By Danny Peary
Our heroes in movies, particularly documentaries, are of often ordinary people who do extraordinary things, people who rise to the occasion under dire circumstances. Garnet Frost could be seen by himself and others as an extraordinary man who has never done anything that exceeded the ordinary. Unmarried, childless, living in London with his ninety-year-old mother, he believes that his best chance to make his mark in history is to find a fortune in gold that was hidden three hundred years ago in Scotland’s Loch Arkaig, where he almost died twenty years before while hiking alone. This dynamic personality has no idea that his brush with fame will be not as an explorer, but as the subject of director/writer/editor Ed Perkins’ fascinating, beautifully-shot documentary, Garnet’s Gold, which just played to large, enthusiastic crowds at the Tribeca Film Festival. For his first feature, Perkins (who made a series of TV documentaries for the National Geographic Channel) tells us what he learned, which is that Garnet underestimates himself as much as George Bailey does in It’s a Wonderful Life, and that it is neither wealth nor celebrity that makes someone exceptional, but what he graciously offers to others. As the film’s press notes state, “[A]s Garnet embarks on his journey, the pursuit for riches is soon eclipsed by a more melancholy search for meaning and inspiration by a wonderfully exuberant man with grand aspirations.” Garnet (whose newest dream project is a play with huge magic tricks about Houdini) was one of the most welcome guests at the festival. I was fortunate to speak to him and the London-based Perkins last week.
Danny Peary: So, Garnet, on your first visit to New York, are you saying, “It’s nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live here.”?
Garnet Frost: I don’t know, I haven’t had time to come to that conclusion. I do think it is a very nice place to visit. I’ve been doing a lot of press so I’ve just been out and about briefly, but so far I love what I’ve seen.
DP: You have the name, Garnet Frost, of a renaissance man. Has having that name influenced you, do you think?
GF: Possibly, it’s a bit like “A Boy Named Sue.” It’s a curious name, so I had to live up to it by being curious. It’s unusual, but not unique, although I’ve never met another one.
Ed Perkins: There’s a few Garnets over here, aren’t there?
DP: There was a singer from the 1960s named Garnet Mimms who had a hit “Cry Baby.” That’s the only one I know. Of course, he shares a fairly common last name with the poet Robert Frost.
GF: Well, that’s beyond my control. As for the name Garnet, I blame my mother for that –it’s an expression of her romantic nature. In fact my first Christian name is Edward, which was my father’s choice. My mum rather preferred Garnet, because when she first realized she was pregnant with me, she stood on a beach somewhere on the east coast of England, where garnets were everywhere. My dad preferred Edward, so it was Edward Garnet, but then my parents split up when I was a baby in the cradle, so she took to calling me Garnet, and that’s what I’ve been called ever since.
DP: So oddly, you two have the same first name!
EP (laughing): I didn’t know about this!
DP: Let me ask you, Ed, if Garnet is a quick study. Did you pretty much know him after one meeting?
EP: No, the reason I kept coming back is that he’s so enigmatic and evocative that I became addicted and obsessed with trying to dig deeper get to know Garnet more and more. At the same time, I was trying to work out for myself what was going on in our film story. I started doing a lot of research into kind of archetypal narrative structures. If I was going to dramatize a story like this, how would I tell it?. It took four years to make Garnet’s Gold, and for a long period of that, I had no idea as a filmmaker what the film was really about. I found a structure in something called The Hero’s Journey, kind of based on Holy Grail mythology. In my house, I put up a big sheet, and marked it Act I, Act II, and put notes on Post-Its all over it. It was a little scary but very exciting–I kept going because I wanted to know what was at the end of this rainbow. There may not be a literal pot of gold, but I sensed we could find something more interesting.
DP: What kind of odds did you think there were that you’d find the gold?
GF: Well, that’s impossible to assess. Obviously on paper the odds were low that we’d find it, but at the same time there were so many tantalizing clues suggesting that it could be there.
EP: I didn’t try to guess the odds, and I didn’t really care. I was swept into Garnet’s world, into Garnet’s plans to build flying machines, and into his coffee-stained maps and all the rest of it. I went along with his idea to search for the gold, and certainly when we got in the stream where he thought it was hidden, my heart was beating very fast, because I thought it might be there and I wanted it to be there for Garnet’s sake. But in actuality, I didn’t think it was essential for my film that Garnet find the missing gold. I thought if we found it, it would have be a hell of a story, but it wasn’t the kind of story I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell the true story of Garnet.
DP: Was finding the gold your Plan A for your film? And if that didn’t work, did you have Plan B in place?
EP: There wasn’t a back-up plan. From the moment I met Garnet I wanted to tell a more introspective, emotional, and human story than a story of Garnet searching for gold. Garnet’s Gold is about how people need a purpose in life. The reason I wanted to do that story was because Garnet’s journey itself threw up big themes that we can all relate to in our own lives. Who hasn’t looked back on their lives and asked themselves if they’d reached their potential? Garnet’s willingness to ask himself such a tricky question was very powerful.
DP: At the end of the day, when you were getting to know each other, would you leave Garnet behind and come home and tell your girlfriend, “You won’t believe what happened today!”?
EP: Yeah, I was constantly surprised. Every time I’d come home from a day of filming with Garnet, I thought, “This is kind of amazing!” It wasn’t perfect but it was close enough for me to think, “This is going somewhere. I don’t know where it’s going, but it’s worth taking a risk.” I knew it was worth my spending time with Garnet, a man I came to really care about. I fell in love with the guy and I became completely obsessed with trying to tell his story.
DP: Garnet, you’re a humble guy and suddenly somebody’s making a movie about you. At the end of the each day did you ask yourself if you were a good enough subject? Or were you confident to just let Ed do what he does?
GF: Well, we had sort of a division of labor from the outset. This was going to be my expedition and it was his film. From the start, he was reluctant to show me any footage, saying it was best if I didn’t see it because it would make me feel a bit self-conscious. I’m sure he was right. So I just kind of let him get on with it. We had this build-up as we prepared for the expedition, the boat was nearly ready, we were making sure we had enough money, so each day had its own momentum and its own fulfillment, without us really having to review what anything we filmed meant.
DP: So you didn’t worry that you weren’t giving Ed enough.
GF: I did in a sense, not having seen the rushes. I wasn’t sure what he was getting, but I was sensing what it was. I didn’t care about a camera being pointed at me, he could do that when he wanted to, but when he’d have it almost touching my chest, it made feel kind of awkward and self-conscious; and when he’d then ask me questions, I’d feel I was a bit flat and not up to par–but I thought we’d make up for it later.
DP: Did you ever tell him to turn off the camera, because what he wanted was too private, including conversations with your sick mother?
GF: He might ask, “Oh, can I tape this?” and I’d say, “No, you can’t.” But he usually was sympathetic and sensed when I didn’t really want to talk.
DP: Ed, you didn’t show him the rushes, so were there moments when you wondered how he was going to feel about something?
EP: When he finally watched the film, it was very nerve-wracking. This was my first feature film, and I was sure I made lots of mistakes along the way. The approach I took was that Garnet is quite an introspective guy who thinks a lot of about the world and himself, and I didn’t want him to become too self-conscious about the process of being filmed. I didn’t want him to think he had to give me something because I knew that would have been the way to not make this film. I wanted as much as possible to build a trusting relationship between us and then get him to feel comfortable in front of cameras. It took a long time. We’d go out without a camera and have a beer at the pub, and I spent a lot of time sitting with his mom without the camera, just talking about her life and Garnet’s life. I also met his friends. I was drawn into this amazing world, full of very rich characters, so it was always a treat. I wanted Garnet to focus on just being there in the moment.
DP: Was Garnet a different person when you were in Scotland?
EP: Yeah, Garnet became much quieter and much more introspective. The place was having a really profound impact on him. He was returning to the place where he nearly lost his life years before and it was difficult for him to confront what had happened there. I certainly realized that. I didn’t pry but I could see it in his face, and I wanted to give him the respect that he deserved. In one of our most poignant interviews, I just lit the side of his face, and I kept most of the front of his face almost in darkness. It was a very conscious decision. It come across as very intimate because we were very close, but the real reason I did it that was because I wanted to let him hide a little bit. Even though he was very emotive, I was respecting him and his journey.
DP: When you were doing all that gorgeous cinematography of spectacular wildnerness in Scotland, did you have a spiritual experience?
EP: I’m not a religious person, so no, but I wanted to make Scotland feel slightly dream-like. The color correction and sound design made it slightly hyper-real. The scenes in England were very claustrophobic, and consciously so; in Scotland, Garnet becomes a very small man in a very big landscape. The colors are saturated and he’s surrounded by light. In London there are millions of people but there’s sort of a loneliness there. Soon, in Scotland, he’s alone, yet he’s surrounded by midges, and running water and little creepy crawlies, and spiders, and wildlife. I wanted to bring that to life. I wanted all of Scotland to feel a bit ethereal so we got this sense that it wasn’t just a literal, physical journey we were going on with Garnet, but there was something a bit more introspective about this journey.
DP: As a filmmaker, where could you have gone wrong in telling the story?
EP: Well, it’s up to you to judge, but the biggest mistake I could have made as a filmmaker was to fall into the natural documentary track. When Garnet waded into the stream at the end of his journey, and he didn’t find gold where he thought it would be, he stands there and looks up and down the stream. The natural reaction for me would have been to ask, “Garnet, how are you feeling?” What I was trying to do as much as possible was resist that temptation to ask that and just hold the shot and let viewers make up their minds as to what was going on in Garnet’s mind; and have them embrace the ambiguity. I think the ambiguity is important, I think it’s interesting in filmmaking. All the films that I love are those that ask questions and leave us trying to figure out where it’s going.
DP: Garnet, Ed wants us to decide for ourselves what you were feeling when you realized there was no gold. But I think at that moment you were thinking many things and maybe your whole life was flashing before your eyes.
GF: I think the pair of us were really caught up in the adventure of the whole thing, really right up to that point. What I was actually feeling when I got into the stream was nothing. I wasn’t feeling anything. I was somehow just physically absorbed in the business of being there.
DP: But you gave up your search at some point. You’re no longer at that stream in Scotland searching for the gold.
GF: That’s it, we were as thorough as we could be and I felt that we took it as far as we could. It was at this point we needed to ask, “What has this adventure been about–it has something to do with the search for gold, right? Okay, so where are we now? It’s now the story of a man who goes in search of gold and doesn’t find it.” At that point I’m getting a little bit worried because I’ve been leading the way on the search for gold and Ed has been following along, but after not finding the gold, is there still a film in it? And Ed’s coming back to me, going, “Tell the camera how you feel about it? Has this changed your life or your perspective on things?” And I’m going, “Uh, well, maybe it has or maybe it will, I’m not really aware of that.” In fact at the moment here, more than anything else, I was just feeling really depressed. And he’s going, “Okay, so you feel depressed, let’s talk about depression a little bit.” Oh, for Christ’s sake, he could have been phased by it, but he was saying, “Let’s talk, something will come out of it. Trust me, we’ve got enough here, we’ll make it work somehow.” I think had we found the gold, it would have been exciting, but it probably would have been a lesser film than the way it turned out.
END SPOILER ALERT
EP: It has been the biggest privilege of my life to work with Garnet, and one of the challenges of working with someone who’s so self-aware and so introspective is that he’s quite knowing of his own journey. I felt like I was trying to get him not to think about whether he was providing me with a film. That would have been the wrong way for him to approach it, because he didn’t owe me anything, he never did. I was there documenting a story. So when we returned from our expedition in Scotland, I came back to London and tried to figure out in my mind what the bigger themes were. I don’t think Garnet knew exactly what the deeper message was. So we sat down in his bedroom for what must have been three, four, or five hours and we just talked. I didn’t know where our conversation was going. We talked and talked and talked, and eventually we started talking about the idea of whether he and I had made something of our own lives. The idea of an apology by Garnet [for not accomplishing enough in his life and meeting other people’s expectations] started to come to life. And I think that was the moment Garnet reached–that we both reached–and found what we feel is the heart of the story.
DP: Well, it’s at the heart of his life.
EP: Yes. At a Q&A, we were asked if Garnet was thinking about the apology when he was standing there in the stream where he thought the gold was hidden. I didn’t know, it was not for me to say. But I don’t think that’s important in terms of the storytelling. What’s important is focusing on the overall truth, finding themes that are true to his own life that relate to other people’s lives. And it felt like his apology was at the center of his story.
DP: But of course we in the audience are thinking, “Why is he apologizing for anything?” Garnet, you feel responsible for letting people down, and we’re thinking why? I won’t say if you found the gold or not, but I doubt if it would have made a difference in regard to your feeling the need to apologize. I guess the answer is that is just who you are, right?
GF: I’m not like that the whole time, but I have a depressive streak to me. I find myself thinking, why? I don’t know why myself.
DP: Maybe you’re a “people-pleaser,” in that you don’t like to let anybody down.
GF: Yeah, and I suppose I’m quite a driven person in a way. I set myself quite a high standard, so I never quite feel that I’ve done enough.
DP: You got a standing ovation at the sold-out screening I attended, so there!
GF: Perhaps I don’t take enough credit for what I do.
DP: Talk about your age difference. Was that important in your personal journeys?
EP: I think I recognized Garnet, and the story he’d undertaken, as kind of a mirror in which we can see our own hopes and dreams, and maybe our own fears. I think if you’re slightly older, closer to Garnet’s age, you can relate closely to things that are actually happening in your own lives. I think people like me who are a bit younger relate but not so closely–we see ourselves later in life. That happened with me, and without a doubt that had an impact on the themes I chose to portray more strongly in the film. In the last few years, I have certainly asked myself questions about meaning in my life. Did this have an impact on the stories Garnet and I talked about and the conversations we had? Possibly. I think often these really personal films say a lot about the filmmaker as well as the subject,
GF: The disparity in age between us is similar to that of a father and son, in a way. I identify with Ed and feel protective of him enough to feel that he could be a son of mine. At moments, he has looked to me as almost a father figure. There’s respect and protectiveness, if you like, between us.
DP (joking): So when are you going back to search for gold in Scotland?
GF: I would love to go back! I think it would be worthwhile going back and having another look around there. The historical story of the gold is to my mind another story that could be worth pursuing. I think the back story of how the gold came to be there in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden is fascinating in its own right. We only alluded to it briefly so maybe there’s another movie in there. I would love to go back because when we went I had this sense almost of going home. I identify with that place in ways I don’t quite understand.
EP: Would I like to go back? I would love to go back with Garnet. I’d never been up to that part of the world before. It is an amazing. It’s a dream for a filmmaker. I personally like the idea that the gold is still there, but I have to admit that I don’t know if I want it to be found. There’s something romantic about the idea of there being a billion dollars worth of gold just sitting there. If it is found, I want it to be found by Garnet, not anyone else.
DP: If it were in America, then everybody would be out there.
GF: Yes, it is bizarre that there has never been a systematic search for the gold. There was a man before us but he looked entirely the wrong place. As time goes by, the more I am convinced we did go to the right location, but by the same token I’m also pretty much convinced that after the gold was hidden there, it was lifted and redistributed, probably within a year. That was the intention when hiding the gold in the first place, so the chances of finding the gold is extremely remote. Nevertheless I think there probably is some archeology there worth investigating. For a proper search you need a team and all sorts of equipment because it’s a very difficult, tricky landscape. It’s quite dangerous to get across, let alone to investigate with a metal detector. It’s full of mystery.
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: Tell me about being at the Tribeca Film Festival.
GF: I was thrilled and scared for months before coming here to New York first time. You can see what I’m like in the film, so being a worrier I worried about having a heart attack or something like that.
DP: You’re a performer, once you get up in front of everyone you feel comfortable.
GF: I was having the heebie-jeebies!
EP: I know we’ve finished filming but I don’t think Garnet’s journey has come to an end. Actually being at the Tribeca Film Festival is part of his whole journey. We got a standing ovation from two hundred people in New York City, it was amazing. I feel so pleased that Garnet’s getting the respect and the attention that I believe he deserves and hasn’t had for too long. It’s a real privilege for me to be able to see Garnet in the limelight.