Burning Man Turns 30: The Joys, Pitfalls (and Drugs) of Hollywood’s “Vacation for the Soul”

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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.”


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.


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.”