How a local film crew moved Walden Pond to the Colorado mountains

Video trailer above: Shot on location in Colorado, ‘Walden: Life in the Woods’ is a radical Western re-imagining of Thoreau’s eponymous classic that interlaces three narratives that take place over 24 hours and explore the trappings of modern life. 

Thoreau’s revered if not all that actually read screed helps Colorado natives reconcile their pasts in the wilderness.

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

In a witty 2015 essay titled Pond Scum, The New Yorker went there: It called out Henry David Thoreau’s sanctified, centuries-old essay Walden, or Life in the Woods, as “more revered than read.” Hashtag #TranscendentalBurn.

Denver filmmaker Alex Harvey has been there. No really, he was right there in 2009. Not at that infamous pond in Concord, Mass. At Watercourse, Denver’s original vegan restaurant, passing bottles of wine with the homeboys he’s kept since kindergarten at Denver’s Graland Country Day School. His lifetime posse via Denver East High School includes comic actor T.J. Miller (Cloverfield), screenwriter Adam Chanzit (3 Nights in the Desert) and actor Erik Hellman, who has worked at all the biggest theatres in Chicago. On this night, the 303 pals were tossing back vino while tossing around ideas for their next creative project.

A Walden Denver Film Festival. Photo by James DiMagibaSomebody said, ‘How about Walden — set in Colorado?” Harvey said. “And we were like, ‘OK, that’s interesting — but have any of us actually read it?’ And the answer wasn’t just ‘No.’ It was ‘No (bleeping) way!’ We had all read maybe one chapter.”

But the one chapter Harvey remembered reading rang a bell that harked back to when, appropriately enough, Thoreau wrote of hearing a church bell ring — “and it just transforms him in amazing ways,” said Harvey. The sodden buds committed to reading Thoreau’s book — all of it this time. And over the next week, many more bells would ring.

When they regathered a week later to talk about it, Harvey said, “We were all amazed that the first 100 pages of Walden are not about trees or lakes or transcendentalism. They are about debt. All these farmers had drawn-out mortgages they couldn’t afford. It was literally the sub-prime mortgage crisis of the 1830s that spurred Thoreau to write this damn book. And mind you, we were in 2009, when the world around us was in financial crisis. It was immediately clear to us that this book was the most relevant piece of writing for what was going on at that time, and no one was making the connection. Suddenly, we all felt like this winsome idea was something we really had to dedicate ourselves to.”

Little did the director know it would be eight years before his similarly titled film odyssey Walden: Life in the Woods would culminate in its premiere last night at the 2017 Denver Film Festival. That Harvey went into the making of it with an admittedly meager working knowledge of his source material didn’t faze him one bit. Speaking of Odysseys, Harvey pointed out that it didn’t occur to the famed Coen Brothers that neither of them had actually read Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey until long after they wrapped shooting their celebrated 2000 screen adaptation, O Brother, Where Art Thou.

(Story continues below the photo.)

Pictured: Demián Bichir in Walden: ‘Life in the Woods.’

“When I adapt stories for film, they usually turn out very radical and very departure-oriented,” Harvey said. “I take the essences of things and I try to open them out in a prismatic way.”

Walden took its filmic structure from screenwriter Adam Chanzit, who brought Harvey a revealing quote from the source book. “Thoreau says: ‘I have three chairs in my cabin: One for solitude, two for friendship and three for society,’ ” Harvey said. And three more bells clanged.

“I knew right then we were going to do a three-part narrative that follows one day in the lives of three Colorado residents. And our three chapters would be called Solitude, Friendship and Society.”

Harvey had in mind a contemporary re-imagining that would not romanticize jerky Thoreau’s Unabomber-like hermitic lifestyle. (Seriously … The New Yorker calls his book “The Original Cabin Porn”). Rather, a cinematic rumination that would focus on the trappings of 21st century life and those who dream of escape.

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Solitude is about a widow trying to break free from the walls of encroaching dementia — and her nursing home. Friendship explores the relationship between two boys struggling to confront their inner wild in the Rocky Mountain wilderness. Society shows a desperate family man who dreams of freeing himself from the constraints of his mortgage, health insurance and failing home appliances.

Harvey not only was inspired by the sub-prime mortgage crisis of the 1830s but rather by a quest to reconcile his own past relationship with the state of Colorado — and why that even still matters to him 20 years later.

“I wanted to talk about why it is that so many people from Colorado have complicated relationships with the fact that they don’t live there anymore,” said Harvey, whose parents went west, as so many did, during the great suburban land rush of the 1960s. Harvey moved out around 1995 and returns very much a stranger in his native land.

“All of my friends who are originally from Colorado feel kind of weird about not living here anymore, and that just isn’t true of my friends who are from Chicago or Toledo or Topeka,” he said. “So I was trying to put it together what it was about our state that has this kind of magnetic quality that seems qualitatively different from other places. And I find that is only true of people who are from communities like Denver that sit on the edge between civilization and the great American wilderness. It was interesting for me to explore how that affects the way people relate to each other, and to the society around them.”

What’s funny to Harvey is that all of this stems from Thoreau’s epic journey to … a pond in Massachusetts, an adventure that should not be mistaken for, say, Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) literally walking into his frozen death in the Alaskan winter. Thoreau was born in Concord. He journeyed to the other side of town.

“Only someone who has never experienced true remoteness could ever mistake Walden for the wilderness,” the New Yorker snarked. Thoreau’s associates loved him, but didn’t particularly like him. “As for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote for The Atlantic in 1862 — and he was Thoreau’s best friend. That’s because, quite anachronistically, “Henry delighted to entertain, as he only could, with the varied and endless anecdotes of his experiences by field and river,” Emerson wrote. And for the time, that was mysterious and new.

Alex Harvey Walden “Before Thoreau, nobody believed that going outside was something healthy,” Harvey said. “You only went outside to work. The outdoors was thought of as full of dangerous things. But after Thoreau — with some help from Emerson, Walt Whitman and, on the other side of the Atlantic, William Wordsworth — suddenly you have these guys saying something new about the outdoors. And I think you can connect this new kind of thinking straight to the start of the national parks system, straight to John Muir and the founding of the Sierra Club, and straight to the front door of the Confluence Park REI in Denver. Seriously, I would argue that the idea of Colorado being served to you at that REI is the heritage of Thoreau. I was able to make a palpable connection to this romantic idea that the wilderness is still alive in these frontier places that abut the geographical line between wilderness and civilization.”

Harvey soon hooked up with some of the biggest names in the Colorado film community. He called Oscar winner Daniel Junge for advice. “He told me, ‘Colorado production is two words: Mitch Dickman,’ ” Harvey said. Dickman, who founded Listen Productions, is the director of the prize-winning Colorado-centric documentaries Hanna Ranch and Rolling Papers, and he quickly signed on as a Walden producer. It turns out Dickman and his mother have been reading Walden together for two decades, go figure. “It was serious serendipity and synchronicity,” said Harvey.

So was receiving more than $210,000 in incentives from Governor John Hickenlooper’s Colorado Economic Development Commission, as well as support from many of Denver’s toniest philanthropists. The result is a $1.5 million epic that was filmed in 48 Colorado locations, but primarily in Ridgway and the San Juan Mountains on a ranch made available to Harvey by Daniel Wolf and his wife, Maya Lin. Walden employed a crew of more than 40 and a cast of 32 that includes recognizable names from near and afar.

Go to the Walden: A Life in the Woods official web site

Headlining the effort is Mexican star Demián Bichir, best known for The Hateful Eight (also filmed in Colorado) and also a surprise 2012 Oscar nominee for A Better Life, about an East Los Angles gardener who struggles to keep his son away from gangs and immigration agents. Here he plays the maxed-out family man struggling through the morass of everyday bureaucracy trying to keep his household afloat.

The dementia chapter focuses on a woman named Alice with early onset Alzheimer’s and played by the great Lynn Cohen, perhaps best known as Mags in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and as Golda Meir in Steven Spielberg’s Munich. The cast list is loaded with familiar names from the local theatre community as well, including longtime DCPA favorites Jamie Horton and Leslie O’Carroll, Colorado Theatre Guild Lifetime Achievement winner Joey Wishnia, Chris Kendall, Karen Slack, Daniel Traylor, Jaime Lujan, Sarah Kirwin, Heather Nicolson and Anthony J. Garcia. There are also fun appearances by well-known Denver journalists Mike Littwin and Bill Husted, as well as local musicians including Macon Terry (formerly of the band Paper Bird) and jazz great Purnell Steen.

A Jamie+Horton+HeadshotHorton, who was for years the DCPA Theatre Company’s longest-tenured actor until he was hired as a professor at Dartmouth College in 2006, was back for Saturday’s first two of Walden’s four Denver Film Festival screenings.

“It was a thrill to be a part of this film and to witness firsthand the talented director Alex has become,” said Horton, who plays a not-so-very sympathetic bank rep in Society. “It was a joy to work with so many familiar faces in the cast and crew.
It was marvelous to work with Demián Bichir. And to be able to come back to Colorado to celebrate the film’s opening — what I can tell you? Pretty damn great.” 

The final creative piece of the puzzle was yet another Graland grad, renaissance woman Laura Goldhamer, who is beloved in local-music circles as a singer-songwriter, but many people might not know is also an expert charcoal, stop-action film animator. And that seemed to Harvey the perfect engine for telling the Alzheimer’s chapter.

“I was sick of dementia stories being told from the outside in,” Harvey said. “It’s always about the patient’s family or caregiver. It’s never a subjective view of dementia from the inside. So we used the choppy, discontinuous style of stop-motion animation to try to create the kind of interrupted continuity of thought that Alice has going on in her mind. I tell you, Laura’s vision is unique, and no one knows about it. But she is an amazing asset to this state.”

Harvey’s roots in the Colorado theatre community go back to the 1990s, when he performed in dozens of productions for Christopher Selby’s Compass Theatre in the new Denver Civic Theatre (now the Su Teatro Preforming Arts Center). He has since engaged himself in a variety of capacities ranging from Dixieland musician to film composer to teacher at New York University’s esteemed Tisch School of the Arts to, believe it or not, a stint as an artistic neuroscientist. If you’ve seen him on screen, you’ve most likely seen him playing his mandolin in a fortuitous series of nationally televised Geico ads, the windfall from which helped move Walden from the wine-talking stage to Harvey finally calling “action” in the Colorado mountains.

The calendar helped spur things along in another way. “By 2016, we had been talking about this film for seven years, and it occurred to us that 2017 would be the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth,” Harvey said. “We felt like we had to shoot it in 2016 and release it in 2017. It had become a piss-or-get-off-the-pot situation.”

They did not get off the pot.

Our guide to all Colorado films in the Denver Film Festival

What Harvey unveiled on Saturday at two sold-out Denver Film Festival screenings might surprise those who vaguely recall Walden, the book.Walden, the film, is not the romantic ode to simple living in natural surroundings that some mistakenly think the book they never read is probably about. Harvey’s brief trilogy does not champion self-imposed isolationism as some sort of noble contemporary pursuit. Instead, he presents protagonists who are desperately fighting to hold on to some sort of fraying connection with other human beings.

“I think Thoreau is really advocating the letting-go of something,” Harvey said. “But in our movie, each chapter explores a different way in which people give something up. And sometimes, what one person is giving up is the opposite of what somebody is giving up in the next storyline. And we embrace the contradiction.”  

Harvey thinks the film he’s ultimately created “is a kind bacchanal.”  

Hold on there. This quiet, deeply personal, rumination on disconnection can be equated to a crazed party with drunken revelry, ecstatic sexual experimentation and wild music?

In four words, Harvey says: Well, sure. Why not?

“If you try to read Walden, there are parts that are as complicated as reading Zen poetry from the 12th century,” he said. “Our film is a party. Some people have called it The Beasts of the Southern Wild for Colorado in that within this admittedly poetic piece is really a portrait of an entire community.

“If you love Thoreau, you are going to have an amazing time thinking about the relationship between the movie and the book. And if you have never heard of Thoreau, we have made a movie that is also meant to be ingested fully independent of Thoreau.

“But one thing is the same: We are speaking the truth to power, just as Thoreau  was trying to do.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Walden: Life in the Woods: Remaining Denver Film Festival screenings
Directed by Alex Harvey
Length: 104 minutes

  • Monday, Nov. 6, 1:45 p.m., Sie FilmCenter TICKETS
  • Friday, Nov. 10, 1 p.m., Sie FilmCenter TICKETS

Photo gallery: World premiere screening of Walden at Denver Film Festival:

2017 Denver Film Festival

Photos from the world premiere screening of ‘Walden: Life in the Woods,’ at the Denver Film Festival at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Nov. 4, 2017. To see, hover your cursor over the image above and click the forward arrow. Photos by James Dimagiba, Ann Vargas and Sean Marquantte, courtesy of Denver Film Festival.

Walden: Life in the Woods: Cast list

Guy: Erik Hellman
Luke: Anthony LoVerde
Ramirez: Demián Bichir
Alice: Lynn Cohen
Nurse Bubilo: Sofiya Akilova
Gloria Ramirez: Gabriella Coleman
Isabelle Ramirez: Noella Wong
Melinda Ramirez: Amber Gray
Lead Surveyor: Purnell Steen
Surveyor: Dave Slack
Jack: Mike Littwin
Ben: Chris Kendall
Larry: Joey Wishnia
Chloe: Bonita Vaden
Tony: Chris Sullivan
Charlie: T.J. Miller
Bank Teller: Karen Slack
Edelberg: Jamie Horton
Pharmacist: Effi Hugo
Male Clerk: Daniel Traylor
Shopper: Jaime Lujan
NewsCaster: Bill Husted 
All Health Representative: Sathya Sridharan
Hank: Ron Cohen
Hunched Shushing Woman:  Sarah Kirwin
Patty: Leslie O’Carroll
Buddy: Kareem Lucas
One Mother: Heather Nicolson
One Child: Birdie Hughes
Bank Security Guard: Anthony J. Garcia 
Les: Les Sunde
Mr. Mustache: Macon Terry
Laura: Laura Goldhamer

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