On the surface, Doug Pray's doc Levitated Mass could simply be described as a film chronicling the logistical challenges behind transporting a 340-ton rock in tact 105 miles from Riverside, California, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) so it could be placed as the centerpiece of conceptual/earth artist Michael Heizer's newest work—also called “Levitated Mass.” That, however, would be misleading, though the soul of what took place as the 21-foot-high, 150-million-year-old granite boulder moved its way through the Inland Empire to the heart of L.A.'s Miracle Mile depends on who you ask. And as the film shows, opinions are free-wheeling.

The boulder's 11-day journey took on elements of a reality show as local and national media focused attention as it slowly headed to its destination, turning the rock itself into something of a celebrity.

Some marveled that it brought out the community at all hours just to see it go by. Others were appalled by the $10 million cost to get it to LACMA, where it sits today, especially considering the meandering route it took to avoid freeway overpasses and the like brought it through some of L.A.'s most economically deprived areas. There were many others who offered their interpretation of its meaning, from the philosophical to the artistic and even to the spiritual. And that's perhaps the point. Levitated Mass is a focal point from which thousands experienced a once-in-a-lifetime event to celebrate, interpret, or scorn. 

FilmLinc spoke with Pray about Levitated Mass. The film, executive-produced by the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Board Chairman Ann Tenenbaum and President Daniel H. Stern, will have a one-week exclusive run at FSLC starting Friday, November 14.

FilmLinc: Were you aware that this feat of transport was going to take place in the name of art well ahead of its undertaking?

Doug Pray: I’d never done any work with LACMA and I was not really aware of Michael Heizer’s work either although I had seen number of pieces over the years. You could walk by [another] “Levitated Mass” by Heizer in New York City. I got a call from Jamie Patricof [one of the film's producers], who told me one day that LACMA wanted to move this gigantic boulder and it would take 10 nights. [En route] they would have to take down all the street lights, and I thought it was astounding for a contemporary art project to have this effect. I loved the idea partly because I’ve lived in LA for a some years and really wanted to make a portrait of L.A. and also because I’ve always had an affection for rocks and geology. So I got involved and pitched the idea to LACMA.

Then when it was greenlit I got more into Michael Heizer. [Despite being a noted artist] he's not very well known and has lived as a recluse in the Nevada desert where he's building his masterwork, “City.” Loving his work made me even more excited about the project. When we began production and filming the boulder, we then started to get interested in the inordinate challenges of moving the rock. It’s a huge undertaking. They couldn't get necessary permits and [some] bridges are too weak. Then another strand in the story is the public reaction to moving the rock.

FL: One of the towns the rock went through is Whittier, where I grew up. I immediately started laughing when I saw it in your film because I could only think back to when I was in high school there, and had something like that taken place back then, I would have thought it was the biggest thing to happen to that town since the last big earthquake. Generally speaking though, I was fascinated by how Levitated Mass and the transport of this work of art/rock highlighted areas of the L.A. megapolis that are very often sidelined from the world image of the city and Hollywood in particular. It really spotlighted L.A.'s cultural and economic diversity.

DP: Every night we were in a different part of the L.A. basin, which [has dozens of cities]. In some areas the terrain felt like ranch land, but then closer to the city you could be in a typical suburb that looks like China. L.A.’s always defied traditional definitions of being a city. The rock’s travel was as through-line between all these different communities.
And of course the rock brought out different kinds of people and solicited varying reactions too. Some politically inclined observers would say, “That’s a waste of money, it should be going to jobs.” Then if someone was religious they’d be swept away. Some saw it as a sign from God. Ironically the rock did actually park [unexpectedly due to logistical problems] in front of a church called The Rock of Salvation in Boyle Heights.

Then there were people into art who looked at the journey in a number of ways. Some were excited, gave their interpretations of its “meaning,” and some took Heizer’s view that it’s nothing but moving a rock. There were many people who reflected their lives onto the process. It let everyone have his or her own say. It was a unifying event in a dis-unified place. It's sort of like the Olympic torch coming through, it was a big historical occasion.

FL: I'd imagine that going into the project was also a bit of a leap of faith. A lot of the rock's movement took place at night, so who knew if anyone would come out to see it happne?

DP: We didn’t really know, but we figured it would just look cool. I wanted to see this thing going through L.A. at a different angle. Every day, news crews would say where the rock was. More and more people kept talking about it. We joke about it in the film, but it literally took on celebrity status. It was really fun. In Long Beach there was a day-long party around the rock.

In this way, it lacks a lot of the traditions of an art movie. It’s not a conventional biography of Michael Heizer and his struggle or about the museum, or just the rock though it is the central character. You can draw whatever your conclusions are. It wasn’t always easy. It’s really frustrating waiting for it to move. But I loved being behind the scenes in a major art exhibition.

FL: When watching the film, I vaguely recalled this quote from French artist Marcel Duchamp about spectators and art. I looked it up after seeing Levitated Mass. He said in 1957: “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” Marcel Duchamp would have loved this!

DP: It’s perfect. That’s exactly what it is. The quotation also fits into Michael Heizer’s persona, his disinterest in actually pontificating about the meaning of his art. It’s refreshing that in a time when artists are always talking about their art, Tweeting, Facebooking, he is the polar opposite. He lets the work speak for itself and in that way is a very pure focused artist. Instead of being frustrated, I thought it was amazing to deal with this great American artist for a few months and make this great work.

FL: Did you speak to him much before embarking on this project?

DP: Not a lot. We got his approval to shoot the rock and the process, but he was uninterested in it being a biopic about his life. In some ways I think the film is better for it being about art.

FL: But you did get some important figures in the art world to talk about him, including museum officials like Glenn Lowry at MoMA and LACMA's Michael Govan. Were they eager to talk?

DP: They were more than eager. Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA, had no problem whatsoever putting him on a high pedestal. Michael Heizer was very well known in the late ’60s. He was a contemporary of Warhol and was breaking the boundaries, blowing peoples’ minds. Then he said, “I’m leaving to go to the desert where I have the right material.” The upside of that is that what he did was very revolutionary, but the downside is [that he and his work] are isolated in the desert. However, anyone who looks at the influence he’s had on large sculpture and land art knows he’s very, very important.

FL: They were very eager to talk about his contribution to art even though by definition much of his “groundbreaking” work requires one to view it outside a formal exhibition space. That's great…

DP: Before Levitated Mass, lots of people didn’t know his name.

FL: I want to talk for a moment about your previous docs. Big Rig (2007) features long-haul trucks drivers. Did that film inform your approach when you went into this project?

DP: When I start a project I want to completely change the channel. I thought this film was totally different. It’s an art movie, but then it takes on the characteristics of every other film I’ve ever made.

With Big Rig my experience of being comfortable around trucks and the trucker community reminded me of this. With the transportation aspect, I suddenly felt like, “Wow, this actually is a trucking movie.” Then I was doing all these interviews that brought to mind my first film, Hype (1996), which is all about hyping the music industry and how things get labeled and take off. In [Levitated Mass], the rock gets celebrity. It is a really big deal even to people who don’t know where it’s going…

Then of course, there's Michael Heiser, who's an artist and generally there's a lot of misunderstanding about him. I’ve done films about graffiti artists, advertising people, and DJs who’ve had that same feeling.