YAKIMA, Wash. — When Cory Mann and Luke Griswold-Tergis decided to make a movie about fish camp, an annual tribal custom of Tlingit tribal members in the tiny Alaskan tribal village of Klukwan, they sort of knew what they were doing.
Sort of being the operative phrase.
They did have a video camera, after all, and they had some experience, sort of. Griswold-Tergis, a quirky white guy from Northern California, had made a short film for a class in college. Mann, a quirky half-Tlingit from Juneau, had done some acting in college — right up until his musical theater professor told him he should consider a different line of work.
“Cory has this way about him, and in some ways it’s a great thing and others, not so much,” says Griswold-Tergis. “He just has this attitude that it’s a good thing to jump in the deep end and, basically, sink or swim.
“I guess it’s sort of a thing of, you can do your feasibility studies until you die, but sometimes you just have to try and see if you can pull it off.”
So after talking for years about making “Smokin’ Fish,” the documentary that has become a PBS television staple and will be screened Thursday night at Yakima Valley College’s Deccio Building, they just decided to do it.
“We couldn’t name the movie ‘Fish Camp’ because somebody already had that name,” says Mann. “So we named it ‘Smokin’ Fish.’ ”
And they made it, with a whole bunch of trial-and-error and a lot of oops-that-didn’t-work.
They traveled to Klukwan, where the gathering that Mann calls fish camp can last from two weeks to three months, depending on conditions and how the fish are running.
Being a white man and a stranger in a remote tribal village, Griswold-Tergis wasn’t immediately accepted. “It took some people years to get to where they were, ‘I’m OK with what you’re doing, and now I’ll share a story with you,’ ” he says. “Klukwan can be kind of a standoffish place, sort of famously so. At first, people would literally ignore me when I walked down the street. It was like I was invisible, like I wasn’t even there.”
Mann’s plethora of family members at fish camp helped ease that transition, though, and their input is a large part of “Smokin’ Fish.” The film also takes in the fact that the filmmakers were learning as they went, and that’s part of what makes it so engaging.
“We were trying to figure out how to get a fancy panning shot, when we thought of the idea,” Mann says. “And Luke thought, hey, let’s just put the tripod in the canoe. I thought, Now there’s a GREAT idea.” (Cue the sarcasm meter.)
The two first-time filmmakers learned very quickly that, as Griswold-Tergis says, “Sand and water aren’t good for cameras.”
Twice they had to send the camera in to repair water damage. “We also got sand in it. We got (bits of) fish in it. Multiple times,” Mann says. “By the time we were done we were starting to learn how to actually repair it ourselves, because it was getting damaged so many times.”
During the filming, Mann says, “We’re not just catching small amounts of fish, we’re catching lots of fish, real fast. And we were just trying to get a lot of cool angles, being so close to the water, and of course you’ve got the fish splashing the camera.”
When the camera would get wet in the sometimes sub-freezing riverside temperatures, the filmmakers would take the camera to dry inside a tribal smokehouse, where the temperature was 70 to 80 degrees.
“You know how when your glasses get all fogged up?” Mann offers, painting the mental image of the inevitable.
Sure enough, the inside of the lenses would get misty, and upon the camera being taken out into the frigid cold, the mist would freeze over. That happened “numerous times,” Mann says.
Three straight years they applied to PBS for grant funding. The first two attempts didn’t fly with the PBS producers, Griswold-Tergis says, “because the early footage was making them nauseous. It was just too shaky, too much hand-held footage. I wasn’t good at it.
“But even though it was not really professional, there was something compelling they saw in it, and they kept encouraging us to try again — which I really appreciated about them. They weren’t going to do anything that was obviously dumb, but they tried to get us to a place where they could responsibly support us.”
Mann and Griswold-Tergis started their project in 2005, with high hopes honed from naivete. “We really had this attitude that we’re going to film it over the summer, edit it in the fall and by wintertime we’ll be partying at Sundance,” Griswold-Tergis says. “We finished it in 2011.”
But now the film is out there, having been seen by thousands if not millions of viewers. It premiered at the Mill Valley (Calif.) Film Festival, has been screened worldwide and has aired numerous times on PBS. It won best documentary honors at one festival.
Not surprisingly, the filmmakers’ careers seem to be taking wings. Mann has gone into business and film marketing (JuneauMarketing.com), while Griswold-Tergis is working on a couple of new film projects. On Tuesday, he was in the process of writing a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation regarding a documentary film to be based in Siberia.
And Mann, the guy who admitted to being “camera shy” when the project began and whose acting teachers in college urged him to do something else — anything else — found out he likes being in front of the camera after all.
“My first acting teacher told me, ‘I just saw your movie on PBS and you were amazing,’” Mann says with a smile. “He said, ‘When you were in my acting class, you were a mouse. But hey, put you in front of a camera and you’re a star!’”
Well ... sort of.