Thursday, January 14, 2010

The End Is The Beginning Is The End

"I'm gonna' go ahead and say," I tell Chris, "That this thing's turning out even better than I might have imagined."

It's 11:23 on a Thursday night. He's has been working on "Mister Rogers & Me" since ten o'clock this morning. I walked over after twelve hours at The MTV.

At the moment, we're re-cutting the very, very end of the film. Chris is patiently responding to a obsessive compulsive disorder that compels me to tap out time on the desk and ask him to cut to it.

"It needs to breath more," I say. "I want people have time to think."

We've been "finishing" the film forever. People don't quite understand just how many micro-adjustments there are in this process. Today, for example, we added three new VOs, two new photos, two segments of b-roll, an epilogue, plus dozens of small deletions and timing tweaks. Every edit brings us closer to its original vision.

Tonight, I even indulged myself by imagining our premiere.

"Do you think Susan Stamberg will come?" I ask Chris. "Bo would, right?"

Chris stares at his four monitors, intent on moving us forward one keyframe at a time.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Mister Rogers & Me" Tribeca Submission

"TRT is 82:36," Chris said. "If we don't make any more changes."

It's 11:59pm on Sunday, January 10. The Tribeca Film Festival deadline is tomorrow. Chris and I are wrapping up dozens of small tweaks.

We just re-cut the Bev Hall segment, for example, to include the amazing footage of the day "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" visited Bev's Nantucket Neighborhood.

Then we pruned the textual quotes that act as chapter markers before each segment. They're all terrific, and super-salient. And Mister Rogers never wasted words. Still, nothing's more daunting in a movie theater (or on television, or an iPod) than a paragraph of text. So they're shorter now (but, hopefully, no less impactful).

Then we dropped in a tiny piece of new voice over ("When Ellerbee finally met Mister Rogers in person...") that I recorded down the hall. Her segment's almost done, save for a few pieces of new b-roll.

Now we're adding a great Linda Ellerbee soundbite that (like so many hours of great footage) somehow hit the cutting room floor prematurely. "We often say on our show," She says, "That sometimes the best thing you can do with your television is turn it off."

We'll make thousands more changes in the coming weeks and months, each one a tiny fraction closer to the story Mister Rogers challenged us to tell.

For now, though, our Tribeca Film Festival, rough-cut submission is laying off. The application (below) is printed. The messenger is booked. As they say in Hollywood, it's a wrap... for now.

Title Original: Mister Rogers & Me
Country: USA
Year: 2010
Work-in-progress: Yes
Changes: Still in progress: Dr. Susan Linn segment, soundtrack, plus assorted (Russert, Ellerbee, Jewett) b-roll and photo adds and v.o. tweaks.
Running time: 80 min.
Film type: Feature Documentary
Category: Family Friendly, New York
Premiere: International
Logline: American's Favorite Neighbor, PBS icon, Fred Rogers, sends a young MTV producer on a quest for depth and simplicity amidst a shallow and complex media landscape.
Synopsis: An MTV producer's life is transformed when he meets the recently-retired host of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,' Fred Rogers. Friendship with the PBS icon sets the young producer on a hero's quest to find depth and simplicity amidst a shallow and complex media landscape through conversations with Susan Stamberg (NPR), Tim Russert ('Meet The Press'), Marc Brown ('Arthur') and more.
Estimated Budget: 100,000

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Mister Rogers, Madaket Millie & Me

I received an incredible package from Family Communications today. It is the Holy Grail of video tapes that connects Mister Rogers to Madaket. We've been seeking it for inclusion in our documentary, "Mister Rogers & Me," for over three years.

The hour-long special, "Old Friends... New Friends," premiered in 1978 and features Mister Rogers' visits with animal activist (and "Golden Girl") Betty White, and Nantucket resident and honorary Coast Guard Warrant Officer (and local legend), "Madaket Millie" Jewett.

Local photographer Beverly Hall's photo of Fred and Millie hung in the living room of the West Wind, the cottage my mother rented there in Madaket, well prior to either of our realization that Mister Rogers himself lived next door. Of course, Chris and I visited Miss Hall in January, 2008. She was friends with both Fred and Millie, and told us the story about that day. Finally, then, I get to see the segment. And it's incredible!

Fred and Millie wander around the yard of her little cottage still standing today on the edge of Hither Creek (right across the street from the house my mom rented last year, just to the right edge of this photo).

As always, Mister Rogers goes straight for the heart. He asks about her childhood, about which she initially demures. With some empathic coaxing, though, we learn that she was born and raised there in Madaket before there were roads or electricity. Her mother died when she was young. She spent the bulk of her life alone there on the quiet, blustery edge of the island, a steely, terse curmudgeon who avoids eye contact, but loves her many pets and keeps watch over the choppy waters of the West End.

"You know, you have helped so many human beings," Fred says to her. "And so many people care about you..."

She is at first stunned, then momentarily moved, looking up to Fred with momentary vulnerability.

"Anybody who needs a helping hand if I can help, I don't what time of day or night it is, if it's three o'clock in the afternoon or two o'clock in the morning, I don't care what time it is. I do the best I can."

Back in his Pittsburgh studio for the end of the segment, Fred says, "There are so many different ways of expressing love, some very forceful and busy others very quiet and calm. I guess one of the great blessings of this life is being able to recognize love wherever we find it. And feeling confident in our own ways of expressing it."

Like most things Fred Rogers related, it is perfectly timed, arriving at my desk at the tail end of a thirteen-hour day just three days into a year that is already moving at a relentless pace.

Thanks, FCI. Thanks, Bev Hall. And thanks, Mister Rogers.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Mister Rogers, Ambivalence & Me

I spent yesterday afternoon in the closet wrestling with editorial challenges in my head, and technical challenges with my laptop. Were I less frustrated and annoyed, I might have laughed.

My closet is tiny and crowded with clothes. I sit on a tiny stool crouched over my Mac. My mic stand is broken, so I had to hold the mic in one hand and the pop screen (so every word starting with the letter "p" doesn't sound like a sonic boom) with the other. Ridiculous as it sounds, it takes me about thirty minutes per twenty-second take. There's so much to get right: pace, inflection, to say nothing of not stumbling over words. Heck, I'm not even sure what made me think I could do voice over; I never had before.

All said, I spent eight hours re-tracking less than ten minutes worth of voice over. It's time well-spent, of course, if I've managed to create a little clarity.

Example, it takes about five minutes of film (HDDV, really) for me to get to the back porch of Mister Rogers Crooked House where he first asked me about my job and exposed my existential ambivalence about it. Initial feedback (not including the Sundance folks, a grand total of three people have seen the most-recent edit) and my own intuition suggested I needed to heighten or clarify the conflict. The original v.o. went thusly:

Later, Mister Rogers and I stood on the back porch of The Crooked House staring out to sea. He asked me about my job, and frankly, I was a little embarrassed. I mean, here he was: America’s Most beloved Neighbor, creator and steward of one of television’s most-substantive, long-running shows.

Me? At worst, I produce silly stories about pop stars. At best, I keep music fans connected to the source of their inspiration.

Doesn't really seem to get at my conflict, or my ambivalence, right? So here's what I tracked yesterday:

Me? As one-time editor of the high school newspaper and sometimes singer/songwriter, MTV made a lot of sense. But I was ambivalent, a PBS mind in a jump-cut, sound-bit MTV world – trying to figure out just what I could do to make it a better place.

And then we get to the quote that began the whole journey:

Mister Rogers didn’t render any judgement, but said simply: “I feel so strongly, that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.” Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.

Minor differences, sure. But hopefully the kind of thing that'll create some additional narrative clarity.

Truth is, it's tough to have any sense whatsoever of whether the film hits its mark; I know every second of this story, and every inch of the tape. Try as I might, I can't come to it fresh.

In a perfect world, we'd show a few dozen people, gather some feedback, and make changes accordingly. But even with all of the support we've received from family and friends, we can only afford three more days of edit before submitting to Tribeca and Nantucket. There's no way we'll get everything done as we stand with these v.o. changes plus two dozen other tiny tweaks (Ex. 1: "00:07:09 - Fade Photo," Ex 2: "00:07:45 - Replace Photo").

Anyway, I've done about all that I can for now. Chris has new voice overs, plus two pages of notes. I've scripted the new Susan Linn segment, reached out to FCI and NBC for additional footage, remixed vocal-free version of my songs for audio beds, and secured the perfect song for the end from my pal, Casey Shea.

So now we just gotta' get back into the edit. Fast.