Simon Ennis Interviews Ron Mann

SIMON: You came to this subject by way of another mushroom-loving filmmaker, your friend Jim Jarmusch. When he first introduced you to this amazing, madcap subculture of fungiphiles, what exactly was it that made you decide mushroom culture was more than just something you found interesting, but was something you needed to make a film about?

RON: To spread the spores. To spread the information. Jim pointed me to the Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado where I met Larry Evans (the 'Indiana Jones' of mushroom hunters) and Gary Lincoff (author of the Audubon Field Guide to Mushrooms).  After four days of intensive reprogramming  I joined the cult. Drank the Kool-Aid. And now I'm handing out leaflets at airports recruiting others.

SIMON: Aside from the boletes, amanitas and psylocebes, the stars of the film are two incredible characters – Gary Lincoff, the foremost mushroom expert and lecturer in North America, and Larry Evans, a wise-cracking, Grateful Dead-loving, world-traveling  Mushroom hunter. Both of these guys are serious personalities – smart, funny, passionate and wild. Had you decided to make the film before meeting them and could you talk specifically about what made you gravitate towards them in the first place?

RON: Every cult needs charismatic leaders, right? And every film needs charismatic characters. 

SIMON: From Imagine the Sound all the way through Know Your Mushrooms, there's a definite through-line in the kind of subjects you've chosen and the way you've approached them. Often we're treated to an underrepresented sub-culture or phenomenon whose stories you tell with a joy, enthusiasm and a sense of both wonder and mischief that's infectious to audiences. I remember, even before I met you or started to work for you, that when I saw Comic Books or Twist or Rat Fink, it was like being at a friends house who'd pull a book or record off his shelf and say, "Do you know about THIS? You gotta check it out. It's the coolest thing going right now!" Could you talk about how you generally choose a subject and how you try to connect with an audience?

RON: The radical American documentary filmmaker Emile de Antonio once told me there are only two reasons for making a film - you love something intensely or you despise something intensely. Anything else is doomed to failure. I was repeatedly told by people in the "film & television industry" that my subjects had no commercial potential -  which only encouraged me. I know there are other people besides myself who want to see these kinds of films. While making  "Comic Book Confidential" I was in an airport reading Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" and I remember a guy looking at me like I was some kind of moron reading a comic book. But I knew that history was on my side.

SIMON: Throughout your career, you've employed a number of great techniques in your films that, until you introduced them, hadn't been obvious weapons in the documentarian's arsenal. I'm talking specifically of the way you created such lively and often laugh-out-loud funny collages of stock footage in Twist and Grass (which has since become almost ubiquitous in the documentary landscape) and, more recently, the awesome animated segments in Rat Fink and now Know Your Mushrooms. Was it ever an intentional decision to try to break the mold of traditional documentary storytelling? Where did these ideas come from? And are there any other similar tricks you have tucked away in your back pocket that we'll see in your next films?

RON: My mentor was de Antonio. He was one of the first documentary filmmakers to use ironic humor. For instance "In the Year of the Pig" de  juxtaposed images of US bomber planes carpet bombing Vietnamese while scrolling the names of corporations who were profiting from the war. So playful humor is utilized to score a political point. 

De used collage and consider collage a 20th century art form. And he considered the aesthetics of documentary. He was making "art brut " films that were in an entirely different style then slick beer commercials. I was the opposite. I wanted to embrace Hollywood aesthetics rather then reject them. I went for an elegant style - from the very beginning.  Imagine the Sound was not your typical jazz documentary, which up to then had a shaky camera, lousy sound, and filmed in a "dungeon cafe".  So ya,  de got me thinking about how documentary is cinema.

SIMON: I know from working with you in the cutting room that Know Your Mushrooms was actually one of your fastest films to make. You told me on a number of occasions that almost all your films took between 3-5 years to complete whereas KYM was locked less than a year after you first rolled camera. Is the process getting faster because of digital editing technology or was this film faster because it's framed around an event – the Telluride Mushroom Festival?

RON: Well the editing was faster because we imported coca tea leaves from Peru! 

SIMON. The Flaming Lips song that bookends the film is an unbelievably cool piece of music. Can you talk about how you got the band involved and promise me here in print that you'll submit the track for nomination at the Genies (so that their psychedelic sounds can be unleashed live on an unsuspecting Canadian film industry)?

RON: I was on a panel at South by South West (SXSW) with Wayne Coyne who was a fan of my film "Grass" (surprise surprise). And when we were editing the film I thought the Flaming Lips would be appropriate to write some music (along with my friends Travis Good - from The Sadies, and Greg Keelor - from  Blue Rodeo).  Wayne said he'd do it and three months later the most absolute perfect song arrived in my in box. In fact, I liked the song so much I used the music stems as trippy atmospheric stings throughout the entire film.

I'm not sure the song would be eligible for a Genie Award but its on their MySpace page if people want to hear it.

SIMON. In making this film I know you were inundated (as I was) with so many incredible facts about mushrooms. Off the top of your head, what is the most mind-blowing piece of mushroom trivia?

RON: Well, Jim once told me the DNA of fungi are closer to humans then to plants. That one really freaked me out.

You know, I often wonder what is the attraction of artists to mushrooms?  What compels Takashi Murakami to paint massive mushroom murals? Or Katie Bethune-Leamen to construct a silo sized 'shroom in Toronto's Sculpture Garden? Why did John Cage to compose music and poetry to fungi? I'd say the attraction is magic. Mushrooms are truly magical.