University of Alaska Southeast Outdoor Studies students work to complete a technical ice climb on the Mendenhall Glacier in the winter of 2013. From left to right: Jason Ester, Forest Wagner, Alex Botelho, Sara Bogert, Keren GoldbergBelle.
Soapy Smiff competes in a hip hop MC competition at Marlintinis in May of 2012. From left: Soapy Smiff and documentary filmmaker David Reed.
Story last updated at 1/2/2014 - 2:21 pm
Juneau documentary maker David Reed was on his way to Bullwinkle's with his family when he had a life-changing realization: he wanted to study film.
He was just back from a semester abroad in Italy, where he noticed people doing what made them happy, regardless of monetary compensation. He wanted a life like that like that for himself. So he applied to Montana State, where he got a film degree.
At the time, he was inclined toward feature film work. But the first film he did that he was proud of was a documentary and senior project he completed with friends about I-90 tourist traps in South Dakota.
"Thinking about it now ... I don't think I realized it at the time, but you could go on an adventure, film it, and also make a movie at the same time," he said.
He enjoyed getting backstage access to what he was filming, talking to the tourist traps' creators, and learning about tourist attractions like, say, singing and dancing Elvis robots, or animatronic cowboys playing Johnny Cash songs.
After he graduated, he tried avoiding Los Angeles by working in Seattle, but ended up working for free too often. After making connections with some L.A. residents, he went south. He got a paying job his first day.
"My first day, I was working on a Jenna Jameson zombie film cleaning 'blood' off equipment," he said.
Then he met Tom Hanks. He thought he'd "made it."
A while later, he came back to Juneau and hiked the Chilkoot trail with some friends over a vacation. When he returned to L.A. and the sci-fi film he was working on, he got culture shock.
"What am I doing there? I'm spending my money to go back home,'" he said.
After a little L.A.-Juneau back and forth, he took a job in Anchorage with the biggest-budget movie he'd ever worked on. It was also his worst experience on a film set.
"The actress was trying to cry. The mechanical whale broke down. I was making crazy Hollywood money, but found it a waste of my time," he said. "In movies, there's a lot of 'hurry up and wait.' And I thought 'This is my life. I'm just waiting for actors.'"
There's a scene in the movie when a gray whale emerges to the ocean's surface and the actress' character pats it. Initially, he thought the scene was contrived.
Then some Alaskans came in with pictures of the woman who inspired the movie. She was stroking a whale at the ocean's surface.
"I thought 'Wow, that's crazy,'" he said. "I would much rather do a documentary on it."
Right now, he's working on several documentaries. One of them focuses on a kayak trip from Hoonah to Sitka. It's a loose retracing of Joe Juneau and Richard Harris' route back to Sitka after they found gold, and it's also a journey to Home Skillet, a Sitka music festival.
He's also working on a documentary about the One People Canoe Society, which "paddle(s) together, imitating our ancestors." Reed accompanied them on a trip from Juneau to Wrangell to celebrate the rededication of Chief Shake's house, stopping on Admiralty Island, Kake, and Petersburg along the way.
"They kept picking up more and more people as they went along, getting more and more boats," he said.
The trip, he said, "turned into its own wild adventure."
Several elders told him they remember journeys like those the One Canoe Society takes, but that they're now too old to do them, he said.
"They said they would love to watch (the documentary) - that it would be like going on the trip. That makes it a lot more powerful experience for me," he said.
He's also completed a short film - a "spotlight" - about Word 2 the Wize, a nonprofit that hosts battle rap competitions around Alaska. It's a natural fit, as before he got interested in film, Reed pursued music, playing in local punk rock band.
Instead of paying for tickets, people sometimes donated canned goods for food drives.
"Nonprofit and music has always been something I pursued," he said.
Reed, who also works in I.T. at the Capitol, does his nonprofit work for free.
His first feature-length documentary, Follow the Night, about night photography and aurora-chasing around Juneau, is making the rounds at film festivals before festival rules allow him to release it to the wider world. He did the film with friend and photographer Brandon Hauser. They also used their photos and experiences to make a coffee table book with the same title.
Among other projects, Reed would like to someday do a documentary about the history of Juneau.
"My goal is just to document people," he said. "To give them a space to be themselves."