An interview with Chad Friedrichs, “The Experimental City” Part of the Spotlight: Architecture at the Chicago International Film Festival

The documentary film, “The Experimental City” by Chad Friedrichs, will be a part of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival taking place in Chicago from October 12-26 at the AMC River East.  The film, a part of the Spotlight: Architecture program, is a bold, innovative, and entertaining discovery of an almost lost and forgotten story of Athelstan Spilhaus.  Spilhaus lead a team of scientists attempting to develop MXC, the Minnesota Experimental City in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  This endeavor, targeting the results of climate change actually garnered state funding and political support, but just as quickly as it was considered, it fizzled out and was buried…until now.  Friedrichs unlocks the treasure of information and provides audiences with the opportunity to know Spilhaus as well as to ponder the era and the outcome.

Friedrichs talked with me about his discovery of Spilhaus and the arduous journey in making this wonderfully entertaining and enlightening film.

UNCOVERING SPILHAUS

I think outside certain sections of Minnesota, [the Experimental City] has been a largely forgotten subject. I came to it as I was searching for a topic along the lines of retro-futurism which is what people in the past used to think the future would look like…I came across some articles about Athelstan Spilhaus who is this scientist [and] academic…[and] this comic that he had written called Our New Age which of course is featured in the film…The very first ‘Our New Age’ that Spilhaus ever wrote in 1958 was about climate change.  He talked about [the fact] that we lived in a greenhouse and the carbon dioxide that is being emitted from our burning of fossil fuels is on the increase with the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere thus creating warming. And the last panel of that ‘Our New Age’ is NYC under water.  The very first one that he ever wrote!   But it’s one thing to do a profile on an individual, it’s another thing to try and define something far greater.  I actually looked it up on Wikipedia (You never know what you’ll find there!)… it mentioned that he had been a part of this project called the Minnesota Experimental City.  I’m originally from Minnesota, so this was something that I kind of cued in on…and you go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole and you start reading about this very futuristic sounding city.  Now, of course the Wikipedia article doesn’t give you any where near the kind of depth that we eventually arrived at, but it gave me enough of an indication that  there might be something really cool here.    

AUDIO RECORDING DISCOVERY

When I began this project, like all projects, you have no idea what this thing is going to look like, but…once I read the story of the MXC…[I thought] I’ve got to make this story somehow.  And I didn’t even know that those archival recordings were out there.  Walter Van den Broeck…who was one of the leads on the project donated all of these recordings and all of his materials associated with the MXC to the Northwest Architectural archives at the University of Minnesota.  A quick internet search revealed that they had these boxes. We didn’t know what was in these boxes, but it did mention that there were some reel to reel audio recordings.  Those are the kind of things that can change a film…when I say recordings, probably 40 or 50 reel to reels, and it says Steering Committee meeting, July 1967…this is going to be Spilhaus and all the rest talking about it and sure enough it was.

That was the first find and then the second find was when we went down to Texas to interview Louise O’Connor, Spilhuas’ friend. She mentioned off-hand that she had these recordings when she compiling his biography…In her recordings with Spilhaus, [he was] drinking heavily during the recording… he could say whatever he wanted, he was liberated. That was fun to listen to! That really gives you a sense of this character… we had 200 hours of audio…We had way more audio that we ever knew what to do with.  It’s a wonderful problem to have, but it is a problem.

REINACTMENTS USING ARCHIVAL AUDIO

The people (shown seated from the neck down) who are reading the MPCA transcripts at the end of the film, they’re all family members.  Even through editing, that was always the question mark, were audiences going to accept it? The idea: I’ve seen a film called “The Arbor,” that has lip-syncing involved. I didn’t have either the chops or the budget to pull off something like that. Another obvious choice would to be to do comics, to do an animation, but for some reason I just wasn’t feeling that.  And I really wanted to make sure that those recordings didn’t feel abstract.

So when you’re exposed to all this archival footage, all these still images…it’s going to distance you away from that audio…it just doesn’t have that same kind of immersion  when you’re actually seeing people talk even if you know in the back of your mind that those people aren’t real.

It’s the documentarians burden I’ve struggled with all my career.  Sometimes you have fabulous material from one aspect of the film but then you have to find ways to fill in the other aspects of the film, in this case, the visuals. 

WHAT IF MXC WAS BUILT?  WOULD OUR WORLD BE BETTER?

It’s tempting to look at that.  Let me give you my point of view on that.  I always, from the very beginning, try to strike a balance.  I always want audiences to come out kind of  a 50-50 split. I want audiences to see virtues of both sides. The people from [Minnesota] absolutely had to do what they did.  I mean it’s crazy to think that the city would come in, and if you believe in where you live is a good place, that’s the last thing you want to do is have that taken away… It’s very possible that this could have ameliorated some issues that created climate change today.  It’s very possible that it may not have done anything and become a ghost town after 20-30 years.  It does show [that] Spilhaus very early on was aware.  He was on the fence.  They knew that some sort of change was going to be taking place, but throughout the 70’s they weren’t sure whether it was going to be the climate change that we know or things were going to get cooler because of particulates in the air from pollution and that would block sunlight and it would have gotten cooler.  So he was on the fence.  To cast Spilhaus as this totally prescient person about our predicament today, is to do an historical injustice to him.  He was operating on the best information he had at the time.

RELEVANCY TODAY

A lot of people expect relevance out of documentaries…[However], this film is a kind of time piece as well.  It captures the spirit of a toxic era, so I wanted to remain true to that era  I didn’t want to move it forward to the 21st century.  It was a story about the 1960’s and ’70’s…At the same time, I think it’s great that people find relevancy that makes your work fresh; it keeps it interesting. 

GOALS

Number one, I want people to be entertained. There’s a burden that’s placed on documentary filmmakers to have this larger social outcome from a film.  That is not my desire, nor is it my particular talent.  Mine is making the movie and then letting other people use it as a tool.   The reason I got into this is that I’m attracted to the story…if audience walks out of it and they’re happy and entertained or sad and entertained, that’s enough for me.

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