Q&A with INVISIBLE VALLEY Filmmakers Aaron Maurer & Zachary McMillan
Known for its picturesque desert mountains and world renown music festival, California’s Coachella Valley is the epitome of the perfect resort town for many tourists. However, what many fail to recognize is that the tourist industry is mainly supported by low income, Latinx workers. A recent study revealed that 69% of the residents of the Coachella Valley identify as Latinx.
Invisible Valley, a documentary that just recently premiered at Santa Barbara International Film Festival, takes a closer look at the other side of the Coachella Valley, away from the glamour and the rich.
We talked to director Aaron Maurer & producer Zachary McMillan on filming in the Coachella Valley and crafting the documentary!
*This interview has been edited for length & clarity
Q:Why did you decide on the Coachella Valley and what kind of sparked your interest first?
A: Zach and I have been friends, we grew up together. We first started coming to the Coachella Valley, as many sort of kids do, to go to the music festival. And even back then, I think we both saw that there was a discrepancy between what was known as the valley and Palm Springs and those areas, you know, swimming pools, and convertibles and all that. That very quickly disappeared when you like, looked off a side street. That was always very striking to us. Then Zach was approached to do this project, which was sort of at first specifically about migrant workers only.
Z: Right. And, you know, it was sort of this conundrum, because, you know, as to people coming from New York, two white guys, , you really can’t tell the story of the plight of the migrant worker. Right? It doesn’t work. But Aaron and I, we had been to the Coachella Valley. I mean, multiple times. I think that we felt that there was a bigger story to communicate, and it was basically a story of relationships, ultimately. How do these things connect? Right? If you flip this and say, well, it’s not just the farmworkers that are migrants, it’s also the snowbirds. It’s also the people that go to the music festivals. And also the Salton Sea, it’s literal migration of birds, you know, is that something that’s generative to having a frame to look at how things are connected? Or maybe interconnected?
Q: You mentioned a little bit earlier, that, how do you tell the story of a migrant worker as like two white guys? So how did you guys do that? How do you take on that challenge? And how do you tell a story like as authentically as you can?
A: Right. So that was certainly like, the first question that we asked ourselves, and it was really, you know, the answer was really sort of in the execution, and how we went about the whole process. We knew we didn’t want to go in with an agenda. The themes the movie brings up are all very topical, , they’re all very politicized. And we didn’t want to come in with like, an agenda, we want you to believe this thing, this is our thesis. It was really just about meeting people, making connections, and gaining trust with people in the community. Then really, just as much as we could try and just sort of be a fly on the wall. And just sort of let them tell what they wanted to tell, you know. Not really going in with a pre loaded, “we’re trying to, like, make people understand how hard this is for you”, you know? It’s just sort of like, “what do you want people to know?”, because a lot of the times, once people sort of understand that, they can kind of express their point of view. You get much more interesting and nuanced information and ideas across.
Q: Adding onto that little bit, you said you had to develop trust with your protagonists. How did you develop trust with these people? And was there anything that they were kind of hesitant to share?
Z: You know, a huge thing for us was developing the relationships in the communities. Starting out, it was tough because, where do you start out right? It’s like showing up right? I mean, we went to like the parking lot in Mecca, and it’s like knocking on doors essentially. But you know, if you do that enough, conversation leads to you know, somebody telling you, “Oh, maybe you should meet this person” and that leads to something else, maybe meet this person and and eventually we formed bonds with people. It really opened up when we found Angelica, who is our translator and our interpreter. She’s so perceptive. I think that people were taking us seriously at that point, but then having somebody that just could connect also and and help us just like fluidly be around people, suddenly became like family.
A: Yeah, the process itself, it just took a while, you know. Because we weren’t coming in with a pre ordained, “you’re going to follow this place”, or this person as they do something, it was like, we have to find the person who’s willing to share with us. So when we started, it was really like starting, you know, the charities of the of the school, meeting some of the school teachers who taught the migrant workers children, and then kind of like, becoming friends with some of them, to the point that they sort of understood that we weren’t coming in with an angle that our agenda was sort of a pure one. And then, you know, via them introducing us to some of the families, the parents, you know, that was an organic way that we could kind of get into the community. You know, as I said, like, showing up to the Mecca parking lot with like, two guys with cameras who don’t really speak Spanish, , it, it only works so well, you can’t get a lot of traction. Occasionally we could get some people who would speak with us, but it wasn’t the kind of relationships we needed. It took real community integration, so to speak.
Q: Can I ask how long it took to film?
A: Yeah, we started in 2017, and film throughout 2018. You know, just periodically coming back over and over again. Then in 2019, after editing a bit, we came back one or two more times, just to sort of fill in little gaps as the story came together.
Q: So the Salton Sea was kind of the backdrop throughout the film, and it was kind of parallel that played between the migrant workers. As filmmakers, was the Salton Sea always included in the initial vision, or was it something that came up during filming?
Z: I think it came up during filming. I don’t know if you want to talk to, you know, speak to that.
A: Yeah. I mean, I think it came up during filming. Zach was present for it at times when it seemed like it was going to be just too much stuff in the film, because I mean, the film cast like this wide net. It’s very sort of mosaic, in the sense of how much it covers. So there were there was talk, while we were editing, that there might not be room for it, because we were just sort of focusing on characters, you know, people and their lives in their stories. But, you know, I think it became ,just like, “what is this like weird ecological nature doc? I mean, it definitely felt incongruent to the sort of personal stories. So it definitely didn’t immediately make sense.
A: It became clear that it was really kind of an essential metaphor to the whole thing, to the whole valley and to the whole kind of message in the movie of, what do you choose to see? What do you choose to be aware of? The Salton Sea is this thing that if people keep ignoring it, it’s going to reach out and affect them eventually.
Q: Editing wise, how and why did you decide to tell the stories through seasons?
A: It started via — besides the idea that Zack was talking about, with this kind of framing of migrations. How do we sort of equalize people and look at them through migrations? From there, it was looking at and thinking about cycles. Cycles of migration, cycles of the harvest. And then even beyond that, like cycles of poverty and stuff like that. It’s sort of those ideas, which we sort of began with. They led us to that, that decision to go by seasons. The film is kind of sprawling in a way and kaleidoscopic, that it kind of gave a little bit of structure. And helped sort of frame it as a year in the life of the Coachella Valley.
Q: What season do you film first?
Z: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, because so much of filming, a lot of is getting to the place where we could turn cameras on. There’s a lot of meeting people before that. Just trying to figure out, who are the people that we can turn cameras on around? What are the characters? Who are the characters? I think that we probably started filming in, spring, actually, in 2017. I mean, specifically, but before that, it was just meeting people trying to go around in the east side. It was it was difficult at first.
A: Yeah, I think like some of those early trips, sort of, in retrospect, are more like scouting, and pre production trips. In the sense, where I just was also getting footage. Yeah, it was like spring of 2017. When we were really actually filming, our trips were fully, like, a month straight of just like filming. That was in the fall, as it sort of begins in the movie.
Z: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.
Q: So you have all your footage, you take it to editing, how do you start to breakdown the story? How do you begin to form your movie?
A:Yeah, so it was a long process. We had never done a feature, we’re never done a doc. So there was no outline, there was no script. It was very much just sort of laying it all out, either by person and their story, or by theme, or by topic. And so we’d have themes that we discussed with lots of different people, so we could kind of weave together moments. There’s a moment in the film, that’s all about faith and religion. That’s an example of something that we’ve filmed a ton of stuff with a lot of different people. We break it down into the Coachella Festival time. Then sort of, you know, figuring out, how do you balance, building out personal stories of the of the people that we’re following in a way that has an arc to it. But then also how do we thread in the ideas as well? Where is it too early or too late to start raising these questions or talking about these ideas? It became the sort of balancing act of laying out all the people, laying out the setting, and then sort of populating it with questions and ideas, and that was kind of the beginning of the process.
Q: And doing that, was there anything that you really wanted to make the final edit that didn’t actually make it and that you really struggled with cutting?
Z: Yeah, I think there was so much. I mean there was hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage. I don’t know if you agree, Aaron, but it did feel like once the sort of more final edit was in place, it was this process of like, how much can we take away? What can you take away? What can you strip back? What can you parse out of this, so that the audience is allowed to do the work and that it’s not spoon feeding anything? And so that’s a really interesting and difficult process.
A: Yeah, it is really interesting. When you’re so close to the footage, it’s that just becomes pretty difficult to even tell. There was tons of stuff that we left out, there’s tons of stuff that I wish was in it, and just couldn’t j make it. You know, I always tended to sort of frame up some of the stranger things that you see in the desert. There’s a lot of sort of interesting, weird stuff on the fringes. But, you know, there were times where I was like, “Okay, this is like, a little too weird.” What’s actually the story that we were needed to tell? Does this serve the story? There was tons of interesting moments, there were tons of people. Many, many days, there was many people — capturing all different parts of their lives which we couldn’t end up using in the final thing. Because with another character, if you put this person in, you’re gonna have to give them at least, you know, X amount of minutes, in order to have it make sense. And, you know, we couldn’t go all out.
Q: For you as outsiders, what was something that surprised you the most, or that you took away most, from the filming experience in the Coachella Valley?
A: One thing we’ve talked about both Zach and I as how sort of humbled we were by how welcoming some of the communities in the eastern Valley were to us, you know, once, once people did accept us. They were so warm, so welcoming. They made us feel like family, they made sure we were guests in their home, even if it was a crowded trailer. And they didn’t have a lot to give, they made sure that we were fed and, you know, just that kind of strong family bonds were really touching even in the midst, and sometimes of pretty intense hardship. They were so proud and welcoming and lovely.
Z: It’s sort of raised these questions of, especially in this culture, backing up sort of to the beginning, when we talk about the Coachella Valley. Internationally, it’s known as: golf resorts, country clubs, music festivals, it’s just this sort of exotic location. And it’s Instagrammed everywhere for these things. There’s like a surface level to that, and it brought up these notions of what does wealth mean? What does it mean to have a rich life? You know, it’s not just the material sense. And I think that was, just totally personally, the most enriching thing about it for me.