This project really started shortly after I moved to the San Francisco area in 2001. I met Mason Dwinell, our main character, at a mutual friend’s party and he had a natural inquisitiveness that I liked. After another encounter with Mason some 6 months later, he told me what he was up to.
“You’re looking directly at the sun and this will lead to a life without eating food?”
Welcome to San Francisco.
I immediately had two thoughts: The first was that he was crazy and the second was that there might be a film idea in this. After another encounter with Mason some 6 months later, he was even more excited about sungazing and the positive affects he was feeling from it. I arranged for a test shoot in August of 2003 and interviewed Mason and a few of his classmates who were sungazing along with him. I was intrigued not only with Mason’s continued enthusiasm but also the corroboration of many of the affects of the sungazing by his classmates. I viewed the test footage and was hooked.
Initial research did not lead very far; the Internet did not yield much at that time when you Googled ‘sungazing’. Vinny Pinto, one of our characters in the film, became a pivotal person when he started the first sun gazing website and Yahoo! web group for sungazers. Vinny has been a sungazer since the early ‘80s and It was through his web group that I found many of the characters in the film. The project gained traction as I decided to follow Mason on his journey into this unexplored and burgeoning sub-culture. With a crew of 3, we took to the road in Mason’s van, meeting and talking with a variety of sungazers and self-professed non-eaters – both new and experienced – as well as scientists and doctors to try to find out some truths about this supposedly ancient notion of staring into the sun. I didn’t know what we would find or what would happen to Mason once he reached his goal of 44 consecutive minutes of staring at the sun – an amount of time based on a progressive sungazing technique that is promoted on the Internet and through lectures by an Indian gentleman who goes by the acronym HRM. (It was through a lecture by HRM that Mason found out about sungazing).
Between the sensations that Mason was reporting after actually building up his time to 40 minutes of looking directly at the sun and all of the information that we received from other sungazers, it was hard not to concede that something was happening, whether real or imagined. (In a scene that I love that did not make the final cut, Mason locks himself in a motel room and doesn’t eat for a whole month, the first week without fluids either!)
Luckily, enough human drama surfaced throughout the course of our journey out of which we were able to stitch together a story with a 3 Act structure. Our quest uncovered an Internet landscape of thousands of sungazers all over the world, some of whom ultimately challenged our deepest held beliefs. And it was belief that became the central idea in the film. The sort of people who engaged in sungazing after reading about it on the Internet or seeing HRM lecture all wanted to believe. The fact that the practice was simple and – according to HRM’s protocol – finite seemed to appeal to our modern culture’s affinity for the quick and easy. The fact that you could permanently damage your eyes seemed of little or no concern for most of these believers. When we took Mason for an extensive eye exam and they found a burn in the center of his retinas, he was disheartened and discouraged and he stopped sungazing. Why he ultimately decided to continue sungazing to reach HRM’s goal of 44 minutes and risk even further eye damage was testament that he was after something bigger than the physical.
Between Mason’s internal struggles, HRM’s demise and the discovery of an organized Christian-based religion that believes that Jesus was a sungazer, I became convinced that there was indeed a story to tell.
At the end of our journey – at least for a little while after the cameras stopped rolling – the impossible seemed possible. You just had to believe.