Vern Moen, Documentary Filmmaker
In April, the Foo Fighters embarked on an abbreviated tour that would see them playing just eight shows. These were no run of the mill gigs, though. Instead of the large rooms the hard rock unit usually sells out, these concerts took place in more intimate venues. Much more; the shows were held in the garages of eight of the band’s most hardcore fans.
Filmmaker Vern Moen was on hand to document things, including the host of the New York show giving one of the all time great rock and roll introductions.
Moen, whose Long Beach Film Company has handled projects for an array of quixotic groups including The Dead Weather, Mando Diao, and Cold War Kids, was a natural candidate for the job. Operating from the back of a van, Moen and his jack-of-all-trades assistant, John Raines, worked doggedly to turn around short teasers of each show, sometimes laboring through the night and posting clips to the LBFC website within 12 hours. The trailers reveal a fondness for found images that steep the viewer in each locale. They also reveal glimpses of the same dry humor Moen employs in person.
Although we attended the same University, it was not until several years after graduating that I would have occasion to meet Moen. Our acquaintance was precipitated by a conversation with an old friend, who asked me out of the blue one day if I’d heard about “Vern’s latest adventure.” Informing him that I’d never met the guy, our mutual friend directed me toward the internet with nothing to go on but a single, cryptic password: Plastiki. What I found fascinated me so much that I contacted Vern to see if I might interview him the next time I was in Los Angeles.
On the day we were to meet, I arrived at the appointed time to an address in Long Beach which Moen had given me. To my dismay, I found myself looking at what was surely an abandoned storefront, complete with an iron grate over the door and an empty display window gathering dust. Just before giving up all hope of making our meeting, I chanced to look through a half open gate behind the building which led onto a narrow alley.
“Vern?” I called. “In here,” came a disembodied voice. Moments later I was face to face with Ernest Shackleton’s screen double.
photograph by Matt Wignall
During the run-up to his much publicized trans-Pacific voyage on a ship made entirely of plastic bottles, environmentalist and banking heir David de Rothschild was approached by National Geographic about the possibility of a filmmaker accompanying him and his crew. De Rothschild agreed. In the end, though, the gregarious adventurer ended up hedging his bets by bringing along an additional documentarian of his own choosing; Vern Moen.
“I had no idea who he was or what he was like,” Moen said in his gravelly voice. After retrieving me from the sidewalk he’d brought me in to the small offices where he and Raines were installed in front of massive flatscreen monitors. Reclining in a swivel chair, one leg crossed over the other, he was the spitting image of a 19th century explorer translated into a 21st century context; twill trousers, down vest, thick stocking cop folded up on itself. And then there was that mustache, the ensemble’s linchpin; thick, elongated, its lustrous handlebars signaling the kind of commitment that might see a man across an ocean.
“He called me on the phone,” Vern continued. “I remember I was pulling into my house, and he just started going. I’ve never felt so much energy exuding from a telephone. I was almost sold purely on his energy about the project. I went up there the next week, met him, and just started filming.”
“There” ended up being Sausalito, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where Moen saw The Plastiki for the first time as it neared completion. The boat’s name references the 12,500 reclaimed bottles that make up the bulk of the hull, and also gives a nod to famed Pacific navigator Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, a raft of balsa logs that Heyerdahl and his crew floated from Peru to the Polynesian islands in 1947. In addition to the bottles, de Rothschild and skipper Jo Royle kitted out the vessel with a number of other green accoutrements, including bicycle driven generators and a mainsail woven from 100% recycled PET fibers.
Gadgetry aside, there would be weeks of pure, unadulterated sailing ahead. I was curious as to whether Moen had had much experience on the open ocean before embarking on a quest to cross the world’s largest body of water.
“I went fishing in San Pedro a couple times,” he said, using a deadpan delivery to withering effect. “But no, zero sailing. I turned out to be a total natural though. We get out to sea, everybody’s barfing, and I’m just sitting there like, ‘What’s the problem? We’re sailing. This should be exciting.’ ”
Untested sea legs would prove to be the least of Moen’s concerns; when The Plastiki shoved off, his wife Melinda was seven months pregnant with their first child.
“Originally we were supposed to leave two months earlier. The whole trip was going to take two months, so I was going to be fine. I was going to make it back for my son’s birth.” Despite this optimism, Moen acknowledged the riskiness of his decision. “We signed up knowing that it was a dicey time to be off sailing across the Pacific Ocean. My wife and I talked about it and decided that it was worth the risk. For the once in a lifetime opportunity for me to do what I love—film—while crossing the ocean, a dream of mine as a man.”
The initial departure date had made the gamble somewhat less dangerous than it ended up being. Plastiki had been slated to depart two weeks after Vern and Melinda made their decision. Then came a series of delays and the sticky issue of having to weigh the commitment he’d already made against the potential of missing his son’s birth.
“I was like, ok, this is happening and I either do it or I don’t do it. My wife was like, ‘go for it.’ Then the departure date got pushed and things started to change and she was going to give birth in the middle of the trip. I had already committed at that point. We had so many conversations around what I should do. They’d have had to find somebody else they all got along with. It would have been a big deal. So I decided to do it. I thought I might be able to land on Christmas Island and fly back and make it on time.”
He ended up missing the birth by five days.
I asked him to describe the actual day. “I was at the helm that night. The weather was great, and I was like, ‘Hey, I’ll have a cigar and some cognac while sailing The Plastiki across the Pacific.’ After my shift I called my wife to tell her about my great evening.”
Five minutes before he called Melinda had sent an email. The tangle of satellites and transceivers the communiqué had to navigate in order to reach the boat meant that Vern hadn’t received it before he called. The message had contained five words: I think my water broke.
“So, I’m like ‘Hey honey!” I just start rambling, and she says, ‘Did you get my email?’
‘No, why?’ ‘I think my water broke.’ And I was just like, ‘Oh. Kayyyy. Put down the cognac, Vern.’
“For a husband and father-to-be to be in a cabin with a bunch of British people in the middle of the Pacific Ocean ‘having fun’ while knowing that my wife was going into labor and would soon be giving birth to my child was a crazy feeling. I don’t think anybody can relate to that.”
After a sleepless night, Vern called in to participate in the birth as best he could. The crew cooperated to keep the phone lines free, including de Rothschild’s canceling a scheduled interview with Al Jazeera on the spur of the moment.
“It was a really bizarre experience. I’m a little pixilated blob on a screen watching the birth, and everybody’s pixilated from my perspective. I’d yell, ‘Push!’ and then there would be a delay.”
The family even took a group photo. Melinda and child are lying in a hospital bed while Vern’s face hovers on a computer screen being held up next to them.
There were times when Moen questioned having come on the trip for reasons that went beyond missing the birth of his son. He questioned the point of making a film that would essentially duplicate the one National Geographic was producing.
“We couldn’t release our film until 18 months after Nat Geo released theirs. We’d been shooting side by side. When two thirds of the crew are camera people, and you’re on rotating shifts, you’re really only filming two people. You’re on opposite shifts of three people and you’re one of those three. Not much story is going to happen between two people. It got kind of ridiculous at times. I found myself thinking, ‘Why am I here? I mean, it’s already being documented.’ ”
The Plastiki made landfall in Sydney on July 26th, 2010. Upon returning to Long Beach, Moen expanded his vision. Instead of making a film focused exclusively on the journey of the Plastiki, he decided to tackle humanity’s relationship with plastic generally. It was an ambitious shift to say the least, one that immediately sent him out the door again on a new trip, this time to Düsseldorf, Germany.
Known as “The K Show”, The International Trade Fair for Plastics and Rubber takes place but once every three years. “It’s like the Olympics of plastic,” Moen said, still impressed by the memory. “A Disneyland of plastic. The convention center they have it in, you could probably see it from space, and the whole thing was just covered in plastic. There was a seven-story thing that looked like you could launch a rocket ship off of it that was making plastic bags.”
In addition to segments on The Plastiki and the K Show, Moen’s also done interviews with individuals, including a man who’s been collecting plastic for 25 years because it reminds him of his childhood. “He gave us this line, ‘We use plastic because it makes us feel like God.’ He would just drop lines like that, and then,” Moen paused to make a sound like a bomb going off. “Mind blown.”
In an attempt to be objective Moen even met with a man who might be considered the anti-de Rothschild; a representative of savetheplasticbag.com.
“There are other films on plastic,” Moen informed me. “From what I know, though, I’m the one person who is wanting to tell both sides of the story. Before we dive into all these different conversations on whether to ban bags; whether it’s worth the jobs we’d lose; is paper better than this or that; before we as a public sign up for these things that are often emotional choices… well, think of everything around you. Plastic doesn’t suck. It’s changed the entire century that we’ve lived in.
“I want to look back at all the monumental events of the last 100 years and see how plastic has played a role in those events. Just to see how much progress has been associated with it. It has enabled all manner of things; cars, safety, medical advances, packaging, hygiene. Everything is different now.”
It’s our vision that needs changing, he insists. “We need to kind of rekindle our relationship with plastic. We need to walk into a grocery store and see it on the shelves. We need to understand what role it plays in our world already, and then we can decide on how to come to all these huge solutions.”
It’s a point on which he echoes de Rothschild, who acknowledges that plastic is not going anywhere. Removing it from the equation is not a realistic option. Our goal, de Rothschild argues, should be to figure out how plastic can be part of the solution to the very problems it has created.
The scope of a film that seeks to engage one of the most ubiquitous of all manmade substances struck me as ambitious in the extreme. Moen was quick to admit this, even while telling me that between his journey on The Plastiki, his trip to Germany, and all his subsequent research he had still only filmed “a fifth or sixth” of what he wanted. I wondered what kept him plugging away.
“Undertaking this project has meant going to a place like Düsseldorf and seeing what the demand for plastic is. Then I go to Starbucks, or the grocery store, and see that nobody gives a shit. Even in California where we’re pretty green, and eco-friendly, and savvy. We’re just plowing through an enormous amount of plastic. It’s daunting to realize that people don’t think about where this stuff goes. Plastic doesn’t go away. Most plastics take 500 to 1,000 years to biodegrade. We assume. Plastic was invented 100 years ago, so essentially every piece of plastic that’s ever been made is still out there somewhere.
“In our system everything is taken away to a landfill, or gets washed into the ocean. We don’t see it, so it’s not an important thing to us. We just live blindly, trudge forward with our lives, bitch about things, and then we get on Facebook. Because that’s what we do as Americans.”
Given the scope of the unfolding project, The Plastiki may ultimately be relegated to something of a bit role in Moen’s film, a metaphor for larger issues. Either way, whatever footage does appear from his transoceanic voyage (along with whatever else makes the final cut) will have been edited and curated. The evening before our interview I’d reflected on one of my all time favorite documentaries, Sam Jones’s, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, which follows the story of the Chicago rock band Wilco through a tumultuous and ultimately triumphant period in their history. I’ll likely never meet Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s lead singer and the star of the film, but I’ve seen the movie at least ten times though. It’s not hard to understand the power Jones wielded in the editing room; his final product has shaped the public’s view of Tweedy and his bandmates, including guitarist Jay Bennett who was kicked out of the group halfway through filming.
I submitted that recollection to Moen. Did he have an opinion on the responsibilities and privileges of a documentary filmmaker telling someone else’s story, I wondered? Did he feel a need to tread lightly in representing people?
“There are two different scenarios,” he contended. “One is where someone only wants specific things filmed. They want me to just edit that and turn it into something. They have the control and I’m more of just a tool, there to document certain aspects.”
I asked him if that would describe the companion DVD that had come with Cold War Kids’ Loyalty to Loyalty. Vern had been friends with the band during college.
“No, because I had a relationship with them. There was never a time when they told me to turn the camera off. That’s really the big moment right there, if somebody says, ‘Turn the camera off.’ It usually means there’s gonna be a fight, or they’re talking about the business side of things and don’t want that recorded. When somebody tells you to turn the camera off, they’re basically saying, ‘I don’t trust you. I don’t have a personal relationship with you.’
“WithThe Plastiki, David never told me to turn the camera off, which I thought was fantastic because I was able to go and get exactly what I needed. Some of the other crew members didn’t want me to film certain things. They’d say, ‘I don’t want this filmed.’ And David would say, ‘No, we’re filming it.’ People often want the pretty, fluffy things filmed and not the difficult things that make up a project or a band or whatever it is.”
It’s an understandable desire, but one that chafes Moen’s thirst for authenticity. “That’s where I get bummed, because when I’m editing it and then convey it to the audience, it seems like, ‘Oh, it was a piece of cake to record that album, or sail across the Pacific. It becomes an inauthentic story.
“The access you get dictates a lot. You have to get people to trust you. And sometimes you have to say, ‘I’m not going to turn off my camera.’ In the edit bay I’m going to use what I’m going to use, but if I start turning it off they’ll start pulling that card all the time, and pretty soon it’s B-roll of The Plastiki sailing and me doing voice-over.”
There is an obvious liability involved when mixing friendship with business. When you sign on to make a film about your buddies, you run the risk of either portraying people or events negatively and thereby upsetting them, or erring on the other side and allowing your work to devolve into a puff piece. Given Moen’s commitment to truth-telling, did he ever fear making a good friend look like a cad, simply by telling the real story of what happened?
“Character accuracy is the most important thing. When you’re filming somebody and they say something, did they accidentally say it or is it something they actually meant? I pride myself on not being gratuitous with my content or my editing. I’m not out to cause damage amongst people. But everybody has flaws. If I film something that involves something someone is struggling with, or is part of their character and how they interact with other people, I’ll put that in if it’s appropriate for the story and the theme.”
Having worked in reality television, Moen is no stranger to sensationalist editors ramping up whatever content they have so as to create maximum drama. The New York Times recently ran a story on the myriad delights of watching conflict unfold between crab fishermen on Deadliest Catch, a program that is only one of the more popular in an endless parade of reality shows that have sprung up like black mold on cable networks; the “angel’s share” alighting on the trees surrounding our cultural distillery. From Ice Road Truckers, Pawn Stars, and the father-son tensions of American Chopper, to the suburban enclaves of The Real Housewives of Orange County , tension amongst people is where the money’s at.
“I’ve seen some edits that go to extremes to cause tension between people. That’s what people want to see on TV; people quarrelling and people acting like maniacs, because there’s some escape there. I think there are bigger stories to tell than people quarrelling. It’s about having taste and putting the story before yourself as a director. In documentary filmmaking you’re telling the story that’s already there. There is some interpretation, but the story exists. You don’t need to manipulate it. You just have to capture it. When you edit you obviously condense it, choosing which scenes to highlight and which to leave out, but hopefully it’s more of a holistic view.”
The thorny issues around his portrayal of people who’ve hired him aren’t the only ethical concerns Moen has to face. He also has to make decisions about filming the unwitting, those who don’t know they’re being filmed, and even the unwilling; people on the opposite end of the spectrum from an employer, who would do anything to avoid having their story told.
Moen repeated what had become a familiar refrain; It depends on the story. “If this is someone who is playing an integral part of the story and there is a public right to know what they’re doing or what their opinion is, as with public figures, it’s acceptable.”
He referenced Marshall Curry’s Street Fight, which documented Cory Booker’s 2002 campaign against Sharpe James in Newark, New Jersey’s mayoral race. “It’s a fantastic documentary, but only because the filmmaker, who knew that he wasn’t going to get a sit-down interview with the mayor or any of his people, would just show up, cameras rolling, and ask what was going on about certain issues. I’m fully behind that, because it’s an appropriate context and relevant to the story.
“Making documentary films is a form of public service. It involves telling stories that the public wants to know about, or should know about. I’m responsible to the public. Part of my responsibility as a documentary filmmaker is to tell the story that the public wants to see that is also a true story. Sometimes those aren’t the same thing. That’s where it gets dicey. A documentary film can save somebody’s life, as with Erroll Morris’s The Thin Blue Line.” Morris’s film helped exonerate Randall Dale Adams from a death sentence for a murder he did not commit.
“I’m not saving somebody from prison for life, but there’s something about plastic that’s caught my interest.”
Just as we’d exhausted the topic of his plastic film, Raines came in and offered to refresh our coffee cups. I leaned back and looked up at the 5×10 foot art piece hanging on the wall of Vern’s office.
“That’s a Maust piece,” Moen said, noting my interest, referring to Matt Maust, bass player of Cold War Kids. “The Loyalty to Loyalty DVD was kind of my first proper project.” His former schoolmates had brought him along on a trip to Mexico City for a show. After the Cold War Kids film, Moen booked a gig creating a behind the scenes mini-doc on the set of Jonathan Glazer’s video for The Dead Weather’s “Treat Me Like Your Mother”. While there, he struck up what would prove to be a fortuitous conversation with creative director Dilly Gent about PG Tips, the famous British tea. It was she who later recommended him to David de Rothschild.
Whether sailing the ocean blue or filming on a soundstage, the money’s not always as glamorous as the company. “Sometimes if it’s really low you just do it for the passion. It all depends on what it is. Sometimes you get paid ok. Sometimes you get paid next to nothing. Right now we’ve been working for free for like three weeks,” he admitted, swinging his fist in a big gee-whiz arc and grinning. “Just finishing up things! It comes in waves. You build up a little bit of a nest.”
“I’ve spent three whole days on treatments,” he said, referring to the plan he submits to prospective clients detailing his vision for a particular video. “If you don’t get it you don’t get anything. Even if you do get it, you’re not sustaining yourself with music videos. You put three days into a treatment, three days of pre-production, a day or two of shooting, then post-production, color-correcting, editing, special effects, everything. It can be 14 days of work and sometimes you’re not even making half a month’s rent. It’s tough. You have to balance it out.”
Balance it out with what? “Commercials are the big boys. That’s where the money’s at. You’re working on a level where the budget is 5 million dollars for a 30 second spot. Tension is huge. There are corporate people lined out the door waiting to give you notes. It’s a whole different experience. It’d be nice to enter that with some credibility.”
For now, credibility is something Vern Moen has in no short supply. He’s recently completed work on a project for a small British band you may have heard of. They’re called Radiohead.