Ghosts of the West Director Ethan Knightchilde Talks Ghost Towns

Todd Prescott
Director Ethan Knightchilde on location shooting Ghosts of the West.
History buffs and Southwest aficionados take note. Denver-based director Ethan Knightchilde's documentary Ghosts of the West is playing at FilmBarfor a special one-night-only event hosted by local historian Marshall Shore. Ten years in the making, his haunting look at ghost towns has been wildly popular, selling out its screenings in Colorado with lines forming an hour before showtime. Knightchilde spoke with Jackalope Ranch about the Arizona locations in the film, the difficulties in filming the documentary, and why it's been so popular in its limited release.

See also: 15 Documentaries Released in 2013 That Help Explain the World

Why did you want to make a documentary about ghost towns?
When I was 9 years old, I came across a mystery novel about a ghost town and lost mine. Something about it resonated very deeply, but a kid growing up on the east coast didn't exactly have the opportunity to explore the remnants of the Old West. Years later when I hiked into a silver camp in Colorado's Elk Mountains, the seed planted in my childhood sprouted and grew. Standing before the weathered facade of an 1880s hotel, I could not help but feel that the old building somehow stared back at me; and I wondered what those vacant windows had seen in the days when the town bustled with life and the mere rumor of a strike could send men scrambling through unexplored wilderness.

Courtesy of Knight Sky Pictures.
Why do you think people are still so curious about Old West ghost towns?
It's the same as when I read that book at 9 years old, there's just something about the ruins of the Old West that gets to us. And I think it gets to people in very different ways.

What do you think we can learn from these abandoned mining cities?
We actually touch on that idea at several points during the film, but we don't devote much time to it. That would make for a very different documentary. But I'll say this-- if you put aside your preconceptions about anything or anyone and open yourself up to a different point of view, you might learn something new, something that could completely change your outlook. Like the saying goes, ignore the lessons of history at your own peril.

How did you begin your directing career?
I've been making short films since I was a kid, and I always tried to make a movie that I was not only proud of but personally would like to see on the screen.

What do you think has caused the audiences who've seen the documentary in its limited release to react so intensely toward it?
Everyone involved in the production was deeply committed to it and we all approached the subject matter with the greatest respect. I really think that comes across. At several screenings, audience members who lived in these towns or whose family histories were touched by the events portrayed on screen thanked us for our treatment of their bit of history.

As an example, I told the post-production team that if we got the sequence on the Ludlow Massacre wrong on any level I'd have to leave Colorado in shame. At a screening in August, one audience member whose ancestors were at Ludlow approached me after the show. I'm happy to stay I'm still a Colorado resident.

Why did the documentary take ten years to make? What was the process like?
We felt it would be grossly unjust to talk about a town without visiting it ourselves. People brought their hopes and dreams to these frontier places against odds that we can't even imagine today. They didn't have SUVs or GPS or topographical maps. They lived and many died there--usually in very tragic circumstances. How could we hope to tell their stories with any sense of honesty and integrity unless we went to those same places ourselves?

Every year for eight years, we spent the months between late fall and early spring researching a specific region's history and its surviving structures. We studied topographical maps to determine the best routes to isolated sites and were ready for production once the spring melt-off began. After location photography concluded in September 2010, we began the process of finalizing the script, shooting interviews, locating archival photos, auditioning and recording voice talent, and of course editing. The first test screenings took place in September 2012 at the same theater that played the very first teaser trailer four years earlier.

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815 N. 2nd St., Phoenix, AZ

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