Q&A: Light & Shadows

Ken Burns is about to bring the parks into millions of living rooms this month, but John Grabowska has been putting America's best places on the silver screen for nearly 20 years.

By Amy Leinbach Marquis

John Grabowska has a lot of stories to tell. Three hundred ninety one, to be exact. He’s been chipping away at that list for nearly two decades by writing, producing, and directing films for the National Park Service. And there’s a good chance you’ve seen the results in a cool, dark visitor center on a hot summer day, or from the comfort of your couch. Grabowska’s films have been screened in 28 national parks, and many have found a second life on public television stations throughout the country.

Raised in South Dakota, the son of two professors is driven to educate his viewers on issues that affect the parks—global warming has become an increasingly common theme—but he never fails to include a healthy dose of gorgeous cinematography, music, and poetry, to keep spirits up. Grabowska’s films tend to be so big and sweeping, in fact, that you might think 50 people went into the making of each of them—but if you were to stumble on one of his production crews in the field, it wouldn’t look like much. Besides a rather large camera, there are usually just two people at work: a cinematographer and Grabowska himself—who, despite his title, usually ends up hauling much of the gear.

His best-known films include Crown of the Continent, featuring Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska; Ribbon of Sand, featuring Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina’s Outer Banks; and Remembered Earth, featuring El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico. Grabowska recently finished a film on Yellowstone National Park, and will soon wrap up another on Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. Future projects depend on which parks can scrape together the funds—whether through different pots of fee money, a budgeted line item in Congress, or a generous friends group. He has also overseen the production of films on historical parks like New Bedford Whaling in Massachusetts and Dayton Aviation Heritage in Ohio, to the iconic Yosemite National Park in California and Shenandoah in Virginia. Associate Editor Amy Leinbach Marquis traveled to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to ask Grabowska about his experiences focusing on the national parks.

Q: What was your first experience on the job?
A: I had just come back from the Peace Corps and my bags were packed. My wife and I were going to relocate to New Mexico, a place that I love—I’ve been going there for 30 years. The cultures, the landscape diversity, the high desert, I love it all.

But I thought it would be foolish to go without checking out this job that I’d heard about from a friend at National Geographic. So I visited Harpers Ferry, and never left. One of my first assignments was to direct a shoot at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The Peace Corps does a great job of preparing people for the developing world. You’re ready for a hardship post, for a dirt floor and a thatched roof, for illness, for loneliness. But back then they did a miserable job of preparing you to come back to the richest, most technologically advanced nation in the world. And culture shock was overwhelming. I was blown away by the wealth, the number of white people, the obsession with cleanliness. Everybody had two vehicles!

Going to the Big Island of Hawaii was such a tremendous relief. The pace, the friendliness, the relaxation; working with people who lived within and valued their own traditional culture. It was a wonderful reintroduction to the United States—ironically enough, going to Hawaii, the 50th state. It helped me cope.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m just starting post-production on a film for Bandelier National Monument. As is usually the case with the films I make, it’s a look at the broader ecosystem. I’m doing two versions: A shorter version for park visitors who don’t want to be warehoused in a theater too long, and a longer version that will be submitted to PBS for consideration. Airing on PBS is not a given—the network has their layers of approval processes and review boards and groups and committees. Just because I have a track record doesn’t mean I get a free pass the next time. You’re only as good as your next film.

I also just wrapped up a film on Yellowstone, which is experiencing many of the impacts of global climate change, but the aim of this film was to show an even bigger picture. A film takes a long time to make, so this one will have to last a decade or two. The information needs to be grounded in solid science but can’t be so of-the-moment that it’s dated a year later. Otherwise we’ve wasted a lot of money on a film that’s no longer relevant.

Q: Why is the big picture so important?
A: Because flora and fauna don’t recognize park boundaries. Nor does pollution. Nor does climate change.

So far I’ve been fortunate to work with open-minded superintendents and chiefs of interpretation. It doesn’t usually take much convincing. These are Park Service professionals who look at ecosystems and understand the necessities of dealing with things outside the park boundary because they affect what’s inside the park boundary.

I sent a rough cut of the Wrangell-St. Elias film to the park’s superintendent, and when he saw the underwater footage, he said, “Our management area ends at the water’s edge.” And I said, “But the tides go up and down, and the salmon don’t know that your management ends there. They spend four to five years out in the ocean, then they come up the Copper River and come into your park. Why don’t we take a look at the environment and talk about how at the core is a national park?” So we did, and I think it made for a better film, instead of the insularity of saying, “Well here’s the boundary. We’re only going to talk about what’s inside this political boundary.”

Q: What do you hope viewers take away from your films?
A: The Park Service is often referred to as the premier preservation agency in America, if not the world. And part of preservation is letting people know that they need to be responsible for their park. Stewardship is the responsibility of every American citizen, if not every member of humankind. But we don’t want to depress them. There are so many formulaic environmental documentaries with the doom-and-gloom syndrome. And it actually may be counterproductive, because it can lead to a feeling of hopelessness in the viewer: “Everything is so bad, the forces at work are so big, I’m just an individual, what can I do…” Then they leave the theater or turn off the TV with slumped shoulders and that feeling of helplessness. Our job is not to soft-pedal the threats to the resource. But we also have to inspire people, to make them care, to put things into perspective.

You could describe every natural history film I’ve made in five words: “Humankind in the natural world.” We evolved in the natural world, and it was only the Medieval and Industrial Ages—and now the Information Age—that created this artificial barrier between us and nature.

So a primary goal is to remind the viewer that we are natural beings; that we are part of this and it is part of us. This isn’t an original idea. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about it, Aldo Leopold wrote about it, Rachel Carson wrote about it, E.O. Wilson wrote about it. So just like Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “I’m a part of all I’ve met”—every book I’ve read, every place I’ve been to, every person I’ve met—all of that goes into every film I’ve ever worked on. So that’s where it comes from, and it builds.

I have such respect for the audience, because the act of watching, listening to, thinking about a film, is as creative a process as making the film. Similarly, the act of reading a book is as creative as writing it. Everybody who comes into the theater is an individual, is unique, has their own experiences and their own feelings and interpretations about those experiences. People see things that the author or the creator of that work of art may not have intended.

Visitors don’t drive across the country to see a John Grabowska film—they drive across the country to make that great American pilgrimage to Yellowstone or Mesa Verde or Yosemite. So we only have them for a short time—the poor captive audience. Or maybe they’re in there just because it’s air conditioned and it’s 100 degrees outside and there are nice, clean bathrooms. So they come into the theater, and we have a responsibility to them to deliver the best possible interpretation we can based on good science and history, while incorporating, I hope, the best of the arts—photography, music, editing, writing.

Q: But you also work hard to get the films beyond the national park crowd. Why is that important?
A: The people sitting in the theater at the park visitor center aren’t necessarily the people we have to convince that national parks are important—they’ve already demonstrated that they know that. They’re there. They’ve made the trek. These are our people. And I want to inspire them, I want to reward them. But we do need to reach beyond them. We need to reach the people who don’t have the opportunity or
the funds to come all the way across the country. I’m lucky—I grew up going to Yellowstone because I grew up out West, but I know more people who have not been to Yellowstone than who have.

I first went to PBS in search of a broader audience after making the film for a spectacular place, Wrangell-St. Elias, and realizing most people can’t afford to go to Alaska. I have wanted to take my family to Wrangell-St. Elias for the last 10 years but I can’t afford it. I can’t even take my own girls.

So I sent it off to PBS, and fortunately they loved it. It showed nationally in prime time several times during the first year, and affiliates continue to show it. The Wrangells film is probably on television right now, somewhere in the nation. So it has reached millions and millions of people. A park that most people have never heard of, even though it’s the largest national park in the United States—it’s 13 million acres. It’s larger than Switzerland, and has bigger mountains. If we’re going to put all this time
and effort into a film, then yes—let’s reward those visitors who come here, let’s inspire them, let’s inform them. But it’s a great big nation out there. Let’s try to reach some others as well.

 Q: You’re careful not to keep park visitors in the theater for too long. Why?
A: I have this fantasy: People walk in expecting a beautiful natural history movie. They sit down in their seats. The lights dim, the curtain opens, and two words appear on screen: “Go outside.”

The idea of a national park is not a visitor center. It is the canyon. It is the Maggie Lena Walker House. It is the glacier. It is the remains of the mission at Salinas Pueblo Missions. If a visitor drives into the park, goes to the visitor center, absorbs some interpretation, and leaves, well at least they’ve received some interpretation, but that’s not the goal of the National Park Service. Our goal is for the visitor to have a personal experience with the reason the park was established. And so sure, I would love for them to see my film. But I would rather that they get out on the trail. That they walk through Fort Jefferson. That they experience what attracted those of us who work in the national parks in the first place: the authentic.

My poor daughters have grown up moaning that they never got to go to Disney World. Because their evil ogre of a dad says, “No, we are not going to have a contrived experience.” Let’s not seek out a fake experience, however wonderful it might be. There’s already an audience for that—they don’t need us.

The authentic is the reason I work in the Park Service. The authentic is the reason that when I try to stay in shape, I put a kayak on the river instead of going to the gym. The authentic is what my daughters—against every inclination of childhood—have absorbed. One of my daughters is working as a living history volunteer, just down the hill at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. John Brown’s Raid took place steps from where we’re sitting. That’s real. The first time I visited Yosemite Valley I nearly drove
off the road because my head was out the window—I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. That’s real. And getting out on the trail where John Muir walked—to “seek the good tidings”—that’s authentic.

Sure, watch the film. I hope you admire the arts that are in it. But if you just leave having watched a film and seen some exhibits and used the bathrooms, then I’ve failed.

Q: Do you have a favorite park? A place you’d go again and again?
A: I don’t have a favorite park—that’s like asking me if I have a favorite daughter! But I would take my family to Wrangell-St. Elias in a heartbeat. I have a personal history with it—I went through it when I was six years old, before it was a park. It is so jaw dropping. There are parts that look like the desert southwest and parts that look like Antarctica. You could drop Yosemite in there and it would be one more beautiful valley. It’s like no other place on Earth.

This article appears in the Fall 2009 issue.

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