Seven years ago, North County filmmaker Jonathan Berman moved to Joshua Tree for five months to start a documentary about '50s-era space alien-channeler George Van Tassel.
Dozens of interviews, thousands of hours of research and editing and hundreds of test screenings later, Berman has recently completed his documentary, "Calling All Earthlings."
Although Van Tassel's name may not be familiar to most Americans, it's legendary among sci-fi/space age aficionados and beloved by residents of California's Mojave Desert, where Van Tassel once lived, hosted UFO conventions and built his mysterious Integratron.
The never-finished domed structure, which Van Tassel constructed from plans he claimed were delivered by a spaceman from Venus, was designed to rejuvenate human cells and dramatically extend life.
Berman's 76-minute film not only examines the life of Van Tassel and his Integratron, it also explores the culture of Mojave's often-quirky desert dwellers, who've been mystically drawn to the remote region for centuries.
"George Van Tassel was the grandfather of the Age of Aquarius. You could say he was the first hippie," said Berman, in an interview Wednesday in his office at Cal State San Marcos. He's taught film arts there since 2004, including classes this fall in documentary filmmaking and media distribution.
"Calling All Earthlings" is Berman's fourth film and the second to chronicle California's counter-culture history. His 2006 documentary "Commune," about the collectivist Black Bear Ranch in Siskiyou County, was recently optioned for a TV series. His next project will be a TV series on California life in the mid-20th century.
Berman, 56, grew up on Long Island watching Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks and John Cassavetes films and got his start in New York doing production jobs and editing on documentaries and a horror film. He found he preferred making documentaries because they offer the filmmaker more freedom to blur the line between fact and fiction.
"Fiction is all over Southern California in Hollywood gossip, which has been going strong for 100-plus years, in UFO stories like George Van Tassel and now even in politics. Once again we lead the nation," he said.
Berman, who splits his time between homes in San Marcos and L.A.'s Echo Park neighborhood, said he came across Van Tassel's story in 2010. While watching a slide show about alternative spirituality at a salon-style gathering in L.A., he saw a picture of the Integratron flash on the screen.
"Here was this Gothic dome that looked like a planetarium with a sign in front that said 'for basic experimentation in life extension' and that's what sent me down this rabbit hole," Berman said.
He took a sabbatical from teaching, recruited young cinematographers Tony Molina and Greg Wilson and they moved into a friend's rundown vacation home in Joshua Tree.
Working without a script, Berman interviewed nearly three dozen area residents on their memories of Van Tassel, the sonic powers of the Integratron and their own sightings of UFOs in the desert.
He also interviewed an astronomer, a historian, '60s pop star Eric Burdon, Van Tassel's son-in-law, a member of the Morongo Indian tribe and a channeler who summoned Van Tassel's spirit to answer a few of Berman's questions on film.
"It took shape as I went along," he said, of the serendipitous style of the movie. "One interview led to another. My films have an element of the Buddhistic where things are happening in real time and we're just passing through."
Van Tassel was born in Ohio in 1910 and moved at age 20 to the L.A. area, where he worked for nearly 20 years as an airplane mechanic and inspector for Lockheed, Douglas Aircraft and Hughes Aircraft.
In 1947, he left L.A. and moved his wife and children to Giant Rock, the world's largest free-standing boulder, about 25 miles northwest of Joshua Tree. There he built an airstrip, opened a cafe and, he later wrote, began receiving telepathic messages from Outer Space.
In April 1953, he hosted the first of his annual Interplanetary Spacecraft Conventions, which would eventually grow in size from a few hundred to nearly 10,000 people.
Then one night in August 1953, he claimed to have been awakened by a visiting Venusian named Solgonda, who took him for a spaceship ride and delivered blueprints via telepathy for the Integratron.
Berman's film doesn't answer why Van Tassel was spiritually drawn to Giant Rock or whether his alien encounters were real.
"I think there are a multiplicity of answers, like in 'Rashomon,'" Berman said of the samurai film which features contradicting storylines. "Did he meet people from another world? I don't know. I hope this film asks more questions than it answers."
In 1957, Van Tassel broke ground on the Integratron in Landers, a tiny town four miles south of Giant Rock. The all-wood structure with a copper coil at its center was designed to harness electromagnetic energy to create a bathlike field of negative ions, so that when a person walked through the building they would emerge from the other side 20 to 30 years younger.
Using money from his UFO conventions and a space-themed newsletter, Van Tassel worked for more than 20 years on the Integratron until his heart attack death in 1978, just weeks before it was scheduled for its first test run. Today, the building is owned by three sisters who use the acoustically perfect structure as a music, energy and sonic healing center.
Berman said that through the Integratron, Van Tassel hoped to help people live longer and create a source of free energy, two things that have since come to pass thanks to improved medical care and renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
"The dome was like this Swiss army knife of all the things we wanted as humans," Berman said.
Although Berman is listed in the credits as director and producer of "Calling All Earthlings," he calls the film a collaborative effort that involved many of his students and colleagues at Cal State San Marcos.
Students helped with editing and poster design; anthropology professor Bonnie Bade helped with research; theater professor Judy Bauerlein did voice work; and film professor Kristine Diekman helped Berman shape the film "from unintelligible to a snoozefest to a lot better to finally holding together."
The film premiered June 2 at the Illuminate Festival of Consciousness in Sedona, Ariz., and has since played at the Maui film fest and several screenings in L.A. It's now available for streaming On Demand and Berman is planning to tackle the European market next. For information on the film, visit callingallearthlingsmovie.com.
Berman said he hopes viewers get a sense that his film isn't just about Van Tassel and his invention. He also hopes it inspires discussion on Californians' endless quest to find spiritual healing and renewal in the desert.
"Was George a Tom Sawyer telling tales or a rainmaker?" Berman said. "He was representative of that generation of men who came back from World War II seeking answers and an alternative form of spirituality."
This article is written by Pam Kragen from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.