Local filmmaker Dina Ciraulo wanted to make a movie. More precisely, she wanted to make a movie about the rise and fall of the charismatic, controversial environmentalist Opal Whiteley.

But Ciraulo lives in the Mission of the early 2000s, and Whiteley lived in Boston and rural Oregon in the early 1900s.

The challenge was to re-create Whiteley’s world within a 60-mile radius of Ciraulo’s home in the Mission, because Ciraulo couldn’t afford to shoot anywhere else. It wasn’t easy, but she and her production team for the independent film “Opal” were able to do just that.

It helped that Ciraulo was a Bay Area native. “I knew of places, and my mom knew of places, that hardly anyone knew about,” she said. Ciraulo began scouting for locations in 2005 with her mother, Janelle Melvin.

Ciraulo first read of Whiteley in 1999, while she was living in Berkeley and learning to garden from a practitioner of anthroposophy — a philosophy about spirituality through nature that led to the development of biodynamic agriculture. As Ciraulo learned about Whiteley from the book “The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow: The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whiteley,” by Benjamin Hoff, she came to believe that Whiteley was ahead of her time.

Whiteley grew up in a lumber camp in the Oregon woods and quickly came to abhor logging. Unable to turn a blind eye to the destruction of nature, the amateur naturalist gave lectures on wildlife while still in her teens. After studying at the University of Oregon, she traveled to Boston and persuaded the Atlantic Monthly (now named the Atlantic) to publish several essays about nature that she claimed to have written as a child. Those essays were collected into a book, “The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart,” which was wildly popular — and, many people came to believe, made up.

A nature lecture scene in the Polish Club. Photo by Alex Welsh, courtesy of Dina Ciraulo.

In “Opal,” older parts of San Francisco City College stand in for the University of Oregon. The real find, though, was the Polish Club at 22nd and Shotwell, where Ciraulo’s Whiteley delivers one of her nature lectures.

“It was just so well-preserved,” said Ciraulo of the club, which was built in 1900 as a church. “That building was very much true to the era we were looking for,” said Rachel Benson, a producer for the film. “What was fun was to look out the window and see Mission people walking around in their modern-day clothing and see our people in their period costumes.”

What was funny while filming indoors wasn’t when attempting to film outdoors. “We didn’t have the money to shut down a street,” said Jason Cohen, another producer. “Someone would walk through the background in their hipster clothing with their iPod on.”

Nothing in the Mission could supplant the forest of Douglas firs that the real Whiteley would have encountered in Oregon, so Ciraulo’s Whiteley wanders among redwoods in Santa Cruz and traverses Mount Tamalpais in Marin County instead. But a single Mission District tree makes a very important appearance in the beginning of the film, as Whiteley looks up at the sky and says, “Nature was my witness.”

The tree was discovered as the shoot at the Polish Club was just finishing up. “Everyone was outside wrapping up the gear, and we looked up and there was a tree,” said Cohen. “We decided to put the camera out and shoot a time-lapse of the tree.

“We didn’t expect to get such a nature shot in the film from the Mission.”

The Mission played a large role in the production in other ways as well. Project Artaud on Alabama Street was the location for several of the movie’s indoor scenes, including one in a mental hospital. A few artists who live at Project Artaud played spot roles in the film. More actors were found through Nancy Hayes Casting on Treat Avenue and the Theatre of Yugen on Mariposa. Bi-Rite donated food. Coffee Bar provided office space, albeit unintentionally.

Ciraulo, Benson and Cohen fondly remember working on the film inside Coffee Bar on Mariposa Street when it opened in 2007. “We had all our first meetings there,” said Ciraulo. “But then it became so crowded — laptop central — and it was too hard to work there.”

The filmmakers obtained a six-month residency at Pier 27 in the Embarcadero, sharing free office space with other local independent filmmakers, courtesy of the city. Since then they’ve moved into a tiny windowless room in the Ninth Street Independent Film Center in the Tenderloin. They say they like it better than the Embarcadero because it’s an established filmmaking community rather than a makeshift one.

The jury is still out on whether Whiteley was a liar or simply misunderstood. Despite her missteps, Ciraulo thinks of her as a feminist icon. “Basically, her greatest desire was to be a writer, and to write about nature. And this was at a time women were not allowed to vote, so she did things that were really unusual for her time.”

As they promoted the film, the producers traveled to Oregon to visit Whiteley’s hometown. “It was gorgeous,” said Ciraulo. “A lot of people in Oregon are…well, not unhappy, but question why I didn’t shoot in Oregon. I would have loved to have shot there.”

Still, she doesn’t regret producing the film in the Bay Area.

“I felt like the legacy of environmentalism in northern California was an important part of the story. There are only four percent of the redwoods left in the world, and they exist here because people wanted to protect them.

“This is a film that I felt could live here, easily.”


“Opal” will be shown at the Roxie Theater on April 8 at 7 p.m., as part of the San Francisco Women’s Film Festival.