Artists' Television Access

Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller discuss their process and latest film, “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden” (Screening Saturday, Sept. 6 at 11 a.m.)

Baroness, Philippson, Lorenz pose together uncat

Baroness Eloise von Wagner with her lovers Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorenz in THE GALAPAGOS AFFAIR: SATAN CAME TO EDEN. A film by Dayna Goldfine & Dan Geller. Photo: USC Special Collections / Zeitgeist Films

“The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden,” the latest documentary from San Francisco filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, was made from a highly unlikely set of circumstances.

Eighty-year-old archival film, celebrity voice overs and interviews with Galapagos residents were blended together to tell this incredible true story, which premiered at Telluride Film Festival in 2013 and has since screened at various festivals all over the world.

Most know of Galapagos for its ties to Charles Darwin, but the islands also played host to a sordid and unsolved mystery. The pair characterize their finding of the story as a happy accident — one that came about as they traveled to the Galapagos Islands in 1998 to help a friend film an educational science film for middle schoolers.

Goldfine first learned of the narrative after picking up a book called “The Enchanted Islands: The Galapagos Discovered” during the trip. It was within the 12 pages of the chapter “Murder in Paradise” that the pair found their tale.

In search of their own Utopia and an escape from society, physician Friedrich Ritter traveled with his mistress Dore Strauch from Berlin to Galapagos in 1929. Soon, other Europeans followed suit. Then, some of them began to disappear.

The documentary got a big push after the filmmakers discovered the existence of incredible 1930s film footage hidden within the archives of USC, which would become instrumental in the making of “Galapagos.” Then, actors Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Connie Nielsen and more lent their star power by providing voice over performances.

Goldfine and Geller have made seven films over the course of their partnership so far. Here, they chat with ATA about their filmmaking process and the challenges they faced bringing this documentary to fruition.

“Galapagos” will screen at 11 a.m. Saturday during ATA’s 30-hour marathon in celebration of the 30th anniversary.

(This interview has been edited and condensed)

Q: You two have been making movies together since the late ’80s. Has it been something like 25 years?

Dayna Goldfine: Actually, slightly more than 25 years. So we finished our first film, which was about Isadora Duncan [“Isadora Duncan: Movement from the Soul] at the end of 1988. It premiered at this now-defunct but used to be this fabulous festival, the Film Arts Festival in the fall of 1988.

How would you say your style of collaboration has evolved over the years?

Dan Geller: One thing that changed along the way is that we began to bring in outside editors to work with us. We needed the fresh perspective. And when you’re planning a movie for so long, researching a movie and shooting a movie, after awhile you can lose track of what’s vibrant in the movie. You either think everything’s vibrant or nothing is.

Goldfine: On “Isadora” we actually hired a crew, a production crew, so that neither one of us did the shooting or sound recording. And it was in a way this unbelievably rich luxury, because we got to learn a lot from working with this crew of people that had in many ways more experience than we had. But then when we launched the next project, [Frosh: Nine Months in a Freshman Dormwhich took place at Stanford], because we were filming every day and every month, there was no way we could have a crew. So Dan and I both did the cinematography and the sound work. And then going forward after that it just sort of fell out that Dan ended up doing the shooting, and I ended up doing the sound recording. So in terms of production, that’s kind of shifted over time.

How do you find your stories?

Geller: With “The Galapagos Affair” we were brought down to the island in the late ’90s by a friend to shoot sound on his science-based curriculum project. And that’s when we wound up learning about what happened on the island before. [Then] the project grew from there as something we wanted to do. So really there’s no fixed mode of how we find our subjects or how our subjects find us and that, to me, is one of the nice things.

Goldfine: I would say one rule of thumb is, if at all possible, it should be something neither of us know a ton about. Because no one really funds the work. I mean who would fund, for instance, a crazy film about a murder mystery that took place 80 years ago on the Galapagos Islands, doesn’t have [an] obvious social issue — [a] sort of typical documentary thrust? So we do corporate media and we save our money and then we go ahead and film what we can. So if we’re going to pay for the ride ourselves, either by our own personal sweat or by using our spare change, it has to be something that we know is going to sustain our interest over many years. Because none of these things are short-term projects.

Back to Galapagos, did that take 15 years to make?

Geller: It would be 15 years from our first discovery of the story, but we didn’t really begin to make the movie until 2006, 2007, in that time frame. We didn’t learn about the footage that is such a key component to the movie until the early 2000s, and then we didn’t have a chance to investigate that footage further and begin the process of getting the rights to it and saving it from disintegration. Because we were tied up doing the “Ballets Russes” movie, and we just didn’t have the room to tackle both at once.

What led to the discovery of that footage of USC? Was that just happy coincidence, or were you involved with that?

Geller: It was a phenomenal coincidence that our same friend, Doug Weihnacht, who had brought us to Galapagos in ’98, started another project, a science education project with a professor at USC. And it’s through that connection that Doug learned about the footage. And Doug made us aware of that very quickly because he knew we were obsessed with the story, and also that we were open to trying to talk to the professor — to the archives — to see what might be done to try to save the footage.

How was the process of making this maybe different than other films you worked on? 

Goldfine: “The Galapagos Affair” was the first film where we actually really had to sit down and write a script, in many ways, before we could go super far in the editing process. Because we were working for the first time with a huge variety of first-person narratives, whether it was diaries, journals, or letters or newspaper articles.

How did you end up finding the focus or managing all the characters?

Geller: Most of them [our other films] have a lot of characters in them. And each time we start another movie my thought is, ‘Oh good, now we know how to handle multi-character stories.’ And each time, I’m proven wrong. It’s not so simple. They seem to each have its own little alchemy.

So trial and error is really what it comes down to, and over time of course, look for the character that has the most resonance or the most drama. But over time [we see] what the material is telling us. Where is it seeming to lead us, rather than our imposing anything on the material. And that’s generally the way we’ve been making our movies. We don’t come into the subject matter with a preconceived take on it, nor do we tend to impose loads of other narration or put a reporter on, turn the camera on and interpret the events. We try to let the people who lived it represent themselves.

Goldfine: You just have to not be afraid to make lots of wrong turns. And then reverse, and find a path, and hit a few more dead walls or dead ends, and then finally if you’re really patient, you come through. We’ve joked at least for the last several films that we should do a seminar for filmmakers just about how to cut an opening and show them across an evening the 40 different openings we have for “Ballet Russes” or for “The Galapagos Affair.” You can see the different trajectories that the film took across the, literally, years of editing.

You really should. I bet that would be fascinating. That would be a master class.

Dayna: It would probably be educational for us too, ’cause you forget. Part of the reason we do these projects, we start  a new project is that certain amount of time goes by and I guess, like the labor, you forget the hardships that happen along the way *laughs*. I’m sure I can’t even remember all of the different openings.

What was it about this story that kept you kind of focused and committing to doing this?

Geller: We can’t stop. Once you dig deeper into films, you just have to see it through. You can’t abandon it. In part because there are so many people who have given their time to be in front of that camera and to generously share their stories, to abandon that is, in my mind, a real betrayal. But beyond that there’s so many challenges to telling a story that part of my attitude is ‘F–k it, I’m not going to let this thing destroy me. I’m going to find a way to tell the story.’ And that challenge gets me at least through the times when we’re having a real struggle, real difficulties with getting the movie on its feet.

Goldfine: Also, I think, being open to letting the project shift over time. I think in all cases the project starts out as one thing, and then there’s this inkling that its going to be deep enough to keep us occupied and engaged for however long it takes to finish it. For instance “The Galapagos Affair” started out as a murder mystery, which in and of itself was interesting, but then as we went back to the Galapagos and really started to meet the settlers and children of the settlers and talk to them, it became clear that it was actually a much richer set of issues… It was really a meditation on humanity’s perpetual search for paradise.

 How do you, as you’re shooting this and you have all these moving parts, in the midst of a project identify a theme, or be nimble enough to identify a theme as it’s changing? 

Geller: As we interview people subsequently one after the other and we begin to see certain themes emerge, we can adjust the interviews accordingly, and in some cases, go back and interview people more than once. And you see that even in “The Galapagos Affair,” where Jacqueline De Roy is interviewed and then she’s interviewed with her son. There are other interviews that are not in the movie with Jacqueline. So we’ll go back and tend to readdress certain questions and themes as more is revealed to us.

Did you learn more about Galapagos as a result of this film, and do you think you are educating people beyond just the Darwin aspect? 

Goldfine: When we were there that first time, we discovered, much to our surprise, that people have lived there and have been sort of migrating there, even though there are no indigenous people. Europeans in particular [began] to settle there in the ’20s. And then, of course, there was this fabulous unsolved murder mystery that took place in the early ’30s. So, right away, even though we were down there doing Darwinian work, what got us intrigued was this idea of this set of circumstances and people who just came to the islands for completely other reasons.

Although, we kept going back and forth in the editing room about how much we had to include Darwin or not include Darwin, and how overt we had to make the Darwin reference versus he’s just there hovering in the background. Ultimately, I think, if you look at the film and think about it, it is a story about survival of the fittest. It’s just that we don’t do it in a heavy-handed way.

This film is packed with A-list voice overs. How did actors like Cate Blanchett get attached to this project?

Geller: [Our friend] Patrick made the introduction; it was while Cate was out here shooting “Blue Jasmine.” And we hit it off, became friendly over the course of the time of her shoot here, and we asked her to take a look at the movie thinking she might be interested in doing a small part. But ultimately, she said she could do any part. We really hit the jackpot there, because she is such an extraordinarily talented actor. … We wound up with an incredible A-list cast, and more important than that, a cast that just performed the hell out of those roles. It’s tough to do a voice-only role that is a dramatic role, not a narrator role. You lose your instrument, you don’t have the face or the body to work with.

How did you expect this film to turn out? Were you pleasantly surprised with out it ended up coming together, were you confident that it would turn out the way it did?

Goldfine: It’s a long ride. there are moments when you’ve just gotten this precious thing in the middle of an interview where you’re like ‘Oh my god, I know that’s gonna go in the film,’ and feel very optimistic. Or Cate Blanchett has just said that she’s going to do voice overs, and you feel incredibly optimistic. And then there’s moments, particularly in the editing room, when you really do have these dark [moments] and we look at each other and go ‘OK, we know we’ve been here before on other projects, but is this one going to be the one we can’t make work?’ It’s just a long ride. I would say it’s not just like you’re running a marathon, you’re running a triathlon.

Do you two have any advice for other documentary filmmakers, whether they’re in the Bay Area or in general, who are tackling similarly difficult projects? 

Geller: One of the first lines that Friedrich Ritter says in “The Galapagos Affair” movie, the very first line is, ‘Patience, as Nietzche says, is the most difficult of virtues.’ And I think that applies here. You know you have to be patient to make a full-length documentary. Patient in trying to pull the idea together, to gain access to the people who will be in the movie, to try to find the funds to film it over a long period of the time, to take the time it takes to edit a movie and even the time it takes to distribute a movie.

Goldfine: What I always say is you really have to enjoy the process. If you’re doing it just to wind up in New Zealand eight years later, or go to some fancy film festival, it’s really not the right reason for doing it.

You need to get something out of the research, and the meeting of the new people and the editing room, even when it’s fraught, often. I always say, make sure you like the process. Then also as an independent filmmaker, try to learn how to do as much as the things as you can so you don’t need to hire someone else.

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