Many Northwest music fans have had their Gorge moment — that instant when the landmark concert venue’s expansive views overlooking the Columbia River canyon sink in for the first time, spurring the realization that the rural Washington destination isn’t the average amphitheater.
Tim Williams was 1,200 miles away in his Denver apartment when his Gorge moment came. Internet age and all, the budding film producer was inside his apartment watching a YouTube video from one of Dave Matthews Band’s annual runs at the Gorge Amphitheatre when it dawned on him that something special was happening out in George, Washington.
“Within two seconds I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to go see a show there,’” he says.
More than an urge to rock out amid immaculate scenery, Williams wanted to shoot a short film of the landscape. An email to the CEO of Live Nation — the concert promoting juggernaut that operates the Gorge — led to a fly-out dinner with Jeff Trisler, the company’s Northwest president, whose history with the Gorge predates Live Nation’s acquisition. Soon, Williams’ director pal Nic Davis was on board and the two began a four-year journey working on their documentary “Enormous: The Gorge Story,” which screens twice during the Seattle International Film Festival.
“We walked into something that has been happening for a long time,” says Davis, who grew up in Montana hearing stories about the Gorge. “It’s been part of Pacific Northwest culture for the better part of 30 years. The people that work there, a lot of those people have been there for almost the whole time.”
The filmmaking duo, now based in Los Angeles, will be on hand for the May 25 and 28 SIFF screenings of their hourlong doc chronicling the Gorge’s rise from an upstart winery’s small, cliff-side stage to a 27,500-capacity amphitheater that’s become one of the Northwest’s signature concert experiences 150 miles from Seattle.
Although neither Davis nor Williams had been to the Gorge before starting the project, “Enormous: The Gorge Story” is a heartfelt look at the connections fans, artists and staff have to the venue sitting on the edge of a geological marvel. In the early 1980s, neurosurgeon Vince Bryan and his wife Carol booked a band and built an 8-inch-high stage and terraced seating to ring in the grand opening of their Champs de Brionne Winery. (The couple eventually opened the nearby Cave B Estate Winery and an inn and spa by the same name.) The venue took on a life of its own, attracting rock legends like Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, and the Bryans sold the amphitheater to an L.A. promoter in 1993, with Live Nation eventually acquiring it. Numerous facility upgrades were made over the years.
“The key thing about the Gorge is that pilgrimage,” Davis says, echoing comments from singer-songwriter Jason Mraz in the film. “You’re investing time, your energy and it becomes more of an event. That’s what makes it incredibly special.”
Without strictly playing to a Northwest audience, Seattle stars like Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Dave Matthews, whose annual three-night Labor Day weekend blowout has become one of the Gorge’s signature events, are featured touting the Gorge’s allure. “There’s no place like it in the world. There’s just something so enormous and endless about the place,” Matthews says in the film. Other local faves like Hibou and Deep Sea Diver make musical cameos.
Through interviews and historical footage and photos from big gigs like Pearl Jam’s rowdy 1993 concert, Davis and Williams track the various crowds and people who have flocked to the Gorge over the years, including recent fests like neo-rave Paradiso, the countrified Watershed and the late Sasquatch, which ended its run after production wrapped. For Davis and Williams, their biggest goal with the film that won best documentary at the L.A. Indie Film Festival and Spokane International Film Festival was to put a face on the venue’s history, which is still being written.
“A lot of documentaries capture something that’s already happened,” Williams says. “This encapsulates that whole history, but it’s not marking the end of something. It’s marking the beginning.”