Problem: 110º heat? Dust? No A/C in my ’93 Ford Explorer? Nope. My problem was that a beautiful woman had just taken off her tube top and had given it to my naked friend as a "skirt," and I missed the shot. Then the VCR tape melted. The thought "Why am I here?" ran through my head until it got too hot and I had to sit down. This was Burning Man 2002—a mind-flipping event in the middle of the barren Nevada desert, with dinosaur-sized art, flamethrowing, ear-bending party vehicles and 30,000 radically self-expressed "Burners."
You can’t buy anything there. You must bring absolutely everything—food, water and shelter—to survive the week. So my oppositional friend, Ted, and I decided to create a camp starting with absolutely nothing. That nothing included no clothes. (Incidentally, this was when I shouted, "And I’ll shoot this!" meaning I didn’t have to be naked.)
Budget? Zero. Gear? A Sony Digital8 camera, an unmanned webcam recording into long-play VCRs and a 10-year-old RadioShack floor mic sitting on a plastic pail—all crammed into a 10-year-old SUV for a 13-hour overnight drive. Upon arrival, Ted symbolically started at the center of Burning Man, reluctantly surrendered his clothes and walked naked to our camp, which was just flat, empty, scorching desert.
Next? Ask for help. Slowly, donations started to appear: a jug of water, sunscreen and a poetry book that worked better as a hat. It looked like Ted might not be the one burning after all. His story was taking shape. My story was…different.
The crew (me) barely kept it together in the back of my equipment-filled Ford "Immolator."
I pulled one tape out of a VCR that looked like a Bowie album left in your car window. The top was a tiny, melted mountain range. The little Sony Digi8 cam held up though, shooting Ted, Burning Man and "donator" interviews. The generous Burners said they felt enriched giving to Ted. At week’s end, over 300 items were donated. Ted gifted it all back, except for that magical first topless donation, which he offered to the Burning Man flames. I got the shot this time.
We went home, started cutting, and I was excited about what we had. We raced to finish, submitted to Sundance and…were rejected. We tried elsewhere, and Nothing Without You was accepted to 13 festivals, winning three. I still count it as one of the most "glad to have done that" experiences of my life.
I went back to Burning Man this year. My big project? A tiny yurt house—with air-conditioning.
Paul Kelleher is owner of EditSweetLA, an edit/production house in Los Angeles. Nothing Without You can be found at marketplace.burningman.com.