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S E C T I O N 2 October 28, 2009 ■ News of local people and events in A LSO INSIDE C A LE N DA R 24 |R E A L E S TAT E the community. 29 |C L AS S I F I E D S 25 Menlo Park filmmaker Michael Schwarz on location in Peru, shooting “The Botany of Desire.” Courtesy, Kikim Media Plants, as you’ve rarely seen them Menlo Park filmmaker takes the plants’ perspective in bringing Michael Pollan’s ‘The Botany of Desire’ to the small screen. By Sean Howell Almanac Staff Writer “T he script I’m starting, it’s about flowers,” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman tells his brother Donald in the film “Adaptation” (2002). “Nobody’s ever done a movie about flowers before.” “What about ‘Flowers for Algernon’?” Donald asks, at which point Kaufman informs him that “Flowers for Algernon” is neither about flowers, nor a movie. “Adaptation” does give flowers plenty of face time, but it’s mostly about Kaufman’s crushing failure to write a movie about flowers. They’re beautiful; they’re complex; they’re mysterious; but they make pretty flimsy main characters, Kaufman discovers in the process of trying to adapt a book about a Florida orchid poacher. For Menlo Park filmmaker Michael Schwarz, the process of bringing another book about plants to the screen, Michael Pollan’s best-selling “The Botany of Desire,” was equally tortuous. Unlike Mr. Kaufman, however, Mr. Schwarz succeeded in his attempt. After an eight-year struggle, the engaging, visually stunning two-hour PBS documentary adaptation he produced and directed will air on KQEDTV (Channel 9) 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28. Much of that struggle centered on funding difficulties, but Mr. Schwartz and his crew also encountered a number of hurdles related to the fickle nature of their subjects. Their seasonal nature. The technical challenge of filming them in a captivating way. The fact that they don’t talk. “What makes the book interesting is (Pollan’s) thought process,” Mr. Schwarz said during a recent interview with his wife, Kiki, in the Oak Grove Avenue office of the production company they founded together, Kikim Media. “He really brings his own sensibility to it, and that’s hard to translate on television. We knew that if we wanted to tell the story on television, we needed to make it more about the plants themselves. ... It was a fundamental shift.” The documentary follows the structure of Mr. Pollan’s book, profiling four plants that have capitalized on human desires to become wildly successful: the apple, the tulip, cannabis (marijuana), and the potato. A plant’s perspective While we humans tend to regard ourselves as the dominant party in our relationship with the kingdom Plantae, Mr. Pollan in his book suggests a different power structure. He came up with the idea for the book while working in his garden, watching a bee pollenate a flower. Like us, “A bumblebee would probably also regard himself as a subject in the garden and the bloom he’s plundering for its drop of nectar as an object. But we know that’s just a failure of imagination,” he writes. “The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom. “We automatically think of domestication as something we do to other species,” he continues, “but it makes just as much sense to think of it as something certain plants and animals have done to us, a clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests.” Mr. Schwarz’s documentary visualizes this plant-focused sensibility, offering a minute and loving portrayal of its subjects. His crew employed the simple technique of rotating the plants on turntables and filming them against a black background, using digital microphotography techniques, to portray them in exquisite detail — “stuff you just don’t see with the naked human eye,” Mr. Schwarz says. Many of the shots are framed from the plant’s point of view, sometimes conveying the impression that the farmers or growers in the background are merely catering to the demands of their charges. Making documentaries whose main characters are inanimate, abstract, or absent isn’t a new undertaking for Kikim. Mr. Schwarz has directed films about fractals, a mathematical concept; the Muslim prophet Muhammad, representations of whom many of the devout find offensive; and the AIDS virus. Another project still in development charts the intersection of Jews, Christians and Muslims in medieval Spain. See PLANTS, page 23 Producing documentaries in Menlo Park By Sean Howell Almanac Staff Writer T ucked away on Oak Grove Avenue in Menlo Park, surrounded by medical buildings, is the office of a bona fide television production company. It doesn’t seem a likely spot for the operation, but the space works just fine for Michael Schwarz and Kiki Kapany, Menlo Park residents and joint founders of Kikim Media. On the inside, it doesn’t look much different than your standard white-collar office space, though the computer monitors are a little bigger, and some of the keyboards are outfitted with special keys for video editing. It isn’t a production studio — no filming goes on here — but rather a pre- and post-production site. The production company is a small one. Mr. Schwarz jokes that the budget of Kikim’s two-hour projects would be a “rounding error” for a feature film. But it’s also a serious operation. Kikim regularly produces documentaries that air nationally on PBS, and has more recently made several short films on social entrepreneurs for the Skoll Foundation. For Kikim’s latest major project, a documentary adaptation of Michael Pollan’s book “The Botany of Desire,” two editors spent 30 weeks each knitting the footage together. “In the end, if you’ve done the job well, it should seem like it was easy to figure out how to make the film,” Mr. Schwarz says. “It’s anything but. We’re constantly compressing and squeezing, distilling and refining the story.” See KIKIM MEDIA, page 23 October 28, 2009 N The Almanac N21


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