High Country: ‘Fantastic Fungi’ brings the magic of mushrooms to Aspen Filmfest
Magic mushrooms are having a moment.
Earlier this year, a historic decriminalization vote in Denver and the passage of a similar bill in Oakland have resulted in a rebirth of the psychedelic movement. And just this month, Johns Hopkins University announced it will be launching the nation’s first-ever research center devoted to psychedelic substances.
For award-winning filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg, the timing of the festival release of his latest documentary dedicated to the mysterious subterranean world of mycelium and its fruit is fortuitous. More than a decade in the making, “Fantastic Fungi” takes audiences on a vivid, 80-minute journey into the often-overlooked organism that has connected humanity and the natural world for 3.5 billion years, providing the world with nutrition, brain health and environmental well-being.
As one of the pioneers of time-lapse, high-speed and macro cinematography techniques, Schwartzberg captured photography for the project over the course of 13 years. The visual feat is intrinsic to the film’s storytelling along with talking head interviews with subjects from renowned scientist and mycologist Paul Stamets to best-selling authors Michael Pollan, Eugenia Bone and Andrew Weil.
“Fantastic Fungi” celebrated its world premiere and in June at the 20th Maui Film Festival, where it received an Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature. Schwartzberg was also honored in Hawaii with the 2019 Visionary Award (last year’s recipient was the Dalai Lama). The cinematographer has been shooting time-lapse 24/7 continuously for well over three decades in his Los Angeles studio.
Ahead of the 40th anniversary Aspen Filmfest, which runs September 23-29, I went behind the scenes with Schwartzberg to talk about his emotional and powerful exploration into the biological blueprint thriving beneath us.
Katie Shapiro: How did this film first come to fruition?
Louie Schwartzberg: The journey started when I heard Paul Stamets give one of his first presentations at the Bioneers Conference. By that time, I had already been seduced by the sensual beauty of flowers and had been time-lapsing them nonstop for more than 30 years. Part of that effort included time-lapsing mushrooms. After Paul’s presentation, I showed him some of the videos of mushrooms I had on my laptop. In that moment, the mycelium network successfully made its intentional connection. That is what the mycelium network does: It connects living beings so life can flourish and so we can live in harmony with the Earth.
KS: The connection between the interviews and imagery in the film is awe-inspiring!
LS: I just love the idea that nature’s imagery can be a healing modality … vision is the most important sensory receptor we have. My filmmaking technique is very time-consuming. And people say it’s gorgeous, but I feel that, instead, I’m channeling nature’s energy because what I’m showing you is real. And that’s why I think it’s more mind-blowing than something like a special effect in a sci-fi movie where you blow up a building. You see it, but it doesn’t affect you because you know it’s fake. The level of connection we created is part of the story and I hope it helps inspire audiences to expand their consciousness and feel the truth and beauty of the mushroom kingdom and the relationship we have to it.
KS: What is your perspective on the psychedelic shift we’re seeing in society today?
LS: Look what happened with cannabis. Look how fast it became mainstream. And you know, Colorado has been the leader in getting rid of these draconian laws that don’t belong anywhere. It’s a non-violent activity … making people feel better, or hopefully even shift(ing) their consciousness in a positive way. Why would that ever be a crime?
KS: How close do you think the country is to legalizing mushrooms?
LS: It’s hard to predict the timing, but what I can predict is that it’s going to happen faster than we think. Like cannabis, the first step is decriminalization. The second step is medicinal use under a doctor’s care, and then eventually, it will open up to being completely legal.
KS: Has psilocybin played a role in your own life?
LS: I’m not embarrassed at this point to say that psychedelics have had a major impact on my life and the trajectory of my filmmaking journey. I took mushrooms in college and I think that it definitely made me want to show things that the human eye can’t see. Making the invisible visible and unveiling the mystery. What’s amazing is I didn’t do them for decades after that, yet now, since making this film and learning more about the medicinal application and benefits, I’ve been able to experience it in a completely different way. I’ve recently participated in a couple of sacred circles where a small group of people come together and bond through taking a deep journey. It’s beautiful. And I am older and wiser now, so my perspective is so much more powerful.
Katie Shapiro can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @bykatieshapiro.
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Brook and Rose LeVan founded Sustainable Settings about 24 years ago as a nonprofit organization to “to create a shared vision of a sustainable and desirable society.”