Four years ago, four Santa Cruz filmmakers set out to bring a historic expedition out of obscurity. The result was a feature-length historical-nature-adventure documentary called “The Devil’s Road.”
The film will make its world debut at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on April 27.
“The Devil’s Road” is a culmination of more than four years’ worth of research, exploration, filming and post-production work to revive the pivotal work of two of America’s most prolific naturalists: Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman.
While these are not household names, their research laid the foundation of scientific studies in Baja and were viewed as a link between Darwin and present-day scientists.
Nelson and Goldman’s landmark expedition in 1905-1906 was unprecedented and completed in a time when the Baja Peninsula was considered one of the most remote and challenging areas in all of North America. They documented, cataloged, and obtained specimens of never-before-studied flora and fauna, all while trekking more than 2,000 miles on horseback. The pair made a number of significant scientific contributions to Baja’s natural history, and their expedition was the most thorough and complete studies of Baja’s ecosystems.
It wasn’t just the early achievements of these two famed naturalists — though undeniably obscure outside of academic circles — that motivated the film crew.
“It was only recently that, coincidentally enough, we learned our ‘Uncle Ed’ was the famed naturalist Edward Alphonso Goldman that worked with Edward William Nelson to explore the Baja Peninsula,” said Todd Bruce, the producer of “The Devil’s Road,” and the great-grandnephew of Edward Goldman. “I have been traveling around Baja with my family since 1990. We had no idea we had much deeper roots there. Baja has captivated us over the years. Nelson and Goldman’s accomplishments, coupled with our familial connection to this unique place, were driving forces behind creating the film.”
In early April 2016, the team made a trip to the nation’s capital to pour through documents and glass plate negative photographs in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. With latex gloves, they sifted through letters between President Theodore Roosevelt and Nelson, read field notes written over a hundred years ago by Goldman, and inspected century-old photo albums and specimens collected by the pair during their expedition. The film crew was also invited by the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to film archived specimens of mammals and birds collected by Nelson and Goldman during their time in Baja.
On March 1, 2017, the film's director, JT Bruce, and producer set out on an expedition of their own, spending two months and covering more than 5,000 miles of Baja desert and coastline to retrace Nelson and Goldman’s original expedition route on motorcycles.
The film documents their quest — by motorcycle, airplane, boat and horseback — across the Baja Peninsula where, along the way, they observe the culture and people, and endure the challenges of the road. The film includes interviews with biologists and conservationists that provide a reminder of how grueling the original expedition was and why Nelson and Goldman’s work was so fundamental, as well as offer insight into the precarious future of the fragile ecosystems of Baja — and beyond.
“Much like our predecessor that inspired the film, knowing Baja on a more intimate level makes it incumbent upon us to be stewards of such a unique corner of the world. By sharing it with viewers we hope to help make a case for its conservation,” said Bri Bruce, the film’s associate producer and UC Santa Cruz alumni. “Baja is truly a magical place. There’s really no other way to describe it. I think I speak for anyone that has been fortunate enough to really witness it — stand in its deserts, swim in its oceans, get to know both the animals and the people there — they’ll see it’s worth fighting for.”
“Baja is a biodiversity hotspot,” said “The Devil’s Road” Scientific Advisor Greg Meyer.
Meyer is an educator at California State University, Monterey Bay, and a professional naturalist who led his first trip to Baja in 1985. He has traveled extensively throughout the peninsula, working for the Oceanic Society, Lindblad Expeditions, National Geographic Expeditions and the BBC.
“The Baja Peninsula is still one of the great wildernesses on earth and this film project has allowed us to see the changes over time and to highlight why it needs protection today,” he said.
“Our film is not just a historical documentary or motorcycle road movie,” said JT Bruce, the film’s director. “It's not a reprimand on the audience for some perceived failure to protect the environment. It's a chance to gain a wider perspective and view the trajectory that our planet's ecosystems are on, and to help people make their own decisions about how we should approach the future.”
The filmmakers anticipate a year of showings throughout the U.S. and internationally as they begin their film festival tour, starting at the Overland Expo in May in Arizona.
Tickets for the premiere can be purchased at thedevilsroad.brownpapertickets.com.
Tune in to KSCO’s Off the Lip Radio Show (AM 1080, FM 104.1) on April 17 at 7 p.m. where the filmmakers will be featured as guests.
For information, visit www.devilsroadfilm.com.