Luke Griswold-Tergis: Pleistocene Park (2022) | featured image
Sergey Zimov in Pleistocene Park (2022)

‘Pleistocene Park’ Director Luke Griswold-Tergis on Eight-Year’s with a Pathological Optimist

Pleistocene Park director Luke Griswold-Tergis talks about his eight-year filmmaking journey with a very smart, “batshit crazy” self-taught environmentalist.

Pleistocene Park
Luke Griswold-Tergis

I’m curious about the term ‘pathological optimist’. At one point you use it to describe Sergey and then you wonder if you might be one too.  How do you define this phrase and how do you apply it to their work and yours? 

I think in both cases you have to be a pathological optimist or you would just give up. Any rational person would give up a long time ago either on making a film or on creating an ecosystem to save the world. Zimov is funny because he’s really pessimistic about the future of humanity but he is pathologically optimistic about his ability to do stuff and his ideas. Despite all evidence to the contrary, sometimes you wonder, Zimov what are you thinking? How are you going to pull that off? 

At what point your editor Maureen Gosling came on board? I notice that you also worked with her on your first documentary Smokin’ Fish (2011). 

Yes she edited my previous film and she is a very seasoned editor. Probably her most well-known film is Burden of Dreams (1982) directed by Les Blank. On my first film I desperately needed someone with experience because I didn’t know what I was doing.

For this film, Maureen was busy when I first got started and I was trying to work with another editor. Maybe he didn’t have the self-confidence or whatever to plough through it and so I kept trying to consult with Maureen. She eventually finished up the project she was working on and was able to take this on, so I think the last three years she worked on Pleistocene Park. It certainly wasn’t full time, but when we got footage and would have money or even sometimes when we didn’t have money, she helped out. 

I’m also curious about the music. Did you have a specific idea when you started working with the composer Dan Cantrell? How did that collaboration come about?

I’ve only made one previous film and my strategy was what music am I listening to right now that is obscure enough that possibly the people are approachable? I’m not going to try and license the Beatles or Led Zeppelin or something. Also, I try to figure out what works with Pleistocene Park. Maureen has a very organic approach in general and she’ll just start dropping music tracks and editing scenes. It feels very random when you are watching her. She says she just looks at the titles of songs I give her and if one looks like it’s appropriate, she’ll try it. There’s a lot of trial and error with finding something that works. 

She’s done quite a few music documentaries so she’s pretty knowledgeable about the world of music. There are some tracks on Pleistocene Park, like the Finnish song towards the end, she found that. It’s that Finnish metal song with all the abandoned buildings when we were transporting the bison. I don’t think Maureen is a big metal head but somehow she found that song and it was perfect.

Dan is an old family friend and he mostly does Balkan music. Originally when his name came up I thought maybe he was too ethnic. At some point, I felt we needed to fill in our music and I decided I should at least talk to Dan to see what he thought. It came together and there was a lot of back and forth, trying things and seeing what worked and there’s a little bit of Balkan music in there too for some moments when it just felt right. 

You said you didn’t try for any big artists, but meanwhile you have a Tom Waits song, “In the Cold, Cold Ground” in your soundtrack.

That’s funny. There’s a Russian permafrost scientist I met who is really Tom Waits-obsessed, and with that song in particular. It’s obviously not written about permafrost, yet it seems appropriate. So that was my association.

Something that Maureen does a lot is that she’ll drop music in temporarily because while you’re editing it’s hard to watch a scene without music sometimes. The idea is that we’ll fix it later, put in other music. It’s always kind of a bad idea because you get a song in there and then it’s hard to take it out if it works well. Sometimes the scene becomes molded to a certain song. Some people do things called “sound-alikes”, where they’ll ask a composer to record something that sounds like another song but that’s different enough so that we won’t get sued for copyright violation. 

Meanwhile, my producer was saying to me, “Luke, only use composed music because licensing music is a big pain and expensive.” So we had this Tom Waits song in there and as we’re getting close to the end of Pleistocene Park, there’s always this big rush and we’re understaffed. I was doing all the licensing myself and I was thinking we’re going to have to redo this whole scene because of the Tom Waits song.

Finally, I just started googling and I found Tom’s publisher, a woman and good friend of his. I started asking her how this might work, what is the “normal” thing. The reply was: “There is no normal, music licensing is a very complex thing, it’s whatever you can hammer out.” So I asked if it was even vaguely possible and we worked something out. Tom even watched at least the scene or maybe even the whole film. I guess he liked the subject matter or the aesthetic of it and he OK’d it. His record label is Universal and when my people heard that they told me not to bother, but the publisher talked to the person at Universal. Luckily that person honored the deal that was suggested. I think I got really lucky on that one. 

Regarding the scientific community and permafrost, how up-to-date do you think they are in terms of understanding the reality of carbon trapped in the permafrost? Are they testing it and publishing the results?  

I think they’ve had a feeling of how dire it is for a long time and they’ve quantified some of that. There’s a tremendous amount published about this, I think it’s one of the major cruxes of climate change and what our future is going to look like. It’s this tipping point. I’m not a scientist and I feel like I haven’t been paying attention to the most recent research, but my feeling is that we understand the potential scope of the problem, we know how much carbon is in the ground, for example.

Zimov figured that out. It’s like a nonlinear system, there are these tipping points involved and we don’t know exactly where those are. It’s a trick climate scientists are dealing with and I mention this in Pleistocene Park. If you express uncertainty, you get torn apart for it. I think a lot of climate scientists are pushed to only say something if they can express absolute certainty.

This is something that we know is there, we know it’s big, but we don’t know when we’re going to fall over that cliff. We’re still groping around in the dark. I think it’s somewhat intrinsically hard to know some things, like exactly how big is it going to be? Are we going to fall off this cliff in five years or in 50 years? 

There are a lot of feedback loops like this in climate science – something that speeds up or slows down a warming trend. I remember someone at a conference saying that there are one or two feedback loops that are negative feedback loops, meaning they could mitigate the situation. One of them is carbon dioxide as a fertilizer, the more CO2 in the atmosphere, the faster plants grow and the more CO2 they suck up. However, there are many positive feedback loops, things that accelerate climate change.

All of our predictions are based on these linear models where a little bit more CO2 will make the temperature get a little bit warmer but there are also changes in the system, things that when you continue to push them and then there is a big shift all of a sudden. It doesn’t go back and so those things are inherently hard to predict.

What is the future the Northeast Science Station? (The NSS, run by the Zimovs, is used as a base for year-round international research in arctic biology, atmospheric physics and geophysics. It also houses the administration of Pleistocene Park and helps fund the park.)

I imagine there are not many foreign scientists going there to conduct research since the invasion of Ukraine.

Well, not many went over during the pandemic either. It didn’t really make it into Pleistocene Park, but there’s a very big German project with the Max Planck Institute and there are some other collaborations with Europeans going on. Max Planck is one of the NE Science Station’s largest and longest running projects. There’s all this equipment out on the tundra like towers and generators and cables stretching here and there including a person living out there year round. So when the war in Ukraine started that all gotcut off instantly, around three days after the start of the war.

It impacts Nikita and his business directly. He’s trying to figure out how to deal with the situation. As things stand right now, American collaborators are still working with him and the US is still funding ongoing research there. So far, the sanctions haven’t stopped that, but it’s unclear how long that will last. They are government institutions ultimately, it’s federal funding and they’re willing to keep working on it, either due to bureaucratic inertia or because some smart person realizes the importance of this research. It’s been ongoing for so many years and they don’t want to break their data set now for people who are 5,000 miles away from the war. 

Nikita had some big projects planned, he was going to bring 30 musk ox to the park. He was starting to expand the fence. The project was gaining a lot of momentum around the time this happened. Now he’s just in survival mode. He needs to keep someone out there, keep the animals alive, not expand anything, no new research. But just hold together what he’s got and see what happens. He’s doing what he can to ride it out. 

Where is Pleistocene Park going now? 

It’s traveling to some more film festivals around Europe. Also we’re getting ready to deliver it to an international broadcasting company, VICE World News. Pleistocene Park will be part of Season 3 of the curated segment of documentaries called The Short List. This way it should be available on both their broadcast channels and through their streaming presence. We also have an educational distributor in the US who is going to be doing some educational and hopefully some community screenings, along with maybe a few theatrical things. We’re still working out the details so we don’t have any set dates yet.

Any other upcoming projects?

Aside from dividing my time between Alaska and Northern California, I have a new short term, possibly long term job, if things work out. An interested funder contacted me. They were interested in funding Pleistocene Park and then the war started so we couldn’t really go forward with the idea. We decided to wait things out and then this Australian businessman said, “Well what about a starting a Pleistocene Park in Alaska?” My reaction was, “It’s complicated, it’s different, there’s more bureaucracy.” But I’ve thought about this a bit and it’s an interesting idea. I could research it and see what it might take to make it work.

One thing I’m working on this summer is researching how to fund a Pleistocene Park in Alaska. It involves leasing land from the state, most likely partnering with a Native American tribe which owns some land. I have to put together a budget and figure out things like how much does fencing cost per kilometer that will hold the bison? What are fish and game rules about containing bison? It gets into the weeds of politics and bureaucracy in Alaska. Yet it’s really interesting and I’m going to be traveling to the Fairbanks area in about a month to do on the ground research, look at actual locations.

Was this an area you were knowledgeable about? Did you study anything similar when you were at university?

No I studied Cultural Anthropology.

So your passion grew out of making the documentary Pleistocene Park?

I got pretty immersed in what they were doing. Also, it just sounds really fun and potentially impactful. It’s hard to pay the bills with filmmaking, so I’m maybe going to try something else for a little while, especially if there’s funding for it. Or maybe if it works out, it can be a long-term project.

I feel like at this point I’m not an expert, but who really is? Who, other than Nikita, has more experience to make something like this happen? So I have gotten sucked in even deeper over my head than the Pleistocene Park makes it sound.

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