The Whole World – Director Jason Lehelís ‘Gaia’ is a cinematic high-wire act

Jason Lehel, right, discusses a scene with actor Michael C. Pierce, left, on set filming Gaia.

Jason Lehel, right, discusses a scene with actor Michael C. Pierce, left, on set filming Gaia.

How does one prepare to shoot a film with one trusting lead actress, a crew working for free, nothing but improvisation, a budget of $28,000 and no script to speak of, except a general idea of plot and location?

For Jason Lehel, director of “Gaia,” you work for 30 years.

“It took me all my experience and all my career to get to a place where I could create a film in such an extraordinary way,” he says.

 Director Jason Lehel discusses a scene with actor/associate producer Ed Mendoza, a Santa Barbara native and key figure in the film.


Director Jason Lehel discusses a scene with actor/associate producer Ed Mendoza, a Santa Barbara native and key figure in the film.

The film's central figure, played by actress Emily Lape, dances the night away in a scene.

The film’s central figure, played by actress Emily Lape, dances the night away in a scene.

 Anton Hepler & Emily Lape in a scene from the multi-award winning feature film, GAIA.


Anton Hepler & Emily Lape in a scene from the multi-award winning feature film, GAIA.

That includes years working as a camera assistant on films like “The Dark Crystal,” “Cry Freedom” and “Gorillas in the Mist,” or shooting numerous commercials in the U.K. and U.S. But for “Gaia,” his first feature, he and producer John Gordon threw out all the rulebooks of traditional filmmaking.

“We made a choice not to prepare at all,” Lehel says. “We turned up eight days before shooting. I didn’t even start writing on paper until I got to the location. It’s like a musician who writes ideas for a song but the piece never takes off until the others start jamming.”

The dreamlike film that was created premiered at Toronto last year and then stormed the festival circuit, winning several awards. This tale of one damaged but strong white woman healing among Native Americans has also made its way onto many Top Ten lists for last year, with comparisons to such films as “Walkabout” and “Zabriskie Point.”

Central to the film’s success is unknown actress Emily Lape, who took a huge leap of faith signing up for the project. Not many actresses would agree to the conditions the director set down, including nudity, simulated sex, no script and no pay. Oh, and could you leave in two weeks’ time?

“We saw several hundred people, but what shined was her ability to remain unaffected by the camera and take a risk. It gave me the confidence that she was a risk-taker. Some actors love the idea of improv, but when actually offered the chance to back down, she didn’t.”

The primary location was Casa Grande Reservation, south of Phoenix. Filming on reservations is a fraught process, and Gordon spent months in talks with village elders. Lehel journeyed there, too, and the elders eventually voted in favor of the two strangers.

Lehel has done a lot of previous work with Native Americans and even sat in on several ceremonies. It’s all about the intention, he says, and the intention was to be authentic.

“By not preparing and letting things materialize as we went along, the more it would not be coming from my white brain of 48 years,” he says.

Apart from the lead, Lehel cast the rest of his actors on the spot, straight from the people living on the reservation. The entire community helped out with filming, donating both time and goods.

At the Phoenix Film Festival, the evening screening was a hit with the 15 Native Americans who had turned up, but the following morning’s 9 a.m. screening was the kicker. The place was packed with nearly everybody from the reservation, some who had traveled for three hours to reach the theater. A good endorsement, indeed.

“Gaia” is full of magic and contains a scene so unexpected for cast and crew that Lehel is at pains to make sure the information doesn’t leak out. The scene affected the entire film and has been affecting audiences ever since. This also lends credence to Lehel’s original idea to let things come as they may.

“It’s as they say: There’s the film you write and the film you shoot, and there’s the film you edit; they’re not the same thing,” he says. “And this is definitely one of those. I guided this film, I didn’t control it.”

‘GAIA’
Where: Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, 113 Harbor Way
When: 6:30 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. film Tonight
Cost: $20 suggested donation
Information: (323) 620-7463, www.sbmm.org

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