The main subject matter of They Look Like Trees is Chuck’s onset of and adjustment to sudden blindness as a result of bilateral retinal detachment. Most people have had a friend, relative, or acquaintance with vision loss. But few people have witnessed the daily trials of someone struck blind who is without the network and means to deal with his plight. This film’s anatomy of blindness will allow the audience a rare view into the world of a man for whom mundane activities like going to the bathroom or preparing a meal are monumental tasks.
But never wallowing in self-pity, Chuck has an insatiable thirst for good company and conversation, along with an infectious laugh and sense of humor that will have audiences rooting for his path to stability. And the fact that Chuck happens to be a great soliloquist on topics as wide-ranging as literature, politics, queer history, religion and pop culture, adds immense entertainment value to the story.
They Look Like Trees is a work primarily of the cinéma-vérité genre. My camera captured life as it happened without my knowledge or expectation of what would be captured. The film resembles a fictional narrative, with three acts and a clear dramatic arc. As filmmaker, I was invisible behind the camera, never inserting my voice to ask questions or interact with the subjects while on camera. There are some events recounted by Chuck that took place before I started filming, such as how he went blind. I visually represented those episodes by shooting from his POV in the places where they happened. Chuck has several “monologues,” such as the story of his gay awakening in the 1970s, or his illumination of a Proustian metaphor, or his exegesis of the blind man passage in the New Testament. I shot these monologues in his usual familiar environments, sometimes with more dramatic lighting, and they strike one as if he is simply speaking to an intimate friend.
Chuck is a close personal friend of 30 years whom I first met when he served as dramaturg in the inaugural production of Nashville Shakespeare Festival, As You Like It, in which I starred as Orlando. Chuck was one of the festival’s founders, and now NSF is a Nashville institution, mounting several productions throughout the year, attracting thousands of audience members annually. Exposing intimate details of Chuck’s life on film for the world to see would never have occurred to Chuck, and he would have flatly rejected the idea coming from anyone else. But I saw an important story to tell when Chuck was in the midst of the most challenging crisis of his life, and I also saw a rare, compelling personality that deserved a wider audience. Because I was such a close friend, and because I was a one-man crew, I was able to capture intimate moments of his life and elicit biographical details that he never would have shared had anyone else been in the room.