Few public artworks actually fire up the public's imagination. Nobody clamours for a statue of Chester Alan Arthur in Golden Gate Park, for instance. But the Bay Lights isn't any old art project. It turned our rusty-headed stepchild of a bridge into an international celebrity.
Director Jeremy Ambers captured the rivets-to-riches transformation by following around Ben Davis—the mastermind behind the project—for three years. The resulting film, Impossible Light—Ambers' first feature—screens Wednesday night at New People Cinema as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Here, Davis and Ambers talk finding the cash, stringing the lights, and trying not to fall.
Ben Davis: When I first got the idea for the Bay Lights I almost walked away. I was afraid of being called nuts. It was impossible to fund, impossible to design, and impossible to get the permits. I mortgaged my house to get funding. I was putting my reputation and my political capital at stake even pitching it. And Caltrans had no idea what I was even really pitching because we had no designs at first. But I was working pro bono and they had a little faith in me, so eventually they just said, "Sure, whatever." There was never any formal buy-in, it was just "Sure Ben, whatever."
Jeremy Ambers: I always wanted to climb the bridge cables and this movie was my big chance. It wasn't until I was halfway up that I realized, very suddenly, that I'm not good with heights. I thought I could handle it but when you've got a 40 mph wind whipping your camera and you see the bridge swaying underneath you it's another story. The project manager warned me, "If you're going to fall, aim for the water." It's better PR if you don't cause a wreck, I guess.
Davis: When it came time to actually put the lights on, we got a lot of surprises. For example, those cables shrink and expand up to 12 inches depending on the time of the year. Who knew? So we had to design wiring that could stand up to that. Then there were problems with the plans. We'd say something like "We'll route power through this tower," and the maintenance guy would say there's no power in that tower. We'd say, "What are you talking about, it's right there on the blueprint," but he said no. Turned out our blueprints were from 1936.
Ambers: I was trying forever to get a shot of the lane closings. It's a guy in a slow-moving truck placing cones very prescisely. I pulled up in the mouth of the Treasure Island tunnel to wait for the truck so I could follow it and get my shot—I was a one-man film crew for most of this—and then a cop comes up behind me. He marched me back over to the San Francisco end of the bridge with lights and sirens going the entire time. I tried to explain that I was making a movie and all he said was, "Don't do that," and gave me the ticket. So I had to go to traffic school and I didn't get the shot.
Impossible Light screens May 7 at the New People's Cinema on Post St, then May 9 at the Roxie, then through May 15 at Oakland's Grand Lake Theater.