Sometime around 2010, Forrest Fenn—an octogenarian millionaire who'd made his fortune as an art dealer— hid a treasure chest full of gold and jewels somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, north of Santa Fe. He then self-published a memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, complete with a poem believed to be full of clues leading to the loot's resting place.
While some believe it was a hoax, tens of thousands have become obsessed with finding the bounty, worth an estimated 2 to 3 million dollars. A handful have gone missing in the pursuit, and last January, one searcher was reported dead. This past August, Fenn announced that, to his knowledge, the treasure has not been found, but that's not for lack of effort on behalf of the searchers.
With his new documentary, The Lure, British documentarian Tomas Leach employs a quiet lyricism to compose a portrait of these fanatic treasure hunters and their relationship with Fenn, the wizened old man with a twinkle in his eye pulling the strings on their feverish quest. The film, which premiered at DOC NYC this month and was executive produced by Errol Morris, brings together awe-inspiring vistas of the Rocky Mountains with character sketches of a handful of the men and women engrossed in finding Fenn's gold and jewels—from a terminally ill husband and father whose wife rolls her eyes at his hobby while admitting it gives him something to live for, to a pair of women whose first priority after finding the treasure is to get on Ellen.
I recently caught up with Leach to talk about the The Wizard of Oz–like journey he paints, and shooting the Rocky Mountains by drone and Micro Lite.
VICE: How did you first hear about this story?
Tomas Leach: I first read about it in a British paper, so I started reading about it more and started going on some of the treasure hunters' blogs. I thought it sounded really bizarre and possibly magical, so I went out to Santa Fe to meet Forrest Fenn and some of the treasure hunters and just to spend some time in that part of the world.
I'd never been to New Mexico, so I wanted to see what the place was like, as well as the American Southwest in general. The film's treasure hunters spread out through the Rockies, but Fenn lives in Santa Fe and a lot of the hunters are from northern New Mexico. It's pretty much the only place in the world where someone can say, "I've hidden a few million dollars of gold and jewels," and people say, "Great!" and go out looking for it. Anywhere else, there would be cynicism and anger about it.
The end of the film mentions there are 65,000 of these treasure hunters. What made you select the few that you focused on in your film?
I really wanted this film to not just be about the treasure hunt—I wanted it to have a universality to it that touched people. So the characters who are in the film looking for the treasure all have a reason for searching that isn't just finding gold and getting rich. There's depth and fragility to them all. I knew if it was going to be a feature-length film, each of the characters had to have an arc; each of them had to be developed.
"The story, to me, was about everything else that was going on and about this game between Fenn and the searches, about this universal theme that we are all looking for something to complete us."—Tomas Leach
Over what period of time did you film?
We filmed over 2014 and 2015. I went out five times and knew from the start that if it was about people finding the treasure, then it would be a reality show—so I had to believe there was no chance of finding the treasure. The story, to me, was about everything else that was going on—this game between Fenn and the searches, the universal theme that we're all looking for something to complete us. Whether it's yoga, collecting, music, or filmmaking, we throw ourselves into something to understand and complete ourselves.
Tell me about Fenn's memoir that the searchers all read for clues.
The book is quite simple—it's just a set of stories from Fenn's childhood, each with a picture or image. It's his own homespun view of the world. A lot people try to decipher it and read more into it—but, for me, it's just simple stories from his youth. I don't think he ever set out to be a writer, but he likes telling stories. Then there's this poem at the end, which on a literary level isn't particularly deep—but because it's attached to [the treasure], it's brought thousands who decipher everything in it, right down to the numbers of letters in words.
Fenn's project reminded me of the concept of Modernist literature as a movement—that authors like James Joyce would imbue texts with hidden meaning and the reader would be charged with interpreting them.
The treasure hunt—and my film—is better without the answers, if everyone completes it in their own way. The film is about as many things as we can throw in the mix: Somebody thinks it's metaphor for finding God, somebody thinks it's an exchange with Satan where if you find the gold, you swap souls. I think documentaries too often give you too much fact and decisive point of view.
I always reference Robert Altman when I talk about this film, because his stories are so slight, but they end up being about everything because you can complete them with your own emotional engagement. The characters become these surrogates for you. In McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the story is so slight and contradictory to what you might expect from a Western. It draws you with its lyricism and its unwrapping of itself.
There was one searcher, Randy Bilyeu, who died looking for the treasure.
We were editing when the searcher went missing. At the time, he was missing and presumed to be in great danger. We talked about it in the edit, but it seemed like it would be both sensationalist and reactionary to include it in the film, which isn't a hagiography of Forrest Fenn anyway. It has enough dark elements and shade that it's not just glorifying him. It would've been cynical to go out and film the story of the missing searcher when the event wasn't in the time frame of the film. It would've been clutching at newsworthiness.
Do you think Fenn has any responsibility for this death?
It's such a harsh landscape and, obviously, full of dangers. If you get stuck somewhere, there are really simple dangers of getting lost. The Rocky Mountains are huge, and they're cold. It's hard to say that that's [Fenn's] responsibility, but I do think he's wrapped this story around himself, and it was inevitable that somebody would die at some point. I wonder whether he was aware of that.
You had so many beautiful overhead shots. Were those captured with a drone?
We shot a lot with drones, and I went up in a Micro Lite as well, a powered glider that you sit with a pilot. Essentially, it's like if we turned these two chairs around, one in front of the other, and then we put a hand glider on top of us and an air-conditioning fan at the back. You're sitting there open, so you can just shoot below you. It's terrifying and great at the same time!
I hemmed and hawed a lot how much to include these landscape shots, because it's such a trite thing for filmmakers to say, "Landscape is a character in my film." But this film actually is about the land. If you know nothing else about the story, it's that there is gold hidden somewhere in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe, so we had to show a sense of scale.
Your last documentary was about Saul Leiter. How do you feel having done two documentaries about these types of older men?
Someone else was asking me if I was looking to finish a trilogy about weird old eccentric men with hoards of things, and before that I hadn't even thought about it. After I made that film about Saul Leiter, I thought I was definitely not going to make a film about an old man again, but I don't think it's really about Fenn. It's as much about him as The Wizard of Oz is about the Wizard. For me, this film is about Dorothy and the Scarecrow and the Tinman. It's about the characters' search.
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