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Oudolf Documentary: An Update from Tom Piper

With the calendar turned over, and gardens gone dormant, it seemed an opportune time to provide an update on my documentary project on Piet Oudolf. Your generous contribution has supported a very broad effort to document the unconventional thinking, intuitive complexity, and seasonal dynamism of Piet’s designs. Tackling the challenge has been a privilege. A few production photos below hopefully convey the spirit, and I have also updated the film’s trailer to include just a small sample of all that I was able to document this past year: https://vimeo.com/channels/643229

My fundraising strategy was designed in two phases. I successfully met the first target of $160,000 (roughly one-half of the total project budget) covering Production expenses (those related primarily to acquiring footage), and some highlights are outlined below. I will now be launching in earnest the final fundraising phase for Post-Production, with a target of $170,000. While there was an element of temerity in your participating with me before anything tangible even existed, I would welcome any additional support to help bring the project across the finish line.

Photo by Adam Woodruff

What Your Funding Helped Accomplish 

From the outset, my goal has been to create as experiential a film as possible - to place viewers “in” Piet’s gardens as opposed to solely “telling” them why Piet’s designs are so revolutionary. Beginning with my first visit, in October 2013, to Piet’s home and gardens in Hummelo in the Netherlands, I have been back to shoot every season, while also installing prototype longterm time-lapse cameras there for good measure. For me, Piet’s gardens in Hummelo are something between an artist’s studio and a scientist’s laboratory, the place where he pushes his ideas right to the edge, sometimes beyond. I invested heavily in trying to capture their essence.

Beyond Hummelo, I am fortunate to be in easy striking distance of two of Piet’s most significant public plantings, the Battery Gardens and the High Line, and have taken every advantage to shoot those gardens across all seasons as well, which coincidentally included the planting and opening of new phases of each. In addition, I made 3 visits this year to Chicago to shoot Piet’s other major U.S work, the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park. Piet cites the Lurie as a radical turning point in his design evolution, and pinpoints the shift to a research trip he made to the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum outside of Chicago in 2001. The prairie is a meticulous recreation of the native habitat for many of the North American perennials that are now icons of Piet’s designs. During a trip to Chicago in June, Piet arranged for me to shoot his return to the prairie together with the celebrated plantsman, Roy Diblik, re-tracing the steps of that pivotal visit.

In fact, Piet has been a remarkable partner in this project. Not just in his willingness to share his thinking, on camera, whenever we visit a garden, but he also arranged a number of trips with friends and colleagues to locations that have deeply influenced him. These included a beautiful fall walk along the White Clay Creek on the Pennsylvania/Delaware border with Rick Darke, a visit to the Hermanshoff Gardens and nearby sand prairies of Weinheim, Germany with Cassian Schmidt, and an upcoming winter trip to West Texas with architects Claire Weisz and Mark Yoes.

When I first floated the idea of a documentary to Piet, in 2012, I asked if he had any projects in the nascent design phase that could allow viewers an inside look at the “action” of the process. It was the ultimate good luck that the project he proposed was his one-and-a-half acre meadow garden for Hauser & Wirth Somerset, a brand new, and completely unique, rural outpost for one of the world’s most important contemporary art galleries. I was able to document the garden from abstract ideas and early sketches through damp, misty and bitter cold planting in March to its riotous ceremonial opening in September (nearly 1,000 people visited the garden on it’s official opening day).

The Sunday Times referred to the Hauser & Wirth garden as “Britain’s most keenly awaited garden in decades”, which is saying something in gardening mad Britain. But more definitively, Piet himself identifies it as his most complete work yet. With just 6 months of growth in September, it was already recognizable as a masterpiece. The Sunday Times review continued, “Indeed, it makes you wonder whether a garden can be a work of art in itself.” An answer could be found inside the Hauser & Wirth Somerset gallery, where a collection of Piet’s drawings was hung as the opening exhibition. The step-by-step creation of the Hauser & Wirth garden will provide a narrative “spine” for the film’s structure, but it also wordlessly establishes one of my cardinal motivations for undertaking the project, that Piet is, above all, an artist.

I have also made various strategic visits to other gardens Piet designed, including early public projects in Rotterdam, a new border planting at the New York Botanical Garden (which Piet describes as “like nothing I’ve done before”), and private gardens as well, most notably an enormous 15 acre landscape on Nantucket Island. It has undoubtedly been a whirlwind, but essential, I hope, for creating a cinematic experience worthy of Piet’s historical importance.

 Photo by Adam Woodruff

What Remains 

With a full cycle of seasons having elapsed, and principal shooting essentially finished, what remains is post-production.  Once significant funding has been secured for this phase, I will begin editing in late spring.  A tentative premiere date has been set for mid-October.  A key component of post-production for this film will be developing a musical score, which is critical I think to augmenting the immersive aesthetic.  I will be collaborating with an Icelandic composer who also happened to work on site at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, giving him first hand experience to draw from. Processing the time-lapse photographs will be another significant, and time-consuming, step in post-production.  As with the cinematography and score, I want the time-lapse to do justice to the visionary quality of Piet’s creativity.

The making of documentaries itself obliges any number of analogies, none of them precious or delicate, but the good news to report is I remain on target and on budget, and with a clear idea of where the project is headed.  An enormous amount of work is yet to be done, but the past 14 months have set a concrete precedent.

I am indebted for what you have made possible and look forward to delivering a final product that transcends your belief and generosity.

Wishing you the best for 2015, 

Tom

A Request from Adam:

Please join me in supporting this important project. At this time, Piper needs to raise roughly $170,000 for post-production. The Checkerboard Film Foundation is a 501©(3) non-profit institution. Contributions can be sent to:

Checkerboard Film Foundation, 1 East 53rd Street, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10022

(Please note in a cover letter or the check memo that your funds are for the Piet Oudolf project). Questions? Please contact Tom Piper at tlp4@mac.com.