David Rohm: Fly Like An Eagle

"We're just trying to always figure out a way to call attention to these amazing places and this amazing country where we live and the incredible wildlife that surrounds us." David Rohm

This interview with David Rohm discusses their work at Wild Excellence Films.  Wild Excellence Filmswas awarded a Spark grant for their documentary Golden Eagles: Witnesses to a Changing West,and focused on Native American cultural and spiritual significance and relationship to the golden eagle—that will educate the public about golden eagles and a biologically diverse and threatened region. The film is expected to air on Wyoming PBS in 2023, and a screening is planned at the Center of the West in Cody in early fall of 2022. Thank you, David!

Emy DiGrappa (00:00):

Hello, my name is Emy DiGrappa. Each week, we bring you stories asking our guests the question, why. We learn about passion, purpose and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation. This is What's Your Why.

Emy DiGrappa (00:31):

Today, we are talking to David Rohm. David Rohm is a filmmaker and co-founder of Wild Excellence Films. Welcome, David.

David Rohm (00:40):

Hi, Emy. Uh, thank you for having me today.

Emy DiGrappa (00:43):

Well, I love the name of your company and I wanna know how you came up with that. Was that a, was that a tough one? Because there's so many different filmmaking companies out there in the world today?

David Rohm (00:55):

Sure, it was extremely difficult (laughs). But we have a friend who lives in Wyoming, in the Sunlight Basin area. And we, we spend a lot of time there of course. Then we saw her book and it's called The Wild Excellence. And it's an amazing book by author Leslie Patten. And we loved the name. So (laughs), I mean the, her story is incredible. She could be her own, uh, documentary film. And we've talked to her, tried to talk her into it a couple times (laughs). But she's, uh, this amazing woman and, uh, you know, she lives in the Sunlight Basin, in a really wild and remote area and she wrote this book about her experience, about coming to Wyoming from California.

David Rohm (01:42):

So we loved the title, so we just wrote to her and the title's based on a poem by, uh, Pablo Neruda, I think that's the way they say it. He is a Chilean poet and, um, I mean he's long since passed but a pretty well-known Chilean poet and, um, so i-it's from one of his poems called The Wild Excellence. And, and the point behind it is that the wilderness has its own form of excellence. You know, it doesn't, um, you know, it doesn't have that judgment that (laughs). You know, it just, as in its pure, natural state, it is already excellent. So that's kinda how we, you know, want our films to be, kinda wild, auteur, you know, appeal to a lot of people like nature does. So that's how we came up with, with the title.

David Rohm (02:33):

So we asked, we asked Leslie Patten, the author, if we could use it and she goes, “Well, it's not really mine but sure,” (laughs) you see. And we ended up being friends with her and we went out to see her and visit her at her home and spend time with her and her dog and went on a big hike, and now we're kinda friends. So that's a real bonus for us.

Emy DiGrappa (02:51):

What came first? Your, your love for filmmaking or your love for wildlife and conservation?

David Rohm (02:58):

I-I would think wildlife and conservation. We just could never, I mean, Melissa, my wife and one of my partners from Wild Excellence, was, you know, a very good photographer for a long time. And we kinda got away from it for a little while. We had a newspaper in, in the Wyoming area for a, for a little while back in 2002, 2004. So, um, we were always trying to figure out how to get back out there. And we just started doing some other short films, like around Pennsylvania where we live. And, um, so we're just trying, we were just trying to always figure out a way to, you know, call attention to these amazing places and this amazing country where we live and, and the incredible wildlife that surrounds us. I mean, if anything this current crisis has taught us it's look at the wildlife (laughs) that surrounds us.

David Rohm (03:50):

You know, and you see that a lot in Wyoming probably. But, you know, it's pretty hard for us here in Pittsburgh to, you know, really get a full wildlife experience. It's just, you know, this bland, swirly segment and there's, there's not a lot of, you know, open space. I mean, we do have our areas but mostly we have to travel to pretty far away just to, you know, get a glimpse at like, some elk or something.

Emy DiGrappa (04:16):

So you live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania?

David Rohm (04:19):

Yeah.

Emy DiGrappa (04:19):

And what was your journey to Wyoming? What story were you following that brought you to Wyoming in the first place?

David Rohm (04:28):

We got married in 1999 and our first trip out West was, uh, to New Mexico. And that was to Bosque del Apache. And we just, we had an amazing time there. But then we started to hear about Yellowstone. So (laughs) I guess we went to Yellowstone 2001, maybe 2000. We just couldn't go anywhere else after that (laughs). I mean, we've been some small places but any time we can afford it, um, we just always go to Yellowstone. So once we started going to the Park, y-you know, most of the Park is i-in Wyoming, we, you know, started venturing farther and farther out, like down into Cody.

David Rohm (05:06):

Then when we had our newspaper, called The Beartooth Times, we really got into Wyoming. And, and, um, just found it, you know, just a spectacular place and the people were always just so welcoming and nice and, well you know, it was, we kinda got it in our DNA and now... I remember we were pulled over on the road one time in the Park and (laughs) we were talking to another couple there and they were like, “All our friends say, 'You know there's other places to visit besides Yellowstone?'” (laughs). And we just say, “Well, you know, not for us either.”. So for them too, it's always about Wyoming and Yellowstone.

Emy DiGrappa (05:43):

So when you fell in love with Yellowstone and, what was your, what was your story and your passion to create the film that you created about the bald eagle? Is it the bald eagle?

David Rohm (05:55):

Uh.

Emy DiGrappa (05:56):

Or is it the golden eagle?

David Rohm (05:56):

It is the golden eagle.

Emy DiGrappa (05:59):

Ah, thank you for -

David Rohm (06:00):

(laughs) Okay.

Emy DiGrappa (06:00):

That correction. Yeah. What is the name of the film?

David Rohm (06:04):

Oh, first of all, this is an amazing question. The film is called Golden Eagles: Witnesses to a Changing West.

Emy DiGrappa (06:10):

Okay.

David Rohm (06:11):

And it's really about golden eagles and the, and the Bighorn Basin and some, some outside, some at Teton. You know, mainly in Wyoming though. Uh, a little bit in the Park maybe. But it's really about the sagebrush-steppe habitat and the golden eagles which are doing okay but they're under tremendous amount of pressure because of their prey species. So it really, it's, um, the work with the Center of the West and, and Doctor Charles Preston, who was curator of the, you know, the Nancy-Carroll Draper Natural History Museum for many, many years. So we ended up becoming friends with, um, Doctor Preston, Charles Preston and, um, he works out at Center of the West and we have a relationship with him too and... So we thought through Leslie Patten (laughs), we met Doctor Preston.

David Rohm (07:04):

We were looking for owls one day and we couldn't, great gray owls, and we couldn't find them anywhere. I'll tell you, we've still never seen one in Wyoming. And we just happened to mention it to Leslie Patten, the author of The Wild Excellence, she goes, “Oh, well, my boss down at the Center of the West, he knows where all those o-owls are.” So we ended up talking to him and he's a very well-known and well-respected scientist at, and curator, at the, at the Center of the West so...

David Rohm (07:30):

We've always loved golden eagles. In fact, Melissa and I, that's kinda how we met, through a golden eagle here in Pennsylvania. Which is a story in itself but... So that, that's kinda how we got into this project and it's a long, it's a long process any time you're doing something for, you know, PBS Nature. It's, uh, it's a really long process y-you know but, uh, we're, we're getting closer to full production so we're pretty excited about that. And with your help too, Wyoming Humanities. It's a huge help to us so, thank you.

Emy DiGrappa (08:02):

Well, absolutely. And that's why I wanted to have this discussion with you because you are one of our grantees and when we give grants, we, we really wanna, you know, dig into what is the meat and the passion in this grant that, you know, what we wanna ask you is, why do you do what you do? Why should we care? And what's important about your work?

David Rohm (08:30):

Why you should care, for people in Wyoming, you know, we're conservation filmmakers. Look, we're not anti-development or anything like that, that's ridiculous. That's a, that's a dead argument (laughs). I mean, people have to live and, and you need people (laughs). You need wild spaces too, you know. There's always a compromise. But when I went to Cody, I haven't been to Cody for 14 years. The Southern end, down towards, once you come out of the main, you know, you pass the Center of the West, you're heading towards the other end of the Park, I didn't even recognize that. You're heading down towards Wapiti. That's how, that's how built-up it was.

David Rohm (09:04):

So the West is changing. It's changing particularly fast and I don't even think I said that to a few local people and they're like, “What are you talking about?”. I'm like, “These buildings weren't here (laughs) when I was here.”. They're like, “Well, what are we gonna do?”, you know. And I was like, “Well, we'll just do our filmmaking, we just want you to know that you can have both.” You can have conservation and a good economy and jobs and, and, uh, developing, you know, spaces that you need for businesses.

David Rohm (09:34):

I mean, we're a business, we're a pro business, so... You know, we just wanna make sure that, um, you know, everything, you know, look at what you have. I mean, a tremendous, I mean, we just don't have that here, like I mentioned, in Pennsylvania (laughs). You know, because of where we are. We, you just have a tremendous assets, wildlife and tourism and dollars being spent, you know, just to see a buffalo or an antelope or something. So that's what we really care about.

David Rohm (10:03):

And we, you know, when species are in decline. You know, there's a reason they're in decline and some-sometimes it's not human cause. Sometimes it's another cause. And, you know, through our films, if we can i-inspire people to care or maybe take a look at this a little different, you know, we could have saved many species. Even our own. So that's really why we do this.

Emy DiGrappa (10:29):

I like that last part. “Even our own.”. So tell me the threats that you see that are increasing for the golden eagle.

David Rohm (10:37):

One threat that no-one even knew about. Like, when they put up power lines cause golden eagles have this massive wingspan (laughs).

Emy DiGrappa (10:44):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Rohm (10:46):

You know, it's six to eight feet, you know. So when they put up power lines, i-i-in, you know, you have to have power (laughs). You know, but if you just do it a little bit differently, like add a little extension at the top, then the eagles can't rest there. And their wings, you know, once they cross the line, that's when they get electrocuted. So that cuts down tremendously and... You know, the power companies aren't going around thinking, “Oh, you know, we're just going to do whatever we want.” No, they're, they're trying (laughs) to comply. They like eagles, you know. But then when you have incidents, so you know, like electrocution, that-that's a huge problem and, and we can all work together on a solution. And you know, there's grants for companies and they'll, they're usually very, very, very, very open to working with scientists and conservationists so, we all have to work together.

David Rohm (11:33):

But electrocution's a problem. Lead poisoning. You know, there's a place in the Sunlight Basin where they were doing target shooting and it was in, B... Up on BLM land. Bureau of Land Management lands. And they didn't even know they were shooting underneath a golden eagle's nest. W-we're not trying to fringe on anybody's rights but, they didn't really have to be shooting (laughs) right there. When they found out, they were kinda really shocked to know that, you know, and there's all that lead in the, in the ammunition and everything so... You know, plus the disturbance. Eagles will abandon the nest, y-you know, if they get enough disturbance so...

David Rohm (12:11):

You know, there's collisions with cars and, you know, resources. You know, there's like the Teton Raptor Center do an amazing job of rehabbing injured eagles but some don't recover. And they're part, our study, our film is really about the... Doctor Preston's scientific, amazing scientific research into, you know, the prey species. No-one really went into the nest until Doctor Preston started propelling down into the nest. And there's everything in there. Bones. There's live animals. There's (laughs) snakes. You know, everything an eagle would eat, you know, and we have it in our little short film trailer. We show kinda what's, what they collect in a nest. And that's how he was able to determine, you know like, it's really about rabbits. If rabbit populations crash for, well you know, any number of reasons. Disease or, or habitat loss or, y-you know, just reproductive rates. Eagle, eagle populations is crashed right along with them. So it's important, you know, to see, well, what's attracting the rabbits and it goes on and on and on. You know, well, rabbits eat this and (laughs)...

David Rohm (13:25):

You know, that's what's so interesting about filmmaking. You can, you can kinda cover all that in an, in an hour, you know, worth of filming. And, um, you know, in an hour documentary and then, you know, i-it's a big help to, to land managers and to conservationists and to the residents too. You know, maybe a resident puts in a, “Hey, I wanna help these rabbits,” and fixes up their yard a little bit. You know, there's big spaces out there or maybe, you know, they change things a little bit, you know, with their habitat. Or, you know, section off places for wildlife and then they begin to recover.

Emy DiGrappa (14:02):

That is really... You know, I think so informational to talk about those serious challenges that you just mentioned and, you know, the fact that people aren't trying to be, um, intrusive but we are, you know (laughs). And, but the fact that you can educate people and create a, a beautiful film that tells a story, and so I thank you so much, David, for your time talking to me today.

David Rohm (14:30):

Thank you so much and thank you for your support. You know, there's one scene in the film. You know, it's about Native American's relationship to the golden eagle. And, you know, it was just very hard to get the funding to do that one scene and that's where Wyoming Humanities came in. You know, we really needed help doing that and it's so important, not only to Native peoples but to everyone to realize that there's a whole culture out there that is being lost and people don't know about it and it's to be appreciated and respected. And, uh, the Native people in Wyoming just have this tremendous relationship with golden eagles spiritually and, and physically. So that's really a part, part of the film that we can't wait to get out there and film.

Emy DiGrappa (15:15):

Well, I look forward t-to seeing your film. And it's called Golden Eagles: Witnesses to a Changing West and it's by Wild Excellence Films, in partnership with Wyoming Public Television. Thanks, David.

David Rohm (15:28):

That's correct.

Emy DiGrappa (15:29):

Yep.

David Rohm (15:29):

Thank you, Emy, so much.

Emy DiGrappa (15:31):

Absolutely.

Emy DiGrappa (15:40):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to ThinkWY.org, subscribe and never miss a show.