Sometimes you run across a movie that is just genuinely hard to explain, but you just can’t look away from either. The Creeping Garden is that kind of movie and I got to chance to sit down with co-director Tim Grabham when he was in town earlier this year for the Hot Docs film festival to discover how this feature length documentary exploring the work of fringe scientists, mycologists and artists, and their relationship with the extraordinary plasmodial slime mould. A film that really when you think about has no business working or even getting made which ultimately worked so incredibly well and has delighted and amazed festival audiences around the world.
Dave Voigt: On paper, this movie about spores and fungus to be honest has no business working as well as it does, and I am kind of curious what was your initial inspiration and idea to do this movie that when you put on paper could be a very tough sell?
Tim Grabham: When you think about it there are really two parts to that answer because Jasper Sharp my co-director was the one who came to me after accidentally discovering slime moulds, from all his experience growing mushrooms in coffee grounds and that sort of thing and came across slime moulds. After doing some research, he found all these fascinating people who were studying and the potential applications that these things have across computing and robotics…and I thought that he was just pulling my leg. After my previous project a Japanese film about sound he was very eager to get going on this and it was like you said, I was asking him constantly how we would go about this and it wasn’t a very easy sell at the start, and we knew we need to do more then have endless time lapses for 82 minutes because we knew how relentless that could be. However, what we discovered with the people who were researching all this and engaging with were all pretty fascinating in their own right and it gave us a window into the whole thing and their engagement to show the human interest of it all. When that became more apparent, we knew this thing had a bit of legs to it but when you just mention “slime mould” to people, then tend dial out and go “NEXT” wondering where there next kinky sex documentary or penguin doc might be. We had to make every pound matter on this because we funded it ourselves and it took us three years to get there because it is such a time consuming process. Even near the end of the entire process for us, people were worried that it was a film that was just too niche to genuinely get any kind of traction anywhere, but it is also kind of the holy grail of docs in many ways because it is a subject that no one has ever tackled before. Then of course it’s a Catch 22 because that means it is too niche and it all really blows my mind because I don’t think you can really categorize this and put it in a box so we just did it under out own steam and in our own way.
DV: Was it always the plan to do it in this subtle sci-fi kind of style with the very distinct musical beats and how it plays very subtly, to me it felt like I was watching The Andromeda Strain from the 1970’s
TG: (Big Smile) I am so glad you said that because The Andromeda Strain was this really big reference point for us. I first saw it when I was 14 and it really was some something that stuck with and both Jasper and I are really big film fans so the idea of us presenting a documentary in a sci-fi skin, at least for the audiences sake makes for a much more engaging…
DV: You have to be aware of being a piece of entertainment…
TG: …and this really isn’t a lecture room kind of film, where we are just studying something. We want people to go in, on a big screen and make people feel that it actually has a place on a big screen, not just a TV thing blown up really big. And while I don’t mean this as a disrespect to some other filmmakers but sometimes I can go into something and it really just feels like it is “TV Big” and there is no cinematic scale to it all. Something like Blackfish was GREAT TV but it just wasn’t very cinematic, it’s a great film but it just didn’t have that kind of experience for me. Whereas there are films like Microcosmos, that was just pure cinema.
DV: Was the “mold community” receptive to you guys doing a movie like this?
TG: (Laughs) “The Mold Community”…I suppose there is a mold community, even though it makes me laugh to even say but they are a real resource that we were able to tap into. I think the thing that we found surprising outside of the standard mushroom heads and slime mold guys is that other people found this engaging because people really just like weird science and people like weird nature and things of the unknown in this weird mix. It was a surprise for us to find some much in that subject and that we were able to tap into that crowd, so that really has been one of the things that has helped us have so much damn momentum, plus playing genre festivals like Fantasia in Montreal which isn’t the first place you’d necessarily think to put your documentary.
DV: And all I heard about coming out of there last year was your movie?
TG: REALLY!!! (Big Smile) We kept getting introduced to people and we were “The Slime Guys”, “The Spore Guys” and it was such a warm response talking about it now I almost feel like I am making this all up! (Laughs)
We made this thing on such a shoe string budget and to be honest we really had no idea if it was going to be engaging to people on any level and had no legitimate idea what if anything would happen and it all has been such a happy surprise to us. I mean that honestly, not in a faux kind of way, we really had NO clue how this would be accepted.
DV: Now at the tail end of all this, what do you think that you as a film maker have learned from all this, trying something that as we have discussed, has never really been tried before and which on paper at least, has no business working at all?
TG: Personally? Well I mean Jasper has learned quite a bit as he has written the book that accompanies all this with all the stuff that we couldn’t put in. For me I’d say that I have learned that the hybrid of Art & Science is something that we haven’t really tapped into is just a mine of material and my next two or three projects are all going to be in this kind of terrain with these guys who take a bit of science and infuse it with this artistic response and there is just an endless supply of people doing some very fantastic stuff and I hadn’t even realized. Plus just seeing how creative scientists need to be because the line between art and science is genuinely a very blurry one. These guys just have to invent all this stuff and without their imagination there would be no science and it is just amazing.
The Creeping Garden is playing right now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox here in downtown Toronto.