Trees and Other Entanglements
A still from Trees and Other Entanglements courtesy of HBO

Within the first few minutes of Irene Taylor’s new HBO documentary Trees and Other Entanglements, viewers meet the director herself.

The doc follows the interconnected stories of people whose lives have been deeply affected by trees, from bonsai artist Ryan Neil to the late Weyerhaeuser timber company CEO George Weyerhaeuser. The way Taylor’s own personal tree story fits in with the narrative has to do with the poetic similarities between her father’s dementia, caused by abnormal protein buildup that damages nerve cells in the brain, and the scourge of invasive English Ivy that was killing the trees in the forest behind her house.

Taylor’s just one of several storylines that embody the entanglements described in the film’s title. And much like the way that the root systems of redwood trees are all connected underground, Taylor’s presence both in front of and behind the camera makes the movie stronger.

“One thing it does that’s very positive is that it gets me very invested in the film,” Taylor told MovieMaker after the film screened at the first annual Jackson Hole International Film Festival over the weekend.

Irene Taylor on Making Trees and Other Entanglements

“These films take years, and they take lots of back and forth and a lot of creative frustration… and I think plenty of filmmakers, they don’t completely throw in the towel, but they say things like, ‘Okay, well, that’s good enough. That scene is good enough.’ But if you’re depicting someone who is deeply connected to you, or if it has to do with yourself, we all want to get that perfect word out of our mouth that expresses what we want to say,” she says.

“I will be honest: There is an emotional investment in it that is like no other when you, once in a while, do bring yourself in.”

This isn’t the first time that Taylor and her family have figured prominently in her work. Her 2007 directorial debut, Hear and Now, follows her deaf parents as they receive a surgical implant that allows them to experience sound for the first time. It won the audience award at Sundance that year, launching her career as a feature filmmaker following her work on multiple television documentaries in the 1990s.

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She’s gone on to direct other well-received documentary shorts and features including the 2016 HBO true crime documentary Beware the Slenderman and the 2022 Hulu documentary Leave No Trace, which investigates the history of sex abuse within the Boy Scouts of America.

Making a film about her parents taught her to honor all of her subjects as if they were her own family.

“That was the bar that was set from the very beginning. Like, you owe it to your characters to give it all you’ve got. Not that you’re trying to glorify every character — hopefully your characters are complex and they’re two sided or five sided — but I think that really set the tenor for my career, because then I really knew the importance of handling subject matter with kid gloves as if they were your own mother and father,” she says.

“That was my personal way into applying that dedication or that commitment and also taking the time it needs. Because if you keep editing, the film just gets more and more expensive. And that’s not always something that people funding the film want to happen. But as an artist, once you put that film out in the world, it’s permanent, so it’s really hard when to know, ‘Okay, I’m done.'”

Trees and Other Entanglements had its fair share of editing challenges, particularly when an unforeseen event in bonsai artist Ryan Neil’s life caused Taylor and her editor, Christian Jensen, to throw out his story arc that they’d spent so much time perfecting and completely reconfigure it — and in turn reconfigure other stories as well.

“It was like a house of cards. And if you take out one card, the whole thing falls,” Taylor says.

Originally, Neil’s story was about how his bonsai trees had stood the test of time through harsh climate and weather conditions. But when his home and garden were brutally vandalized and several of his most beloved bonsai trees were destroyed, his connection to the film’s larger narrative changed in a way that made the Weyerhaeuser corporation’s practice of clear-cutting entire swaths of beautiful forest hit even harder in context.

“It added this new element that made the violence of the clear-cutting reverberate a little bit more,” she says.

“To me, those are both kind of violent elements of our relationship to trees. So Ryan Neil’s story has this very surprising turn, which I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. But also, anyone who’s ever been in a clear cut — it just looks like a matchstick that’s been broken in half. Some of these trees, you’ll see a clean cut, but then the second half of it, once it starts to tip, just splinters,” she adds. “The metaphors are endless.”

Trees and Other Entanglements is now streaming on Max.

Main Image: A still from Trees and Other Entanglements courtesy of HBO