Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Off To See The Wizard...

I'm not entirely sure anyone out there is following the progress of this film as it unfolds, but I like to think that someday -- when it's all shot, edited, scored, released, and lauded -- a whole bunch of people will find all of the things I wrote here and rediscover it in retrospect.

So... welcome! Here's the latest.

I'm getting married in South Carolina in nine days, then disappearing for two weeks to a series of atolls in the Indian Ocean. Bo Lozoff -- of who I learned on the back porch of The Rogers' Nantucket home -- is presiding, which is pretty awesome. And I hope that he'll be asking everyone to spend a minute remembering everyone that "loved them into being,"just as Mister Rogers used to.

Prior to departing, though, I have some producing to do. Because Chris is taking the first half of December off to begin editing. We're aiming to have the film cut and scored for the Nantucket Film Festival's March deadline. prior to our December edit, we're planing on two more shoots.

1) 826 Brooklyn: Months ago, my friend Kristan Flynn suggested I change my focus from Garrison Keillor and Bill Moyers to more loca, more approachable examples of "deep and simple." Enter 826, David Eggers' youth literacy organization. There we hope to interview 826 publicist and Mister Rogers fan, Jen Snow, organizer Sarah Vowell, as well as some kids and volunteers.

2) Pittsburgh: Davy Rothbart, Nicki Gottlieb, and I are road tripping to Pittsburgh in November to meet Mr. McFeely and tour the "Mister Rogers Neighborhhod" exhibit at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. There, we'll interview all of the above, and stop through Latrobe, Mister Rogers' birth place.

I like to think of it as some sort of "Wizard of Oz" ending to this great journey. Except -- I'm pretty sure about this one -- there is no Wizard. The Wizard is us.

None of it's definite, yet, but confidence is high; I'm pretty sure that we we have help from above.

Monday, September 24, 2007

It's Christmas Time (There's No Need To Be Afraid)

Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas" was the right song at the right time.

I was a newly-minted teenager when Bob Geldof and Ultravox's Midge Ure rounded up Paul Young, Phil Collins, Sting, Bono et all to record the first-and-definitive benefit single on behalf of African famine relief.

MTV was a nascent entity then too. It amplified and super-saturated my already Rolling Stone-distorted perception of rocknroll. Here was an awkward and flawed (they all did, after all, spend sufficient time on the couch -- allbeit at The Ritz in Ibiza -- smoking cigarettes and discussing their childhoods) group of singers being celebrated for the flaws and their singing! I had flaws. And I sang!

Moreover, my worldview was changing. At thirteen, I was allowed to take the bus to King of Prussia Mall or the train to Ardmore Square.

It was at a record store there that -- lulled into blissful consumer submission by the all-star music video played on near-repeat -- that I joyfully laid down my allowance for the vinyl 45.

As a song, Ure's four minute Anglo-centric plea for empathy is an odd one. There is no refrain, per say, just a galloping synth beat adorned with tubular bells building towards a rousing, repetative finish.

Didn't matter to me; I held constant vigile for the video, scampering into our mustard-colored TV room as soon as I heard those clanging bells.

Fast forward: December 23, 2006. I'm in my home studio brainstorming my annual online holiday single. 'Hmm,' I thought, '"Do They Know It's Christmas" made for a genius encore at The Nadas' Silent Night benefit concert in last year. Maybe I should call all of my New York City friends to record a version of our own.'

My watch read 11:23 pm. Christmas was mere hours away. Much as Casey, Chris or Jeff have my back,' I thought, 'There's no way I'll get 'em out on Christmas Eve.'

And so it is that I rallied some fifteen or so local singer/songwriters/musicians to record our version this weekend. The "Family Records Holiday" aggregates the idea behind "A Very Special Christmas" and "Do They Know It's Christmas." Fifteen local singer/songwriter/bands have contributed one holiday track each, and plus our version of the Band Aid single. A music video will do online pre-press for a December release and performance. The entire thing will benefit 826NYC, a youth literacy program.

Chris Abad, Casey Shea, Tony Maceli, Ryan Vaughn and I met up at Travis Harrison's Serious Business Studios in the heart of SoHo (Spring & Lafayette) as a hard rain began to fall Saturday morning. A few hours and many cups of coffee later, we had our basic track (drums, bass, acoustic guitar and scratch vocals). Langhorn Stoneburner Shea and Hot Rocks hostess Jenny Piston showed up with DV cams to begin shooting the music video. Casey -- due to depart for London with the rest of Sundown, laid down his vocal. "It's Christmas time," he sang perfectly in one take, "There's no need to be afraid."

And we were off.

Attorney's guitarist John Wlaysewski showed up with his bandmate William Ryan George and nailed a nuanced-but-powerful guitar part. The Wakey! Wakey! frontman Mike Grubbs showed up and -- between bites of veggie burger and fries -- nailed the now-famous, completely memorable hook. Less than six hours in, the basic recording was done. We left the studio two hours ahead of schedule as disk fell on Manhattan.

I spent the bulk of Sunday morning watching the video over and over on You Tube trying to assign the right parts to the right people (knowing already that a) Casey had already played the part of Paul Young, and I was laying claim to Bono's big line). Travis, Chris, and I re-assembled at noon. The chorus, as it were, began to trickle in one by one: Wynn Walent, Tarrah Reynolds, Kailen Garrity, Seth Kallen, Jeff Jacobson, Misty Boyce, William Ryan George and John Wlaysewski (The Attorneys), George & Jess Jezel (El Jezel), Wes Verhoeven (Undisputed Heavyweights), plus Mike and Gene Adam (Wakey! Wakey!). We rehearsed along with the track a half-dozen times, then began knocking out individual parts.

Later that afternoon, as we stood crowded around a single, omni-directional Neumann microphone drinking 20 ounce Budweisers, I laughed at Chris and Jenny (who have been staunch supporters from the start). "We did it!" I mouthed silently between "Feed the world!" and "Let them know it's Christmas time!!!"

We did it.

And it sounds totally freakin' bad ass.

Wait 'til you hear it.

Just like a thirteen-year-old in a dusty record store, you'll believe in blind optimism all over again.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

There Goes The Neighborhood

So Davy Rothbart's "There Goes The Neighborhood Tour" was in New York Friday Night. So Chris, Abbi and I met up after work, and headed down to the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater on 26th Street.

I'd texted Davy earlier in the afternoon to call off the shoot. We were gonna' do a bot of meet and greet, but decided that -- since we're going to Pittsburgh together in November -- we could hold the thought 'til then.

The event was sold out. We were surrounded by thirtysomething literate-types as we waited in line near next to Gristede's.

"These are our people, man!" I told Chris. "If we can get these people in every town, we're golden!"

The venue was kinda' sketchy: dusty, black walls, exposed plumbing, rockity theater seats. I loved it. It felt vital, collegiate, like there was nothing to lose.

I coaxed Abbi and Chris into the front row. There was no stage, per say, just 3/4 of a rectanglular space without seats. So our feet were basically on stage. When the lights went down, we never fully faded into theatrical blackness; our reactions would be part of the show.

Davy walked in from the wings, unloaded a thicket of Xeroxed pages onto a pair of barstools, and began reading.

Davy and his brother, Peter, put on a hilarious show. It's basically a rock 'n roll reading that happens to be comedic. Found Magazine is, well, a magazine full of found objects: love letters, receipts, photos. Many of which are humorous, especially out of context. Peter brings the music, like his boy band send-up based on an actual love note, "Booty Don't Stop."

Davy also happens to be a marketing genius. He effortlessly weaves his mailing list and promotions for upcoming shows, back issues of the magazine, books, and CDs into his shtick. The amazing thing is that the whole thing feels so earnest and real, not commercial.

At the end of the show, as Davy was thanking a few people, he mentioned his buddy, "This American Life" producer Alex Bloomberg, and congratulated him on his recent marriage. Then he looked at me and said, "And thanks to Benjamin Wagner who's about to get married." That little gesture made me feel pretty special. Later, when someone told me that This American Life host Ira Glass seated behind Abbi, Chris and me, I exclaimed to Abbi, "Ira Glass knows my name." Which, as ridiculous as it sounds, is kinda' the beauty of this whole Mister Rogers-inspired journey of mine.

Later that night, I met Davy at The Park, a scene club on 18th & Tenth. I thought I was meeting him and a few friends. I walked into a table of twenty. Davy -- bless his heart -- introduced me as "The deepest guy I know." I pulled up a chair between a Pakistani journalist and Random House designer. I talked about God, Britney Spears, and "The Secret Lives of People in Love." Like I said to Chris, these are our people: the ones who burn for conversation, substance, solutions. The ones who want to change the world.

Well after midnight, I peeled off as Davy's friends tumbled out of the club towards its next destination. In the few minutes there as the party dispersed on the street, a fellow reveler told me, "Oh yeah, Mister Rogers used to come into the country store I worked at during summers."

"Bartlett Farms," I said.

"Yeah," she replied.

'He still up there connecting us,' I thought from the backseat, smiling all the way up Tenth Avenue.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Nantucket '07: Time After Time

I woke up just after sunrise this morning.

Stepping into the living room I was gob smacked by the sea shining through the picture window. The only sound in our cottage, Watcha Dune, was the ticking of the old novelty clock on the wall that reads, "Who Cares."

I grabbed the DV and began shooting right away. Soon enough, I was on the beach, the tripod wedged level in the sand. A seal was splashing around in the waves a few hundred feet off shore.

I turned the camera towards the waves zooming in on the slow-rolling water there before it crested and capped and broke. Then I turned northwest and shot the sunlight sparkling on the waves as they lapped onto the shore.

Everything around me had a pulse. Everything around me beat the rhythem of time. I stood there, my toes in the water, and thought to myself 'This is why Mister Rogers loved it here.'

Increments of time feel both more minute and more infinate here.

The island changes with each passing season: inlets deepen, sandbars grow and homes fall into the sea. Someday, perhaps, it will all wash away.

It is the steady march of time. Unlike Times Square, Copley Plaza or Piccadilly Circus, where the horns and the sirens and the lights and the crush of the hawkers, barkers and hustlers, is relentlessly distracting. Each wave, each soaring gull, each blade of grass blowing in the wind, actually means something.



* * *

I am eatting bluberry pie for breakfast now. Because I can.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Nantucket '07: A Thousand Hues

Christofer pursuaded me to bring the HDDV to Nantucket this weekend to shoot b-roll for the film on account of the fact that he wouldn't be joining Abbi and me at my mother's.

He and Ethan came by my office Friday at noon as I scurried around tying up loose ends. MTV's Video Music Awards are next weekend. I'm flying to Las Vegas straight from Nantucket.

I walked Ethan around the floor, showing him off like a proud uncle.

In the newsroom, my colleague, Tim Kash was reading the news. He invited Ethan on set, and encouraged him to read Teleprompter. Ethan just smiled when he saw himself on the monitor.

He was quiet, except to tell me my office was too small ("I would need a bigger room," he said) and that we needed to find a bigger window through which to look at the river.

The car service called at 12:30. Chris and Ethan walked me downstairs and through Times Square. I gave him a hug, and headed off, waving to him through the crowd.

I pecked away at my Blackberry as we crept up Sixth Avenue towards Abbi's office, and I wondered to myself if all of this seemed normal to Ethan: working three hundred feet in the air in jeans, sneakers and a sport coat at a major media company, newsrooms, DV cams, Times Square, and car services.

As I wondered, I looked up and spotted my first boss in New York City, a guy named Brian Donlon who hired me to launch Lifetime Television's first web site was back in 1995. He did a double take, but I didn't say anything. I just smiled and thought, "Wow, you've come a long way."

Three hours later, our jet landed in Nantucket. Where New York City had been warm and sunny, ACK was cold and rainy.

Since then, the sky has cleared. The wind has picked up. And the ocean has changed a thousand hues.

I've left the strum and dirge of the city behind, and grabbed some beautiful b-roll of Madaket Harbor, Millie's Bridge, and the sunset over Smith's Point.

I feel blessed, and grateful, and wish Mister Rogers were here so I could tell him all about it.