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On The Devil’s Road: Local Filmmakers Make World Debut in Santa Cruz

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On The Devil’s Road: Local Filmmakers Make World Debut in Santa Cruz

[Santa Cruz, Calif., April 5, 2019]—Four years ago, four Santa Cruz filmmakers set out to bring a historic expedition out of obscurity. The result was a feature-length historical-nature-adventure documentary called The Devil’s Road. The film will make its world debut at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on April 27th.

The Devil’s Road is a culmination of over four years’ worth of research, exploration, filming, and post-production work to revive the pivotal work of two of America’s most prolific naturalists: Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman. While these are not household names, their research laid the foundation of scientific studies in Baja and were viewed as a link between Darwin and present-day scientists. 

Nelson and Goldman’s landmark expedition in 1905-1906 was unprecedented and completed in a time when the Baja Peninsula was considered one of the most remote and challenging areas in all of North America. They documented, cataloged, and obtained specimens of never-before-studied flora and fauna, all while trekking over two thousand miles on horseback.  The pair made a number of significant scientific contributions to Baja’s natural history, and their expedition was the most thorough and complete studies of Baja’s ecosystems. They would later spend their careers heralded as some of the most adept naturalists of their time, with hundreds of plants, animals, and geographical features named in their honor.

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It wasn’t just the early achievements of these two famed naturalists—though undeniably obscure outside of academic circles—that motivated the film crew. “It was only recently that, coincidentally enough, we learned our ‘Uncle Ed’ was the famed naturalist Edward Alphonso Goldman that worked with Edward William Nelson to explore the Baja Peninsula. I have been traveling around Baja with my family since 1990. We had no idea we had much deeper roots there,” explains Todd Bruce, the producer of The Devil’s Road, and the great grandnephew of Edward Goldman. “Baja has captivated us over the years. Nelson and Goldman’s accomplishments, coupled with our familial connection to this unique place, were driving forces behind creating the film.”

In early April of 2016, the team made a trip to the nation’s capital to pour through documents and glass plate negative photographs in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. With latex gloves, they sifted through letters between President Theodore Roosevelt and Nelson, read field notes written over a hundred years ago by Goldman, and inspected century-old photo albums and specimens collected by the pair during their expedition. The film crew was also invited by the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to film archived specimens of mammals and birds collected by Nelson and Goldman during their time in Baja.

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On March 1st of 2017, the film's director, JT Bruce, and producer set out on an expedition of their own, spending two months and covering over 5,000 miles of Baja desert and coastline to retrace Nelson and Goldman’s original expedition route on motorcycles. 

The film documents their thrilling quest—by motorcycle, airplane, boat, and horseback—across the Baja Peninsula where, along the way, they observe the vibrant culture and unforgettable people, and endure the challenges of the road. The film includes interviews with biologists and conservationists that provide a reminder of how grueling the original expedition was and why Nelson and Goldman’s work was so fundamental, as well as offer insight into the precarious future of the fragile ecosystems of Baja—and beyond.

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“Much like our predecessor that inspired the film, knowing Baja on a more intimate level makes it incumbent upon us to be stewards of such a unique corner of the world. By sharing it with viewers we hope to help make a case for its conservation,” says Bri Bruce, the film’s associate producer and UC Santa Cruz alumni. “Baja is truly a magical place. There’s really no other way to describe it. I think I speak for anyone that has been fortunate enough to really witness it—stand in its deserts, swim in its oceans, get to know both the animals and the people there—they’ll see it’s worth fighting for.”

“Baja is a biodiversity hotspot,” explains The Devil’s Road Scientific Advisor Greg Meyer. Meyer is an educator at California State University, Monterey Bay, and a professional naturalist who led his first trip to Baja in 1985. He has traveled extensively throughout the peninsula, working for the Oceanic Society, Lindblad Expeditions, National Geographic Expeditions, and the BBC. “The Baja Peninsula is still one of the great wildernesses on earth and this film project has allowed us to see the changes over time and to highlight why it needs protection today.”

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JT Bruce, the film’s director, expands on the themes of The Devil’s Road:

“Our film is not just a historical documentary or motorcycle road movie. It's not a reprimand on the audience for some perceived failure to protect the environment. It's a chance to gain a wider perspective and view the trajectory that our planet's ecosystems are on, and to help people make their own decisions about how we should approach the future.” 

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The film shows a complex interplay between past and present, and weaves together themes of discovery and change while serving as an environmental call to arms that pays homage to the strange and awe-inspiring Baja California. In an exciting mix of history, nature, and exhilarating adventure, The Devil’s Road is sure to entertain, educate, and inspire. 

The filmmakers anticipate a year of showings throughout the U.S. and internationally as they begin their film festival tour, starting at the Overland Expo in May of 2019 in Arizona.

Tickets for the premiere can be purchased at thedevilsroad.brownpapertickets.com.

Tune in to KSCO’s Off the Lip Radio Show (AM 1080, FM 104.1) on April 17th at 7pm where the filmmakers will be featured as guests.




 

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Expedition Complete: Letter from the Producer

The Broken Wagon Films team would like to take this opportunity to let everyone know that our main expedition is complete. All of our team members participated during this two-month filming expedition, as well as a few additional and short duration assistants. I first must say that JT said it best: “The film is in the can!” Meaning, we have the footage needed to put together a stellar documentary, and as the director, he is very pleased with what we have been able to accomplish and where we will be in a year or so after the editing is complete.

The Baja Peninsula threw everything she had at us and we still escaped serious injury and had no significant mechanical issues. We persevered through it all: slept in the snow, got stuck in the sand, blown over by the strong and gusty winds, poked and scratched by just about every plant with thorns, swarmed by thousands of bugs, embraced by the wonderful Baja culture, and even slept with a scorpion.

Here are a few numbers for you to ponder and for your entertainment:

  • 5280 - miles driven on the motorcycles in two months
  • 29 - times the motorcycles were “dumped” or we crashed at low speeds (20 by Todd and only 9 by JT). Two of JT’s crashes were Todd’s fault! And Todd dumped his bike three times while standing still!
  • 7 - cameras used on the expedition
  • 36 - hours of footage from all the cameras
  • 8 - inches, the length of the “World Record” Nelson Trout caught by Eric
  • 530 - pounds in weight of each bike including gear, food, and water
  • 4 - people we met along the expedition that said, “You're the Devil’s Road guys! We've heard of you!”
  • 11,000 - feet, the altitude that Scott flew his plane, without a side door and with JT harnessed in so that JT can get aerial footage of the Sierra San Pedro Martir range of mountains

We look forward to sharing with all of you our stories and experiences. JT has an enormous task ahead of him to sort through and edit all that we have. When we have a working version of the film we will call upon all of you to help critique and finalize the film.

Again I would like to thank all of our sponsors, donors, and crowdfunding backers. We would not have been able to do this expedition without your support and generous contributions--in the form of mission-critical equipment and otherwise. I would also like to thank our assistant expedition contributors; Wayne Bruce, Scott and Laurie Bruce, Eric Bruce, Heidi Lewin, Bri Bruce, Jade Lewin, Gia and Eric Doughty, and Guy VanCleave. Because of all of you, we were able to secure some fantastic footage that will make this film shine.

As always, keep watching our website for updates and new items. And don’t forget to keep sharing the project with others on social media. We are very excited and pleased with what we have thus far.

Thanks again,

Todd Bruce
Producer, The Devil’s Road

 

 

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Days 58, 59 & 60 (Return Home)

Return Home

It took us two and a half days to get from the border to our home in Santa Cruz. A stop in Ojai at my dad's house for the night was the perfect halfway point. We battled more gusty, strong, and always changing winds the entire way home. Our last day in the saddle was a total of 315 miles and that brought an end to an amazing two-month filming expedition through the heart of the Baja Peninsula.

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 57

April 24 (Tijuana to San Diego)

I was filled with an honest mix of emotions when I woke this morning. JT was still sleeping and I slipped out of the hotel room to get a cup of coffee and reflect on my participation these last two months and in this project. On one hand, I was eager to get home and get back into my regular routine and be with Heidi. Yet, the other hand was wanting to hold onto more exploration, more time with JT, and more of what Baja encompasses. I have a love affair with this place that I cannot put into words. I have become accustomed to those around me speaking Spanish and me not knowing what they are saying. I have grown more comfortable sleeping on the ground in my sleeping bag and cooking over a fire of cactus wood, and I have secretly wished to keep going and seeking new Baja experiences.

One last shooting goal in Tijuana was all that was left. As we drove through the outskirts and downtown Tijuana, JT kept pulling over and running off to get a shot of this or that. His eye is keen with what he needs or what just happens to jump out at him. Several hours later, we were heading for the long lines at the border.

As it is always the case, we got in the wrong line. All other lines were moving faster than ours and we kept joking about jumping into another line and then having it be the slowest. As it turns out, motorcycles don't have to stay in line. They are allowed to split lanes and wedge in front of any car just before the border agent. So, we followed another motorcycles and skipped about two dozen cars and dove into a line with a slow and apparently very thorough agent.

Satisfied with our filming, the expedition, and how we met our goals, we set off to DMC Performance to fix JT's bike. It required a new chain and new rear sprocket to get her ready for the return trip home. We spent the night in Ramona at the home of JT's college friend Adam and his girlfriend Melisa's house. We were glad to be back in the States and very much enjoyed the company of old friends.

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 56

April 23 (To Ensenada)

Wind! It seems that nearly the entire trip north we have been met with a headwind, wind from the side, and then gusty winds that tend to push our bikes around. We rode 136 miles today and landed at a hotel in Ensenada. JT's bike has been experiencing some issues with the chain and rear sprocket. The chain keeps loosening and would skip as he accelerated. We have had to tighten the chain several times, but can't figure out why it loosens after a day's drive. We will try to get it to a repair shop in San Diego tomorrow.

Bike problems outside Catavina

Bike problems outside Catavina

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 55

April 22 ( Sierra San Pedro Martir)

Two coyote pups ran through our camp this morning! I was sitting next to the fire waiting for the water to boil for my coffee. I didn't even have time to get the camera before the pups disappeared into the rocks. JT was still asleep and again I felt that we missed an opportunity to get some wildlife on camera.

We met a group of women at the ranger station while on the way down to the lookout. They had just been there and took pictures of four condors. Our excitement rose as we made the 10-kilometer drive and secretly hoped they would still be there.

We were once again met with empty skies and no condors in sight. We were left holding the cameras, scanning the horizon, and sweating profusely under the Baja sun.

The road system through the park is very limited and most of the park can only be accessed by foot. Both JT and I were not up for a long hike carrying the camera equipment with "hopes" of seeing a condor, so we settled for a leisurely drive.

The Sierra San Pedro Martir is an amazing place and is home to a wide variety of plant and animal life. The breeze softly blows through the trees and immediately reminds me of the Sierra Nevada.

JT and I had a long talk while sitting around a roaring campfire later. Our attention was on how we can tell the story of the California condor without any footage of a wild bird. JT has been called "the magic man" by several of his clients for his ability to pull off a difficult job. He assured me that he has a few ideas and suggested that I not worry.

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 54

April 21 (El Rosario to Sierra San Pedro Martir)

As we wind down our shooting schedule and travel northward, we have realized that there is not a whole lot of excitement, change, or new material for the film. We have been on this road before and our vision now is to have another opportunity to film the condors in the Sierra San Pedro Martir. With so few animals in the wild and such a vast mountain range, we would be lucky to get footage of the largest flying bird in North America.

We arrived at the "lower lookout" point at about 2:30 in the afternoon. The pullout was empty and we sat perched on the outcropping of rocks for over an hour and all we saw were turkey vultures and ravens. It was hot and the breeze blowing up the canyon was even hotter. We were able to find many footprints of condors in the dirt around the garbage can in the pullout. Apparently they tend to congregate there because of the garbage. With our heads hung low we headed up the mountain to the park and our camp for the night.

At the park entrance we were able to meet and talk in more detail with Manuel (Park Ranger) and Felipe (Biologist and Park Ranger) about the condor program and how best to film them. Our plan was set and we felt we had a good chance to film the condor in the wild the following day.

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 53

April 20th ( to El Rosario)

It was a short drive to El Rosario where we ate a fantastic late breakfast at Mama Espinoza's. We secured a room for the night and went to work with the usual hotel chores (laundry, showers, charging electronics, and jumping onto the Internet, if available, to send data).

Punta Baja is a short 16-mile drive from town so we thought we would head out there and see what we could find. On the way, I stopped abruptly to watch a meter-long gopher snake cross the road. JT didn't see me in time and crashed. Thankfully, there was no damage to the bikes or to JT. He just tumbled over the handlebars and onto the soft dirt of the roadway.

While we were righting his bike, we were also attempting to wave the traffic away from the snake in the road. All said and done, JT did get some footage of the snake, but not until after it was run over once, then twice. In total, four cars ran over the snake and no one really seemed to care.

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 52

April 19th (Guerrero Negro to a desert camp)

I had heard, some time ago, about an attempt to breed and set free the Baja Pronghorn Antelope. These majestic animals once roamed the peninsula in great numbers. By 1905, Nelson and Goldman were only able to find a few hoof prints, but no animals. We arrived at the facility unannounced and asked to film the animals. We were met with opposition, and insistence that protocols and permits were necessary and we were not allowed to film the animals. Disappointed, we took a few still photos and drove back out to the highway.

We were about 40 km from Punta Prieta when we passed a driver in a car heading south that frantically waved his arm and flashed his lights at us. We slowed as we rounded the curve and came face to face with a pickup truck in the ditch next to the road. Several passersby were helping the driver of the truck. His name was Neville and it appeared he had suffered a shoulder injury. I went into fireman mode while JT did his best to film the scene.

The police showed up shortly and went about trying to get all the information they needed for their reports and told me the ambulance was coming from Guerrero Negro and may take an hour. JT and I did our best to help Neville with gathering his stuff, making a list of valuable items, and securing his personal affects. He was very lucky that he was driving a newer Ford truck with airbags and was wearing his seatbelt. He said he swerved to avoid a pothole in the road!

With daylight slipping by, we found the perfect camp and quickly set about to stage our next shoot. Nelson documented how they would set up or take down their camp at night by setting fire to several dead yucca or agave plants. This would give them up to an hour worth of light. We recreated that very same situation with several dead agave plants. JT was pleased with the outcome. I, of course, was pleased to light something on fire!