Thirteen years ago, filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg began making “Fantastic Fungi,” a documentary about mushrooms, the underground mycelium network from which they grow, and how they impact the natural world and human health and consciousness. Finally finished and screened in major markets such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, the film will make its local premier at the Marjorie Luke Theatre on November 24. In an interview with the News-Press, Mr. Schwartzberg said he was pleased with the film’s screenings thus far and is greatly looking forward to showing the film in Santa Barbara, anticipating the town’s audience will be receptive to its information on how fungi can positively impact human existence and improve the environment.
“The Santa Barbara audience is very environmentally conscious. I think they love nature and want to protect what they love,” he said.
Featuring interviews with mycologists with footage of growing fungi shot in Mr. Schwartzberg’s trademark time-lapse cinematography, “Fantastic Fungi” shows what the director called a portrayal of nature’s feminine side, the opposite of the more “macho” dog-eat-dog depictions of predator versus prey that one might catch during Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.
“The real story of nature is about collaboration and symbiosis,” he told the News-Press.
In “Fantastic Fungi,” this collaboration occurs through the underground mycelium network that grows mushrooms as a sort of fruit. For instance, through this network trees in a forest can share nutrients with each other. According to Mr. Schwartzberg, depicting this visually and “making the invisible visible” was by far the greatest challenge in creating the film. While microscopic time-lapse photography is possible, capturing two old growth trees swapping nutrients in an underground mycelium network can’t be captured on camera.
“Those were big challenges, but of course you can’t shoot it. You can do time lapse at the microscopic level, but at a certain point you hit a barrier where you can’t go any smaller,” he said.
Ultimately, this was achieved with computer-generated images.
Over his four-decade career, Mr. Schwartzberg has made documentaries like the National Geographic 3D IMAX film “Mysteries of the Unseen World,” the Disneynature’s “Wings of Life,” and Walt Disney Studios’ “America’s Heart and Soul.” He has also directed three seasons of the Netflix series “Moving Art.” When asked about the process of documentary filmmaking, particularly its non-scripted aspects, Mr. Schwartzberg said he is initially guided by research he conducts on his chosen topic, and shoots footage that relates to the information he knows. However, the documentary’s narrative through-line ultimately emerges during the editing process.
Of all the mycologists interviewed in the film, the one most prominently featured is Paul Stamets. As Mr. Schwartzberg recalled, when he was in the process of making “Wings of Life” 13 years ago, he saw Mr. Stamets speak at a conference and was fascinated by him and his talk. Originally a logger, Mr. Stamets independently conducts research on fungi, has written six books on them, and operates the company “Fungi Perfecti,” which produces and sells a plethora of mushroom products. Feeling a kinship with Mr. Stamets’ independent spirit and the way he works free of any overarching institution, Mr. Schwartzberg decided he was a perfect choice for his film’s human protagonist.
“He’s an out-of-the-box thinker. He’s not a scientist working at a university or big pharma,” the director said.
Inevitably, Mr. Schwartzberg learns a great deal about his topic that he didn’t know from his initial research. While making “Fantastic Fungi,” he was surprised to learn “that fungi could be the greatest solution for climate change.” According to the director and his film, when CO2 is absorbed by plants and trees, 70 percent of the carbon is stored underground in the mycelium network and acts as a “natural engine that could take CO2 out of the atmosphere” and reduce the threat of the climate crisis. For Mr. Schwartzberg, discovering new knowledge throughout the filmmaking process is absolutely critical.
“I want to be like the audience: On a journey of discovery… If I don’t have it, they’re not going to have it,” he said.Tickets for the screening of “Fantastic Fungi” range from $15 to $20 and can be purchased online at www.luketheatre.org. The November 24 showing will begin at 4:00 p.m. and will be followed by a conversation with Mr. Schwartzberg. The Marjorie Luke Theatre is located 721 E Cota St.