An Experiment in Primitive Living
The Making of the Ghost Mountain DVD
One thing is clear, Marshal South, writer, poet and painter, had charisma. Eccentric and controversial, he has attracted researchers, biographers and, most recently, two master documentary filmmakers like a magnet attracts iron filings.
For 17 years, from 1930 through the Great Depression into the 1940’s, Marshal South chose to live with his wife, Tanya, and their three children in an adobe house on the remote peak of Ghost Mountain, in southern California’s Anza Borrego Desert. He chronicled their experiences in articles he wrote for Desert Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post and Arizona Highways. He gave thousands of readers an insight into an extraordinary, primitive lifestyle. He saw the experiment in isolation from the American mainstream collapse in 1947, when he and his wife divorced in a bitter dispute. He died the following year, leaving behind a life awash in controversy, rumor and speculation. Tanya refused to speak of her experience on Ghost Mountain for the rest of her life.
Researching the Story
Researchers from California to Britain to southern Australia have worked for years to unravel the details of South’s background. They have had to navigate a scholarly minefield of secrecy, aliases, lost and destroyed information, and deliberately muddied records. Gradually, however, they have pieced the story together.
With the Great Depression taking hold, Marshal and Tanya decided to move to Ghost Mountain to live and raise their children. South later explained in an article he wrote for The Saturday Evening Post that they did not want to be slaves to making money. They wanted to pursue more creative and spiritual endeavors. Marshall and Tanya wanted peace and solitude, and they wanted to experience a total sense of freedommentally and physically.
From Print to Film
The lure of the Marshal South story would also attract the attention of two extraordinary filmmakers: producer/director John McDonald and cinematographer Stuart Asbjornsen.
McDonald, an Emmy winner for his 1980 documentary The Youngest Victim, saw the South saga as “more than just a story about a wilderness family who turned its back on civilization to fulfill a dream. In a broader sense, it is about all of us, the principles on which our country was founded and the importance of nature and open space as fundamental American values.”
“Ever since my wife Lydia and I first visited the crumbling [South] homestead on a camping trip in the 1970s,” said McDonald, “we have been fascinated by the bold visionaries who built it. We have returned to the Anza-Borrego desert many times over the years, camping with our two daughters, seeking the beauty and solitude which the Souths experienced, revisiting their slowly deteriorating haven.”
In was in 2004 that McDonald met Diana Lindsay, who was, at the time, writing her Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles (Sunbelt Publishers, 2005). Stirred by Lindsay, McDonald realized that he had an opportunity, almost a calling, to return to a genre documentary films he had not worked in for years. He felt compelled to produce a motion picture about Marshal South’s life on Ghost Mountain.
McDonald recruited Asbjornsen, who wanted to work with McDonald on the project, not only because of their long-standing friendship, but also because the story relates to preserving and protecting the environment for future generations. Asbjornsen has extensive experience in both documentary and episodic television productions.
McDonald and Asbjornsen would find unexpected support for the production of their film, which they would call Ghost Mountain: An Experiment in Primitive Living. Originally budgeted for $160,000, they produced the picture for $52,000, a cost difference almost unheard-of in motion pictures on the West Coast or anywhere else. They benefited from donations from all corners of production, including crews, equipment-rental houses, film suppliers and post-production companies. They received $9,000 from the State Parks Foundation and the Anza-Borrego Foundation, a non-profit land preservation group which, among other things, acquires private land in holdings within the state park boundaries. McDonald himself provided funding. “Everyone saw that the story has a great deal of relevance even today,” said McDonald.
McDonald and Asbjornsen would find that the production, which would last for eight months, would not come easy. Camped at the base of Ghost Mountain during the filming, they crawled out of their sleeping bags at 4:00 am in the mornings. They hiked the mile up the mountainside to the crumbling South cabin so that they could capitalize on the beauty of early morning light. They stopped shooting during mid-day, when the light grew harshly contrasty with deep shadows and blistering highlights, and returned to camp. They hiked back up the mountain to the cabin in the late afternoon to resume shooting during that magic hour of cinematic light just before dusk.
The hard work paid off. McDonald and Asbjornsen captured the moods of the desert in all its seasonsthe blooming glory of spring, the oppressive 110-degree heat of summer, the refreshing rains of autumn, and the bewitching snowfall of winter. Their footage became breathtaking views of the starkly beautiful Anza Borrego Desert.
Shooting on super-16mm film, a widescreen format, the filmmakers opened their picture with Asbjornsen’s stunning aerial footage of Ghost Mountain. They wove together the 15-minute cinematic story, called Ghost Mountain: An Experiment in Primitive Living, through old home movies, rare old photographs and reenactments, all linked by text written by South and Tanya and recited by actors. They featured 72-year-old Rider South, the oldest child, who, at the end, takes one final look at the ruins of his boyhood home and then leaves Ghost Mountain for the final time, leaving behind the old walls of his family home silhouetted against the purple sky of sunset.
Asked why he felt so strongly compelled to make the film, McDonald said, “The story of Marshal South’s dream appeals to our pioneer spirit. The saga of a strong, resourceful and resilient family surviving alone on an isolated mountaintop fascinates and inspires us, but also challenges us to evaluate our own lives and perceptions. Marshal and Tanya South wanted to protect their children from society, rather than raise them to fit into society’s mold. This unusual courage and commitment, however, came at a great cost and ultimately led to the end of their stay on Ghost Mountain, the dissolution of their marriage, and the failure of their ‘glorious’ experiment. I think maybe the dream already carried the seeds of its own failure.”
The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park’s Visitor Center screens McDonald’s film in its theater. McDonald has had the film transferred to high-resolution video and it is available in DVD format through DesertUSA’s online store. To contact McDonald Production click here.
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