Pictured: Garnet Frost. Photo Credit: Ed Perkins.

Pictured: Garnet Frost. Photo Credit: Ed Perkins.

Garnet Frost lights a cigarette and asks with a tinge of melancholia, “What happened to life?”

It’s this existential question that rattles the mind of the principal subject in Ed Perkins’ first feature-length documentary, Garnet’s Gold. In his late 50s, the sweet-hearted, eccentric Frost is still haunted by a near-death experience that happened 20 years earlier in the Scottish Highlands, where he awoke on the side of a craggy riverbed and discovered a weathered staff wedged between two rocks. Stunned to be alive, the Londoner returned home — some might say a changed man, others might say frozen in time — and reconciled to live with and take care of his aging and ailing mother.

For two decades, Frost has intermittently toyed with the idea of going back to the Highlands in search of that fateful riverbed where the staff had mysteriously appeared. He believes it marked the site of 40,000 missing gold coins from a 1746 battle, but the wooden object holds more than the secret to missing treasure; it has also been Frost’s divining rod, drawing him into the recesses of his mind and heart in an attempt to understand what happened to him all those years ago and, as he chastises himself, “Why didn’t [he] do more?” While a Sartre-esque scrim hangs delicately over the narrative — evoking self-reflection long after the credits roll — Perkins’ film is by no means a biopic of an aging man in crisis. And that’s what makes Garnet’s Gold the nugget of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

But it wasn’t an easy nugget to find. The film took four years to make, and for the majority of the shoot neither Perkins nor Frost knew what the film was about. As Perkins explained recently in an interview with GALO, “I always suspected there might be something more interesting, more human, than a literal pot of gold at the end of it.” Lucky for his audience, Perkins’ suspicions came true. The youthful London director has an eye for the uncanny, the incidental, the poignant, and the archetypal. Stripped away to 76 gripping and, at times hilarious, minutes of narrative, Garnet’s Gold is a subtly crafted palimpsest upon which ancient Greek drama and 19th century fairy tales romp and stumble. Frost, as our naïve (adult) protagonist, sets out on a quest filled with obstacles posed by (magical) opponents. Like all heroes’ journeys, if he is to be successful, it will not only be at the hands of (magical) helpers but also of his own strength and resolve.

With stunning cinematography (Perkins chose to shoot the entire film himself with a handheld camera in an attempt to get as close to his subject as possible), we enter the World of Frost: a cramped London flat, cluttered with Frost’s various inventions — flying machines, Houdini contraptions; his gentle and insightful mum with ruby cheeks and age-spotted hands; an oddball team of friends, including a long-lost love, who humor Frost’s quirks and quixotic endeavors; an oak-lined London pub where old ballads are sung to the swinging of a half-full pint; and the lavender mist and emerald fields of Scotland.

Perkins’ craft lies in his ability to open the door to his subject’s life seamlessly. At times it seems as though Frost is carrying on a conversation with us, the audience, and yet, he is not. At other times, the somber landscape wrenches us from that familiarity, making us feel smaller than the pixels creating the image. “I’m ready to believe,” Frost says as he reenters the mystical Highlands after 20 long years. The dramatic tension between the familiar and the alien, which has carried the film throughout, reaches its peak at this moment — will there be a pot of gold? A catharsis? Another disappointment?

Running parallel to Frost’s story is Perkins’ own journey as he searches to film, direct, produce, and fund his first full-length documentary. It is a story untold on the screen. But the viewer can’t help but wonder how the green director managed to create such a tender yet unsentimental portrait of a man and his journey. As Frost notes in the interview below, “Ed became absorbed in the adventure himself, and he became part of the team. The business of going up to Scotland is like a journey to another planet, so we became this team of explorers — all in it together. We were all out of our comfort zone, so the camera by that point was neither here nor there. It was just another ingredient in this rather extraordinary adventure that we were all into.” The boundaries between filmmaker and subject blur like the rivulets in Frost’s Highland river — a taboo in most instances, but one that adds prescient depth to this story.

I had the pleasure of meeting with Perkins and Frost at the Tribeca Film Festival. Walking through the courtyard, I thought I recognized Frost sitting on a stoop smoking a cigarette, but the sunlight cast a golden haze across his face, making his features indiscernible. Besides, I told myself, I had been scheduled to interview Perkins — not Frost. When I arrived at the interview space, a tall and awkward man with a distinct mustache rose to greet me. Dressed in all black with a white shirt, his salt-and-pepper hair tousled, Frost greeted me with a toothy grin and lovely London accent. Perkins, decades younger than his subject, stood to the side, shy as if standing in front of a camera lens. After a few minutes, however, the three of us fell into a convivial conversation. If I hadn’t been convinced before, I certainly was after our meeting: I wanted to move to London and become part of Frost’s oddball team of friends.

GALO: Ed, your film is a highly intimate portrayal of a man on a journey. How did you find Garnet?

Ed Perkins: It’s taken a better part of four years to bring this story to the screen. I was a development producer for a company in the U.K. at the time and was searching for stories for T.V. and, on a personal level, I was also searching for stories that could be feature-length documentaries, which I think is a high bar — not many stories have the depth or potential to fill over an hour. I was sitting around, and one of my colleagues said, “I just met this extraordinary, eccentric man in a pub, and he’s talking about this adventure where he wants to go up to Scotland, and he thinks he knows where a billion dollars of hidden gold is. Do you want to go and meet him?”

GALO: How could you say “no?”

EP: That’s like lost treasure — hidden treasure — for a filmmaker. So, immediately I said, “Yes, absolutely.” And I went straight around to his house with a film crew — we had lights and sound — and knocked on his door. That was four years ago. From that moment forward, I ditched the film crew and said “never again.” It was just me and a camera — a one-man band filmmaking — and Garnet. We’d meet every week, every two weeks, once a month, depending on what we were up to. And we got to know each other.

GALO: It sounds like you clicked quickly.

EP: I was immediately absorbed in this rather extraordinary world he lives in, surrounded by these very eccentric, brilliant people — and his wonderful mother. I became slightly obsessed by his dreams for flying machines and lost gold and adventure.

GALO: And his Houdini boxes.

EP: His Houdini boxes! Absolutely! I wasn’t sure for a long time what the film was about. Or what the story was about, but I always suspected there might be something more interesting, more human, than a literal pot of gold at the end of it.

GALO: At what point did you realize that the film was far greater than a search for gold?

Garnet Frost: I don’t think either of us knew what the film would be about until we finished it. I know I certainly didn’t until I saw the film. And when I did see the film, it wasn’t anything like I’d anticipated, but we’d set out. My idea was we’d make a documentary of the history of the rebellion of 1745 and the aftermath of Culloden — all this romantic, real history which is interesting in its own right — but what we ended up with really is a much more personal portrait of me, which I found a little bit disconcerting to watch.