In Focus: Elena Greenlee and her Dark Forest

In one way or another, the Film Society has been aware of filmmaker Elena Greenlee for some time. Back in 2012, she came to us as a producer on Josef Wladkya's Manos Sucias seeking support from our SFFS / KRF Filmmaking Grant. The film was awarded significant funds in both grant rounds in 2013, and it went on to take home the Tribeca Film Festival's Best New Narrative Director Award later that year. This was a fantastic success for us—we love when the independent and daring stories that we champion earn their due in the wider film world—but little did we know that coming full circle on Manos wasn't the end of the story but the start. It led us further into the deeply thoughtful and creative mind of Elena Greenlee.

Greenlee became an active member of the Film Society's larger community in 2014 through our FilmHouse program. During her tenure as a resident, she's worked to develop a screenplay of her own, Dark Forest, which follows a hipster millennial—equally versed in neuroscience and party drugs—who steps out of her depth into the complex world of Amazonian shamanism. The story, astoundingly unique, has held our attention: We've awarded Dark Forest two major SFFS / KRF Filmmaking Grants—one in fall 2014, another in spring 2016.

As the film turns toward research and development, we checked in with Greenlee to trace the origins of this story and to get her take on our involvement.

What was the inspiration for Dark Forest?
The inspiration for this story sparked in 2011 when I accidentally found myself living and working at a spiritual commune in Costa Rica for three months. That's a long story, but I left certain that I needed to explore what I had experienced in a film. I was haunted by the insidious dynamics of the spiritual tourism I observed and participated in there: The way that we "seekers" depended on our economic privilege over the local people to create a mini-paradise where our basic needs were taken care of so that we could pursue some form of “enlightenment” that never included a real awareness of or empathic connection with the locals, even while we were borrowing knowledge and ideas from their cultures and plants from their land.

At the same time, I was inspired—to say the least—by some of the practices I was introduced to there of using psychoactive plants (or “drugs") in intentional and therapeutic waysDark Forest is set inside the world of ayahuasca tourism, which draws around 80,000 visitors to the Peruvian Amazon each year. The story came out of the past five years of deepening my research into both the uses of medicinal plants in many different contexts, and the strange culture clashes that occur around “shamanic tourism,” as well as a lot of help from my creative partner and producer Márcia Mayer, to dramatize and weave these two threads into one story.

If we lived in a world where it was easy to finance deep, thought-provoking art, it would probably also be easier to finance education, gun control, prison reform and environmental conservation. Right?

What do you see as the greatest challenges for filmmakers today?
I certainly don’t think I have the experience to answer that as a young filmmaker; but I believe that we're all facing same great challenges—filmmakers or not. People today are hyper-aware of a million things at once, so while on some level we all know that we are facing devastating climate change, systemic racism and resource inequality, on another level none of us wants to know—we want distraction.

Films are resource-heavy, and I could complain that it's hard to gather the resources necessary to make meaningful movies in a society that is obsessed with immediacy and distraction. But if we lived in a world where it was easy to finance deep, thought-provoking art, it would probably also be easier to finance education, gun control, prison reform and environmental conservation. Right?

I sometimes find it challenging to immerse myself in the realities of film business while retaining clarity on my role as an artist. I believe that the “entertainment industry” comes calling, it wants our talents, because we know how to tell stories, and stories are entertaining, and it’s up to us to stand firm and choose what stories we believe are important to tell, no matter how challenging.

Each “no” has also been an opportunity to slow down, mature personally, take in new feedback, and grow together with my script.

What new opportunities are making the biggest difference to your filmmaking process?
Especially in really early phases of development, before there was a team on board, I used grant application deadlines as a source of external motivation to keep my project moving and growing. Obviously I’ve gotten many more rejections than acceptances; but along the way I've also gotten a lot of encouragement, and gained new mentors or advisors even when I didn’t win anything. Each “no” has also been an opportunity to slow down, mature personally, take in new feedback, and grow together with my script. Looking back on the past years it’s clear that each obstacle has presented tremendous opportunities.

Describe what impact San Francisco Film Society support has had on your film.
I can't imagine what film there would be to speak of without the support from the Film Society and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. The grants and residency have provided both the time and space to think, write, re-write and re-write, to research in the Amazon, hire indigenous culture consultant Eda Zavala Lopez, bring on additional producer Gabriel Blanco, retain our lawyer Roz Lichter, and attach our dream casting director Avy Kaufman. It really is hard to express how much it means to have support—not just money, but encouragement, real creative feedback and community—during such a delicate stage of a project. That's what Michele, Tamara, Amanda and everyone at Filmmaker360 provides, and it's precious.

It really is hard to express how much it means to have support—not just money, but encouragement, real creative feedback and community—during such a delicate stage of a project.

What impact has your time at FilmHouse had on you as a filmmaker?
At the beginning of 2014 I relocated from NYC to the Bay Area to start my FilmHouse residency and shift my attention from producing my first (SFFS/KRF supported) feature to writing the screenplay for Dark Forest. I was inspired to make that huge move all the way across the country and away from my hometown by the sense that a very special opportunity was opening up for me to embed myself in a community that I’d be both supported by and accountable to for moving forward with my creative ambitions. Being a part of that community, and watching it grow over the past couple years, has had a huge impact on my life to the extent that I find myself still living in the Bay Area today largely thanks to my rich community of fellow filmmakers and the fascinating projects that I get to collaborate on and witness. FilmHouse has helped me recognize how essential community is to me as an artist.

How has FilmHouse helped Dark Forest move forward?
During my residency I’ve been inspired and challenged in so many ways, and had the kind of support from my peers and mentors at the Film Society to invest all of my personal development into better and better evolutions of my script. Finally my team and I got to a point where we felt really confident and excited to move out in the world and attach cast and financing for the project.

I’ve also made very close friends at FilmHouse, so those relationships always come to mind first and foremost, because they’ve housed me and fed me and seen me through the ups and downs of the past couple years. I’ve read a ton of amazing works in progress that other writers, directors and producers are developing there. Perhaps what’s caught me most by surprise are the relationships and collaborations I’ve forged with people who have very different skill sets from myself—graphic designers, talent managers, VFX editors. It’s been amazing to watch the community grow and to get constant infusions of new energy from visiting artists.


The SF Film Society's FilmHouse residency program is currently accepting applications. FilmHouse residencies support narrative and documentary feature films by making office space available to independent filmmakers actively engaged in various stages of production. FilmHouse provides critical support to local and visiting filmmakers by fostering a thriving creative community that encourages collaboration, resource sharing, peer-to-peer feedback and networking opportunities.