Since he took his first photographs of a treehouse community in Haena in 1971, an Emmy award-winning filmmaker has worked tirelessly to perfect his four-decade project, and recently finished final edits for a high-definition version of the film.
John Wehrheim, producer of “Taylor Camp,” began the project in standard definition, but there wasn’t a market for major national or international distribution.
“We knew we had something that was obsolete but a story that everyone seemed to love,” Wehrheim said. “But at that time, the technology for converting standard def to high-def was extremely expensive. We couldn’t come up with the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to convert it.”
But about 2 1/2 years ago, the cost of high-definition conversion for the film came down to less than $10,000.
“Up until a few years ago, the classic story, the heroic narrative — in all of civilizations — ‘Taylor Camp’ isn’t that classic and heroic story,” Wehrheim said. “It’s a story of a group with incredible characters but no leading character. That, in literature and film-making, has become a leading trend in the last several years.”
“Taylor Camp” depicts the story of a North Shore village started by Howard Taylor, the brother of Elizabeth Taylor. Howard invited 13 Mainlanders to live on his property after the state condemned his plans to build a park. Taylor Camp soon bloomed into a flourishing community of close to 100 people — some nude, some clothed — living in treehouses and outside the confines of society.
“It felt like a safe haven, it felt like home,” camp resident Hawk Hamilton said in Wehrheim’s book of the same name. “It was sweet and we lived there a long time. We’d fled the straight world.”
After an 8-year run, Taylor Camp was closed in 1977 by officials.
“I closed it up, not because of marijuana — that was already on-going before they got there — but it was dirty, it was filthy,” former Kauai mayor Eduardo Malapit said in the book. “People stopped going at the end of the road to swim. It hurt the tourist industry.”
New material added
The interval between the conversion process was a blessing for producers, as the film gained national and international attention.
“We had so much material coming. People came, saying, ‘I was at Taylor Camp and I’ve got a story and I’ve got surf footage and I got photographs,’” Wehrheim said. “All of these really critical elements. … There was a lot of conflict, a lot of drama about relationships. There was drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll. I think it added a tremendous depth to the story.”
Wehrheim, who lives in Lihue with wife JoAnn Yukimura, was first sent to Hawaii by the Sierra Club in 1969. He wrote a series of articles entitled “Paradise Lost,” and never returned to the Mainland.
He began photographing Taylor Camp in 1971. In 1975, after years living with refugees and villagers in Asia, he began to document the treehouse community. He saw it as both a traditional village and refugee settlement — a “hippie” refugee camp next to a crystalline stream in a tropical forest along a beach in paradise.
“Taylor Camp” depicts a Kauai almost unrecognizable, yet distinctly Kauai.
“I think people will look at this whole stuff and think of Kauai now and see that there is an essence here that is almost timeless and changeless,” Wehrheim said. “I think this film will show people the hidden, secret places of Kauai, just how beautiful this place really is.”
Aside from added interviews, footage and photos, the recent edit also features music that depicts the era and culture of the time.
“We’ve mixed it with the ‘60s and ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll with the really classic Hawaiian slack key to give it a feeling of both cultures,” he said. “That just took a lot of time. We had to record some of this music — people we knew on Kauai who were extremely talented. We wanted them in the film.”
Production costs have risen to about $600,000.
Wehrheim said the film is still hundreds of thousands of dollars short of breaking even, though book, ticket and DVD sales range in the six-figure mark.
“The challenge has been a financial and energy endurance, but we’ve had a lot of encouragement and motivation,” he said.
Wehrheim plans to distribute the newly edited film and is also working on the third edition of the book.
“We’re only adding eight pages, so it’s not that long,” he said. “But you still need to go through art direction and review by the publisher and proofreading and going into pre-press. All that stuff takes a lot of time. I can’t imagine that it will be out before summer.”
The next project Wehrheim would like to do is a sequel to “Taylor Camp,” focusing on the Kauai Community Correctional Facility.
“I want to start the film out in the context of Kauai 1969. One old man is in the jail. These 13 hippies get arrested for vagrancy and they don’t have bedding,” he said. “The jail is not ready for 13 people. Thirty-five, 40 years later, we started this film. We got this new jail that is overflowing with people.”
It wasn’t that long ago when there was no one in jail on Kauai, he said.
“I just want to go to the people on Kauai and ask them what happened, and what can we do to try to undo the problem,” Wehrheim said. “I think it would be a great film and a great benefit to the community.”