Ghosts of the West director Ethan Knightchilde on filming old towns and preserving theaters

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When filmmaker Ethan Knightchilde was growing up on the East Coast, a cheesy ghost story sparked an interest in ghost towns that ultimately led him to create the monumental documentary Ghosts of the West, which will have its Denver debut at 7 p.m. Thursday, September 26, at the Esquire Theatre. "You come across things in life that just resonate with you, and you can never get them out of your head," he explains. "When I was about nine years old, I read a book -- some adolescent tale about a ghost town and a lost mine. It was probably very Scooby Doo-ish, but there was just something about that that stuck in my head: an entirely abandoned town and how do you lose a gold mine? There was just something about the idea of it." Then on the July 4 weekend in 2002, Knightchilde stumbled across a real-life ghost town -- and his obsession was revived.

In advance of tomorrow's screening, we chatted with Knightchilde about the making of the documentary (he filmed the ghost towns instead of relying on archival footage), the importance of preserving historic sites and what attendees can expect at the Denver screening.

See also: Goodbye, Smiley's Laundromat -- your ghosts are hung out to dry

Westword: Tell us about that first ghost town.

Ethan Knightchilde: We were at a friend's house in Aspen, and somehow the subject of ghost towns came up. And they said, "You would've driven right past one on your way in." So we went to look and we stopped at the town of Ashcroft and we were standing in front of it, and it really resonated with me. I started doing research on that town and other towns. So reading about that town made me want to read about other towns and visit those other towns, and we just traveled further and further away from Denver.

For the making of this film, we actually visited not just all over Colorado but Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota, but Colorado easily far and ahead has the majority of screen time.

You decided to film these sites instead of relying on archival footage -- can you talk about why you decided that was important for the documentary? What were some of the challenges that choice presented?

Once you start getting into the subject matter -- and this goes back to the subject matter resonating -- it was a question of the lives of those people who had lived that history. It would have felt very disingenuous and not very fair to not even visit the towns where they lived out their lives and hopes and dreams and violence. I feel that would be a lie. So being there, I felt, was important.

And there were challenges -- there are areas that are not accessible to the public.... We never once trespassed, I'm very proud to say that we never once trespassed. Any site where we couldn't get in touch with the landowners, we shot from the side of the road and did what we could; telephoto lenses are wonderful things when it comes to that. That's one of the challenges. And one of the other challenges -- sometimes a town had an unbelievable history, just phenomenal, dramatic, everything you'd want to make a feature film about, but there's very little left. There was a town in Arizona that was one of the last pieces cut from the film. We just couldn't make it work, there were three standing structures and four minutes of screen time. In that case, there are also very few historical images. We included it as a special on the DVD.

So the challenges were: find stories that were dramatic and would hold the audience's interest, that could be told concisely, that weren't these long, drawn-out pieces. Where there were still buildings left that we could visit, where there were archival photos available, and where the histories weren't so convoluted that we could actually try to tell one or two versions of the story rather than taking shots in the dark. So there were a lot of challenges putting it all together even after we shot it.

We've shown the film to crowds and to critics, but just last month in the town of Saguache -- we showed to people who lived in those areas, families who lived in those areas for decades and who know those histories very well, and we were commended by residents of the town of Creede and by a gentleman whose family was unfortunately involved in the Ludlow Massacre. That's probably what we're the most proud of.

From an early point in the project, it grew. But fairly early on, as I was reading in history books and various readings on the subject, I started flagging areas and even writing on notecards: Wow, these are great stories, we need to see what more we can get. So it was a matter of reading more and more, accumulating more books and searching for original newspaper articles and going into archives as we narrowed the focus. It was almost like a prospector: You find a little color in a stream, so you head upstream to see if you can find more. Sometimes that panned out, and others it didn't. Anytime we ran into a situation where we had accounts that were so wildly disparate and contradictory, there's no way to tell that because you'd be prefacing every sentence of the script with "Some believe this but others believe that." I'm not trying to tell both sides of a debate. It really was walking a fine line on a lot of different areas in the script.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from audiences so far?

In September of last year we felt we were done. So having shown a lot of short films at the Estes Park Film Festival, we knew the owner of the theater, were talking to her and said we were getting ready and she said, "Why don't you show it at the Park Theatre?" So we set up a couple of test screenings, and I went into it hoping financially not to take a bath -- but also, I spent a good portion of my life on this and I really hope it doesn't suck.

And so we had two screenings, and we gave them comment cards to fill out, and the first questions were things like, how would you rate it on a scale of one to five? What did you like best, what would you like to see more of, what didn't you like? What would you like to see in a prequel or sequel? We made the conscious decision not to look at the cards after the screening, we gathered them up and had a marketing research guy help us out on this. The average rating was 4.5.


Yeah, that's what we said. People were writing things we didn't ask about; they were gushing. Every possible area of the film they touched on -- the narration, the character choices, the script, the location photography, the sound design, the interviews. Someone said, "This film touched my heart." One thing that surprised me was that there were a lot of people who thought they were looking at a photograph or a historical image and then they'd start seeing the grass move, and they were really convinced we were just showing photos and had somehow added things in post-production. But they were shot on film, the photos were filmed, we just ensured a consistent treatment. Our movie cameras, it's a rock-steady image and we had a quality film transfer, and that's probably why you think you're looking at a photograph until a butterfly flies by.

One of the things that's interesting is that film festivals almost universally rejected us. And we suspected this was going to happen because the film is one hour, which is too long for a short but too short for a feature. So we decided, look, we won an award, audience members like it, and there are programmers at festivals who can't make it work for whatever reason and that's fine, but why don't we approach independently owned theaters and work with them directly?

We had hoped to maybe show it five times. A couple of weeks ago in South Park was going to be number 22. Fort Collins wouldn't let us leave the theater until we told them when we were coming back.

We're thrilled! This is the one and only show in Denver, so it is the Denver premiere.... We've been trying to set something up in Denver for more than a year, since before the test screenings. It was always meant to be our premiere. Only two members of the cast have seen it, and that was at the test screenings, so we've got all but one cast member coming, we've got the narrator and two of the three voice actors will be there, the composer will fly in from Maryland, one of our two interviewees will be there, our sound designer will be there, our sound mixer will be there -- it's the first time we're getting most of the cast together. And the only reason our other interviewee can't make it is because he's teaching that night -- Tom Noel.

What else can attendees expect from the screening?

We are starting off the show with an award-winning short film about theater preservation, Not for Today, But for All Time...; we decided to show that with the test screenings because we wanted to do a little added-value thing. It played so well at the test screenings that we've just included it wherever we've shown the film, and the theater owners have loved it because it's about theater preservation.

We will have basically all cast and crew planning to be there, and they'll be available for questions and to meet afterward. The DVD of the film is not available online or anywhere else; if someone likes the movie the only way to get a copy of it is to buy it at a screening they personally attend. So if someone thinks my dad will love this for Christmas, they can't go to Amazon or even our own website, they have to buy it there.

And this has been a sign of the screenings since the test -- the seven o'clock show for the test screenings, I was up in the projection booth, and they said, "We need more tickets, people are lining up out there." And when I came down about 6:30, there was this mob of people waiting to get into the theater. They had to guard the posters, it was crazy! In Fort Collins, the line went out the door to buy tickets. In Sawatch people came from miles away, the line at the box office stretched down the block. So I already know how many tickets were sold as of yesterday, and I'm going to tell you, there will be a line to get into this theater and it won't be a small one. So I strongly recommend that if someone wants to see it, they buy a ticket in advance. We're just looking forward to showing it to our hometown. It'll be a good event.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

We're just really looking forward to it; we hope folks who are interested in history, ghost stories, interested in preservation come see it. And one of the comments that the audience members gave in general was about that short, Not for Today, But for All Time..., and really they had no idea how vulnerable these sites were and how vulnerable our films are and our theaters are. You think it's always there and it's always going to be there, and unfortunately, that's not the case, and they went away with a new appreciation of the history.

Visit ghostsofthewestmovie.com for information or to purchase tickets.

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