Filmmaking and our National Parks: Q&A with writer and director David Vassar

By Jeffrey K. Stine
Color photo of waterfalls cascading down rocky mountains with greenery around.

To commemorate the centennial of the National Park Service, the museum will join with the Environmental Film Festival to present a film retrospective of award-winning writer and director David Vassar. The museum's curator for environmental history, Jeffrey K. Stine, recently asked Vassar about his filmmaking career and his work in the National Parks.

Color photo of waterfalls cascading down rocky mountains with greenery around.

Stine: What first interested you in becoming a filmmaker?

Vassar: I was born into a "Hollywood" family, raised by my single mom who worked in the Music Department at 20th Century Fox. My grade school was about a mile from the studio, and I rode my bike onto the lot from the time I was 10 years old. I visited sets and sound stages and was able to observe film production from a very young age. For a short time I worked as an extra and bit player in movies and television—long enough to realize that filmmaking was what I wanted to do and that working behind the camera was a lot more fun than acting.

Photo of man (mostly silhouette) leaping into the air, arms raised, with a mountain peak in background. Snow visible on peak.

Did any of your early work prove influential?

When I was 19, I made a documentary in Yosemite National Park that won a student film festival. The Park Service caught wind of the film, and I ended up working in Yosemite for three summers presenting evening programs (1971–73). With the help of a dozen volunteers we created the "Yosemite Light Brigade," running evening programs seven nights a week. Our target audience was the young urban visitor who knew little about nature or national parks. With a dozen film and slide projectors, acoustic music, spoken word, stand-up comedy, full-moon walks, and campfire talks on transcendentalism, we introduced Yosemite's wonders to as many as 600 young people on a busy weekend night.

Color photo of an outdoor scene. A man in hat, backpack, and long sleeves holds a notebook while observing the trees, mountains, and colorful brush.

Why did you continue making films about America's national parks?

After my experience as an interpretive ranger in Yosemite, I was truly hooked. National parks protect the country's most superlative natural areas. The opportunity to couple that with my passion for filmmaking became my life's work.

In my park films I try to tell stories that go beyond majestic scenery, but the landscape is always the central character and the place from which the story emerges. The scenery is the "hook," for sure, but the stories that parks hold are equally dramatic. The founding and establishment of nearly every park is almost always a dramatic conflict of greed versus altruism.

Historic sites mark the turning points of American and global history. Name a story that holds more drama than John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry or creating a new nation at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. So, national parks protect the most superlative landscapes and preserve the greatest historic moments.

Photo of two people in a small yellow raft, wearing life preservers. They are on the water among very high-walled rock cannons.

What do you hope people will learn from your films?

For many, it may seem that the idea of making a film about Yosemite that will play in Yosemite is something of an oxymoron. If you went to the Cairo Museum to see the life mask of King Tut, arguably the most recognizable human icon on earth, it might seem a waste of time to duck into the gallery theater to see a movie about the life mask, when the actual object is a few feet away.

When we were envisioning the park film for Yosemite—Spirit of Yosemite—we joked that after the houselights went down a single line of white text should appear on the dark screen and simply declare: "It's outside, stupid!"

The fact is that if you can expand the imagination of visitors and provide them with a window into the complexity of natural processes and human history, as well as illuminate the fact that many of these places hold a spiritual and emotional dimension, then they will begin to appreciate the place on a deeper level.

My ultimate goal is to spark a heartfelt relationship between the visitor and the park. Ideally, you want them to walk out of the theater with a fuller understanding of how natural forces coalesced to create an extraordinary place. And an appreciation of how a group of visionary individuals experienced the same wonder and were inspired to set them aside as national parks to be left "unimpaired" for future generations.

Photo of a person skiing, back to camera, wearing blue jacket. Surrounding her are snowy mountains and trees.

What are you working on now?

My current project is a documentary feature about the deserts of California, Nevada, and Arizona entitled Conspiracy of Extremes.

The film is a love song for one of the most forlorn and misunderstood regions in the world. It is a scientific and cultural exploration of the deserts of the American Southwest. Rather than a worthless wasteland, the desert will be portrayed as a wonderland teeming with remarkable life. This grand desert is among the last and largest places where one can still experience unbroken vistas, wildness, silence, and solitude. It is a place we risk losing, a place worthy of preserving, a place we must care for and fight to protect.

Vassar's wide-ranging films have featured several National Parks, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Grand Canyon, as well as California's state parks and many other environmental topics. Since becoming a charter participant in the Environmental Film Festival in 1993, the museum has explored the environmental dimensions of the American experience through the screening of nearly 100 films. Join us on Saturday, March 19, 2016, to see Environmental Film Festival films at the museum. Jeffrey K. Stine is curator in the Division of Medicine and Science.