This is a story about many things – about buried treasure, the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains, and an enigmatic fighter pilot turned art dealer. But above all this is a story about stories, about why we tell them and how they take hold.
British filmmaker Tomas Leach admits the story of Forrest Fenn has taken hold of him, that it captured his imagination as soon as he read about it in The Telegraph newspaper. “It just sounded insane and completely fascinating,” he laughs. Forrest makes for a compelling central character. Born in Texas, his dad instilled in him a love of historical artefacts. During the Vietnam War he flew fighter jets and after leaving the Air Force he settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where as an arts and antiquarian dealer with clients including Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, plus Cher, John Wayne and Steven Spielberg.
How he amassed such a fortune has been of interest both to various interviewers and the FBI. While most people who meet him find him charming, they’re way of his mysterious past and his ability to tell a good tale. In any case in 2010, having beaten cancer, Forrest wrote his autobiography The Thrill Of The Chase, in which he remembered seeing the unmarked graves of French soldiers in the south-east Asian jungle. He wrote: “Sooner or later each of us will be nothing but the leftovers of history or an asterisk in a book that was never written.
“Is it fair that no one recalls where those brave French soldiers fell and are now interred in that remote jungle clearing, hidden from life for a million sunsets? They all really said the same thing: ‘Look at me, I’m somebody; please don’t forget.’ So of course we forgot.”
In the book he revealed that to ensure his own legacy he had hidden a 12th Century chest somewhere in the Rockies, stuffed with around £3 million worth of treasure – coins and rubies and sapphires and Chinese carvings and golden figurines. The clue to its whereabouts takes the form of a six stanza poem, full of maddening hints like: “Begin it where warm waters halt/ And take it in the canyon down/ Not far, but too far to walk/ Put in below the home of Brown.”
Immediately Tomas knew this was a story he wanted to tell. He has been to New Mexico three times now, once to meet Forrest and twice for filming. He thinks that he will need three more trips to get all the footage he needs. “At the very core of any film you make you’ve got to fall in love with the idea of the story,” he says. “It takes ages to make a film and unless you have that initial burning desire to tell everybody the story then you’re never going to get carried through the shit times that are inevitably going to hit you.
“So that early passion becomes the instinct you fall back to when you’re exhausted or fed up of trying to convince people it’s a good idea to make a film.”
He believes that one level there’s something universally appealing about the idea of finding something that’s been hidden, harking back to the child-like glee of an Easter Egg hunt in the garden.
“The second level is how beautifully futile mankind can be. It’s something I always find exiting and interesting and funny. It’s endearing – this ability for people to plunge themselves head-first into something that might be completely useless or completely impossible at first glance.
“In some senses you’re throwing yourself into complete darkness and that’s exciting and exhilarating but also it might not end up very well.”
Tomas’ previous feature film was In No Great Hurry, a beautifully mediative portrait of the New York photographer Saul Leiter. He admits that after the intensely one-to-one nature of that piece he was drawn to something with multiple characters and multiple strands. The Forrest Fenn riddle certainly delivers on those fronts.
Firstly there’s Forrest himself whom Tomas clearly found fascinating. “He’s been through several lifetimes worth of amazing stories and he’s a natural storyteller,” he says. Then there’s the huge community of people who are borderline obsessed with finding the treasure. Spend a few minutes on a forum like chasechat.com and you realise how much this puzzle means to thousands of people around the world.
“I find it incredibly touching that people will stop part of their lives to go out searching for this kind of dream. And a lot of them have had amazing experiences along the way; it’s an incredibly beautiful part of the world and it’s taken lots of them to places they would’ve never taken themselves to otherwise.”
The landscape is its own character in this story; the guardian of the treasure chest but also a metaphor for the uncertainty of the quest. It helps of course, Tomas admits, that it’s sweepingly cinematic and supremely evocative – of the Wild West, the Gold Rush and films like Easy Rider and No Country For Old Men.
Like the visitors to Chase Chat, squabbling, debating, sharing tips and perhaps the odd bit of misinformation, Tomas accepts the idea of this hidden treasure has got under his skin. He recalls on his second flight to the States suddenly thinking that he might have
an idea where the chest is hidden. “I instantly closed the book, put it away and put music on. If I start thinking about where the treasure is then I won’t be able to think of anything else. I’d be lost in the Rockies before we know it.”
But he sees the parallel between his quest for the story and the treasure-hunters’ addiction to finding Forrest’s loot. “I think there’s a good deal of similarity between treasure hunting and documentary making at some stage. You’re throwing yourself slightly blindly into a project and you’ve got your clues as to what you think might be the journey along the way but you never quite know. And the things you do find out along the way are always the bits that are even more special than you could’ve imagined beforehand.
“I think that’s the appeal of a documentary – you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. But that’s also terrifying because there has to be a story for people to watch and to follow and to come out of feeling like you’ve taken them on a journey; you haven’t just splurged information at them and left them none the wiser.
“There needs to be an ending, there needs to be some resolution, and that might not be that people find the treasure. It could well be that they never do, but it’s still got to work as a film.”