Salvia Divinorum: A Western Approach and Film as Legacy
Indie Film Junction | March 16, 2023
Indie Film Junction | March 16, 2023
After a long hiatus, IFJ is back. We spoke with Patrick Krauss about Salvia Divinorum: A Western Approach, a documentary he produced with the late director, Erin Wyche. Patrick talks about Erin’s life, why completing the film was so important, and how it relates to Erin’s legacy.
IFJ: What was the inspiration for the film?
PK: Director Erin Wyche was near graduation from college in the summer of 2007. She had two ideas for an indie feature film debut. One was a doc on the Malibu Cat Lady, who was a strange and confrontational middle aged woman. This woman would take her cat, Fluffy, everywhere perched on her shoulder with a leash. The cat lady had a habit of speaking her judgmental mind to anyone she came across. Due to potential mental issues and an overall disagreeable attitude it seemed the Malibu Cat Lady film would be too problematic. Erin’s other idea was for a doc on the psychedelic plant Salvia Divinorum. I never heard of salvia and it was a topic at the time never explored in a feature film. It seemed salvia would be a topic never before explored in cinema. I agreed to produce and production began in March 2008.
IFJ: How did you get into filmmaking?
PK: The late Director, Erin Wyche, had a passion for arts and painting growing up in the Philadelphia area. While she was in college at Pepperdine University she enjoyed her media and film classes and decided to major in TV Production. Erin took a documentary film class with professor Don Ohlmeyer who was the former president of NBC and tough no nonsense producer. Don’s intensity and wisdom inspired Erin to become a documentary film Director.
Born and raised in the Chicago area, my filmmaking journey began with being a film lover as a kid. I saw A Clockwork Orange and Superfly at age 14 and I was hooked on cult cinema. I seemed to have a talent above others with creative writing, earning praise for my stories in English classes. I was pretty convinced I would pursue a career in film. What sealed the deal was when iI was 17 I saw The Trip, 1967, on a hit of LSD with some friends. It was the most amazing movie experience of my life. I went on to film school at University of Utah then to Cal State Northridge in the Los Angeles area.
IFJ: How did your experience in narrative features and shorts inform the production of your first documentary?
PK: With this being my first documentary I joked to the Director, “This should be pretty easy. We don’t have to deal with drama from actors”. But I wasn’t prepared to deal with the difficulty of scheduling interviews with people across the country. The local interviews were pretty simple and would take a few weeks or so. But being based in LA and getting someone like Noam Chomsky in Cambridge or Senator Kathrine Peterson in Delaware would actually take months to get the completed interview footage. We’d get the interviewee to agree for an interview. Book a camera person on craigslist. The camera person would set the date and shoot with our list of questions and have the interviewee sign a release. They would mail the release and footage. Getting Noam took a total of 4 months. One time it took 9 months to get a “no he won’t do an interview” response from an assistant of former Congressman Joe Baca. To get a cameraman in Mexico to shoot our Maria Sabina, the folk hero shamaness, segment with several interviews took 7 months till we got the footage and releases. Our best results were from going to a Psychedelic Science convention and getting several top interviews in a few days. Traditional interview style, “Talking Heads” proved difficult in many ways. It was excessively time consuming to get the interviews. Many interviews were 30-60 minutes and only 2-4 minutes would be needed so the editing and decision making was also very time consuming. Hiring distant cameramen was quite hit or miss with the quality of the interviews with camera angles, audio, etc. I have to say documentary films can often be much harder and time consuming to make, than narrative scripted films. We should have had more of a written script to narrow down everything than an outline of chapters when approaching interviewees.
IFJ: What was director Erin Wyche’s approach to directing, and how was her artistic voice communicated through the project?
PK: The Director had a vision of a traditional “Talking Heads” style documentary feature with interviewees telling their story and no host/narrator on camera. But with a voice over narrator and cutaway b-roll shots blended into each interview for the audience to “keep the eyes moving”. We decided to dissect a successful doc and did a shots/interviews tally breakdown of the film Super Size Me, 2004, by director Morgan Spurlock. The film’s format was a little different with an on camera host but the study was very interesting. We tallied the number of the films’ key interviews, b-roll shots of McDonalds, chapters, subject category sub-segments, animation b-roll, and host/narrator commentary segments, etc. This breakdown gave us a clear idea of what kinds of shots and work we needed to work on. The rough numbers I can remember off memory were about 32 key interviews, 56 b-roll shots of McDonalds, 6 animation sequences, etc. With this knowledge Erin clarified her list of chapters and decided to get about 2-4 top interviews per chapter. We had to work within our budget so our illustration artists were volunteers and had different styles. Our cameramen had different gear and styles. We were still short on b-roll and concerned about the gray area of Fair Use. We discovered better guidelines with the publication “Documentary filmmakers’ statement of best practices in fair use” and then were freed up to use short 4 second clips from various sources we found online. So our film does come across with a very eclectic style with a retro feel as we primarily shot with a Cannon GL2 SD 3 chip Mini-DV cam.
IFJ: This project took years to release. While many filmmakers might have been discouraged, you persevered and released the documentary. What sustained your passion for this project?
PK: I was assuming we’d be shooting on the weekends for about 2 years. And when we hit that 2 year mark the director felt that she had only about half the story she wanted to tell. So we pushed onwards for about 2 more years, on the weekends, completing principal photography. With the production started in March 2008 shooting was completed about December 2011. Editing was started in 2008 by the Director. Her first feature doc proved challenging to edit. The first edit was 5 hours. As the Director and I found almost every tidbit of the interviewees info fascinating. It was challenging to finally cut it down to about 1 hour and 35 minutes. The director tragically died in November 2013. Erin and I, Patrick Krauss, were in a committed dating relationship since spring 2007. Erin discovered she had Lupus in about February 2011 and suffered a bad autoimmune flare up, which was like a fever that would not go away, as her body’s t-cells were attacking every organ. They got her on steroids and medicine and she spent about a year recovering and healing. By March 2012 she was doing better but still a little weak and returned to her day job which was at TV Guide Network where she was an Associate Producer. When Erin died our baby daughter was 6 weeks old. I was never told by her doctors or anyone that something like this could have happened. I assumed she might get a flair up, but it seemed they would just give her steroids and get it under control. What happened was her blood platelets suddenly dropped to practically nothing and she suffered internal bleeding. She felt sick and I took her to the hospital. Next thing I knew she was on life support. Her father flew in, her aunt came, and we got the news that there was no chance to save her. So she was taken off life support and died at 28 years old. The loss was really heavy and terribly tragic as she was such a kind giving soul and died so young. The grieving process was much harder than I could have imagined.
For the film, a 2 hour ruff cut was on Final Cut 7. I tried to recruit different editors with no money and it was too much work for them. I went over the film several times and made many notes on how to tighten it up and make it concise. With raising the baby alone and failing to get family members to help with my single dad responsibilities. I managed to buy a cabin outside Joshua Tree with good credit and a little monthly social security money on a USDA home loan. 6 months later in 2016 I did a GoFundMe to pay friend and editor/producer Tyler Ludowitz to edit with me at the cabin. Our narrator didn’t deliver in time and we scrambled to get a replacement and it was much closer to completion but Tyler had to leave for more stable job opportunities he already had plans for. It took about another year to get the music score. But I was too broke to find an editor and almost no one I knew could work with Final Cut 7. I couldn’t use remote online help as the computer was too old and an auto update would wreck the opperating system. I had to wait. I got my real estate license and was working 3 jobs. I found a local editor, Matt Collins, who knew FC7 and was able to pay for his help around 2018. Matt’s time and mine was very limited but little by little we got it done. Finally in 2022 it was as complete as we could get it and it was launched on Amazon. It was so unbelievable that the film was on Amazon that I stayed up all night chain smoking cigarettes and repeating “I can’t believe it” to myself.
When we started this project, I had been through many experiences where projects fell apart. Because of the director passing away and my many failed attempts at indie film projects there was no turning back or starting a new project.
For my goals and personality, I sincerely dedicated my life to cinema, went to film school, moved to Los Angeles, worked in Hollywood, wrote 22 scripts, made indie projects, etc. But I didn’t learn editing. It’s been my biggest mistake. Raising the baby and having a tremendous fear that I would mess up the edit Erin slaved over, I just couldn’t learn FC7 and have the confidence to complete the film editing by myself. I now tell every young filmmaker that editing is the most important skill to master. Heck it’s even a stable skill in Hollywood. All the real editors I know in Hollywood have made enough money to buy houses in LA. And almost no one will edit a feature film for free.
Gosh, 14 years.
IFJ: Having worked in narrative and documentary formats, do you have a preference?
PK: Documentaries were Erin’s passion. I naively thought docs would be easier to produce than narrative films. I now have a deep respect for the doc format and a clear understanding of the various styles. We chose the hardest style, in my opinion. Talking heads with many experts and many chapters without an on camera host is very challenging. The easiest docs style is kind of a subgenre that’s akin to a reality TV travel show. An example might be two people driving a unique vehicle coast to coast to prove a message and theme of some sort. As there’s plenty of examples I could name in this film style but I don’t want to disrespect those doc filmmakers. Doing any film is hard. I’m excited to get back to narrative filmmaking. Cult narrative features are my real passion.
IFJ: What was your process for capturing everything that went into the documentary?
PK: We came up with lists of many top people in the field of Salvia Dvinorum. We lucked out with getting a top interview in-the-can the first year. This pioneer of salvia science, Daniel Siebert, was actually a major “door opener”. The top question we got from approaching the science folks was “Did we get Daniel Siebert’s interview?”. I was surprised to discover that scientists, anthropologists, and other experts are more reluctant to talk about their work on camera to just anyone. It seemed that we had to have the top dog’s approval, Daniel Siebert, for them to consider granting an interview. I believe this is a big key to documentary filmmaking. It’s like if you were living in the 1960s and shooting a documentary on Rock n’ Roll, and were lucky enough to get an interview with Elvis or Chuck Berry right away then all other famous musicians would typically want to be part of your film.
Otherwise we focused on segment to segment. Hobby growers we found on craigslist. Lawmakers we contacted directly. Andrew W.K. we contacted his publicist with IMDB pro. Finding a second unit in rural Mexico was really hard. I found a trailer to a film about the home town, Huaulta De Jimenez, where shamaness Maria Sabina gained fame. I contacted an anthropologist/author in that trailer, Benjamin Feinburg, who put me in contact with that trailer’s camera guy who lived there.
The psychedelic science convention was a kind of a windfall of interviews. Other conventions, like a Marijuana Expo, were very limited and we didn’t use any interviews from that. We over shot and deleted many interviews. Pretty much swinging for the fences with some good hits and plenty of strikeouts.
IFJ: What do you wish you knew going into production?
PK: I wish I knew editing. I relied entirely on Erin to edit. But even if she didn’t die, editing is more complex than she or I would have thought. There are several specialties that are needed as almost no editor knows everything. Like you may need a color expert. Motion graphics expert for titles. A format expert for knowing different file sizes. DCP making. DVD/Blue Ray making. There’s quite a lot of different departments with editing and it’s good to have those people lined up early on.
IFJ: What’s next for you? Do you have any future film projects in the works?
PK: I’d like to shoot trailers for some of my old scripts and treatments. The big dream is to have a company like Roger Corman shooting lots of indie films. I wrote a business plan to create an indie film sponsorship ranch that’s kind of like the Sundance Institute but filmmakers could make micro budget feature films. Like an artist residency property for indie filmmakers. It would primarily be used by filmmakers as a place for editing, writing, producing, and casting. The roughly 80% of filmmaking that takes place in an office. But it would be close enough to a major city to tap into that pool of talent and locations for the actual shoot of the films. It would have a few acres, house, barn, and trailers and tiny homes. It would need an endowment of sorts or to be part of a little hotel to keep the bills paid. It’s harder for films to make money so this might have to be a non profit. I’m hoping to publish this business plan into a little book. Besides that I’m now living in Texas outside Abilene. My daughter is 9 and in a good school. Soon I’ll be trying to find the film scene here.
IFJ: As Erin is no longer with us, what aspects of the film most contribute to her legacy?
PK: Even though her movie is very indie with retro video, the amount of interviews and segments shows the most comprehensive story ever told in a film on the psychedelic plant Salvia Divinorum. Erin might even be the first black woman to have made a feature documentary film on the “psychedelic science doc” subgenre. The interviews were recorded at the peak of public interest on Salvia Divinorum. We got lucky that no other film like ours was made on this subject. So far there is a BBC program called Sacred Weeds with a segment on salvia with Daline Siebert from 1998. Hamilton Morris did a Vice special in 2016, with Daniel Siebert, “Shepherdess: The Story of Salvia Divinorium”. There was a spanish doc on salvia from around 2011 but I can’t find it online. So Erin’s film is number one technically as a stand alone project, not part of a TV doc series like the others. I hope to have an opportunity to smooth out some of the rough edges of the film someday. But I’m proud of her for contributing at least one film for the world in her short life.
IFJ: I understand the film is intended to present a case for the potential benefits of salvia and help raise money for your and Erin’s daughter. How can people help?
PK: Salvia Divinorum is non toxic and non addictive so there is potential for scientists to create a non addictive pain killer with salvia. Potentially a miracle drug. Erin’s percentage of the film is now our daughter’s. I’m putting those funds from Amazon and Vimeo sales into a savings account for our daughter’s future. To help support we are on social media and seeking interviews on podcasts and publications. So please share, like and follow. Most of all positive reviews on Amazon and IMDB.
Director Erin Wyche
Runtime 139 min
Salvia Divinorum is an often misunderstood and powerful psychedelic plant used by the Mazatec shamans in southern Mexico for centuries. This entheogen's mysteries are thoroughly explored, by Director Erin Wyche, from an American view point.More