cape Lookout National Seashore, a 55-mile stretch of beach, marsh and maritime forest on North Carolina's Outer Banks, and the director John Grabowska is wondering if he's going to make the day.

Grabowska is consulting with his cinematographer, Steve Ruth, about a shot he has in mind for his latest film, a sequence involving the carcass of a baby porpoise that has washed up several yards away. All morning, Grabowska has been less than inspired by the flat, gray light, and it's looking more and more likely that, rather than film, he and Ruth are going to spend their time reading, talking and wishing for better conditions.

In Hollywood, each day of production has to involve a certain number of camera setups or the director will not have made the day -- in other words, he will have failed to come in on time and on budget. Grabowska isn't under the same pressure -- he has all the time he needs to make a film that will wind up in Cape Lookout's visitor center. But, as he leads two visitors to a swath of pristine white beach, he has the watchful look of a filmmaker who's eager to get something in the can.

While Grabowska and Ruth discuss where to put Ruth's Aaton XTR Super-16 camera, a sea gull alights on the dead porpoise and starts to peck at the poor creature's head. "Well, this is pretty good," Grabowska says resignedly. But after a moment, he breaks into a cheerful grin and sweeps a long arm toward the delectating gull. "Let's get the cycle of life and death! Here it is! And while you're shooting the dolphin, I'll go record some surf."

Grabowska may not be a household name in the film industry, his work is likely well known in many American households. If you're one of the estimated 90 million people who will visit a national park this summer, you may well see a film that he's directed or executive-produced. In addition to winning awards on the festival circuit, his short films have been broadcast on local PBS stations, and one, "Crown of the Continent," made for the 13-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, has aired as a national PBS special. In March his most recent film, "Remembered Earth," was shown to a packed house at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, and it will also be shown on PBS.

Considered one of the virtuoso environmental filmmakers in the country, Grabowska is a member of an exclusive and, by some accounts, disappearing breed of filmmaker -- artists who, under the unlikely auspices of government bureaucracy, are creating not beige press releases or out-and-out propaganda, but poetry.

Grabowska, 44, is a producer-director with the National Park Service, one of five staff filmmakers who work out of the Park Service's interpretive design center in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. As someone who gets to visit some of the most magnificent natural areas in the country and spend as much time as he needs to prepare visitors for the incredible experience they're about to have, Grabowska is used to being told he has the best job on the planet.

He, however, is more circumspect. "It's a good gig," he tells a visitor one day at his Harpers Ferry office, adding that his is "the kind of job people get and never leave." He continues: "The spectrum of subject matter is the best. It's everything from the history of the United States to pre-Columbian indigenes to culture and the natural world. . . . And what can be better than telling the stories of America to national and international visitors?"

Back on the beach, a few minutes have passed while Grabowska, his lanky 6-5 frame folded into a precarious crouch and a pair of earphones clapped to his head, records the tide coming in and out. He has put away his recording equipment when Ruth approaches. Something has spooked the gull, and it's flown away. The two commence one of the teasingly sarcastic exchanges they've perfected over nearly a decade and a half, one in which Grabowska -- a voluble extrovert who tends to speak in paragraphs packed with 25-cent words -- prods the soft-spoken Ruth for something more than his typical terse response.

"Did you get the bird on the dolphin?" Grabowska asks.

"He was pecking at the blowhole," Ruth says quietly.

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