This week brings us the premiere of Voyagers Without Trace, a story of three young Parisians who, in 1938, became the first people to take kayaks down the wild Green and Colorado rivers. What perhaps makes the whole thing even more stunning (besides the obvious degree of difficulty that comes with navigating a crazy river in a kayak) is that they captured parts of their journey on film, in color — which is nuts, considering the first color film out of Hollywood was shot the following year.
Last week, I had the chance to ask director Ian McCluskey a few questions about the film. Ian is an award-winning director and also the founder of NW Doc. He has worked on a number of killer films, including one about Portland’s famed Naked Bike Ride.
Voyagers Without Trace premieres Oct. 22nd at OMSI, but the premiere is now sold out. An encore performance has been scheduled for Oct. 25th at 4p. More info on that is available here.
N&C: So, what were you doing in Wyoming that led you to discovering that marker? Seems like a pretty remote spot to discover the catalyst for your next film.
Ian McCluskey: Yeah, it was a remote place. Even by Wyoming standards. The far southwest corner, not far from the Utah border.
At the time I was a journalism student and had a summer gig updating the Frommers Wyoming Travel Guide. My job was to go corner to corner of the state, updating listings of motels, museums, roadside attractions, etc… and I stopped into a small park in a small town to take a driving break. There I saw the small historic marker.
When I returned years later with the film team I’d assembled, we sought out the sign. When I saw it again, I was amazed I’d ever come across it. It’s really one of those totally nondescript historic markers.
What was the process like from finding that marker to deciding you were gonna go all the way with this and make a feature? I’m sure it took a good bit of planning/pre-pro, and even more importantly, was there a moment where you were like, “Okay, this is the next project, we’ve got enough here for a feature”?
The first step was trying to find out more about the story than the brief text on the sign. So I did a bunch of internet sleuthing, and all I could come up with was a library reference to a short article published in the Utah Historic Quarterly back in the 80s, and the only copy I could find was in the special collections at the University of Utah. So I cold called. Turns out, the man who answered the phone was not only the author of that article, but also responsible for the sign.
That archivist shared the news clippings, photos, and info he’d collected, and encouraged me to pick up the research where he left off. And as soon as I began to tell my friends about the story and show them the few images, they became excited. My good friend John Waller of Uncage the Soul Productions enthusiastically offered to help me shoot it. And the more I shared about the story, the more people came together to help my search, and offer their skills and time.
The tipping point, I think for committing to the project was when we realized we could potentially uncover a lost diary, one of the original kayaks, and the 16mm film they shot of their trip in 1938.
We were all hooked. We had no idea what we’d uncover if we went to France or down the Colorado, but we knew we had to. Perhaps the biggest challenge: I didn’t know how to kayak.
Assuming you used found footage, could you tell me a bit about the process of integrating that with digital? What was your workflow like in general?
We did uncover the surviving reel of 16mm film they shot. Color film. It was shot year before even the first Hollywood color movie, Wizard of Oz.
We shot the film as we projected it, which has a fun DIY feel of the film with the blurry edges and the flicker on the screen. But we also had it digitally transferred to HD by a professional lab in Paris. We used both styles of transfer in our film.
A cool additional outcome is that this original footage, which is about 55 minutes, now exists in digital form for posterity.
What was the crew like? I know you said you assembled a trio (you, Kate, and Paul), but what about John, Ben, Allison, etc? Did they join you on stints down the river?
I assembled a team of friends who are also my creative collaborators. Two kayakers (Paul and Kate), and then to help shoot John and Ben, and Allison on sound. And a couple others like Jenn to help organize in the field, and Anne to help with ground support and logistics, Lilah back in Portland, keeping the home office running… the guys from ATI joined us for a week with their drone camera… the archivist, Roy. All in all we were about a dozen on the team, and everyone pitching in, filling whatever role needed filled at the time. For the France trip we had Anna join us as translator and liaison.
We spent 31 days on our river shoot, and 14 days in France. And the entire team volunteered their time and talents.
Tell me a bit about NW Doc — personally, I love what you guys do, so I’d love to hear about any plans for the future, and maybe a brief bit about how the organization has grown.
NW Documentary is at an exciting place. We’ve been running two really wonderful programs for youth in partnership with OMSI and Dougy Center for several years; offering workshops for others to learn how to make their own documentaries; and making lots of short videos for other non-profits to help them tell their important stories.
Now we’re excited to be looking for a new location! We don’t have one yet, but have started the search. It’s really fulfilling to have reached this point of an organization, to be part of Portland since 2003, and to have been part of so many people’s lives and their stories. Our first dozen years have been such an inspiring journey, and we’re looking ahead to the next dozen.
What was the overall timeline of this thing, from concept through completion?
I basically started talking about the project in 2011. We launched down the river in 2012. We went to France in 2013. And we spent 2014 – Spring 2015 in the editing process.
Having other jobs and projects the editing was all part-time, evenings, weekends mostly. Ad we’re still working, even now. The posters are just being printed and they look great.
Anything else you’d like to add? Perhaps some of the toughest situations you encountered, any close calls, anything you want viewers to know?
I hope when people watch Voyagers, they think of their own journeys—ones they taken, or hope to take, and that it inspires them to follow their own curiosity and sense of adventure.