MORE ABOUT LISTENING

In 1969, shortly after I’d become hooked on filmmaking, Gerry Matthews, a New York actor-friend, tossed me an irresistible proposition: that we shoot a documentary short about his actress-wife, Freddie Weber’s return to Beardstown, IL, for her High School reunion. What follows is a brief account of yet another unexpected journey, and of lessons learned – especially about listening.

We went to Beardstown with a pair of 16mm Arriflex cameras, where we shot 4 hours of grainy B&W – to obviate the need to light our scenes – over 4 days. And, back in Manhattan over the following months our spare-time editing finally resulted in our freezing the film at 18 minutes. . The title we chose: Reunion. We began screening the film for friends and, on the off-chance that it was in any way commercial, that we might recoup at least some of our investment, we invited theatrical distributors of short films. An always-limited, and by then really diminished market, there were very few people still in that business. And even fewer based in or near New York. Nonetheless worth a shot, once each week or so, we booked the very plush Rizzoli Screening Room, on 5th Avenue just south of 57th Street.

Where, startlingly, with each viewing of the finished version, I began to absorb a major lesson about documentary filmmaking. The obvious: it needed further cutting. Though at first I wasn’t sure of what. Only a growing but still misty sense of false notes. With that came the steadily intensifying wish that we might find an excuse – a justification for going back and taking another whack or two at it.

We got it one afternoon at the end of a showing at the Rizzoli, in the form of a comment from Lester Schoenfeld. The then-number-one national distributor of theatrical shorts, Lester was the best, and pretty much the last of our always slight chances. We were grateful that he’d accepted our invitation. As the room emptied, Gerry and I stood in the row just in front of Mr. Schoenfeld’s. We leaned on the seatbacks, practically in his discouragingly deadpan face, and with naked hope on ours, I threw him our question.

“So, Lester – whaddya think?”

Memorably, the portly, balding, middle-aged veteran of the business removed the cigar from his mouth, glanced at the ash, then back at us. Still expressionless, he shrugged and, with a wave of his other hand, dispensed his wisdom:

“Talks too much. Lose three minutes.”

Period.

I mean, you’ve gotta love that kind of conciseness.

And breathtakingly on-the-money it was. Though I’d reached essentially the same conclusion, I’d have described it differently – and not nearly as succinctly. And Gerry felt it, too.

Because during those repeated viewings we’d finally recognized a truth about the documentary form – particularly the kind that doesn’t feature pontifical talking heads. It was this: though you may start out with a particular theme or statement in mind, you had damned well better look at and listen to what you actually get on film. Because that footage, that content, will tell you what your movie is really about.

Moreover, if you try to impose something else onto it, the end-product will ring the ‘Wrong!’ bell. That was the increasingly loud sound Gerry and I had been hearing.

Now, I realize the above is arguably a generalization, but in the case of Reunion, while our original intent was to make a film about a New York actress returning to her hometown, we had come to realize that those hours of footage had captured something else. Something larger. And almost in sync with Lester Schoenfeld’s comment, we had figured out what it was!

With Freddie as catalyst rather than central subject, the film we’d shot was in fact – on an admittedly not-very-deep plane – actually about a very particular – and ubiquitous – category of American small towns. The kind that lack an intellectual core – a college or university.

The kind of place that dots America’s heartland. A town that people leave, but almost never move to.

Because of what had passed in front of our cameras – and arguably due to the personal filters we’d brought with us – what we’d shot had made a comment. As said, nothing profound, but what we’d seen and recorded expressed on sub-textual levels some of the myriad factors that go with that topic.

These included but were not limited to observations – spoken and visual – about belonging and not belonging, about dreams and expectations and disappointments. And about most people settling, rarely happily, for what life has dealt them. While a few – intellectual misfits, mostly – need more/demand more for themselves. They are the ones who leave.

It was there. But by forcing it, by trying to keep it about Freddie, despite the fact that the film was telling us it wasn’t, we had, in effect, dulled, muddied, its meaning.

In any case, Lester’s words were the trigger, giving us the impetus we needed. Gerry and I went back to the Moviola and eagerly began re-cutting.

By early summer, Reunion had become quite another film. In the end, what Freddie’s presence did was give us a kind of glue – a framework for the rest of it – with Freddie playing the role of key interlocutor/catalyst. Though others who appeared onscreen had also departed Beardstown, Freddie was the central example – the one who had left, become celebrity-successful, and who drew the others out.

Not a major work of art, but a nice, satisfying little movie to have made – finally about what it had wanted to be about. And ironically, in another way, Schoenfeld’s piercing insight proved almost eerie. Without time being our primary objective, it happened that his “three minutes” were exactly what we had removed.

Holly and I were preparing to leave town for our annual summer holiday/get-together with family in Rhode Island when, in a what-the-hell gesture, I filled out an entry form for the upcoming, very prestigious New York Film Festival, and sent it off with a print of the just-revised version of Reunion.

On our return to Manhattan, I was greeted by a truly total surprise. Among the accumulated mail was a notice that Reunion had been selected for the Festival! Delighted – I had had absolutely zero expectations – our film was to be shown at Lincoln Center! It was one helluvva rush. And that was just the start!

In addition as the September date approached for the Festival opening, we were invited to a glittery reception at the French Consulate. There, Holly, Freddie, Gerry and I actually rubbed elbows with international star Catherine Deneuve and famed director Francois Truffaut. And, topping that, on the night of its screening, Reunion was the lead-in for Truffaut’s newest feature film, The Wild Child.

Later, our documentary was honored at the Rochester and Edinburgh Film Festivals. Moreover, Lester Schoenfeld picked it up for distribution. Then, as if it could get any better, within a short time it was in wide release, being shown in movie theaters across the U.S., accompanying The Last Run, a feature starring George C. Scott.

Nice.

No. F-ing amazing.

*You can view Reunion (and some of Tom’s other work) at:  http://www.thomasbsawyer.com/videosshortfilms.html