Kent Wagner is a photojournalist, audio producer, and filmmaker concentrating on natural history, indigenous cultures, and the environment. He has guided mountaineering, river, and diving trips around the world. A production and engineering major at Berklee College of Music, he holds a degree in Electronic Media and Film from Northern Arizona University, and is completing an MFA in Documentary Film at American University.
TERRA: What inspired you to make a film about Glen Canyon?
KW: I've spent a lot of time floating down the Colorado River, adding up all the days and nights it’s cumulatively about five years' time. Most of that time was in Grand Canyon, which is just downstream from Glen Canyon. I remember reading somewhere in John Wesley Powell’s journals (probably from his 1869 trip) that of all the sections on the Colorado, he thought Glen Canyon was the most awe inspiring. Having spent so much time in Grand Canyon, Powell’s comment really struck me. And the fact that that stretch is now buried under a man-made lake named after him is ironic. Even though there is only remnants left of Glen Canyon, I just had to see for myself.
TERRA: Give us a behind-the-scenes snapshot of creating this film.
KW: As far as the production process, I spent about half my time talking with and interviewing people who had been through Glen Canyon before it was dammed. My idea was to catalog their memories, as a sort of oral/video history project. Those folks are getting along in age, many of which have passed away. Once they’re gone Glen Canyon will vanish from all living memory, so it seemed urgent. At a certain point it became apparent that I could not ignore the science or politics surrounding the damming of the river. My original thought was to include a lot more voices and recollections, to make it a longer film, but I simply ran out of funds. The other half of production time was spent documenting the few places that are left of Glen Canyon.
TERRA: Did you have any particularly challenging moments during production?
KW: A few… one was in Davis Gulch a slot canyon that leads to the Escalante arm of Glen Canyon. I left my camp at about 5 in the morning. I misjudged how long it was going to take and how much water I would need. I was drinking out of potholes before noon. Some of them were pretty putrid. At a certain point I detected a smell coming from down the canyon. There is a section of Davis that’s one-way, once you drop in you’re committed. The only way out is by going all the way through. So the stench was getting stronger and stronger and I remember thinking, there’s definitely something dead up ahead. I came to a narrow stretch that required swimming and when I got about halfway across the pool and ran into a decomposing raven, and then another, and another, and another. And I just sort of had to push them along in front of me. It is really odd that they would all die in this one spot. I never figured that out.
TERRA: Is there any update on the Glen Canyon dam being removed?
KW: When I interviewed Dan Beard, the former Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, he spoke about the future possibilities. The interesting thing about his take is that he was the head of the agency that originally built the dam. And after many years studying the realities of the situation he’s concluded it’s doing more harm than good. I suspect he struggled with that. If you took the average person and told them the story of how the dam came to be, the water subsidies, the evaporative loss… they’d likely view it as a travesty. But politically the removal of the dam probably doesn't stand much of a chance. The Colorado River is the most litigated and over allocated river in the country, maybe in the world. In the west’s drought stricken climate people are not going to give up their claim to any source of water, even if the dam’s existence actually contributes to the problem. Dan Beard’s book, Deadbeat Dams, explains the issues in much more detail than I can.
TERRA: What are the 3 things you’d never go into the field without and why?
KW: Water purifier or a filter (see question 3), a paper map, protection against the elements. My photo/video/audio kit varies depending on where I’m going and what I’m shooting.
TERRA: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
KW: A desire to combine sound and images to communicate ideas and tell stories about humans in the natural world.
TERRA: What’s your favorite aspect of filmmaking?
KW: I enjoy seeing it all finally come together in the edit. When you have thoughtful commentary that’s emotionally driven and you find the right supporting images and sound to accompany it, and when that becomes more than the sum of its parts - it’s magical. But most of all I like being in the field, creating images and capturing audio. That's what I live for.
TERRA: Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on and why?
KW: Fortunately I think whatever I happen to be working on at the moment becomes my favorite project of all time.