A Conversation with Chris Metzler, Director of "Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea"

Screening Liberally Big Picture
By Josh Bolotsky

We recently had the opportunity to have a conversation with Chris Metzler, director of Screening Liberally NYC's February selection, the critically acclaimed Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea. We talked about Sonny Bono, John Waters and where his film fits (or doesn't fit) into the recent spate of eco-documentaries.

How did you come to this project?

Like a lot of things in life, it was purely coincidence. I grew up in the Midwest - I didn't even know that the Salton Sea existed when I moved out to Los Angeles for school - and one day, decided to take an exploratory road trip, camping with a friend and maybe checking out other parts of the dessert - you take a few wrong turns here and there, and you wind up upon this huge body of water, the Salton Sea, and just kind of quickly fall in love with it, just based on water being out in the desert in such huge amounts, but secondly, the kind of apocalyptic landscape, which was my own fascination. That's got things started. Congressman Sonny Bono had been interested in restoring the Salton Sea, seeing it as both an environmental wetland, and also a place for resorts and boating and fishing…as a result of this discussion about making Sonny’s dream come true, we wanted to explore how those attempts at restoring the Salton Sea were going to go.

It seems like the residents of the Salon area have become used to extravagant promises laid at their feet every couple years, whether it be through Sonny Bono, or the [longstanding] hope it will become a large retirement community - in making the film, was that something you had to consciously overcome in gaining their trust, that you weren’t going to be someone coming in with promises as happens every few years.

That was one of the difficult things that Jeff [Springer, co-director] and I anticipated from the beginning – we knew that the Salton Sea had this long history of nothing ever being done, and that most of the film and news coverage of the Salton Sea had been very negative. Given how just complicated a place this was, [we figured] it deserved some unbiased, entertaining journalism. Once we started meeting people in the community, there was something that drew them to us - we didn't have to overcome any inherent skepticism… and most embraced us from the get-go. Maybe it’s just because so much of the other coverage of the Salton Sea often dealt with politicians and scientists and they really just appreciated that we were going straight ot the people who had lived in, thrived and struggled in the community for so many years.

One unique aspect of the film is that you're talking about an potential ecological crisis which, unlike a lot of the eco-documentaries that came out in the last several years, is not directly related to climate change..Have you had difficulty explaining to people this is a separate issue?
The Salton sea being such an obscure issue…drawing attention to it and explaining why it's an important film in addition to being entertaining does present a problem. That's one of the reasons why when we market the film and present it to people, we [emphasize] the carnivalesque factor. 'Come and watch this movie about what these unique people have created in this place you’ve never heard of.' In a lot of discussions we try to have with people after the screening, [we tend to present it as] a microcosm of these larger environmental issues that are going on in other parts of the US and the world…Some of the things you see going on down there could, through climate change, happen elsewhere. It’s a great example of the environment run amok, whether you discuss the flooding that happened in the 1970’s, and how that relates to Hurricane Katrina, or the rapid evaporation of the water of the Salton Sea, and the dust storms that might be affected, that relates to climate change, [similar to those in] other parts of the world, where, if temperatures continue to rise, you’ll have more exposed dried lake-beds…In a way the Salton Sea is a parable to other things that the larger part of society might have to deal with in upcoming years.

How did you get John Waters? His voice is so perfect for the film.

At first we didn’t really want a narrator, because we wanted to let the people of the Salton Sea to speak for themselves. But given some of the larger issues which were difficult to condense and explain in interviews, we decided we needed to rely on a narrator, and we thought, if we needed to use as narrator, we needed some a little unorthodox and untraditional, and John Waters came to mind given his unique voice, but also his own deep affection for people who live on the fringe…As we started doing a little bit more research on John Waters, and watching his films from a different perspective we also recognized that while we often associate his films with comedy, with a camp value, all of them deal with these undercurrents of larger social issues…Coincidentally, he was friends with Sonny Bono from his film Hairspray, and kind of liked the idea of doing this as a payback to Sonny, who had done something really important for him.

What are your next projects after Plagues?

Both Jeff and I are drawn to projects about outsiders – we think those are the ones who are the real risk-takers in society because they've decided to live life in the way they want to. We have some projects going on [in this vein,] one about evangelical backpackers Christians following the path of the Apostle Paul, a documentary on gay truck drivers, another on outsider artists in the south – the documentary coming out later this year is one on the black punk band Fishbone…We try to disguise our films as entertainment, with a lot of information in there.