Sunday, January 27, 2008

Given To Fly

There are three major flight paths outside my window: Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK.

With the frequent buzz of tourist helicopters and Hudson River air traffic, the skies above me are constantly crowded with jet engines, propellers, and blinking red lights. It's an apt metaphor for New York City, really. Or, for that matter, my brain.

Friday night, though, found Chris and I wandering an empty Nantucket wharf. The water was still. The Steamship Authority's klieg lights illuminated empty docks. Slips were barren. Cottages were vacant. And nary a dog stirred on the island.

For many, Nantucket conjures images of trophy homes and whale print pants. For me, though, it is this: modest, gray clapboard houses; narrow, sandy roads; and silence: yawning, effortless, limitless silence.

Chris and I were on Nantucket from Friday at ten o'clock to Saturday at two o'clock.

Sixteen hours.

That brief instant in time afforded us a substantive and inspirational morning with Beverly Hall, the photographer who captured one of the island's most beloved images of local icons Fred Rogers and Millie Jewett, and one other thing: silence.

It wasn't until our time with Beverly, there in her hand-built home overlooking Hither Creek, that I began to realize just how quiet it was. Sitting there, pouring over photos of her real neighbor, I heard the buzz of an approaching Cape Air Cessna 402.

It was soothing like a distant rush of waves, or a breeze through the branches.

I felt right at home, but more so.

Chris leaving Miss Hall's Mack Pond cottage Saturday afternoon.

Facing west on Tennessee Street before heading to the airport.

A winter sun struggled through the clouds as we boarded our 8-seater Cape Air flight.

From our flight, we could spot all of Madaket below: Mister Rogers Crooked House, Millie's Hither Creek cottage, as well as both of my mother's rentals: West Wind (where Mister Rogers told me to "Spread the [deep and simple] message"), and Whatcha Dune (which was, apparently, recently moved about fifty feet off it foundation in an effort to prolong its eventual communion with the roaring Atlantic).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Procrastination Street

I'm scripting Davy Rothbart's segment right now, and had a good laugh when I began screening.

For starters, have a look at the shot. Between the furniture pattern and drapes, it could very well be 1977. It's not. It's November 18th, 2007 in room 1607 of the Renaissance Hotel Pittsburgh. Oh, and it's totally, like, three o'clock in the morning.

Also, have a look at Davy's outfit. Imagine him in contrast to, say, Tim Russert.

Love it.

Finally, something you won't see in the shot: just after we clipped our lav mics onto out lapels (or, in Davy's case, gold chains), we toasted one another (and Chris!) with a few Iron City Beers.


Can you tell that I don't want to be transcribing right now?

Oh, one last thing: I totally had hair in the Bo Lozoff shoot. Dunno how we're gonna' account for that in the finished film!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Mister Rogers, Beverly Hall & Me

I first came upon Beverly Hall's photography unwittingly; an iconic photo of Mister Rogers and local character Millie Jewett (aka Madaket Millie) hangs in the bedroom of West Wind, my mother's tiny rental next door to The Rogers' Crooked House.

Millie, like Mister Rogers, is a local legend on Nantucket. She was born and lived most of her 82 years on Nantucket, many of which were spent in a modest cottage on the edge of Hither Creek. The Nantucket Independent remembers her thusly:

Millie tried to enlist in the service when World War II broke out, but was turned down because of poor eyesight. Undaunted, she took to training dogs for military service, something she had an incredible talent for and the only part of her life in which she finally announced she took pride. Millie was not one to boast, as history attests.

In early January, 1947, the Coast Guard decommissioned and closed its Madaket station, established in 1891, for what was considered a lack of need for the outpost. But Millie, who had already taken an avid interest in the goings and comings of boats, discovered on that same day (which differs in records from Jan. 3 to Jan. 9) a freighter named Kotar went aground off Sheep Pond Road.

Its captain, disoriented in the fog, sent his distress signal as being 40 miles southeast of the island. When Millie saw the ship’s lights, she immediately alerted Coast Guard Station Brant Point. The incident, to her, was proof that a lookout was still necessary on Nantucket’s western end, and from that day on she maintained her vigil.

Two years ago, my mother gave me a book of Nantucket photography: beautiful, foggy black and whites shot largely on the West End. Until a few weeks ago, though, I hadn't really connected the dots. When I began researching coverage (that is, b-roll and photography), though, I came across Miss Hall's work and though, "Aha!"

So I emailed her.

She called on Friday, just as I was packing for a long weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. We had a terrific conversations. She's full of energy, enthusiasm, and, after 25 years in Madaket, is brimming with stories.

And so, between screenings, panels and red carpets, I booked Chris and I flights to Nantucket. We leave Friday night, and return Saturday evening.

I'm not sure where to fit Miss Hall's segment in the film. Were I a better producer/writer/director, I would have connected the dots earlier, we would have interviewed her over the summer and avoided any major continuity issues. (Thus far, none of our footage was shot in the winter). But, if this film (or at least this process) is some sort of hero's journey, then I need to follow the road and see where it takes me.

Friday night, all roads lead to Madaket.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Mister Rogers & Me: Behind-The-Scenes

Most documentary films are an artfully arranged combination of the following elements: interviews and footage. Until yesterday, we lacked a fair amount of the latter. Thanks to our pal Amy Hollingsworth, today finds us in better shape on both.

You'll recall that Amy was a Researcher for "The 700 Club" when she snagged the enviable assignment of interviewing Mister Rogers. She and her crew spent an entire day capturing the making of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" at WQED in Pittsburgh.

While we're negotiating rights to utilize actual episodes, Amy's footage is behind-the-scenes: Mister Rogers singing to camera, talking with Johnny Costa, looking at a monitor. It's priceless stuff. As I just emailed to Amy moments ago, I stood outside WQED a few weeks ago, and really wished to be inside with Fred. Amy's footage is the closest I'll get. It's really a wonderful gift which Amy secured from CBN on our behalf.

Hopefully, we'll be that lucky in other instances. I've submitted the following requests to Family Communications:

1) "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" Ep. 29 3/28/68
2) "Mister Rogers Talks With Parents About Divorce" Ep. 605 2/15/81
3) Photos: 1928, 1937, 1952, 1969

And I've initiated a fair amount of outreach from some of our interviewees. Davy Rothbart, for example, FedExed me three dozen snapshots from his family vacation in Nantucket. We hope to receive similar supporting material from Tim Russert (who seemed to think his son still had his possession a clock that Mister Roger fashioned from a paper plate) and Marc Brown.

Finally, we've tapped our friend and esteemed documentary filmmaker Katia Maguire to do some research on our behalf. She'll be scouring photo and footage agencies, as well as reaching out to organizations like the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Mister Rogers was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 1997. His acceptance speech is a key component to our story. In it he says:

All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take with me ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Those who have cared about you, and wanted what was best for you in life. Ten seconds of silence. I'll watch the time.

Piece by piece, we'll put this puzzle together.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mister Rogers, Ira Glass & Me

Now that his Production Manager has officially said no thanks on his behalf ("Between his super tight schedule and his feeling like he doesn't have a whole heckuvalot to say about Mister Rogers, he'd like to politely decline your invitation."), I can finally tell you that -- for a minute there -- I thought one of my contemporary heroes, Ira Glass, was going to appear in the film.

My pal, Jen Snow, suggested I contact him (having heard me talk about him 24/7). "This American Life" is the highlight of my week, to be sure. It is a superior example of deep, substantive storytelling. Accordingly, it stands to reason that it's creator and host would be both deep and simple. Which I'm sure he is. I just couldn't wrangle the interview.

Anyway, we did have a lovely email exchange, one in which he told me the following story about meeting Mister Rogers.

When I was 20, a young production assistant, I worked on a radio adaptation that NPR did of his show, a call in kid's show with him and his characters. Just a pilot. Mainly I remember that the moment I met him in NPR's lobby, he was eating one of those little bags of peanuts you get from a vending machine and he offered me some. I hesitated and he encouraged me to take some. Which I did. He poured the nuts directly in my hand, which complete strangers you've seen on TV don't do too often. This is a dorky thing to say but it seemed like a symbolic act, a deliberate gesture he was making, though I'm sure he didn't think about it for more than a half-second. This was his way of setting a tone for working together, like here, let's share a snack, that's what this is going to be like.

It's a beautiful story, one that might find its way into the film yet. It speaks directly to what I was saying a few days ago about small gestures. As this story evolves, and a resolution to the film's inherent conflict becomes increasingly requisite, there's something about the idea of small gestures -- little things: a smile, a held door, a shared snack -- that feels like at least part of the solution.

It's disappointing, but we soldier on.

And we still love Ira!

Believe In The Great Sound

I haven't been listening to music lately. As someone who is defined by a love of both making his own and listening to other's, this is a somewhat disconcerting development.

Years ago I lost my voice for no reason whatsoever. I wasn't neither sick, not had I been talking too much. It just disappeared.

Now, I was puzzled by this phenomenon, but chose to view it as an opportunity. Apparently, I thought, I'm supposed to be listening more. So I did.

I'm approaching the loss of my musical appetite similarly, though this one is a dual loss.

See, other people's music provides me with inspiration. The Hold Steady's "Stuck between Stations" inspires me to run faster. Paloalto's "Breath In" inspires me to look around appreciatively. "Rhinemaidens" inspires me to persist.

My own music -- or the creation thereof, anyway -- inspires understanding. Songwriting is like lucid dreaming. At its most beautiful, it's like opening a tap on all of the things just below the surface of every day, pouring them out on the floor, ordering them by color and shape and texture, and making sense from the mess.

The absence of those two things, then, is major. Moreover, the silence is deafening.

Of course, this lack of inspiration and understanding comes at a precipitous time. I am surrounded by uncertainty: a new marriage, a new job, a half-finished film and dubious singer/songwriter career.

Sunday afternoon, then, found me at my desk. The blinds were thrown wide, revealing a broad swath of troubled sky. I was doing some "Mister Rogers & Me" research while listening to assorted podcasts: All Things Considered, This American Life, Bob Edwards' Weekend, and Bill Moyers' Journal.

One of Moyers' guests was American poet Robert Bly. A Fulbright scholar and Iowa Writer's Workshop graduate, Bly was an outspoken detractor of the Vietnam war, and staunch advocate for what came to be known as "The Men's Movement" in the 1980s. He's long been a hero of mine. To me he represents a full spectrum of values: he is strong but not silent, articulate but not unapproachable, philosophical but not abstract.

Moyers began by reading one of Bly's poems.

I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things of the world. I have wandered into space for hours, passing through dark fires. And I have gone to the deserts of the hottest places, to the landscape of zeroes. And I can't tell if this joy is from the body or the soul or a third place.

"When you say, 'What is the divine?'" Bly said, "It's much simpler to say, 'There is the body, there is the soul, and there is a third space.' It's a place where the geniuses and the lovely people and the brilliant women -- they all go there and they watch over us a little bit. But we don't there very often. I suppose it's because we think too much about houses, and our places."

Bly then began reading a poem by the 13th Century Indian mystic, Kabir.

Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive.
Think... and think... while you are alive.

If you don't break your ropes while you’re alive,
Do you think ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
Just because the body is rotten
That is all fantasy.

What is found now is found then.

If you find nothing now,
You will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.
If you make love with the divine now,
In the next life, you will have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the teacher is
Believe in the great sound.

Kabir says this, When the Guest is being searched for,
It is the intensity of the longing for the Guest
That does all the work.

The final passage, in particular, has offered great solace in these few intervening days.

In this time of great, gray uncertainty, the intensity with which I seek answers will have to be answer enough.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Mrs. Rogers & Me

I emailed Mrs. Rogers today to be sure I had my facts straight about The Crooked House.

She wrote back almost immediately:

Fred's parents gave us The Crooked House and surrounding land back in about 1961, and I believe the entire purchase was about $10,000... What well-spent money! There have been many happy times there, and continue to be as our sons and their families keep it well-occupied all summer!

I have retired from Nantucket, but am so glad our boys are able to make good use of it. Hope this info helps get the work done.

Good luck!

Joanne Rogers

Thus far, Family Communications wishes not to participate directly in our film. The quality, enthusiasm and almost-palpable joy behind this exchange only makes their decision more painful.

Nonetheless, it's a pleasure to hear from her.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Found vs. Post Secret: The Future Tenant Podcast

The cold and rainy November day that Chris and I spent with Davy Rothbart felt was nearly endless.

We left New York City at 8:00, made it to Pittsburgh around 4:00, and then met Davy at Future Tenant, a student-run creative space downtown, around 6:00.

We helped Davy, his sidekick Andym, brother Peter and a gaggle of Future Tenant volunteers set up folding chairs in the narrow, drafty gallery, that sat through (in my case) and shot (in Chris') two Found vs. Post Secret performances.

Afterwards, Chris and I helped volunteers clean up as Davy entertained fans, and then conducted an interview with Future Tenant producer, Adam Murray.

It wasn't until somewhere around three o'clock in the morning that we set up lights in our hotel room, and began interviewing Davy for a fairly breif, oddly erratic conversation. (One, Chris assures me, he can cut into a cohesive narrative.)

Anyway, Adam recently sent me the link to his Future Tenant Podcast featuring Davy, plus a cameo from your truly. Enjoy.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Mister Rogers, Chef Brockett & Me

Moment to moment, day to day, my confidence as to whether we're gonna' finish this documentary in time for the March 15th Nantucket Film Festival deadline changes. At this moment, on this day, confidence is high.

This week's progress has been measured in inches, not feet (let alone miles). I finished Marc Brown's segment over the weekend. He tells a sweet story about first meeting Mister Rogers, then goes on to illustrate just how aggressively advertisers market to kids.

"Each year they see 40,000 commercials about fast food and candy, and there’s over $10B spent each year on making those commercials," he told me last December. "Now that is a stacked deck.

"Right now the Federal Trade Commission has decided that these fast food places should really police themselves. And I don’t think that’s working so well."

Fred Rogers, of course, agreed.

We have to remember to whom the airwaves belong, and we must put as great an emphasis on the nurturing of the human personality as we can. I believe that those of us who are the producers and purveyors of television -- or video games or newspapers or any mass media -- I believe that we are the servants of this nation.

Marc Brown's segment will lead nicely, I hope, into Linda Ellerbee's. Ms. Ellerbee -- who was an absolute firecracker -- speaks of meeting Mister Rogers as well, and of how his values influenced her Nick News.

"One of the leading principles of Nick News is that we are all more alike than we are different. It’s only that our differences are easier to define. The second rule is, wherever in the world you find bad things happening, you always find good people trying to make it better. The third rule is keep it simple. And the fourth rule is that simple is not the same as easy."

Then she goes on to explain the primary reason why television is often so shallow and complex. The program isn't the product; the audience is.

"The product is the audience. The consumer is the advertiser. The program is just the means of acquiring that audience."

Ah yes, the Almighty Dollar.

Remember what Bo said? "The way Jesus puts it in the West is, 'Lay not of your treasures where moth and rust doth corrupt, and thieves break in and steal.”

I've also begun drafting a list of the photos and footage we need to licence, like "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" Episode #29 (the one that takes place in Nantucket), and his 1997 Lifetime Emmy Award acceptence speech.

Meantime, some early bits of media are coming in. Amy Hollingsworth (bless her heart) secured a deal with CBN on our behalf so that we're able to use her intire 1996 interview. And Day Rothbart sent this photo today. I quickly emailed him. "Do you have that other photo? The one without the dude in the leopard-skin Speed?"

"Ha!" he wrote back. "That's Don Brockett, who played Chef Brockett on the show!"

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Mister Rogers, The Small Gesture & Me

It's been well over a year since I interviewed NPR's Susan Stamberg.

I just finished scripting her segment of the film, and was struck -- as I have been throughout the scripting process -- by the subtle details of our conversation that I'd since forgotten.

Towards the end of our twenty-minute conversation there in NPR's Studio 5C, Susan pulled a photo of Mister Rogers and her from a frame. The photo, she said, held a sacred place just beside her office door.

"I look at it every time I walk out," she said.

Tonight at dinner, I told Abbi, "I don't want to be an also-ran. I want to be special"

For some reason, I have a tendency to gauge the success or failure of my personal creative projects (recordings, writings, this film) on the scope and scale of their audience. My cover of John Denver's "Leaving On A Jet Plane," then, is the most successful thing I've done based on its 15,000+ iTunes downloads. Everything else? Tough to say.

Despite the rise of the long tail, we remain in the era of the blockbuster. The bar is high. Our cultural attention span is instant, and we are always looking towards what's next. So films are judged on opening night. Books are judged by their New York Times Book Review. Records are over by the time they're released. TV shows "jump the shark" after their pilots.

Throughout my life, though, I've wrestled with the flipside. Mozart never sold out Madison Square Garden. Picasso didn't live in Tribeca loft. Hemingway was never on Oprah. Why, the, should I judge my art by of Multiplex standards?

Our conversation (the one that often includes the phrase, "I just wish I could quit a be creative full-time") concluded with my oft-repeated by not-fully convincing mantra, "I guess it will work out as it should."

This is on the set [of "Mister Rogers Talks With Parents About Divorce"]… Fred and I just sitting there posing for publicity shots. I love looking at it. And I especially love looking at his hands, which were so graceful and delicate.

I said, “How do you do television? How do you do television?”

And he said, “It’s a medium of the small gesture.”

Earlier this week, I told Chris that we needed a reality check. "Mister Rogers & Me" is unlikely to be picked up by IFC or Fox Searchlight. It might not air on PBS, or even Ovation. It's likely to be a fully-independent, completely grass roots little film, one that we drive from town to town over the course of the summer. Which, given that I'd like to think that it's Oscar-worthy (at least its subject matter, if not its execution), is a bummer.

But, as he's been doing since I met him, Mister Rogers sent me a message tonight.

Small gestures.

The rest will work out as it should.