Award-winning Director Irene Taylor Previews Her New HBO Documentary Film “Trees and Other Entanglements”
Are you the type of person who appreciates or even notices your surroundings? If you’ve out in nature, do you observe what’s around you? Do you notice the sights and sounds of nature? Do you realize a tree in any habitat — the forest, your yard, a museum — has a story to tell?
In “Trees and Other Entanglements,” director Irene Taylor explores the connection between our living world, represented by trees, and the complicated histories of humans. Through the
intimate observations of Irene’s own struggle with her father’s Alzheimer’s, a lumber baron kidnapped as a child, an American bonsai tree master, a photographer who travels the world to capture images of rare trees, a family forever changed by the Japanese internment camps in California, a man dedicated to planting saplings to rise after clear-cutting, and a woman celebrating the memories of her childhood, Taylor shows us how these disparate tales are actually all part of a larger story. Through the continuum of growth and destruction, of life, loss, and rebirth, we can better understand the world and our place in it.
In my exclusive Q&A with the filmmaker, we talked about the impetus of the film, how the subjects of the film became entangled with trees, and why everyone can benefit from watching this documentary.
TV GOODNESS: Why did you want to make this film?
IRENE TAYLOR: “I’ve always been an avid outdoors person. I was a Himalayan mountain guide for 10 years, all through my twenties. I ran around with Earth First! for a couple years in college. I grew up camping and gardening.
HBO, who I had made at that point, maybe nine films with, they reached out to me and said, ‘Would you like to make a film about trees for us? And if you would, why don’t you go do your research and come back and let us know what you would do?’ To their credit, they said, ‘We want you to do anything you want, but we don’t want a climate change movie. There’s a lot of that out there. We want a different approach.’
They directed me to a book for inspiration called The Overstory by Richard Powers. It was a fictional novel about all of these human beings and their connections to trees and how their lives directly intersected or the universe that they lived in and the ideas and the politics intersected. So my thinking was, there has to be a real world out there where this exists because I make nonfiction. So I believe that it’s much more interesting than anything we could make up.”
TV GOODNESS: How did you find such an interesting group of people to talk to? I know their connections to the natural world and to trees had to be front and center. But beyond that, I’m curious to know what made you seek them out?
IRENE TAYLOR: “Well, there were six characters in the film, and I whittled that down from like 50. I really thought about how they connected with one another.
Photo Credit: HBO
I could really relate to the tree photographer, [Beth Moon], because she saw the death of these old trees that she had been so close to, she’d been photographing, for her whole career. When they would die, it was like she was losing a part of herself.
I realized in this difficult time in my own life when I was losing my dad, who by the way has been a film subject of mine over the last 20 years. I have focused on my dad a lot in films. So it felt very personal to me and I could understand that. So when I decided to put myself in the film — which I occasionally do, I’ve made a couple of other films where I am the storyteller and telling you something. I saw an opportunity to connect my story with Beth’s story.
Then obviously the timber baron and the Bonsai artist, seemingly nothing in common, but they’re literally neighbors. They are neighbors. If not for this man whose company cut down tall trees, there would’ve been no market for tiny trees. This local artist here in Oregon, the Bonsai artist has benefited because now he can be a Bonsai professional because Bonsai is considered an art form and therefore a very small, talented group of people in the world can buy and sell trees that they create.
I whittled it down in that way. I did have two characters who did not make it into the film. That’s heartbreaking for me, but you can’t fit it all in.”
TV GOODNESS: The way you weave the story together feels very much like an unfolding tragic mystery, which really engaged me. Why did you make that choice?
IRENE TAYLOR: “Internally, those of us making the film, we joked that the subtitle of the film was Trees: A Thriller because we thought it was thrilling. Most people, they’re like, ‘Those don’t move. How are you going to give the film a little energy?’ But of course, the film is not about trees, it’s about the entanglements, which is us. It’s about us humans.
Photo Credit: HBO
When I set out to film, I didn’t know what I would encounter. When I interviewed George Weyerhaeuser, I did not know that he would die three months henceforth. When I spent the year with Ryan Neil, I didn’t know that he would lose trees to a heat wave, lose trees to winter storms, none of which you see. But it was there and lose trees to the hands of another human being. I didn’t know that would happen. I figured my dad might die while I was making the movie, but I wasn’t sure. And he did.
I am not someone who’s in my personal life drawn to drama, so to speak, but in my films, I’m always looking for that deep current of humanity, of human nature. Even though this is a film about trees, I would love for people who don’t think twice about trees to watch it. I mean, to me that would be the ultimate compliment because I think it’s really a human story. How these things that are hidden in plain sight all around us provide a backdrop and a counterpoint to our frenetic, busy, very fast moving lives. They just stand still. For that reason, they are vulnerable. If they’re left alone, they’re mighty. They can grow for thousands of years.”
TV GOODNESS: They could live forever, maybe, if not partially for us humans.
IRENE TAYLOR: “Right. I think Beth’s story is also sort of a utopia story because as she puts it, these trees can live forever on paper. When you make a tree photograph so beautiful, it is really something that you will get to keep. Fire, I guess could take it.
Photo Credit: HBO
That’s why I thought the poetry of how she uses this very longstanding process, the palladium printing process, it’s a very fine metal that does not decay. These won’t fade in 5,000 years. That’s remarkable. That’s about the same age as the oldest trees in the world, which are in California. The Bristlecones.”
TV GOODNESS: So ultimately, I do feel like this is a very hopeful film. What would you like the audience to take away from this experience?
IRENE TAYLOR: “If we can look at trees and see a part of ourselves in trees, not to say that we are anthropomorphizing the tree, but that we are seeing that we are also vulnerable, we are also strong. We are also sometimes just the victim of circumstance. A tree, if it’s in the wrong location, it just has to get cut down because it’s blocking someone’s new site for a home or whatever it may be.
But I think that if people come away just looking out of the corner of their eye and noticing all these things that are in plain sight, like hidden in plain sight. Hidden because we move so quickly, we do not see them standing still.
I was making other films concurrently and working on this film was always, it was a big exhale. I did feel as though in navigating the narrative of this film, once I got into the edit room, it really felt like I was navigating a very personal human experience and thinking of my life in a different way because of these trees.
I also just loved feeling like I wasn’t such a freak because I was meeting these people who loved trees liked I loved trees. So that’s part of it too. And I hope there’s just a certain entertainment value. I don’t think it has the drama or the urgency of a climate change film or the fascination of a nature film that shows you the minutiae of something a tree does. It’s really just more like how can we harness the beauty that surrounds us in nature?
I guess I would call it a quiet plea for a tree and hopefully not, I didn’t want to be too political about it. There’s a lot of reasons why trees are being decimated on our planet or why they’re dying off on their own accord. A lot of it is at the hand of man.
But another thing I noticed really is I studied literature like ancient fairytales and Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Generally speaking, we are very kind to trees. Like trees are a hero in the movie and they are a hero in the poem. They’re a hero in the folktale. A forest can be a menacing place, and that’s why we spin these stories for children. But it’s really to prevent the children from running out into the forest and killing themselves by accident.
So I actually just feel that trees are the heroes of our modern age. They’re so big and mighty, but they’re the subtle hero.”
Edited for content and space.
Trees and Other Entanglements premiered on HBO and is streaming on Max.
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