Featured Filmmaker: Stefan Schaefer, Director/Producer of “Even Though The Whole World is Burning”

Screening today at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s McCoy theater at 5pm, we have the WORLD PREMIERE “Even Though the Whole World is Burning“,  a beautifully made biographical documentary that explores the work of Poet Laureate, two-time Pulitzer winner, and environmental activist W.S. Merwin. It was produced and directed by local filmmaker Stefan Schaefer.

Known locally for his work as producer on the Maui-based comedy “Get a Job”, Stefan was influenced by Merwin’s work in college and – though the making of this film – has developed a deep reverence for the Merwin local resident, naturalist, and writer, who also happens to be his neighbor in Haiku, Maui.

The film recently received critical praise in The Huffington Post.


Stefan took a moment to tell us more about how he got involved, and to share some of the challenges behind making a film of this magnitude. Enjoy, and don’t miss out on the world premiere! Tickets are still available at the door. 

Q: How did your film come to be? 

A: Almost four years ago, two different production companies approached Merwin about shooting a film. I was asked to review their proposals and, based on their prior credits, recommended one of the companies. About six months later I learned that it hadn’t gone well with one of the producers. Merwin, who’d seen one of my prior films (the narrative feature ARRANGED), and who we’d met socially here on Maui, apparently said: “Well why can’t that nice man who lives up the hill with the beautiful wife, why can’t he just make the film?” That’s how it began.

I have to admit I was reluctant to take it on at first, having worked on numerous documentaries before. They’re always unwieldy and underpaid beasts, and often require years of love and dedication. Of course they can also provide a filmmaker – and audience – an unrivaled opportunity for adventure, insight and personal growth.

Q: What was the most challenging thing about making this film?

A: Financing documentaries is always challenging. Early in the process we decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign and, about a year later, did the same on the IndieGogo platform. This was the first time I’d been involved in crowdfunding a film. Both were successful and, together with several foundation grants, we’ve been able to limp toward the finish line. Although it took a good deal of work, I really love the idea that this film was financed by approximately 400 individual donors who, as we progress into distribution, will be evangelists for the film (assuming they find it compelling!).

Another challenge was uncovering a structure that works for the film, and deciding what to include from what now totals about 200 hours of interviews and archival material. We’ll have a wealth of DVD extras on this one!

Q: What type of experience do you hope the film will bring to viewers?

A: I hope those who know and love Merwin’s work gain a greater appreciation for the man behind the poems and prose. Even more, I hope those who aren’t familiar with him go out and read his poetry, and also reflect on their own choices in terms of creative expression and impact on the world. Of course on a very basic level, I hope audiences are entertained – I want tears, laughter, and impassioned conversations after the screening.

Q: What do you think our Maui audiences will appreciate about your film?

A: Maui is a central character in the film, as Merwin has lived here for over three decades, writing and dedicated himself to preserving and regenerating native plants and palms on a 19-acre site in Haiku. Called the Merwin Conservancy, the preserve now holds the most comprehensive private collection of palms in the world, with over 800 species. The film takes audiences into this magical forests and, I hope, makes us think about how we each relate to our island.

Q: What is your connection to Maui?

A: I’ve lived here with my family for five years. My wife grew up on Oahu and, following her mother’s passing, we moved here from New York City. My connection to Maui has been shaped in good measure by this film, which opened my eyes to how one can and should strive to live here in balance with the natural world, and respect and educate ourselves about Hawaiian culture and history. Merwin speaks in a far more eloquent way than I can about the power of the forest, the water, the birds that make this such an amazing place to live. I’ll let him and the film speak to that…



The Featured Filmmaker series is coordinated and written by the Maui Film Festival’s Filmmaker Liaison and Social Media Director Sara TekulaClick here to see all of the Featured FIlmmaker posts and be sure follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get live updates from the festival.