Inside Cul de Sac

I met Garrett through an early “manuscript” of Cul-de-Sac he left on our kitchen table. It was 1999 and I was floundering in San Francisco.

I was editing corporate video to eke out a living and completely blocked on my own creative work. Garrett was stuck too. He’d been working on his film for years, gathering interviews and archival footage for a project that few believed in. He had no outside support and the local documentary community was slow to embrace him. He didn’t talk like a filmmaker, hadn’t been to film school, and had no track record of previous films. When he spoke about his project he didn’t speak about characters or simplistic dramatic arcs; he spoke about people, ideas, history, and a post-industrial moment made visible through the shock of a slow speed tank chase in suburban California.

The manuscript was an elaborate cut and paste job. Garrett was not a film editor, had no access to equipment, and so had resorted to cutting and pasting interview transcripts to create the first assembly of his film. I remember discovering this hefty and mysterious document on the table, casually leafing through it, and then slowly settling down to read. It was not a script for a film. It was a book, an essay, something I couldn’t quite name. But there was something unique and alive in this strange document, and by the end I felt myself deeply moved in a way that caught me totally off guard. Whatever it was it was not yet a film, and suddenly—in a flash of completely unfounded confidence that I’ve never fully understood—I knew that I could help Garrett make it one.

That fleeting confidence was short-lived, and in truth, Garrett and I began to work together as much out of mutual desperation as anything else. Garrett needed an editor for his stalled project and I was the only one who volunteered. I didn’t get the job because I had the most experience or the most relevant background. Garrett was broke, had no money for the project, and I was the only person who agreed to do it for free. A month later we had rented an old Avid for 400 dollars a month, put it in my bedroom and started to work.

We worked on my days off and before and after Garrett’s shifts at the restaurant. Garrett had never made a film and I had never edited anything longer than the short experimental pieces I made in college. We may have been drawn together by mutual desperation, but we became deep friends making Cul de Sac. We edited slowly, one or two minutes a day. Sometimes it was fun and sometimes it was a pain in the ass. We worked or argued or sat out front on the stoop drinking beer and trying to figure out how to salvage the mess in the other room. But mostly we inched our way forward through a slowly developing shared vocabulary. We worked and we talked, and it was through both that I came to know Garrett.

It took me time to understand how Garrett saw the world. His mind had established a critical distance—like he was looking back at the world through an instrument that illuminated the hidden linkages of history and power flowing underneath the established narrative. But his heart was deeply rooted in the realm of human beings. It was this tension that defined his work. A cold eye and a warm heart: this was not simply a working method for Garrett, it was deeply personal. It was how he wanted to participate in the world. He wanted to engage deeply with people—without holding back—while simultaneously teasing out the web of history that held them in its grasp, and pushed them in ways that they could feel but never see. This was the project of Cul de Sac, and it was the project that guided all of Garrett’s film work.

Making Cul de Sac was personal for Garrett in another way as well. He had spent years working crappy restaurant jobs as he struggled to make his film. He had given everything to this project and his sense of self-worth was intimately tied up with its success or failure. Our struggles with the film took on a kind of weight I only later understood. I slowly lost the distance with which I had initially approached the film and found myself consumed by this strange project. We kept editing, we shot more material, and Garrett kept searching for that final piece of key archival footage. For years, Garrett had heard about a live local TV segment broadcast from Shawn’s house and goldmine just days after the tank chase, but the footage was impossible to find. The local TV station claimed to have misplaced it and no archive carried the missing segment. It seemed lost to the world, until the day Garrett ran into a stranger on a San Diego beach who claimed to have recorded the piece on his VCR. Garrett paid him 125 dollars on the spot and two weeks later a dub of the VHS tape arrived at my doorstep.

Garrett was ecstatic, after years of false starts and mounting obstacles the vagaries of chance had finally intervened on his behalf. A few months later we had our first cut of the film. We closed the blinds and watched it from beginning to end for the first time. I’ll never forget the moment the last frame went to black. Garrett and I turned to each other, grinned and opened two beers. We had half expected to see a slow motion train wreck unfold before us, and instead saw a film with its own rough integrity. It was exhilarating. We had no idea what other people would think, but we had made something. We both knew it. And beyond that—perhaps for the first time in our lives—we finally knew we were capable of making something we believed in.

It was a powerful moment, and a formative one for me personally. Cul de Sac was Garrett’s film, something only he could have made. But helping him bring it to life was the beginning of a whole new phase of my creative life. Something broke open for me on this film. Garrett helped me see the world with a more penetrating gaze, and somewhere during the days and months of editing and writing and thinking I learned to trust my own instincts. In some deep way I felt shaken free. That paralyzing creative block was lifted—perhaps forever. I gained one of the closest friends I’ll ever know and a creative life that endures and feeds my soul. Both are profound gifts, and intimately connected. I don’t take them lightly.

For Garrett there were still many struggles ahead. His film was done (we spent months trying to refine the cut, but with a few minor exceptions the finished film is identical to that very first edit). After five years, Garrett had finally finished what he started only to discover that no one wanted to see it. Cul de Sac was rejected from over 20 film festivals before Garrett, on a hunch, sent the film to New York-based filmmaker Jem Cohen. Garrett had seen Benjamin Smoke in San Francisco and responded to the sensibility. Jem became the first champion of the film and under his stewardship Cul de Sac slowly found its audience—first at the New York Underground Film Festival, then the Toronto Film Festival in 2001, until finally it had taken on a life of its own.

People who knew Garrett well always recognized the unique quality of his mind, but now for the first time there was something out in the world that stood as a testament to how he saw and cared about the world. I don’t know if Garrett saw it that way, but I know he was proud of the film and loved the conversations public screenings provoked. He would talk to anybody for as long as they wanted, his face alight with an almost mischievous enthusiasm. But of all the responses he received I know there was one that stood out, one that made him turn to me and say with a sly smile, “Maybe we did get it right.” It was from Chris Marker, the legendary essay filmmaker, in an email to a mutual friend:

Some masterwork you sent me. ‘Cul de Sac’ is by far the most powerful essay on Amereeka I’ve seen for ages. The way Scott intermixes factual events with social and historical context, within a flawless dramatic tension, is a model of the genre. I wish it would be seen here, to teach young militant filmmakers to go further than virtuously denouncing the establishment. And if my information is correct, this would be his first film? Amazing.
Chris

It was his first film, and sadly there would be only one more. In late 2003 we traveled to Iraq together to make Occupation: Dreamland, a film about American soldiers in Fallujah. Our friendship deepened under the pressures of the environment and we collaborated as equals for the first time. On March 2, 2006—two days before we were to be awarded an Independent Spirit Award for that film—Garrett died of cardiac arrest while swimming in a public pool in San Diego. He was 37.

It is a tragedy that will never make sense to me. The loss is too personal, too intertwined with my growth as a human being and as an artist to ever fully unpack. I learned much of what I know of filmmaking working with Garrett, and much about who I wanted to be in the world from his friendship. I often think back to one night in New York after a particularly difficult day of editing on Occupation. We walked to the subway together, trying to figure out where we had gone wrong with the latest sequence. We’d lost perspective, adrift in the middle of endless hours of footage, struggling to find our way back to the heart of the film. We stopped on Eighth Avenue for a moment, about to head to our respective trains. I shook my head, frustrated. Garrett smiled and answered my unspoken question, “We’re seeking the cosmos in the garbage men.” And with that he was off with a wave. I walked to the train, a smile spreading slowly over my face. I felt a wave of profound appreciation for Garrett in that moment; I remembered why I loved working with him and why I cherished his friendship. There was still much work to do together.



Cul de Sac will screen at the Independent Film Center on Tuesday, April 26, at 8 p.m. Ian Olds will host a Q & A afterward.

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Ian Olds

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