Interview with Louie Schwartzberg
Bioneers Senior Producer Stephanie Welch spoke with director Louie Schwartzberg about his new documentary film, Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us. The film features mycologist and author Paul Stamets, and an all-star team of professional and amateur mycologists, artists, foodies, ecologists, doctors, and explorers joined forces with time-lapse master Louie Schwartzberg to create this mind-bending film about mushrooms and their mysterious interwoven rootlike filaments called mycelium.
STEPHANIE: You have a long history with Bioneers and I’ve seen your work for years. It’s really beautiful and moving. What drew you into working in time-lapse photography?
LOUIE: When I graduated from UCLA, I moved up to Northern California. I wanted to shoot high-quality resolution film, but didn’t have the money. So I retrofitted old Mitchell cameras that were built in the ‘30s and figured out how to adapt a still-camera lens to the front of it. A friend of mine who made electric guitars for the Grateful Dead helped me build a motor that ran on batteries, so I was able to take a camera outdoors.
I started to chase the light, shooting time-lapse clouds, sunsets, and fog rolling in and out. It took me a month to shoot a roll of film. But most importantly it fed my sense of wonder. It’s hard to imagine what a flower looks like as it opens and closes, or for clouds to morph in front of your eyes. Those rhythms and patterns touched the deepest part of my soul, and I just wanted to keep broadening my horizons and perspective by seeing things through different scales of time. How does a redwood tree look in life? How does a hummingbird look in life, which is the opposite scale of shooting in slow motion?
Then you realize how looking at things through a human point of view is really limiting. Looking at things at “24 frames per second” is a narrow window of reality. There are all kinds of reality based on, in a sense, different metabolic rates of different animals and critters, because we all move at different frame rates. Being able to see that light move at different scales of time. One extreme would be geological time, millions of years, billions of years. Then you look at the time span of a fruit fly, which might be a day or two. It’s all valid.
STEPHANIE: Is it true that you are currently filming 24 hours a day?
LOUIE: Yes. I’ve had cameras rolling in my studio 24 hours a day, seven days a week, nonstop for 40 years. Every day I shoot about a second worth of screen time in a 24-hour period. There are computers triggering the camera to frame a film. For the last 10 years, I’ve been shooting in 3D. There are grow lights that go on and off, photo lights come on during the exposure. I’m shooting plants, flowers, mushrooms, things decomposing. It’s just a way to see things that humans really can’t see. The most precious thing in life is time. So now that I’m shooting digitally and money isn’t a constraint of shooting film, time is the most precious commodity. I just love making the invisible visible. It still fills me with wonder. I think when they asked Albert Einstein his definition of God, it’s a sense of wonder.
STEPHANIE: What were the visual aspects of the world of mycelium and fungi that inspired you to embark on this film?
LOUIE: Visually what inspired me to shoot the mycelium is because it’s a network. The underground mycelium network is a network, and we see that pattern in the circulatory system and nervous system of our bodies. It looks like the branches in a tree. It looks like the neurological pathways in your brain. It looks like the Internet. It looks like the galaxies in the cosmos. This networking pattern is an archetype that exists throughout the universe, and the fact that it lives underground in the shared, gorgeous, communal internet that enables trees to communicate with each other, to share nutrients, to foster ecosystems to flourish, for me that’s like nature’s operating instructions.
STEPHANIE: How long have you known Paul Stamets and how did you meet him?
LOUIE: I met Paul 13 years ago at Bioneers at one of his earliest talks. At that time, I was working on my film Wings of Life, which is about pollination. It’s a film that Disney Nature released, with Meryl Streep telling the story from the POV of a flower making love with bees, bats, hummingbirds, butterflies. I call it ‘a love story that feeds the earth’.
Then when I heard Paul’s talk. I realized if plants are critical for our survival, the only solar collectors that can turn light energy into food and fuel and medicine, what do they need? They need soil. Where does soil come from? It comes from the largest organism on the planet. It’s only one-cell thick. It’s inside my body and on every continent. It’s the fungal network, the fungal kingdom. It blew my mind.
I invited Paul to my room and I showed him some of my time-lapse mushrooms on my laptop. That was the beginning of a really beautiful, budding relationship that is a great example of how science and art can work together with the intersection being wonder to help people understand nature’s intelligence.
STEPHANIE: What is your favorite thing about mushrooms after working on this and learning so much about them?
LOUIE: There are lots, I never knew that it could be the greatest natural solution for climate change. The reason why there’s carbon under the ground is that we have decomposed organic matter called coal and oil. We’ve dug it up and we’ve burned it and put it into the atmosphere. There’s a way to clean that mess by plants and trees absorbing CO2, storing the carbon underground and giving us the oxygen we need to breathe.
In the film we see a CO2 molecule going into a leaf, oxygen being released, and the carbon traveling down the trunk of a tree into the roots, into to the tip of the root, into the mycelium network, where the carbon is sequestered for thousands of years, and to be used as a building block for a new plant to grow. Many scientists believe that if we stop putting fossil fuel pollution into the atmosphere, that the Earth could actually clean the atmosphere on its own in five years, in that symbiotic relationship – photosynthesis with plants and trees, and the mycelium network under the ground. That’s what they do, they sequester carbon.
STEPHANIE: You talk a lot about the intelligence of nature in your work. What is it about the intelligence of nature that you’re hoping people will understand from this and other films that you’ve made?
LOUIE: Learning about nature’s intelligence opens you up to the idea that everything is interconnected. The fact that it’s all one and all connected is no longer a ‘new age hippie’ idea. In my movie, we talk about the science that proves it. Mycelium network under the ground is a shared economy that brings trees together into one real, giant, symbiotic, shared economy– one not based on greed, but based on the idea that when things are shared, everybody flourishes, and communities survive better than individuals.
That is such an important message to understand how nature works, and maybe more importantly, to understand how we could organize our social structure and our politics. Communities connecting is the way for things to be successful. That’s why I’m embarking on a self-distribution platform. Instead of being seen on a streaming platform alone on your digital device, we want people to gather in real time and make those connections. If you’re interested in permaculture, the environmental movement, foraging foods, psychedelics, let’s all interconnect. It’s really the model of Bioneers. You have all these different pillars, from social justice to biology to environmental consciousness to politics. It all overlaps. Having everyone connect, network, and enable each other to be successful is I think nature’s operating instructions, a term that I think Kenny Ausubel coined.
STEPHANIE: In your film, you mention how many ancient cultures and Indigenous Peoples have cultivated deep relationships with mushrooms and plant allies with deep healing properties. Western culture is catching up to a certain extent, learning about the benefits. But as we face so much environmental destruction and climate chaos, talk about conservation and efforts to save the habitats where all these species flourish.
LOUIE: Exactly. The worst thing that’s happening I think with the degradation of the environment is we’re losing species at a frightening rate. Maybe by 2040 or 2050, we might lose half the species on our planet. The sad thing is it took billions of years for these incredible, complex DNA molecules to be created and evolve through the process of evolution. What’s scary is that we know we’re losing certain species, but we don’t even know all the species we’re losing because we haven’t identified them all yet, especially in the world of bacteria, the fungi, insects. This is a critical concern, and I think that’s why we have to work as hard as we can to bring harmony and balance back into nature to slow down this degradation of the environment.
Anything that is a living thing, now that we can kind of understand the idea, that in reality everything is connected. If it’s all connected, then it’s part of me, it’s part of the link that supports my life. And I support other life. The loss of any species is a loss to everybody. So it’s critical.
A lot of these plants and sacred medicines have been a spiritual gateway for man to be able to expand consciousness. You have to ask yourself the question: Why did that happen? Why is it there’s a molecule in psilocybin that can fit a receptor in the brain that triggers serotonin to go through your body and to be able to open up pathways and neurological journeys that don’t exist any other way? Perhaps it could with some deep form of meditation that takes 30, 40 years to achieve, but what a miracle it is if you can perhaps experience something similar in one day.
STEPHANIE: I recall seeing many of your images projected onto the Vatican, and you show some of that event in the film.
LOUIE: Yes, it was a giant event organized by Louie Psihoyos, who enlisted a number of filmmakers to project their content on the Vatican in support of the Pope’s encyclical supporting the environment. We projected on the Vatican the day before the vote for the Paris Accords for climate change.
That was an extremely emotional experience for me, because my parents were both Holocaust survivors. I thought about the fact that the Vatican was silent during World War II and the round up of Jews in Europe, as well as Rome and Italy. Then I looked over my shoulder and I saw 50 giant projectors with a million lumens of light ready to shine on the Vatican, to shine light into the darkness, and that filled me with hope – that change is possible. You’ll see the reaction shots of people in the film, and nuns who are praying to the mushrooms on the Vatican. I thought that was a brilliant judo move.
STEPHANIE: Is there anything you wanted to add about the film that you want people to know?
LOUIE: I love making the invisible visible, and I think that my own mushroom journey has taught me that. You want to turn people on to what you’ve learned and what you’ve experienced, and the film itself I think is an immersive experience, because people say it’s gorgeous, it’s beautiful, but it’s more than that. Beauty is nature’s tool for survival because you protect what you love. So by appealing to the heart, I think the film will help people make the right choices to create a sustainable, healthy, living planet, not only the planet but also a healthy, living, sustainable human structure or social fabric.
There’s a shift of consciousness happening right now that makes it right for this film to emerge, because the film is also about hope. It speaks to the critical time in history we’re facing right now, but at the same time it’s inspirational, it’s hopeful, and in the face of the dark political times we’re going through, we need that.
A giant shout out to Bioneers for fostering this communal effort for 30 years, building community, creating the network, taking the mycelial network that’s below the ground and bringing it above ground. That is nature’s operating instructions.
To learn more about Fantastic Fungi, visit fantasticfungi.com.