A Natural Bridge
Park Service Filmmaker Brings the Great Outdoors Home to Viewers

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.

"But identifiably, it was, 'Here's a dolphin and here's a gull?' "

"Yeah," Ruth says, "I just thought people might not appreciate a gull chewing on a -- "

"On a charismatic mega-fauna?" Grabowska's voice rises theatrically and he breaks into another grin.

The two consult further on whether to keep shooting the dolphin or whether to wait for the weather to brighten. "We spend so much time waiting for something," Grabowska explains later. "I was watching some of the DVD extras on 'The Lord of the Rings' and Peter Jackson is sitting there surrounded by all these lights and dozens of people, saying, 'Well, we'll just wait for this cloud.' And I said, 'That's what we do! We wait for clouds!' "

Captured by the Lens

John Grabowska never intended to make a living waiting for clouds.

The son of college professors at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., Grabowska spent a year in Spain after graduating from the same school his parents taught in, toyed with the family business of teaching, spent some time in TV news, got married and, along with his wife, Monica, spent two years with the Peace Corps in Honduras.

It was when he was covering the South Dakota statehouse that he discovered a latent passion for looking through a viewfinder.

"I enjoyed covering all of the issues, but it wasn't particularly visual shooting committee meetings," he recalls in his Harpers Ferry office, located in a ramshackle building overlooking the Shenandoah River. "So whenever politics was too much with me, I would run off to the Rosebud Reservation or Cheyenne River or Pine Ridge. . . . Because I loved shooting, and would just go out and happily spend the day framing the shot and trying to get something visually aesthetic on the air instead of the typical local news stuff."

Over his 14-year career with the Park Service, Grabowska has become known -- and sought after -- as a filmmaker who possesses an unusual affinity for Big Nature, who is more inclined to let images and music do the talking in his films and who isn't afraid to take chances.

When he made "Crown of the Continent" for Wrangell-St. Elias, Grabowska realized that the place was eerily familiar. He asked his mother to send him some old 8mm home movies and, sure enough, his family had visited the park when he was a child. What's more, the Wrangell trip was one of the last times Grabowska remembered his father, who later succumbed to multiple sclerosis, being at the height of his physical powers. After wrestling with whether to add such highly charged personal memories to the film, Grabowska finally did; the result is both a spectacular testament to "the architectonics of the planet itself" and a surprisingly intimate and moving tribute to his own father's dreams.

In "Remembered Earth," which he made for the El Malpais and El Morro national monuments in northwest New Mexico, Grabowska asked the author N. Scott Momaday to narrate from his own writings, and mined film archives for footage of classic westerns shot in the area. What could have been a plain-vanilla infomercial about geology and weather is instead by turns a poetic and irreverent look at a place that Americans have

mythologized, romanticized and, in the name of rugged individualism and progress, nearly destroyed.

Indeed, when Grabowska has shown the film at festivals and other screenings, viewers have been most surprised by how frankly -- and critically -- he addresses the impact of the oil, gas, uranium and coal industries on the region. The Park Service has pulled at least one of its films, made for the visitor center at the Lincoln Memorial, because of pressure from political groups. "I've never run into that," Grabowska says of censorship. He explains: "The National Park Service is referred to often as the nation's premier preservation agency. Its mandate is to protect the resources in these wild areas, so I don't see any conflict when it comes to defending the environment."

With the government recently coming under fire for releasing pro-administration press releases in the guise of objective news stories, it's easy to see Grabowska's films, as well as those of his colleagues, as anomalies. But, in fact, he's part of a long tradition of government-sponsored films that have transcended their bureaucratic provenance to be accepted as art.

In the 1930s, under the auspices of a short-lived program within the New Deal, the director Pare Lorentz created documentaries such as "The River" and "The Plow That Broke the Plains," two films that are still considered classics (both will be shown with live accompaniment of their Virgil Thomson scores at the American Film Institute's SilverDocs festival in June). Lorentz went on to head the U.S. Film Service, where for two years filmmakers under his tutelage made outstanding documentaries. As demonstrated at Washington screenings in April of films made on behalf of the Marshall Plan, government-funded cinema has occasionally, if not frequently, eschewed dull facts and figures and aspired toward higher things.

But although the Park Service itself has contracted with well-known filmmakers, including Charles Guggenheim and John Huston, to make movies for its visitor centers, the recent move toward subcontracting is worrying some observers. "The trend toward privatization and contracting is being felt here," says Mark Southern, the Harpers Ferry center's audiovisual manager, "and it's just increasing the pressure on us to farm this kind of work out to the private sector. And it's not just because Big Brother is telling us to do that; we just can't afford to do it ourselves, because of the volume of work and the cost of upgrading our equipment."

Grabowska's fans within the Park Service say that there is no comparison between his work and something created by an outside company, which is why he has a waiting list of park superintendents and interpreters who insist on working only with him. "I not only asked for him, I fought for him," says Bob Vogel, superintendent of Cape Lookout National Seashore. "To get an in-house film is harder to do nowadays, so we're very excited [that we got him]. He's not just going to do a beautiful film, but a film that has true meaning." When Vogel first spoke with Grabowska about doing the Cape Lookout film, both agreed that the focus should be on the shore's ecosystem as a whole, rather than on the park itself. "He first looks at the message that we want to convey to our visitors, which is evoking a feeling and hopefully the spirit of stewardship."

Images and Emotions

The woodpecker is back.

Not the famous bird of the ivory bill previously known as extinct, but the elusive woodpecker of Portsmouth Village.

Grabowska says he and Ruth noticed "a little resident that's always hanging around; he's got a bright red head." The two have stopped filming on the beach, have exchanged war stories over a lunch of bagels, peanut butter and canned espresso, and are walking through Portsmouth, an 18th-century seaport that has been deserted for more than 30 years.

The redheaded resident has now taken up a rather photogenic position astride a tree just behind a rough-hewn wooden house. Grabowska consults a Park Service bird list and discovers that the woodpecker is actually rare in this area this time of year. His face brightens. "Get him!" he barks playfully at Ruth. "Quick! Hurry up!" Ruth affixes a huge telephoto lens to his camera and crouches behind it, where he will remain, barely moving, for the next 10 minutes. Grabowska sits under a nearby cedar tree, where he stretches out his long legs and begins to read a monograph on barrier island ecology, occasionally jotting something down in his notebook.

If you ask Grabowska about his influences, he is as likely to name writers John McPhee and Gabriel Garcia Marquez or the Hudson River painting school as he is other filmmakers. Although he's a fan of documentaries by Jon Else ("Yosemite: The Fate of Heaven," "The Day After Trinity") and the fiction films of John Sayles, Grabowska immerses himself in the art and literature of the places he documents, resulting in films that are driven more by images than words.

You will never see a talking head in a John Grabowska movie ("I keep trying and I'm never able to pull it off"). And, although his films are narrated, you won't hear a lot of words. His script for "Remembered Earth" is "probably five pages, double-spaced." Park Service movies are shot on film, rather than the cheaper but far less attractive video. And since making "Crown of the Continent," Grabowska has had all his music composed by Todd Boekelheide at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch. As a result, films that might otherwise be as forgettable as a standard-issue government flier instead possess surprisingly high production values, emotional impact and staying power.

"It's a form of preservation, really," Boekelheide says of Grabowska's approach, adding that he's "trying to capture something not just prosaically but capture the spirit of the place. And given that he's a big walker and hiker, and goes [to the parks] for the enjoyment of it anyway, it is the perfect marriage of a park ranger and a visionary filmmaker."

Grabowska is unapologetically ambitious when it comes to his work, and his ethos of favoring sound and image over dry information delivery dovetails nicely with the Park Service's policy of provoking curiosity in visitors rather than spoon-feeding them Important Data. "David Attenborough can do these incredible natural histories of the birds and their behavior and so forth," he says. "But I want people's lives to change. I want them to see the film and be different when they leave the theater, or finish watching it on PBS."

It's just this ambition that sets Grabowska apart from garden-variety government media-makers, says Mark Madison, an environmental historian with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "He's a filmmaker first," says Madison, who often screens Grabowska's work at the service's National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, W.Va. "His films obviously work well at a visitor center, but what's striking is how well they work outside a visitor center."

It's Grabowska's talent in getting national exposure that Roy Wood, chief of interpretation at Alaska's Katmai National Park, hopes to exploit. Wood, who is awaiting approval on a budget for a Grabowska film, notes that his park, which is 300 miles south of Anchorage on the Alaskan peninsula, is too expensive and isolated for most people to visit. "John is able to make a more emotional connection to people who are in a visitor center and are about to go out into a park, but maybe more importantly, to people who may never make it to the parks," Wood says. "Something like 4 million people a year have been watching his 'Crown of the Continent' [on PBS], and a lot of those people won't be able to make it to Wrangell or will never even try to go there. But the film allows them to experience it, and on a deeper level than what you'd get on the Travel Channel."

Cara Liebenson, a programming official at PBS, says simply: "I love him. I champion his work constantly." Liebenson first worked with Grabowska when he sent a version of "Crown of the Continent" to PBS. "John is able not only to get the visual images, but he can get the viewer to understand his emotional connection with the image," Liebenson explains. "So that it's not just, 'Wow, that's beautiful,' but it's emotional, as well."

A Photo Finish

The sun is out on Cape Lookout. And, as is the way when you work in the wild, it's decided to come out just when Grabowska is ready to quit and have a beer -- and minutes after his visitors have boarded the ferry for Ocracoke. Later, he leaves a taunting message on one of their cell phones rhapsodizing about the flock of ibis and the green heron that deigned to make an early evening appearance, meaning that Grabowska and Ruth were able to get the footage of wading birds they were hoping for this week. Of the half-hour or so they filmed today, maybe only a minute or two -- or maybe none -- will end up in the finished film. It doesn't matter. As the moon came up over Cape Lookout, John Grabowska had made his day.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company