Rock Star: Doug Pray on Levitated Mass, the Documentary

levitated mass

Michael Heizer is an artist whose work you tend to stumble upon—perhaps literally, in the case of the bewitching ribbons of rusting steel embedded in the lawn of the Menil Collection—and then can’t stop thinking about. He made headlines in recent years during the installation of Levitated Mass (2012), a 456-foot-long slot constructed on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) campus, over which is placed a 340-ton granite megalith. That momentous, paperwork-laden process, which entailed a $10 million, 22-city tour for the boulder and its custom-made trailer, is the subject of a new film by Doug Pray (Art & Copy, Surfwise). Now playing in select cities, Levitated Mass weaves together Heizer’s biography, the dreams of a major museum, and the uniting of a city—all while proving that it is possible to make a fascinating film about a massive rock. Pray (pictured below), who happens to be the son of a geologist, made time between screenings to tell us more about the film and its making.

(Diana Rathe)How did you first encounter the work of Michael Heizer?
Long before I knew about the work of Michael Heizer I had seen Adjacent, Against, Upon on the waterfront in Seattle, and, like millions of others, I’d encountered the smaller, running-water version of Levitated Mass in New York City, but I didn’t swim in it, so to speak. My first full, immersive experience was during the early days of our production on Levitated Mass while we were endlessly awaiting for the rock to get its permits and approvals and to move out of the quarry. I drove out to Mormon Mesa, near Overton, Nevada—about an hour and a half northeast of Las Vegas—and spent a half day walking around and inside Heizer’s massive Double Negative.

What was your impression of Double Negative?
I nearly lost my car inside it because, being created entirely of “negative space,” you can’t see it as you drive upon it. You just suddenly realize there’s a whole lot earth missing in front of your vehicle, (a.k.a.: a deadly cliff) with no warning or fencing or signs. It’s an overwhelming structure, and while it has naturally deteriorated over the years, the geometry, scale, and overall concept is mind-boggling. More than any work of art I’ve ever experienced, you really do “experience” it. The relationship between its walls and the sky, the patterns your eyes form between the two created canyons, the ambient sound, the heat of the desert, the vista of the distant Virgin River, and the overall concept is striking. And, better than any book, article or photo, it suggested to me what Heizer is after in his rearrangements of the earth’s elements.

levitated mass posterWhat compelled you to make a film about Levitated Mass?
At first, I was intrigued by just the pure visual image of a giant boulder crawling down the boulevards of Los Angeles in the dead of night. I had always wanted to do a film about L.A., so this seemed about as L.A. as it could get. As I learned more about Michael Heizer’s work and how little the outside world knew about this influential artist, I felt compelled to keep this as an art film. My third interest became the behind-the-scenes story of LACMA’s efforts to get 22 cities and four counties to back something that most people were completely confused about. The idea that they had to get permits and permissions to allow a giant rock to roll through their town, all in the name of conceptual art, was absurdly entertaining, and often drew shrugs and confused laughter, and controversy. The intertwining of these three stories: the rock and its public, the museum, and the artist, are what ultimately form Levitated Mass, the movie.

What surprised you the most about Heizer as a person?
When I first met Michael Heizer, I was disappointed to find out, firsthand, that he refused to talk about himself, his background, and his personal, artistic motivations. Though he has created some beautifully in-depth writings about his work in the past—in particular, one hard-to-find book named Sculpture in Reverse from 1984—Heizer has rarely done any interviews at all—even about his finished works. So, I had to change my perceptions about the nature of this film: I realized it couldn’t be an introspective biography, and the granite boulder may, in fact, be my central character. Yet, at the same time, he and LACMA did give me permission to document him and his work on Levitated Mass itself, and I knew this was a very rare opportunity to witness a great artist’s interaction with his sculpture. His initial distance only made me more compelled to tell an overall story of his life and past work, so that Levitated Mass could fit within a context for viewers. Ultimately, he did allow some interviewing, and full access to his work.

How long did this film take you to complete?
The idea for the film was formed in 2010. We began production in the spring of 2011. We filmed the movement of the boulder in early 2012. The artwork opened to the public in June 2012. As is typical, it took me about nine months to edit (juggling other projects as well). So, on and off, it took two to three years. The most intensive filming, of course, was covering the boulder’s move. That was ten nights of filming, from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. (the rig pulled out at each night at about 10pm). Another crew filmed by day to conduct interviews with those who came to gawk at the rock in each neighborhood.

Finally, what was the most challenging aspect of making the film?
As an editor, having an inanimate object at the center of your narrative is surprisingly challenging. Fortunately, that object becomes a mirror for the thousands of people who are drawn to it it and project their own lives onto it. But before the art had opened to the public, my friends kept asking me, “Are you still making that movie about a rock?”