Greg Bassenian, founder and executive producer of Aris, tells Addison Capper about this huge mass of water in the California desert and the health implications as it steadily dries up
In 1905 the California Development Company built irrigation canals to the South Californian desert in a bid to create farmland. The canals eventually got clogged, and in an attempt to get the water flowing again, a series of cuts were made in the bank of the Colorado River to create a path to the canals. This turned out to be a mistake. When the Colorado River flooded, it overtook the canals and the entire thing - all 1,450 miles of it - diverted into the desert. This went on for two years while repairs took place, filling what was once a dry lake bed and creating the Salton Sea. A mere 150 miles east of Los Angeles, what was once a sporting and nightlife playground for the Hollywood stars of the 1950s and ‘60s quickly deteriorated into a wasteland.
Greg Bassenian, founder and executive producer of production and post house Aris, one day took a road trip out to this somewhat forgotten piece of man-made geography and was hooked by its beguiling nature immediately. He needed to know why he found a mass of water with not a single boat bobbing or a person on the shoreline. He set out a plan to find out and make a film about the Salton Sea immediately.
What was planned to be a short soon snowballed, as Greg began to uncover a number of environmental and health implications due to the Salton Sea gradually drying up, leaving behind clouds of toxic dust, massive fish kills, and the destruction of an entire ecosystem that threatens the health of millions in Southern California. It soon turned into a feature length film with which he's hoping to encourage proper political intervention and funding.
Addison Capper chatted with him about the journey.
LBB> When did you first think you wanted to make a film about the Salton Sea? What first instigated that idea?
Greg> I actually went out there on a road trip one day. I had heard about the Salton Sea like a lot of people in Southern California. So, I was just curious to see it. I literally came around a bend and suddenly it was right there in front of me, and it was baffling and stunning at the same time. It is unbelievably large. Then I got to the shoreline, and the moment I got out of the car, I just suddenly had an urge to create something about this…thing? I don’t even know if that’s how to describe it. There was not a single person on the shoreline. Not a single boat on the water. This massive body of water was totally abandoned and desolate. I just thought, ‘how is that possible? Something must have happened here…’, and that was it. I got home and literally started making calls the next week to answer that question. And I did my first interview a week later. From there it snowballed.
LBB> Can you give us a bit of background into the Salton Sea and how it ended up where it is today?
Greg> Yes, it’s kind of unbelievable. Around 1905, a company built irrigation canals to the desert in Southern California to create farmland. But the canals got clogged, so they basically cut a path directly into the Colorado River to get the water flowing again - which was an epic engineering mistake. Then when the Colorado River flooded, it completely overtook the canals, and the entire Colorado River diverted into the desert. So, for two years, all that water just accumulated in this desert basin before they were able to stop it. It’s really an extraordinary piece of history that’s sort of been forgotten.
LBB> Personally, what does the Salton Sea mean to you? What role has it played in your life?
Greg> It really is a symbol of change. The transformation of the sea is beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. It’s now so forlorn and abandoned, so I’ve learned so much about how society can so quickly get excited about a thing or a place then abandon it and let it degrade. For me, it really was instrumental in changing not only my career path a bit - prior to directing this project, I was a writer almost exclusively - but also my interests and view of the environment. It really has been transformational to me as a creative person.
LBB> When getting into this project, how did you see it playing out? Did you envision uncovering the kind of shocking findings that you did?
Greg> At first, it was envisioned just as a short doc. Maybe a 10- or 15-minute piece. But then as I got more footage and showed it to my friend (who ended up being our editor), he was like, ‘There is a feature here. Forget the short.’
I definitely didn’t expect to uncover the environmental aspects. I had never even heard that the Salton Sea was in rapid decline and the health implications. Then when I started to speak to people in the area, it definitely was shocking. The lung and breathing issues that were uncovered. That ended up becoming an integral part of the film.
LBB> What are the most shocking elements of what is unraveled in the film?
Greg> The lack of attention to the environmental issues really. The politicians are well aware of the environmental disaster this is slowly turning into, but the money that has been given to the remedy is totally inadequate. People simply think it’s out of sight and out of mind, or that there is no one really out there so it doesn’t matter.
LBB> What was the production process like? How did you bring this to life and over how long?
Greg> It took about five years overall, and principal photography was really in spurts. We’d do a bunch of interviews all at once, then things would slow down for a while. Since it’s a currently unfolding issue, new things would literally come up in the middle of production that we’d cover. So, it was very much riding the wave and seeing where it took us.
We ended up wrapping in April of 2019. And by December we screened at our first festival, Culver City Film Festival, and by January of this year, we had won the Best Documentary prize at Borrego Springs Film Festival. We’ve since been accepted to the Newport Beach Film Festival, American Documentary Film Festival and others.
LBB> Is documentary a medium that you've worked with before? How did you find the challenge of working with non-fiction over a feature-length film?
Greg> I had not worked in documentaries before, so this was quite different than, say, a short or feature film. With scripted material, you can prep everything and only shoot what is needed. That comes with its own challenges, but there aren’t that many creative surprises per se.
Shooting a documentary is the opposite. You are not creating the story, you are out there searching for it. You are physically pushed in different ways being in new environments that you can’t control. You cannot ask someone to just say a specific line. You can’t control any of the situations. It’s really refreshing and challenging actually, and I’m really looking forward to starting my next project.
LBB> From an aesthetic point of view, what were your main aims and ambitions?
Greg> To really convey the scope and scale of both the sea and the history. We really wanted to show the beauty of the area through these wide, magic hour shots. We shot on a drone quite a bit for obvious reasons. But we also wanted to highlight the natural diversity of the animals in the area, so there were a lot of long lens 60 to 120 fps shots. Really to give it that epic, nature doc feel.
The other big ambition was to really nail the historical aspects. We hadn’t seen anything that covered the history of the sea. Most Salton Sea documentaries tend to focus on what people see as a “strange group of people” that live around the sea, which isn’t that true.
So, we really wanted to focus elsewhere. Dispel a lot of myths. Be honest. Bring humanity to the story. And visually convey the enormity of the physical sea and its narrative and transformation.
LBB> And overall, what are your main aims with the project? What would you like to see happen?
Greg> To raise awareness not only for the current environmental issues but also for the people around the sea who really don’t have much of a voice. The area around the sea is largely Latino and quite poor, so giving them a voice in the matter. It’s just something that has been ongoing for quite a while and people don’t want to pay attention, so really this is hopefully a call to action.
In an ideal world, this would get broad exposure on television and we’d see actual political action taking place. That would really be incredible to see the film actually drive positive change for the sea and the communities in the area.