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'Botany of Desire': Plants, as you've rarely seen them

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By Sean Howell

Almanac Staff Writer

"The script I'm starting, it's about flowers," screenwriter Charlie Kaufman tells his brother Donald in the film "Adaptation" (2002). "Nobody's ever done a movie about flowers before."

"What about 'Flowers for Algernon'?" Donald asks, at which point Kaufman informs him that "Flowers for Algernon" is neither about flowers, nor a movie.

"Adaptation" does give flowers plenty of face time, but it's mostly about Kaufman's crushing failure to write a movie about flowers. They're beautiful; they're complex; they're mysterious; but they make pretty flimsy main characters, Kaufman discovers in the process of trying to adapt a book about a Florida orchid poacher.

For Menlo Park filmmaker Michael Schwarz, the process of bringing another book about plants to the screen, Michael Pollan's best-selling "The Botany of Desire," was equally tortuous.

Unlike Mr. Kaufman, however, Mr. Schwarz succeeded in his attempt. After an eight-year struggle, the engaging, visually stunning two-hour documentary adaptation he produced and directed will air on KQED-TV and other PBS affiliates at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28.

Much of that struggle centered on funding difficulties, but Mr. Schwarz and his crew also encountered a number of hurdles related to the fickle nature of their subjects. Their seasonal nature. The technical challenge of filming them in a captivating way.

The fact that they don't talk.

"What makes the book interesting is (Pollan's) thought process," Mr. Schwarz said during a recent interview with his wife, Kiki, in the Oak Grove Avenue office of the production company they founded together, Kikim Media. "He really brings his own sensibility to it, and that's hard to translate on television. We knew that if we wanted to tell the story on television, we needed to make it more about the plants themselves. ... It was a fundamental shift."

The documentary follows the structure of Mr. Pollan's book, profiling four plants that have capitalized on human desires to become wildly successful: the apple, the tulip, cannabis (marijuana), and the potato.

A plant's perspective

While we humans tend to regard ourselves as the dominant party in our relationship with the kingdom Plantae, Mr. Pollan in his book suggests a different power structure. He came up with the idea for the book while working in his garden, watching a bee pollenate a flower.

Like us, "A bumblebee would probably also regard himself as a subject in the garden and the bloom he's plundering for its drop of nectar as an object. But we know that's just a failure of imagination," he writes. "The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom.

"We automatically think of domestication as something we do to other species," he continues, "but it makes just as much sense to think of it as something certain plants and animals have done to us, a clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests."

Mr. Schwarz's documentary visualizes this plant-focused sensibility, offering a minute and loving portrayal of its subjects. His crew employed the simple technique of rotating the plants on turntables and filming them against a black background, using digital microphotography techniques, to portray them in exquisite detail -- "stuff you just don't see with the naked human eye," Mr. Schwarz says.

Many of the shots are framed from the plant's point of view, sometimes conveying the impression that the farmers or growers in the background are merely catering to the demands of their charges.

Making documentaries whose main characters are inanimate, abstract, or absent isn't a new undertaking for Kikim. Mr. Schwarz has directed films about fractals, a mathematical concept; the Muslim prophet Muhammad, representations of whom many of the devout find offensive; and the AIDS virus. Another project still in development charts the intersection of Jews, Christians and Muslims in medieval Spain.

"Part of what attracts us is finding a way to take on challenging subjects," he says. "If these stories were easy to tell, the work wouldn't be as satisfying."

Pot problems

While getting projects off the ground is always a big of a shoestring operation -- "It's very hand-to-mouth, we always feel like we're about to fall off the cliff," Mr. Schwarz says -- "Botany" was a particular challenge.

Kikim secured the rights to the book after Mr. Schwarz read it in manuscript form in 2000. Mr. Schwarz and Mr. Pollan go way back, having worked together on magazines in New York in the 1970s.

"I immediately thought, what a great idea, to take the plants' point of view -- it's a really interesting way to look at the world," Mr. Schwarz said. "It was just begging to be made into a television program."

But it took five years to secure the funding, for essentially one reason: marijuana.

While Mr. Schwarz tried to emphasize to donors that the show would take a "value-neutral" approach as it profiled cannabis' effect on the human brain and limbic system, many of the agencies Kikim turned to for funding were worried that the program would promote drug use.

"We wanted to try to get people to look at it in a way they hadn't seen it before," both visually and thematically, Mr. Schwarz said.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting pulled a commitment to provide partial funding for the film after a new Bush appointee took charge of the nonprofit, which funds public television and radio. "They didn't say why but we had our suspicions," Mr. Schwarz said.

Eventually, the National Science Foundation provided nearly half the money for the project; PBS came through with a large grant after Kikim produced a short trailer of the marijuana section. The Columbia Foundation in San Francisco and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York also contributed.

Different medium

While the documentary follows the structure of Mr. Pollan's book, it is really its own animal. For one, Mr. Pollan serves as one of several interview subjects, rather than the narrator -- a last-minute decision that turned out to be crucial, according to Mr. Schwarz.

Some of the central figures in Mr. Pollan's book refused to be interviewed on camera, unhappy with the way they were portrayed. Kikim sought out not only people who could provide a valuable perspective, but who would be engaging as characters.

There's the apple enthusiast who gives a blow-by-blow description of the taste of several apples as he bites into them, chews, and spits. There's the Dutch tulip grower who plucks the buds at seasons' end, hanging suspended with his wife and children over the flower bed by a machine of his own invention that facilitates picking.

The documentary's strengths differ from those of the book, which is often carried along on the waves of Mr. Pollan's thought.

"Part of the job is to understand the limits of what you can accomplish working within the medium," Mr. Schwarz said. "The biggest trap is to try to pack too much in.

"There's a tendency when you're working in television to simplify, but distilling is not the same as over-simplifying. ... We always try to complicate issues. I'd like to think that's one of the things that distinguishes our work as a company."

INFORMATION

Related story: Producing documentaries in Menlo Park

■ Go to pbs.org/thebotanyofdesire for more information on the show.

■ Go to kikim.com for video clips and information on other projects by Kikim Media.

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