When the hustle and the bustle of city dwelling gets to be too much, it's the secret fantasy of most New Yorkers to give it all up for life in the country. But could you live without electricity, running water, paved roads and conventional law enforcement in a home you made yourself? Local documentarians and siblings, Randy and Jeremy Stulberg [pictured at below with astronaut Buzz Aldrin] spent time in New Mexico filming a group of people doing just that in a community its residents call the Mesa. Their movie, Off The Grid: Life on the Mesa screened at the Slamdance Film Festival earlier this year. Gothamist chatted with the Stulbergs about making the documentary, the eclectic, oddly patriotic anti-establishment characters in their film, and why despite their experiences, Randy and Jeremy are still firm believers in city living.
As New Yorkers, how did you end up making a movie about the life of people on the Mesa, a place so far from traditional urban civilization?
New York is our home. But our dad passed away a few years ago, and part of the healing process was getting out of NYC. Randy ended up teaching photography in New Mexico, and that's what lead us to the Mesa. We knew we wanted to make a movie together about American Expatriates. When we found the Mesa, it was like we found a community of expatriates within the United States, which was so fascinating.
A number of subjects in your documentary are war veterans. Were you surprised to discover how fiercely patriotic many of these self-described "drop outs" are?
When people think of "drop outs", they think of people who are anti-American conspiracy theorists. We were amazed and excited that most of our subjects defied those stereotypes. They're some of the most patriotic Americans we know. It was inspiring because they really believed in those basic American ideals of freedom and democracy. Part of the reason they've chosen to "drop out" is because they feel that those ideals have been lost in the last decade, or so. That's what drew us to the story.
It's interesting in the film to discover that even though the Mesa's inhabitants don't want to be a part of traditional "civilized" American life, they still gravitate towards structure in their community, like the elders council, rather than the anarchy favored by the Nowhere Kids. Any thoughts on why you think this is?
When we first started shooting, our understanding was that there were very few rules on the Mesa. We thought it was basically anarchy out there. So, when the community was challenged by the Nowhere Kids' thefts, and they developed the council, it was SO fascinating to see it come together. Basically, the way it unfolds for the audience is the way we experienced it too. It caught us by surprise. But it makes sense because of the community's reverence for democracy and "true American freedom."
Which of your characters did you feel the most affinity for?
There were certain personalities that we just clicked with and we became friends with some of our subjects. We were drawn to Maine, the Gulf War Veteran who is dying of cancer caused by Gulf War Syndrome. He is very "cool" and has a really magnetic personality. His story is pretty mind-blowing. Also, Stan, the Mesa Pig Farmer is just the nicest, sweetest guy in the world. He's a mix between Santa Clause and the Grandfather we never really had.
Do you think the desire to live off the grid is a growing trend in the U.S. right now?
There's definitely a movement of people who want to live off the grid, especially out west... though, we've heard of off-grid communities in Upstate New York. The Mesa is not the only off-grid community out there. Whether or not you actually have the balls to live off the grid, with no access to traditional electricity or running water, it's just interesting to think about alternative ways of living. When you think about it, we've only been living in the modern world for a little over a century. Before that, people had been living off the grid for thousands of years. Especially coming from New York City, it kind of blows your mind to think that the city, as it is today, basically could not exist without electricity and other conveniences that we take for granted.
While you were making the film were you also living that Mesa lifestyle of not bathing except in the Rio Grande, hauling your own wood to burn for heat, sleeping in a tin trailer, etc?
After spending 15 hour days out on the Mesa filming our subjects, we definitely got down and dirty. We drove off cliffs, shot guns and hung out after hours on the Mesa. But we also felt like we needed some separation from our subjects because we were working. Logistically, we found that we needed to plug in our equipment, check our email and watch our footage! So we would go back to a town thirty miles away, and stay in a motel.
How did seeing how these people living their lives so simply make you feel about returning to city life? Are you more (or maybe less) appreciative of things like electricity or running water?
After our shoots, it definitely took a day or two to get back into New York City. Although, after month-long shoots, it was usually a welcome change! That said, making the film did change our perspective on how we live in New York. To the people off the grid on the Mesa, living in New York seems insane. As New Yorkers, we do live in the middle of the number one terror target in the world. Not to sound too alarmist, but most New Yorkers don't really think about how they would live if the electricity and water were shut off tomorrow. Living out in the middle of nowhere definitely psychologically prepares you for any kind of disaster.
Is this the first time you two have collaborated on a film together? Did you find directing and producing with another person made the process easier or more challenging?
This is our first film together and it's a great working relationship. We have the same artistic sensibility, so that helps. When you're brother and sister, it's also good because you can bicker and argue without worrying about offending the other person! Generally, it's easier working on documentaries with two directors -- not with narratives. You'll notice that there a lot of doc collaborations because you need more than one perspective when you're in the field, as well as the editing room. Our Producer, Eric Juhola was also instrumental in the editing process. We could never have made the film without him.
How was it showing the film to audiences at Slamdance? What aspects of the film have audiences been responding to most strongly?
Showing the film at Slamdance has been unbelievable because of the interaction with the audience. After the two and a half year process of making the film, it's really exciting to finally share it. People tell us that they've never seen anything like this before. It really blows them away that people live like this. Also, audience-members have told us that the characters are unforgettable, so we feel very good about that. We also got a very positive review in Variety this week, and we actually got to meet John Anderson, the writer of the review. He told us in person how much he loved the film. We were speechless.
Oh, and on side note, we did get to meet Buzz Aldrin! That was, by far, our favorite celebrity sighting.
What other plans do you have for screening the film?
We're taking the film to a really cool new festival called True/False Film Festival in Colombia, Missouri. Everybody at Sundance and Slamdance has been talking about it. Then we're screening at Miami International. We'll see about other festivals as they come up. There are certain fests that we're hoping for, but we don't wanna jinx 'em. Beyond that, we think the film would be perfect for TV, either cable or Public TV. Since it's only 64 minutes, traditional theatrical distribution is kind of not realistic, but we're thinking about taking the film on tour, and maybe doing some arthouse screenings too. We think that would be so much fun. Check out stillpointpictures.com for info on upcoming screenings.
Most filmmakers tend to also be movie-going fanatics. Do you have a favorite place in New York to see cinema?
There's nothing like going to see a movie in New York at Film Forum on a rainy day. It's such a New York thing to cram into a tiny theater and feel like you're being punished when you go watch a movie. And we LOVE it. Film Forum still plays the most amazing, romantic movies that you can't see anywhere else. Let's pray that it never closes. Walter Reade too. Thank goodness for New Directors/New Films and Film Society of Lincoln Center and the New York Film Festival. All of those highbrow institutions are gems.
Finally, tell us your ideal night out in the city?
Actually, Wednesday is the best night to go out with your friends and have a great dinner and maybe even go dance! Before the weekend rush, you can get a great table and just chill with some wine and good conversation. After working so hard on this movie, we're looking forward to doing that again!