Ghosts of the West director Ethan Knightchilde on filming old towns and preserving theaters
When filmmaker Ethan Knightchilde was growing up on the East Coast, a cheesy ghost story sparked an interest in ghost towns that ultimately led him to create the monumental documentary Ghosts of the West, which will have its Denver debut at 7 p.m. Thursday, September 26, at the Esquire Theatre. "You come across things in life that just resonate with you, and you can never get them out of your head," he explains. "When I was about nine years old, I read a book -- some adolescent tale about a ghost town and a lost mine. It was probably very Scooby Doo-ish, but there was just something about that that stuck in my head: an entirely abandoned town and how do you lose a gold mine? There was just something about the idea of it." Then on the July 4 weekend in 2002, Knightchilde stumbled across a real-life ghost town -- and his obsession was revived.
© 2012 Knight Sky Pictures, LLC
In advance of tomorrow's screening, we chatted with Knightchilde about the making of the documentary (he filmed the ghost towns instead of relying on archival footage), the importance of preserving historic sites and what attendees can expect at the Denver screening.
Westword: Tell us about that first ghost town.
Ethan Knightchilde: We were at a friend's house in Aspen, and somehow the subject of ghost towns came up. And they said, "You would've driven right past one on your way in." So we went to look and we stopped at the town of Ashcroft and we were standing in front of it, and it really resonated with me. I started doing research on that town and other towns. So reading about that town made me want to read about other towns and visit those other towns, and we just traveled further and further away from Denver.
For the making of this film, we actually visited not just all over Colorado but Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota, but Colorado easily far and ahead has the majority of screen time.
You decided to film these sites instead of relying on archival footage -- can you talk about why you decided that was important for the documentary? What were some of the challenges that choice presented?
Once you start getting into the subject matter -- and this goes back to the subject matter resonating -- it was a question of the lives of those people who had lived that history. It would have felt very disingenuous and not very fair to not even visit the towns where they lived out their lives and hopes and dreams and violence. I feel that would be a lie. So being there, I felt, was important.
And there were challenges -- there are areas that are not accessible to the public.... We never once trespassed, I'm very proud to say that we never once trespassed. Any site where we couldn't get in touch with the landowners, we shot from the side of the road and did what we could; telephoto lenses are wonderful things when it comes to that. That's one of the challenges. And one of the other challenges -- sometimes a town had an unbelievable history, just phenomenal, dramatic, everything you'd want to make a feature film about, but there's very little left. There was a town in Arizona that was one of the last pieces cut from the film. We just couldn't make it work, there were three standing structures and four minutes of screen time. In that case, there are also very few historical images. We included it as a special on the DVD.
So the challenges were: find stories that were dramatic and would hold the audience's interest, that could be told concisely, that weren't these long, drawn-out pieces. Where there were still buildings left that we could visit, where there were archival photos available, and where the histories weren't so convoluted that we could actually try to tell one or two versions of the story rather than taking shots in the dark. So there were a lot of challenges putting it all together even after we shot it.
We've shown the film to crowds and to critics, but just last month in the town of Saguache -- we showed to people who lived in those areas, families who lived in those areas for decades and who know those histories very well, and we were commended by residents of the town of Creede and by a gentleman whose family was unfortunately involved in the Ludlow Massacre. That's probably what we're the most proud of.
From an early point in the project, it grew. But fairly early on, as I was reading in history books and various readings on the subject, I started flagging areas and even writing on notecards: Wow, these are great stories, we need to see what more we can get. So it was a matter of reading more and more, accumulating more books and searching for original newspaper articles and going into archives as we narrowed the focus. It was almost like a prospector: You find a little color in a stream, so you head upstream to see if you can find more. Sometimes that panned out, and others it didn't. Anytime we ran into a situation where we had accounts that were so wildly disparate and contradictory, there's no way to tell that because you'd be prefacing every sentence of the script with "Some believe this but others believe that." I'm not trying to tell both sides of a debate. It really was walking a fine line on a lot of different areas in the script.