Industry "Burners" from Brad Falchuk to Dana Brunetti discuss the boundary-pushing wild festival in the desert, where inhibitions give way to abandon (drugs: yes; pants: optional), artists do extraordinary installations and the rich (of course) threaten tradition with private chefs, $10,000 tents and air conditioning.
Burning Man, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, has grown from a tiny summer solstice bonfire gathering on the beach in 1986 near San Francisco to such a powerful cultural phenomenon that no less than President Barack Obama name-checked it at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in April. His 18-year-old daughter, Malia, he joked, isn't allowed to go. Running this year from Aug. 28 to Sept. 5, Burning Man — where attendees include Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, iHeartMedia chairman Bob Pittman, director Chris Weitz (who met and married his wife, Mercedes Martinez, there) and such celebrities as Anne Hathaway, Jared Leto and Michelle Rodriguez — might scare off some people, but not the 70,000 who now throng the countercultural festival. Celebrating boundary-pushing self-expression (from Socially Appropriate Boner Day to Rosario Dawson's 2011 vagina-tent installation) and community building (more than 300 individuals worked on one of this year's art projects: two enormous pyramids), it's a mix of participatory artworks with crazy costumes, aerialist troupes, shirtcockers (guys who, as it sounds, wear shirts and nothing else), the anonymous-sex-orgy dome (men can't go alone), fire dancers, yoga and meditation sessions, TEDx talks and, yes, a good many people tripping on a lot of drugs.
A temporary encampment of tents, yurts and RVs dubbed Black Rock City that rises for one week in the hot and desolate Nevada desert (a two-hour drive north of Reno, Nev.), Burning Man — guided by 10 principles that include participation, civic responsibility, immediacy and inclusion — is Cirque du Soleil, Coachella, Art Basel and Woodstock all rolled into one, under a layer of notoriously hard-to-scrub-off mineral dust. The entire week is capped by the ritual burning of the towering wooden Man effigy (2014's was 105 feet tall) on Saturday night each year. "It's really hard to explain why it's so amazing to be in the desert with no shower, no physical comforts. It's really harsh," says Levi Vieira, a makeup artist who married his partner, Zack Bunker, a digital asset manager, there in 2014. "It's really a vacation for the soul, not for the body."
Regulars call the festival — located in a desert basin called a playa — life-changing. "If you work in a creative industry, this is a must-see," says Amazon Studios head of drama and 13-time attendee Morgan Wandell, who, over the years, has brought along ITV's Adam Sher, Armie Hammer and John Stamos to experience the fun. Says artist Trek Thunder Kelly, who has been going for more than two decades: "Imagine that you've taken the red pill in The Matrix and walked into Alice in Wonderland on the planet Tatooine. You can have free waffles with a crew dressed like Elvis, make jewelry in a Bedouin tent, learn how to pole dance [and] take a seminar on making absinthe."
Amazon Studios' Wandell (far right) and friends in 2015.
Costume-wise, there's no such thing as subtle, and people enjoying the anonymity of dust-blocking masks include Will Smith and Katy Perry, whose goggles caused her to take a spill on a Segway in 2015. "People can cut loose without people knowing who you are," says Fifty Shades of Grey and House of Cards producer Dana Brunetti, who "Burned" for the first time in 2014. Notes Hand of God actor Julian Morris, who stars in the upcoming Watergate film Felt: "You want something that's as loud and ridiculous as you can possibly imagine; someone lent me a sequined circus master jacket." Jokes Gersh agent Jeff Greenberg, who has been going for four years: "Bring a tutu. Otherwise, you will look silly."
As it is every year, nothing is for sale (except for coffee and ice) in what is called a giving economy, whether it's camps that give away grilled cheeses or beignets, have open bars or misting stations or games (one year, there was flaming skee ball), or simply offer free hugs. "You might be cycling around on the playa, and you'll see this tent with older folks cycling on stationary bikes to generate a motor to make shaved ice with syrups like you get in Hawaii," says Morris, "and they are just giving them to you in the heat and the dust." Explains Greenberg: "The first year I went, we talked about what we were bringing. I was bringing coconut water, and someone said they were bringing empathy, and I remember thinking, 'If I hand you a coconut water and you hand back some empathy, I'm going to be pissed.' Now I get it, the idea of listening to people and how it makes me a better agent and human. So getting that recharged every year is really important."
Perry in full dust-busting regalia.
In recent years, though, Burning Man has been roiled by growing pains brought on by success. (Tickets, $390 to $1,200, go on sale each year on BurningMan.org in February and quickly sell out.) What are known as plug-and-play or turnkey camps have sprung up, where people pay thousands of dollars to have everything set up and provided for them when they arrive, including showers, air conditioning, private chefs, guides and even costumes. Critics have howled that the camps violate principles of Burning Man, including radical self-reliance, participation, gifting, communal effort and decommodification. The issue blew out into the open in 2014 when a paid employee at one of the camps, Caravancicle (cost per person: $16,500), wrote a widely shared online story about her experience there, alleging that models had been hired to entertain guests and that the bar, which was supposed to be public, was later restricted to camp members wearing wristbands. "It's gotten bigger, and the obscenely wealthy have all added it to their bucket list," says director/composer Jerry Brunskill. "Most don't embrace the original intent of the festival and show up with private planes and lavish housing with air-conditioning, and personal chefs and all that barf." Mitch Eakins, an actor who worked at a similar encampment a few years ago, tells THR that the downside at his camp was that "it wasn't inclusive. We had little barricaded areas." But Eakins believes that the upside of such camps is that the one percent are exposed to the ethos of Burning Man, and some return to more actively participate. "One guy who came now donates money throughout the year to different art projects and he volunteers in the temple. He is so into it," he says.
Last year, though, after the Caravancicle debacle, Burning Man organizers instituted new rules to limit such camps, including rigorous vetting procedures for camps seeking early access to ensure they offer sufficient interactivity and public events. However, Burning Man's founder Larry Harvey made it clear in a statement that the festival isn't keen on purists judging others for luxurious camps (years before, RVs were the offending party). "Scan Burning Man's 10 Principles, and you will not find radical equality among them," Harvey wrote. "This is because our city has always been a place where old and young, rich and poor, can live on common ground. But common ground is not a level playing field and should not be interpreted as mandating equal living conditions."
Besides, it's easy to avoid what you want to since "Black Rock City is the third-biggest city in Nevada when it's going on. There is literally something for everyone," says Greenberg.
The festival recently has become more of an EDM scene — Skrillex, Diplo and Major Lazer all have done sets there — prompting the Burning Man Project (the nonprofit that runs the festival, which brought in $32 million in funds in 2014, according to its most recent annual report) to crack down on camps that publicize their DJ rosters ahead of time. The organizers — explaining in a statement that "Burning Man doesn't have 'headliners'" — don't want it to be seen as a music festival. Says Jennifer Raiser, author of the new book Burning Man: Art on Fire: "Unlike, say, Coachella, it's not about buying your ticket and waiting to be entertained. It's about figuring out how you can entertain everyone else." Regardless, two highlights stand out among such industry insiders as Brunskill, who recommends Black Rock Roller Disco — "a roller rink in the desert with disco music" — and Robot Heart: "a double-decker bus with a half-million-dollar sound system." Other popular music camps include Distrikt (during the day), Disorient, Camp Question Mark and White Ocean.
Famous names flocking there, of course, include actors (Seth Rogen, Jim Belushi, Michelle Monaghan and Susan Sarandon, who scattered Timothy Leary's ashes last year), musical artists (Diddy, who tweeted "Words cannot explain! I'll never be the same" after going in 2013) and supermodels (Karlie Kloss, Cara Delevingne), and tech "Burners" are plentiful. Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz buried the hatchet with the Winklevoss twins there. Borja Pena, a DJ who went for the first time last year, was unfazed: "I don't think anybody cares who is a celebrity or a burner or a naked hippie. At Burning Man, I become aware of what the essence of being a human is, what our society would be like without fights, greed, money, labels, genders, brands and corporations and how good it is to be yourself. It's like a cleansing of bullshit." But, for some, the bold-faced names and big money have taken their toll on the spirit of the festival, even for Hollywood players like American Horror Story co-creator Brad Falchuk, who has been a regular since the late '90s but went two years ago for what he says was his final time. "Seeing Instagram posts from the playa is not what I signed up for. It's become less participatory and more of a spectator sport." He admits, though: "I am older and I've done it a lot. Things evolve and they change. I still have many friends who totally love it." Adds Brunetti: "There are more people who are going more for the scene, which I know Burning Man isn't too keen about. They don't want what happened to Sundance to happen there."
Sarandon spread some of LSD guru Geary's ashes at 2015's festival.
Brunetti, who went to Burning Man two years ago, did not have the festival on his bucket list. He ended up going because he met two women who are regulars on the Ibiza-to-Tulum party circuit at an event at the Chateau Marmont — "really hot girls. They were Russian," he says — and they invited him to go, free of charge, on their private plane the next day to a luxury camp that cost upward of $10,000 a person. He said yes. "I was in an alcohol-induced state," recalls Brunetti, who it turned out had a DJ friend, Zen Freeman, playing at the same camp. "I asked Zen what's the deal with these girls. He said, 'They go around the world and party. They are like female ballers.' Another woman joined us too who's a Victoria's Secret model." They flew at night, arriving at sunrise. "It started off phenomenally," says Brunetti. "And then the three boyfriends [of the women] arrived. I was, 'OK fine whatever, there's plenty of other people here. Have fun.' Then I got to the camp, and it looked like it had been raided. There was supposed to be a private chef and bar, and it looked like it had just been turned upside down. The camp had EDM music playing 24 hours a day. I was staying in a yurt. You couldn't sleep. It just ended up being a total disaster. I tried to make the best of it. I just started taking whatever drug I could find. That was a last-ditch attempt just to save my trip. It didn't help." He was supposed to stay for a week, but three days in, he walked — after being waylaid by a sandstorm — to the small airport and got out via a Burner Air flight.
Diddy contemplated his golden glove at Burning Man in 2013.
Devotees say it's important to go with people who can help you navigate the glorious chaos and be prepared. And much of the image of Burning Man is created by people who haven't experienced it. Says venture capitalist Bob Zangrillo, founder and CEO of Dragon Global and producer of the 2013 documentary Spark: A Burning Man Story: "The perception of Burning Man versus the reality of Burning Man is so dramatically different. You go for a day and your entire view of Burning Man changes in 24 hours." Says actor Morris, who last year went for the first time, sharing a yurt with five other people: "For me it's a festival of two things: art, where you yourself become the art, and serendipity, where anything possible can happen. It's a creative festival. It's art-based. That's why I think so many people in our town and in our industry respond to it and really like it. It really is like nothing I've ever experienced before." In 2014, Elon Musk contended that Mike Judge, the creator of HBO's Silicon Valley, falls short of depicting the tech world accurately because "I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley."
Hollywood lifers should be prepared for the fact that (gasp) nobody talks business. "I camped for two years next to someone very high up in Google and his wife and had no idea. People often introduce themselves with [their] playa names," says Gersh's Greenberg, who goes by the playa name "Yes Man." Adds Melanie Bromley, chief news correspondent at E!: "Hollywood is a constant hierarchy. What I love about Burning Man is that it doesn't really matter what you do in real life when you are wearing spandex and glitter and crazy wigs." She also says that it is possible to go Burning Man and not do drugs and still have a good time. "I'm English, and I admit I'm really prudish. I don't do drugs. It forces me to be more inclusive, to increase your imagination of what is possible and see the world in more technicolor." Musk and his cousin Lyndon Rive dreamed up solar energy provider SolarCity while there, and, says Amazon Studios' Wandell: "So much of the culture of start-ups and really innovative tech companies in terms of the way that they build and foster community and collaboration and creativity and teams, the expressed intention of thinking big, that is all materially impacted by the inspiration that Burning Man has provided. Hollywood would be way more creative and innovative if the same proportion of people went as have gone from the tech world. I doubt we would be recycling so many of the same ideas if we had more creative types experiencing the playa."
Who knows how the tide will turn in 2016, though. Says Zangrillo, "There's this ongoing battle between whether the real world will infect and ruin Burning Man or will all the people who go bring more characteristics of Burning Man into the real world."
By Car or RV: Black Rock City is about a 13-hour drive from Los Angeles. Many L.A.-based attendees break up the trip by staying in Reno, Nev., for a night. One-week RV rentals from such companies as Cruise America and El Monte RV can run $3,500 and up.
By Bus: Some attendees take a 90-minute flight from L.A to Reno, then ride the Burner Express bus (around $80) into Black Rock City.
By Plane: The Burner Air flight service (around $599 one way from Reno) as well as private charter planes (starting at around $6,500 one way from Los Angeles in a seven-seat plane) land on the playa at Black Rock City Municipal Airport, a volunteer-run temporary airstrip.
Center Camp: A large shaded structure houses a coffee and chai cafe and hosts music performances.
The Temple: Each year, a large-scale temple is built (above, 2011's Temple of Transition, a circle of six structures) where attendees leave photos and letters to mourn people they've lost. It is burned on Sunday night, the day after the Man goes up in flames. "The temple is the ultimate meditative location in the middle of the craziness," says Bromley. This year's pagoda-inspired structure, designed by longtime temple creator David Best, will rise 100 feet high.
The Airport: The Burner Air flight service (around $599 one way from Reno) as well as private charter planes (starting at around $6,500 one way from Los Angeles in a seven-seat plane) land at a volunteer-run temporary airstrip.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.