Rambling On

Anthony R. Cardno's Fiction and Commentary

Archive for the ‘directors’ Category

Ted Fisher

I’ve been acquainted with escape artist / street performer / magician / jack of all trades and all around nice guy Jason Escape for a while now thanks to Twitter. He impressed me right away as a man concerned not just with making a living at his trades-of-choice but also with social justice and being a good person and a positive light in this world. I’m not the only one who thought so, as you’ll see in this interview with Ted Fisher.  Ted, with his wife Karen, is the director of a 15-minute documentary about Jason called “Hanging Downtown,” and is now running a Kickstarter to film a full length documentary about Jason’s life both on stage (on the streets of Boston) and off. When I found out about the project (a little belatedly) I jumped at the chance to talk to Ted about the Kickstarter and his documentary-filming experience.

 

ANTHONY: How did you become familiar with Jason Escape?

TED: I met Jason on Twitter. I was hoping to make a 5-minute documentary, and in my search I discovered what he does and thought it would be very interesting. Quickly, however, I realized that there are many interesting aspects to his life. So my wife and I traveled to Boston, and the result was … eventually … a 15-minute documentary called “Hanging Downtown.”

ANTHONY: Why make a documentary about Jason?

TED: In the 15-minute documentary, one theme that emerged was the idea of struggling to overcome a challenge. It addressed his struggle to be recognized as a performer, his struggle to engage an audience, and his struggle to complete a challenging escape. Since then, however, he’s gotten married, had a child, and faced the challenge of making a living as a performer. Ropes, chains, handcuffs? Easy. Father, Husband, Businessman? Now that’s a challenge.

So the new feature-length film provides an opportunity to learn more about him, and to explore this wild challenge of being an escape artist and family man.

ANTHONY: Documentaries come in all shapes and sizes. What’s the feel of your film going to be?

TED: I love the classic observational documentaries. At the same time, both my wife and I are really from a background in the fine arts, and we love the complex, multilayered approach you find in the best contemporary art. So, you might say we’re using strategies from art to shape a traditional observational documentary.

ANTHONY: What’s your plan for filming, and what equipment will you be using?

TED: My camera bag looks a lot more like a photojournalist’s than you’d expect. I’m a proponent of HDSLR video — using the video capabilities of still cameras or hybrid cameras — so I use small cameras like the Panasonic GH1 and GH2. Everything is chosen to be extremely mobile and lightweight. I value audio highly, so items like a quality lavalier microphone and a good shotgun microphone on a boom pole are essentials — but everything packs up in a very small case. Small LED lights are used to augment available light when needed, but again the emphasis is on working in a way that matches the street performer aesthetic.

Hanging Downtown, the documentary short

ANTHONY: Is this your first documentary/film? What other films or directors have influenced your plan for this documentary?

TED: I’ve made several short documentaries, and with my wife the 15-minute “Hanging Downtown” documentary, but this is our first feature.

ANTHONY: What do you hope people get out of seeing Jason’s story?

TED: I think the theme of facing a challenge is probably going to be key to the new film. But I think the balance between his career, his ambition, his performance and the other elements of life is going to be something that everyone can relate to.

ANTHONY: What else would you like people to know about Jason and/or the film?

TED: Jason is amazing as a documentary subject because of what he does — it’s something that’s incredibly visual, has an element of danger, and is fascinating on screen — but to us the more important aspect is that he’s chosen to really reveal himself, and to let the audience in to experience his life.

ANTHONY: The Kickstarter still has nine days left. You’ve met the initial fundraising goal of $1,000. What will the money be used for, and what is the plan for funds raised over the intial goal?

TED: Realistically, our initial $1,000 goal was set when we weren’t sure if people were going to love the idea of the film as much as we did. But when people backed the Kickstarter, often specifically commenting how much they loved it and wanted to see it succeed, we realized there was an audience for the film. We celebrated loudly when we saw the funding hit our goal — but quickly realized that our real costs in just getting to Boston and staying there might be double that initial $1,000. So we’re thrilled to meet all of our backers, and to see the Kickstarter be considered a success, but we know we need to raise much more and stay with it just to see the filming begin. Our production approach is just my wife and I and sometimes a very small crew. We work with a very low-budget, minimal approach. So … we’re pretty streamlined. But airplane tickets and hotel rooms are the first hurdle to the initial filming.

ANTHONY: What sorts of perks are you offering backers?

TED: Well, we’re very excited to present a download of the initial 15-minute documentary “Hanging Downtown.” It’s still screening at festivals, but very soon we’re going to put it into the hands of our backers so they can discover Jason in that film and become part of our team for the feature-length doc. As well, we’re really focused on the importance of music in the film, so we’re offering a download of the soundtrack. Then, of course, people are going to want to see the new feature when it is done — and that’s another reward. Beyond that, we’re are offering a chance to meet Jason at special coffee and lunch events in Boston and San Diego right between performances.

There’s one other very innovative reward offered as well. We are creating a small team of Associate Producers. These are people who will see the film as it develops — in online preview screenings — and provide feedback and commentary for scenes of the film straight from the editing computer. We want to take advantage of the new possibilities for sharing with our audience early, no matter where they are. So we are building a group of people who can be very involved in the film, and who can help us understand how it is working as we refine it over time. We think it’s a new and exciting direction to go.

ANTHONY: And my usual closing question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who has never read it to convince them that they should?

TED: As a documentarian, it makes sense that I love very personal nonfiction — like the diaries of Anais Nin, for example. My wife is an art historian finishing her Ph.D. in the history of photography, so right now she has a stack of huge academic photo histories in front of her. I think the reason to read any book is similar to the reason to watch a film — it allows us to “try on” someone’s experience of life, and to better understand our own as a result.

Jason Escape, himself

You can find out more about the project on the Kickstarter page.  You can also learn more about the original documentary by visiting Ted’s website. You can follow Jason himself on Twitter @JasonEscape and get a better sense of what Jason is all about by talking to the man himself.

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Donnie Reynolds is the director of LAKESIDE, the documentary about a year in the life of author Jay Lake and his family as he continues to fight stage iv metastatic colon cancer. LAKESIDE is being crowd-funded through a Kickstarter campaign which, with 20 days left, has reached the initial goal but we are hoping will reach the stretch goal that will allow for a world premiere of the documentary at Lone Star Con this year in San Antonio.  Donnie is, as you’ll see, as passionate about telling Jay’s story, and telling it clearly and honestly, as I am about letting people know how they can help Jay through this struggle.

LAKESIDE movie poster

ANTHONY: Hi, Donnie. Thanks for taking a few moments out of what I know is a hectic shooting and travel schedule to chat. Probably the most important question I can ask is: Why this documentary, and why now?

DONNIE: Jay Lake has one of the most interesting life stories I’ve ever heard.  After his successful treatment for stage iv metastatic colon cancer in 2011, it seemed like a good time to tell it.  The timing worked out well for me and Jay.  After his cancer returned several months into filming, that answered for us the “why now?”.

ANTHONY: How did you initially connect with Jay and learn his story?

DONNIE: My wife actually introduced us at a writers workshop in Austin, Texas.  We were living in south Florida at the time and were considering Austin as our next home.  I am a huge fan of Jay’s ROCKET SCIENCE and have been enjoying his novels and short stories ever since.

When my wife decided to attend a writers workshop in Austin where Jay was teaching, I knew I had to go.  Jay had previously lived in Austin and he showed me some of the cool places around town as I asked him about his life story over the course of the long weekend.  Months after that weekend, we ended up buying a house in the same Hyde Park neighborhood he had lived in years earlier with Susan and Bronwyn.

ANTHONY: You’ve been filming Jay and his family intermittently for a year now, right?  What’s the process like, and how do you capture honest footage without being intrusive? How do you avoid having the camera affect the outcome, so to speak?

DONNIE: We shot our first frames in April 2012.  The process has benefitted from willing participants.  Everyone we’ve filmed was initially nervous or even dubious about what we were doing and their role in it.  But that soon passed.  The family has grown accustomed to cameras rolling, and even start to consider film needs (I almost cried with joy when Jay’s step-mother, Jody, asked about “continuity” after changing clothes) like lighting and audio.  The family has starting quoting my catchphrase “I’ll fix it in post.”

ANTHONY: The journey has been, I know, emotionally exhausting for all involved. Has there been any point where you, Jay or his family have thought “no, this is too difficult, we can’t finish this?” Any point where Jay’s privacy has been more important than “getting good footage?”

 
DONNIE: As far as quitting, the Lakes never considered it.  If anything, their resolve strengthened as things for Jay have gotten worse.  It is me as director and camera operator who has had difficulty not throwing in the towel.  Remember, when we started filming Jay was in great shape, and I have interviews with each of his family members (other than his brother, Michael, who is on the other coast) happily declaring how great it was that the pre-cancer Jay was re-emerging.

For me, it has been difficult sticking a camera in the faces of people distressed over dire news and events.  The emotional burden of telling such an important story is, at times, nearly overwhelming.  There have been two moments over the last year that I seriously wondered if I could continue.  That’s where a strong wife comes in.  Without her support, I don’t know that I could have continued.  Filming the day Jay got the news that his cancer had returned so aggressively was incredibly painful as I stood in the background filming– unable, through my own tears, to tell if anything was in focus.  I could write a book and make a documentary about that single day.  And that great, devastating footage could only be obtained by a documentary filmmaker.

As far as family privacy, the film is benefitting from the incredible trust the family has with us.  We have hours and hours of footage that we will never release outside of the Lake family.  I think it’s important to record life as it happens, but this is not an expose or reality tv show in which we have any desire to show bad, compromising, or humiliating footage of anyone.  I have complete control and I am not that kind of filmmaker.   We have footage that we intend to use that shows flaws and failings in people, we’re not going to wash over that aspect in this film, but we are not interested in hurting people.  So, we shoot everything we can and trust our ethics and morals to keep us honest.

ANTHONY: Do you feel that so-called “Reality TV” has tarnished the good name of the “documentary” field? How would you respond to those conflate the two when they are in fact so very different?

DONNIE: I think “Reality TV” has largely been debunked for what it really is.  I do not think it has really tarnished documentary films as a genre, though it has unfortunately influenced many filmmakers.  The big positive influence reality TV has had on the public is that it has introduced audiences to non-fiction story telling.  When reality television  became an insidious genre is when it started to borrow fiction techniques, specifically “raise the stakes.”  This was was all predicted by Paddy Chayefsky in his Oscar-winning film NETWORK.  Chayefsky died of cancer in 1981 and your question is awfully “meta” for me.

ANTHONY: In the LAKESIDE Kickstarter video, you talk a bit about the equipment you’re using to film Jay’s life as cleanly and unobtrusively as possible. Can you tell us a bit more about the cameras you’re using, and also what you’re using to edit footage and put the whole thing together?

DONNIE: We have to use a variety of cameras to film this as we have.  Our prime camera is the Sony PMW-F3.  This is the same camera that the film SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED was filmed with.  The glass consists of three prime lenses (35mm, 50mm, 85mm) and one zoom (18-252mm).

Our second camera drops dramatically down to the Sony NEX-7 with Sony glass.  It is a wonderful, small, mirrorless camera in the same basic class as DSLRs used by many independent filmmakers.  The video image is quite good but it suffers from two fatal flaws as a main camera: it overheats within minutes; and the sound is not great despite the brilliant Sony hardware.

Our other two cameras (not including occasional iPhone video) are a cheap, off brand hd camcorder (I think we paid about $250 for it) and the GoPro Hero 3 Black Edition.  These cameras provide us with shots we could not obtain otherwise.

Coincidentally, each of these cameras (including an iPhone 5) contributed footage to our first trailer.

We have two main audio devices: the F3 itself (beautiful uncompressed audio) and a ZOOM H4n.  We employ two Sennheiser wireless lavs that are extraordinary and flawless.

We are editing on multiple Macs.  That choice was made so we could use Final Cut.  We are using the latest version (FCPX) and, after a learning curve, we love it.

We have 2 LED light boxes for use when we need them.

Jay Lake on Chemo Eve

ANTHONY: With 24 days left in the campaign, the Kickstarter for LAKESIDE has already exceeded your initial goal of $18,600. You added a $40,000 stretch goal, which I think is entirely reachable with the time you have remaining. Tell us about that stretch goal, please.

DONNIE: Our initial goal provides us with two important opportunities: the ability to continue amassing an incredible amount of raw footage in Portland; and the basics of what we need in post-production (especially sound editing).  But that does not give us everything we want to be able to do with this film.  There are many important aspects to telling the full story of Jay Lake and we would love to film as much of the genome sequencing (that may save his life) as possible.  We also want to include a short technical segment that will require some graphics and animation to explain the medical “stuff.”  Before that, we would like to bring in a specialty sound lab to salvage the audio from some early video diaries we had Jay make while we were back in Austin.  It is great footage of Jay alone with his thoughts, but the first few days of this filming had many technical flaws that we didn’t know about until Jay was able to upload the footage to us.  It has since been corrected, but those first three sessions are almost unusable form an audio perspective.  We also have the problem of scoring the film.  If possible, we would like an original score ( I would love to hear “Bronwyn’s Theme” the way I’m hearing it in my head during editing).  The power of a good score is hard to explain, but think of Jaws or Star Wars without the music!

We will use every dollar to fulfill those desires.  Above that, if we reach the stretch goal, we would like to rent a theater during WorldCon in San Antonio and have an advanced screening of the film for Jay and his daughter.  To be uncomfortably frank: Jay may not survive to see the theatrical release of this film.  We couldn’t think of a better first showing of the film than with Jay and his friends and fans in attendance.  The organizers of LoneStarCon 3 (hosts of WorldCon this year) have already given us a panel slot to discuss the film and we would love to proceed that with a special screening and Q&A session with me and Jay.

I was initially not comfortable putting up a stretch goal when we had put so much effort into the new budget.  But then, after the counsel from film and Kickstarter vets, I decided it was worth asking for even more help.  I spoke with Jay before pulling the trigger.  He was touched and very supportive of publishing a stretch goal.

(new backers have slowed down since meeting our initial goal, so I’m not sure if we’ll make the stretch goal)

ANTHONY: We’ve talked a bit online about how hard it is to edit a year of Jay’s life down into documentary format. What are your plans for all of the extra footage you’ll have, especially regarding his hopefully-upcoming Whole Genome Sequencing procedure?

DONNIE: This film started as and continues to be about a year in the life of Jay Lake.  That basic narrative has not changed.  However, when life happens, we must each act accordingly.  It would be a dereliction of duty to film this story in real time and ignore the very real educational aspects that following a cancer patient through treatment can have for others struggling through the same issues– either directly as a patient or as one of the collateral victims of cancer.

The story also continues to evolve.  The whole genome sequencing is something else we could not have anticipated last Spring.  With extra funding, we’d like to shoot footage and interviews covering that (interviews and shooting in California).

We have many stories we could tell as a result of this process and while we discuss it from time to time, we are spending all of our focus on THIS film.  We have already announced on our Kickstarter that we will include an extended version and a “making of” DVD to backers at the $60 level or higher.  We suspect there will be plenty of footage for additional, educational videos but, for now, we are focused on telling Jay’s whole story.

We are already sweating what to leave in and what has to be cut.  But cutting is a good problem.  If we didn’t face that problem, it would mean we did not have hours and hours of great footage.  We could make a mini-series out of this!

ANTHONY: That being said, have you considered actually approaching a cable outlet to create a mini-series version after the initial movie release? 

DONNIE: It’s been a growing thought as we capture more and more good footage.  Our priority and our focus continues to be on making the best film we can.  That being said, however, there is a lot of storytelling we can do with this material.  After this film is cut, we’ll take an honest look at it.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we have more than a dozen hours of great stuff we can’t squeeze into a single film.  And then twice that amount of merely “good” footage.  This has been a very eventful year in Jay’s life.

ANTHONY: Even though it feels a little off-topic with this interview, I’m going to ask my usual closing question because I think Jay would appreciate it (and perhaps be disappointed if I didn’t ask it!): What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who has never read to convince them that they should?

DONNIE: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Phillip K. Dick.  I think it is overlooked by readers.  It is dated, but that’s one of the things I love about it.  I enjoy the movies made from his stories, but this book is a fun and exciting read.  It deals with, in an interesting way, a type of identity theft. How cyberpunk!  I think it has that classic age of sci fi flavor but speaks to issues that we face today with our online lives.

Making a 5,000 mile round trip every month has allowed me to enjoy several unabridged audio books and podcasts.  We actually purchased the film rights to Keffey Kerhli’s GHOST OF A GIRL WHO NEVER LIVED after hearing it on Escape Pod driving north from Austin.  Filming on that is slipping because of our attention to Lakeside, but we hope to shoot it this fall.

Other top listening votes for 3 days in a car recently:

READY PLAYER 1 by Ernest Cline

FUZZY NATION by John Scalzi

REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

ANTHONY: Thank you, Donnie. I hope that as the film progresses through post-production and on to release that you’ll stop by to keep us updated.

You can find out more about LAKESIDE and get production updates by “Liking” Waterloo’s page on Facebook, by visiting the Waterloo Website, and by following @LakesideMovie on Twitter. You can also show support by viewing, “Liking” and sharing the movie’s IMDb Page, and show financial support by donating to the movie’s Kickstarter campaign.

The money from the Kickstarter goes to fund the movie’s production and post-production work. If you want to help Jay Lake directly, there is a crowd-funding project where the money, as it comes in, goes directly to Jay’s Whole Genome Sequencing costs, and then to help Jay defray costs his disability insurance isn’t covering. Here’s the link for the Acts of Whimsy Fundraiser.

 

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