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"I remember just tripping out on the mystery and poignancy of the whole story," Demme said during a call from Rocklin County in New York state, where was working on another in a string of documentary films. "I told Lindsay, ‘It sounds like you’ve got to get to work.’"
What captivated him most, Demme said, was the sense of "fatal intoxication" Ruess felt for the southern Utah landscape. "From a strictly moviegoer’s reaction to Lindsay’s film, I don’t see Everett as a social misfit looking for an escape, or even a search," Demme said. "He was drawn in, and Lindsay’s work reflects that. Her camera devours the ecology of the area."
More about ‘Wilderness Song”
Watch a video clip of the documentary, and Lindsay Jaeger’s overview of the project at: www.kickstarter.com/projects/wildernesssong/everett-ruess-wilderness-song
To keep up with the documentary-in-progress, track the Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pages/Everett-Ruess-Wilderness-Song/234307136650807
A treasure trove of Ruess material at U. of U. library
On his death at age 98 in 2007, Waldo Ruess, Everett’s older brother, donated his papers, more than 78 boxes of family papers, photographs, journals and art to the University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library. It’s a rare gathering of material, says archivist Elizabeth Rogers, who spent a year organizing the collection. “I have to admit, I was obsessed,” she says. “I read almost everything. This is really one of a kind. And it’s not just Everett. This family was the 20th century.”
Starting in 2009, Jaeger began a series of drives criss-crossing the Escalante area where Ruess ventured, into the nearby Navajo reservation in Monument Valley where he relied on tribal hospitality, and down into Tucson, Ariz., to interview such figures as Randolph "Pat" Jenks.
Jenks, a New Jersey native, was 98 years old when Jaeger interviewed him on film. He had moved to the American southwest to cure his sinus condition, and first ran into Ruess in the desert June 1931, when Jenks and a friend were headed toward Flagstaff in a pick-up truck. Ruess was only 17. Jenks was 19. The two later carried on correspondence through letters.
Eerily, Jaeger’s film is filled with people who felt an affinity with Ruess and are now deceased.
The line from Ruess to DeChristopher » Jenks died not soon after Jaeger interviewed him for her film.
Rusho, whom Jaeger filmed in his Salt Lake City kitchen, died last year at age 82 of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Salt Lake City artist Bob Moss, famous for his wood-burned folk art, described Ruess for her as "a secret pillar of the world" and "an extremely beautiful fool." He died in December at age 58 in his sleep, at his parents’ house. Jaeger said she feels fortunate to have captured all three men for posterity.
Throughout, the film captures the romance of the Ruess legend, but also the danger he flirted with and the courage he inspires. Few today understand the risk of a simple hike in Escalante without enough water, provisions or emergency plans drawn beforehand. The message is clear: A life of romance surrounded by nature has its costs, and there can be no true wilderness experience without peril. There’s but one living person central to carrying the flame of Ruess’ spirit, Jaeger’s film concludes.
In a Q&A session following the Salt Lake City screening of "Wilderness Poet," bookseller Ken Sanders said he was most impressed by the line Jaeger draws from Ruess to Tim DeChristopher, the environmental activist serving two years in federal prison for his 2008 fake bids during a federal oil and gas lease auction, and whom she interviews extensively as part of the documentary.
"We all bring our biases to a figure like Everett," said Sanders, who admits he has been obsessed with Ruess’ story for more than 30 years. "People make him what they wish to be, but the fact is he was a 20-year-old child when he disappeared and died. He sought truth and beauty, and he found it. But he did so without ever getting real. Tim DeChristopher took it all a step further. Tim got real."
Journey toward a final edit » Even with Demme as an executive producer backing the film, every dollar counted. Jaeger went on what seemed like a filmmaker’s version of a wilderness trek. She recalls the cheap food she subsisted on, the countless granola bars and potato chips she consumed during months of shooting, relying on peppermint bubble gum to freshen her breath for documentary interviews. She recently reached her $10,000 goal via the online fund-raiser Kickstarter, which she hopes will cover costs for picture and sound editing. With that done, she’ll begin submitting it late summer through early fall to film festivals nationwide.
Demme expresses confidence that "Wilderness Song" will find a distributor, if not through the film festival circuit, then through a heavyweight such as HBO, who he said has tracked Jaeger’s effort from the start. "They don’t say that if they don’t like it," Demme said. "They’ve got plenty of other things to look at."
Jaeger said she hopes viewers will see her film as a document linking Ruess’ journey, both personal and cultural, with their own stories. She hopes Ruess’s life will serve as a guidepost.
"Hearing his letters read aloud, you can sense him becoming a man, and aware that life isn’t always easy when you devote yourself to certain ideals," Jaeger said. "By the end of the film, I did see him as a younger, idealistic person where I was older now. I’d moved through his journey with him. I wasn’t on his level anymore, but there will always be parallels between now and then. Freedom is having nothing left to lose, and he accomplished that."
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