The Lure is an ensemble drama that brings to life a modern day treasure hunt, following hunters on their journey as they comb the Rocky Mountains for a hidden treasure. While the exact value of the treasure is disputed, rumour has it that it exceeds $1 million. This seemingly quixotic quest is orchestrated by the eccentric millionaire art dealer Forrest Fenn, who teases the hunters with new clues to either help or hinder their progress. Filmmaker Tomas Leach, however, looks beyond the fevered search for riches to offer an existential portrait of man. He addresses ideas of presential purpose versus future achievement, to the act of reimagining one’s identity, and the quest as a stage for transformation.
Executive produced by Errol Morris, The Lure premiered in competition at DOC NYC and the Glasgow Film Festival. Leach’s sophomore feature documentary, he made his directorial feature debut with his 2014 film about the legendary New York photographer Saul Leiter, In No Great Hurry. Alongside his documentary shorts that have screened internationally at festivals, Leach has directed commercials for Adidas, IBM, Ikea, and Vodafone, amongst others.
In conversation with PopMatters, Leach reflects on cinema as a unifying medium and the inevitability of its transformative journey. He also discusses the existential themes of the film, while entering into a philosophical discussion on the nature of human perspective as a potentially imposing force, the limitations of truth, and the subjective nature of documentary.
Why film as a means of creative expression, and why in particular documentary filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I love cinema! I’ve always loved photography, music, and storytelling, and it’s the perfect compliment of all of those things. But it also has its own language and magic, and to me, it’s the most perfect and defining storytelling tool there is.
As for documentaries, there are so many incredible nuanced and fascinating stories out there in the world. So it became a way to start delving into peoples lives to tell stories that I thought had been missed, and to bring them to life in a cinematic way.
You mention that there are a multitude of fascinating stories to be told. With the demands a documentary project places upon you, what was it about this particular story that compelled you to bring it to the screen?
I think it was the universality. If you say the words ‘treasure hunt’ to pretty much anyone the age of five to 85, their eyes will light up and they’ll get excited by the idea. This child like desire and excitement is the bit that led me to the story. Once I found out more about it and the people that are searching for it, as well as the part of the world that it was set in, then it kind of took over.
When I was looking for the characters whom we might follow, I spoke to hundreds of treasure hunters. The first thing I was very clear about was I didn’t want this to be about wacky nut job Americans out in the hills, or rich white guys doing this as an alternative to golf. The characters I was looking for needed to have a fragility, an interest and depth to them that would sustain both a narrative and a deeper film. You have to be able to empathise with them and let them lead you on this journey, because we are going through the depths of their personality, rather than just trying to look at them.
I wanted us to be with them. I didn’t want this to be a freak show or a kind of bawdy comedy. It was much more about the deeper questions of why people were out there searching. So in the process of looking for characters, I almost cast a documentary for people that I thought brought different facets to their character, who could tell different parts of the story, and who we as an audience could connect with and let lead us on the journey.
This connection between the characters and the audience is not constructed out of high drama. Rather, you allow their personalities to gradually open up without imposing your own presence on the characters. To my mind, as we move through the film, this permits the connection and our deepening interest to resonate more powerfully.
Definitely, and it’s true of a lot of the work of the directors I love. You’re not being hammered over the head with this, you’re being pulled in slowly. it’s like peeling back the layers of an onion. And this story, once the idea of the treasure hunt and that initial excitement is out the way, then we have to look to what is beyond that. Why are people searching?
It’s almost a meditative thing to me, psychological, a spiritual search on which people realise they will not find the treasure tomorrow, so what takes them out there into the wild? What are they being faced with? That’s more of a spiritual state, but almost certainly a meditative one; what are we all looking for in life?
There’s a moment in which a character discusses the hunt as being more significant than the possible outcome. It highlights one of the themes of the film as centering upon the human need for purpose, which to my mind contextualises the film as introspectively looking at how we tick as people.
I’d agree, and that was certainly what we were hoping for, and in my opinion, that’s what came forward from the characters. As human beings, it almost doesn’t matter how futile the thing is that we throw ourselves into. There’s a beauty, something I find incredibly special about the fact that we can wholeheartedly throw our selves into something, even if we think the end thing might be impossible, futile or non-existent.
That’s the beat of all creative acts. That’s where creativity comes from. We throw ourselves into something that might not have an end goal, that might not be something, and instead, it becomes the journey and the process. By fully committing to that, it’s what you discover about yourself along the way.
I find myself endlessly fascinated by the extent to which the identity of the world is crafted through human perspective, of which nature possesses neither the same logic or consciousness. Equally of interest is the pursuit of answers to questions that will evade us, wherein we lose ourselves in uncertainty.
There’s definitely something to your point about how, as human beings, we impose our own order and logic, that comes only from perspective. This treasure hunt is something that definitely touches on that and there’s no overall answer as to whether it exists or not because until someone finds it, it’s impossible to say. So you can only impose your own order and your own logic onto this, and that has been taken to the umpteenth degree by some of the searchers and other people in our film.
They take it to a different level and are really imposing their own perspective. all of their experience — all of what they need becomes the treasure hunt. The part of how our perspective leads our version of reality is definitely something I’m fascinated by, and I’m interested to see whether people take that from the film because for me, that ties into the storytelling.
One of the paths taken that was very important from the beginning is that there is no factual oversight — I’m not making too many grand statements. I’m not leading you through this like a Werner Herzog would, and there’s no overarching factual character telling us this is right or wrong. Everybody in the film is packaging themselves up and making their own version of themselves, and creating their own story. They are in the process of doing this while on the hunt and they’re reimagining themselves as different characters.
The treasure hunt is allowing them to do that and that’s true for Forrest on one side, who has hidden this treasure, and who has created this legend and myth that will live on beyond him. But it’s also true for the treasure hunters because they are able to reimagine themselves as whoever they want to be while out on the hunt.
Picking up on your earlier point about the universality of the story, while this is true on one level, The Lure could also be described as an American story. Within the film, Forrest’s treasure hunt is placed within the context of the American myths, which creates a dual identity.
I always describe it as there’s no other place in the world this would be so quickly believed, that would start such a fever as in the American West. If there was hidden gold in the West Midlands, we wouldn’t go out searching for it in the same way. We’d be cynical about it. But there’s something about the American West that’s so full of possibility and mystery that it’s the perfect place to set a treasure hunt.
We have all read books, seen films and heard stories, and so there’s a kind of cultural universality to that part of the world. It’s the visual birth place of cinema and it’s where so much of what we think of as early cinema is — California and New Mexico, all of the American West. So much was shot in Arizona and so much was shot in Nevada. So these are places that whether we have been there or not, we all have our interpretation of the American West.
The purist opinion of documentary as objective is built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film, to the subjectivity of the subjects, it’s not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.
Yeah, and for me that’s crucial. I’ve always been interested in cinema. I don’t want to be a journalist, I don’t want to be giving an even handed part of the story. I’m quite happy to bend the truth if it fits a greater overall sense of rightness or truth to the story. I’m quite happy to cheat shots from locations if they feel right.
For me, there’s a huge subjectivity to cinematic documentary, and what we were absolutely aiming for with this film was a story that takes you along on a journey, and touches you in a way that great cinema — be it documentary or not — does. All my favourite films are very much like that. They are from the filmmaker’s point of view and that comes down to casting, how you shoot it, the score, the style, the approach, the edit, everything. For me it’s not about creating an even handed factual account, it’s to take you along with a story and to make you feel something.
In the trailer, Forrest says: “We are all charlatans to some degree. It doesn’t matter who you are; it only matters who they think you are.” As you say, the characters are able to reimagine themselves and that raises the question of the authenticity of identity.
While returning us to our discussion of human perspective, it also ties into the Buddhist belief of an absence of truth. Of course, if truth is layered, then how can you make something that is authentically factual, when facts are influenced by perspective and the legitimacy of record? Therein, is the film an example of lack of truth through perspective?
Completely! I hope there’s so much layer in this film, and I hope it stands up to repeat viewings. From the start, if you went to watch this with a friend, I wanted one of you to come out excited and wanting to find gold, and the other to think there’s no such thing as the treasure, that it’s all a hoax and a myth. Both of those can still be true, and there’s so much small and big level storytelling from all of the people involved in the film that I find fascinating.
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl, he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Sure, on one level that’s undoubtedly true for everybody. Filmmaking is such a time- and labour-intensive journey that along the way, just the passage of time makes you a different person. But for this film in particular, I feel like I tested myself a lot cinematically.
It’s impossible not to grow when you are spending time with people that are questioning themselves, and it’s impossible not to question yourself too when you are on a journey with people who are searching for and finding meaning inside of themselves. Almost by default, you are searching within yourself for meaning and understanding, and that process is a very spiritual one in a sense, but it’s undoubtedly a process that is ripe for growth.
The Lure is released theatrically in the UK on Friday 8 September 2017.