Laura Goldhamer on Walden: Life in the Woods | Westword

Colorado-Made Walden: Life in the Woods Dropped on Digital This Week

Animator and musician Laura Goldhamer talks about the Colorado-based production of Walden: Life in the Woods.
Laura Goldhamer, a Denver native and longtime musician and animator, created animation for Walden: Life in the Woods, which came out on digital platforms this week.
Laura Goldhamer, a Denver native and longtime musician and animator, created animation for Walden: Life in the Woods, which came out on digital platforms this week. Michelle Christiance
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Denver musician and animator Laura Goldhamer found working on Walden: Life in the Woods to be a surprisingly personal experience.

Although Goldhamer, who provided stop-motion animation for the modern take on the Henry David Thoreau book and provided some music for the soundtrack, collaborated with childhood friends, one of the film’s central locations turned out to be somewhere near to her heart: a shuttered and now demolished nursing home in east Denver.

“It’s actually the place where my grandma lived and died,” Goldhamer said. “It was fortunate and hard for me to be filming in a location so tied to my personal narrative.”

The film premiered at the Denver Film Festival in 2017. After making the rounds of several more festivals around the United States and internationally, it's been released this week on Apple TV, Prime Video and Vimeo.

Goldhamer, best known for her multimedia shows that blend folk music and projections of her own stop-motion animation, remembers visiting her grandmother, Rae Goldhamer, and bringing along a banjo and guitar. Sometimes Goldhamer would play for Rae and other times give small concerts for residents.

“Some of the moments in the story are plucked out of experiences I had with her,” Goldhamer says.

The film adapts Thoreau’s classic piece on breaking free from modern living and tells it through three separate but interconnected storylines. Goldhamer said the stories, called “Solitude,” “Friendship” and “Society,” sprang from a quote in the book about Thoreau keeping three chairs at the ready inside his cabin — one for solitude, two for friendship and three for society.

In “Society,” Demián Bichir plays Ramirez, a manager at a nursing home having a nightmare of a day dealing with a smarmy boss — played by embattled Denver native and comedian T.J. Miller — endless haggling with his insurance company over his daughter’s kidney medication, and a run-in with a cold, indifferent loan officer at a bank.

In “Friendship,” Erik Hellman and Tony LoVerde play Guy and Luke, a somewhat mismatched couple going on a camping trip in the Rocky Mountains for their one-year anniversary. Hellman makes a brief stop at the nursing home to visit his aging grandmother, Alice, played by Lynn Cohen. Alice is the protagonist of “Solitude,” which details her lonely battle with oncoming dementia and immersion into her drawings.

Goldhamer’s nature-based stop-motion animation appear in the film as drawings by Alice, who was once a promising artist but gave it up to be a housewife. She's sitting down at the end of her life and once again taking up art, though her mental faculties are beginning to falter. The viewer sees her drawings come to life through the animations which Goldhamer says also help to tie the three narratives together. Goldhamer also makes a brief appearance as a musician during one of the film’s more surreal moments.

She says that Alice was inspired by several family members of the film’s creators, including her own grandmother, who struggled with dementia. Goldhamer says that in spite of failing health, her grandmother Rae had “moments of simple clarity toward the end of her life.”

“She was just spitting out these pearls of simple genius and wisdom,” Goldhamer recalls. “It was so special and valuable. People have dementia and go into that zone where a lot of society will see a person as ‘losing it.’ In my experience, in that assisted-living facility, it wasn’t 'losing it.' It was tapping into another dimension, pearls of wisdom our culture discards toward the end of life.”

Goldhamer says that she has known director Alex Harvey and screenwriter Adam Chanzit since they were kids (both were friends with her older brother). The idea for what would later become Walden hatched at least ten years ago, when Harvey approached Goldhamer about some kind of collaboration involving her music and animation. Harvey eventually pitched the idea of adapting Walden, and the project progressed from there.

Goldhamer says the film is full of Colorado actors and musicians, including LoVerde and Hellman. Many of the film’s principal collaborators grew up together, so the production was more than just hired guns making a movie. The film was shot mainly around Denver, though sculptor Les Sunde’s Fort Collins studio/home was used for a shot near the end of the film, and there are plenty of beautiful shots of the Rocky Mountains.

As for those among us who haven't read Walden? Goldhamer says it shouldn’t be a problem. (For the record, she has read the book, and an old copy with handwritten margin notes inspired some of the animation.)

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a prerequisite to have read the book,” she says. “I think Thoreau 200 years ago was ranting about some of the same things we are dealing with today. … It’s a contemporary reinterpretation of the book that can resonate with folks whether or not they actually read the book from 200 years ago.”

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