Thursday, February 22, 2024

Emerald Award Winner Brendan Hall on CIFF, “Out There,” & The Moon

Headshot: Brendan Hall’s Instagram, @brendanfilm.

When documentary filmmaker Brendan Hall answered my call earlier this week, his open demeanor was instantly palpable. A kind soul seeking to create human connections through film, Hall has been behind a camera in some capacity since he was 12 years old. This year, at 28, he released his first feature documentary, “Out There: A National Parks Story,” a behemoth of a project that took him seven years to complete. Like most things, the film was worth the wait: its attention on the preservation of our planet’s natural wonders — both environmental and human — earned him the coveted Emerald Award at this year’s 8th annual Coronado Island Film Festival (CIFF).

Though Hall was unable to attend the CIFF due to a commercial shoot in Paris, France, the Brooklyn-based artist spoke with me following the festival to reflect on his evolving journey as a filmmaker, the ideation behind “Out There,” and what his next moves are. “It’s been incredible to hear accounts [of the film’s screenings] while away,” Hall shared, “And the Emerald Award is a great honor.”

CM: “I want to dive right into ‘Out There.’ It was the first documentary I saw during the CIFF, and as a big fan of National Parks myself, I felt a kinship to your journey. In 2016, what was the catalyst that led you to film the Centennial of the National Parks? What made you feel like you needed to do that, at that point in your life?”

BH: “When I was in college, I did a summer internship in Los Angeles working at a couple of film production companies. At the time, I thought that would be the rest of my life: narrative films in Hollywood and other industry cities. While I was living in LA, I started hiking every evening and road-tripping to National Parks. Eventually I drove home across the country, visiting seven National Parks in six days through Utah and the Rockies. It was a completely eye-opening, sweeping trip that showed me the real power nature can have on you. I can’t overstate how much the parks affected my perspective and showed me to love adventuring and nature; they changed my own direction in filmmaking. With ‘Out There,’ my [childhood friend] Anthony Blake and I wanted to tell a story centered around common voices: everyday people who’d fallen in love with these parks. We wanted to find heroes in the parks who we looked up to, to hopefully nudge people to feel a kismet with them and get out into the parks.”

CM: “In ‘Out There,’ your friend Julia is featured in the Redwoods segment. One thing she said was that, being a solo backpacker, she’d learned that ‘fear shouldn’t inhibit you from doing beautiful things.’ Have you found her sentiment to be true in your own life and expeditions? I’m thinking particularly of being one of eight civilian crew members chosen for the upcoming dearMoon mission with SpaceX.”

BH: “Every time I’ve taken a big leap and tried something I’ve never tried, or gone to an event where I might have social anxiety, it’s led to the best experiences of my life. I’m a big fan of throwing myself into the deep end. I think the further outside of your comfort zone you can take risks, personally or artistically, is where the most profound learning in your life happens. When you take on challenges that feel unachievable and tackle them, the next stage of what’s outside your comfort zone becomes even greater. It’s tough to sum it into one sentiment, but diving deep into discomfort is one of the most important things you can do to grow. dearMoon is a really particular example of fear, but I spent months thinking about what it meant and if I was ready to take that leap. Ultimately, I felt that it was where my career could become the most impactful. And while I don’t think everyone has to strap themselves to the largest rocket ever made to experience risk, I’m a big proponent of trying. For me, the early stages [of risk] started with a six-hour road trip home, then a cross-country road trip, then international trips alone. I could never have imagined doing some of the projects I’ve done, had I not done those things. And ‘Out There’ is a cool testament to what exists outside your comfort zone. That’s why we named the film what we did: we learned that it was about more than the parks themselves, but what experiences exist inside of them.”

CM: “You speak a lot with photographer QT Luong in ‘Out There.’ [Luong is a French-Vietnamese born American photographer, and the first photographer to capture all 63 National Parks on a large format film camera.] What was it like communing and reuniting with someone who shared a similar craft to you?”

BH: “Something very special about making the film was forming a friendship with QT. Over time, we actually went to five National Parks together. I loved that he was from a completely different corner of the world, that we never would’ve crossed paths had it not been for this film and Anthony finding him while we were on the road. It was inspiring for me to meet someone who took two decades to create his book, ‘Treasured Lands.’ He was an amazing role model for dedication, stewardship, and preservation — as well as the meaning and importance of capturing the parks. We were able to really admire each other’s crafts. That’s what a lot of making the film became about. I made it during adolescence to now being a young adult; the more time I got to spend with these characters [in ‘Out There’], the more bits of wisdom I’d receive.”

CM: “I loved that you collected bumper stickers from the National Parks you visited. Do you collect items from places you visit or films you make now, too?”

BH: “With the stickers, we’d often be traveling such crazy hours that we didn’t always have time to go to the Visitor Centers. During that time I took some sidetracks, too: I filmed with Bill Nye in Greenland and ended up shooting a commercial project for National Geographic; I went to more parks for fun; so, if you look closely at the end of the film, there’s random stickers of Idaho, Great Basin National Park, that show some extra stops along the way. I’m not a collector of one kind of item, but I love stickers and pins. I probably have 40 pins from monuments and National Parks, but I just try to find something meaningful that resonates with me. [With the SpaceX project,] I’ve been collecting different mission patches that commemorate things — like an Apollo 8 patch, which was a similar orbit to ours, and if I meet an astronaut on another mission.”

CM: “Something that stood out to me about ‘Out There,’ was the connection you found with your grandfather at the end of the documentary. I share a similar connection with my own late grandfather: in fact, I took a solo trip to Italy earlier this year to learn more about my own roots and found the experience invaluable. What was it like to find out that you not only had a connection with him, but had an essentially identical road trip experience?”

BH: “Exploring our roots and where we come from makes us understand who we are and why we do what we do. That moment with my grandfather was a complete surprise: I wasn’t even filming for ‘Out There’ when we shot that — I just wanted a record of who he is and was, and he broke out the photo album. I had only heard a few months before that he’d gone to Alaska. Honestly, his trip was a lot harder than ours…with no GPS, in this old car! The moment was powerful for me because it was a connection with him, but also because at that point I’d spent the last six years making the documentary and I didn’t know when it’d be finished. I kept wanting to capture more incredible places, but the realization of humility, that we can only cover so much, that we’re carrying on stories of people we’ve captured was so meaningful. The film’s ending was sitting in my grandpa’s living room all along, and it completely blew my mind. It’s part of being a filmmaker: you never know what you’re going to unearth.”

To stay connected with Brendan Hall as he weaves his own path in the filmmaking industry, be sure to sign up for his mailing list here or follow along on his Instagram.


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Caroline Minchella
Caroline Minchella
Caroline was 15 years old when her family moved to Coronado. Though she was a “transplant”, Caroline found a home in the Coronado community near-immediately: she became an intern for “The Coronado Times”; helped reinstate the CHS newspaper, “The Islander Times”; was a volunteer dog-walker for PAWS; and a faithful Concert in the Park attendee.After completing her BA in English at the University of California Santa Barbara, she went on to craft answers for Amazon Alexa devices and write creatively on the side. Fast forward seven years, Caroline is thrilled to return as a Reporter for “The Coronado Times.” Have a story for The Coronado Times to cover? Send news tips or story ideas to: [email protected]

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