“There’s a theory known as ‘Biophilia,’ says writer-director-filmmaker Marina Michelson. “It was first put out there in the 1980s, and it basically suggests that human beings possess this innate drive, this deep need or tendency, to want to connect with nature in really intense, intimate ways.”
It was during a wedding two-and-a-half years ago, held out at the remote Rocky Canyon Ranch – in the unincorporated rural area outside Petaluma – that the L.A.-based Michelson first developed her own sense of cinematic “Biophilia,” developing an intense need to make an ecology-driven, uniquely feminist movie, right there on the very same property. After hearing stories of nearby ranchers’ experiences working the land, in particular the stories of female farmers, Michelson wrote a script, and now plans to make the film this April, shooting in Petaluma and parts of Marin and Sonoma County, and possibly parts of the Sonoma Valley. Fundraising is currently underway, with just about half of the films $18,500 budget raised through the Seed & Spark crowdfunding website.
The title of the film? “Biophilia.”
The wedding, described by Michelson as an “extremely D.I.Y. kind of wedding,” was that of her New York-based filmmaking partner Meryl Williams-Thatcher, who is serving as the film’s co-producer. A large portion of the film will be shot there at the ranch. The secluded 600-acre property, a 25 minute drive off of Chileno Valley Road, has been owned by the family of Williams-Thatcher’s husband, James, since the early 1960s.
“It’s really a very special place,” Williams-Thatcher says. “It’s beautiful and kind of mysterious. And though its remoteness makes it logistically challenging for filmmakers, it’s a perfect spot for filmmaking.” In fact, one could say that, were it not for the inaccessibility and pastoral rusticity of the place, there would be no “Biophilia.”
“It’s true,” says Michelson. “The place is like nowhere I’ve ever been in my life. Nature is so alive there. My first night driving out to the ranch, I saw a 3-foot tall owl at the side of the road. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I might have been hallucinating or something but, fortunately, I had witnesses. The land there – the remoteness of it, the feeling of it, the silence of it, the weirdness of it – all of that has definitely inspired this story.”
A heavily atmospheric psychological thriller, the film follows a young woman from New York City who worries that she might be losing her mind, after moving with her boyfriend to an isolated sheep ranch in the wilderness. When the couple’s back-to-the-land idealism begins to crumble, the discovery of a dead sheep sets off a powerful series of jarring self-discoveries and, ultimately, an act that proves just how far the woman is willing to go to prove her connection to the land and to nature.
“Our lead character, Rachel,” says Michelson, “has convinced her boyfriend to move out to his family’s abandoned ranch, which is her dream, but after their first season, when it was much harder than they expected, unable to get anything to seed, they are struggling to make their way at the farmer’s market, they are running out of cash, and their relationship is crumbling. He basically starts gas-lighting her, manipulating her into thinking that their failures are all her fault. He basically convinces her she’s worthless, and she starts to lose all of the confidence she once had.”
Then Rachel discovers the dead sheep.
“For various reasons, this young woman from Brooklyn finds herself identifying with the dead animal,” Michelson adds, “and against Daniel’s wishes, she becomes determined to deal with the sheep’s remains, and in doing so, prove her worth.”
The story of a woman working the land, finding a strong emotional connection with nature, is tied in a bit with the filmmakers’ experiences as women artists.
“Women are extremely underrepresented in film,” says Williams-Thatcher, who, like Michelson, is also an actor. “There are so few films with women as leads,” she says. “Statistics show that in Hollywood especially, women have been systematically denied access to the director’s seat. There are so many women filmmakers clamoring to get work.”
For support in making “Biophilia,” Michelson and Williams-Thatcher have been working with an independent production company called Wild Obscura, which develops content that is, according to its website, “inspired by the female gaze.”
“In terms of this story, and the kind of character we’re portraying,” says Michelson, “we’re consciously working against the norm, in which women are proscribed a certain kind of beauty they are expected to portray. When women are calling the shots of the stories they tell, women characters tend to be a little more complex. Something about this story, about life on a ranch, has to do with a different kind of beauty, a beauty some would actually call ‘ugliness.’ Death and blood and other natural occurrences are seen as ugly. We want to expand those themes to the main character, who comes to question what natural beauty really is, what ugliness is, what strength and femininity is.”
“That’s a lot for one short film,” admits Williams-Thatcher, with a laugh.
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