Thursday, October 07, 2010

Backgrounder on 12th and 3rd

Ah, the Web is a funny place. Things come and go.

A while back our short documentary 12th and 3rd in Brooklyn screened at the ASU Art Museum Short Film and Video Festival. This lead to an interview about the film with Arizona-based writer Cassandra Nicholson.

I was happy about the interview, as it gave a bit of background into how the film came to be and the process we followed to make it. Recently, however, the link I have for the interview stopped working -- so I assume it has gone to the Web Burial Ground and is no longer online anywhere.

On Monday, October 11th at 7 p.m. the film will screen once again, serving in support of the feature documentary Takedowns and Falls at the Film Courage Interactive Screening in Los Angeles. The format of the event sounds great -- they show two shorts, then a feature and put the emphasis on the filmmaking, interviewing the directors in Question and Answer sessions.

I can't attend, however, since I just moved to San Francisco. So, below I've rescued the text from the disappearing interview in hope that it will provide background on the film for anyone interested.

Cassandra Nicholson: Can you describe the extent of your role in the film? It appeared you had a small crew with you while you documented Brooklyn's Best. How big was your crew, and how did your crew members participate in the making of this film?

Ted Fisher: "12th and 3rd in Brooklyn" was made by a crew of three people. I had moved to New York only the year before, and in the fall of 2006 I went back to school at The New School to study documentary media. In the first few weeks of the program, I found myself very inspired and sent out an email inviting other students and a few friends to collaborate on a film about New York. I suggested looking for a stickball game -- I had heard it was a New York tradition, but I realized I had never seen it.

Maya Mumma, who was also in the program at The New School, and Iris Lee, a friend I had known from California, decided to participate. The three of us started in The Bronx. There's a street named "Stickball Avenue," and we arrived there and realized we'd come on the wrong day. We tried taping many different things, but didn't find what we needed. Later that day, a friend sent us a cellphone picture of a flyer announcing that "Brooklyn's Best" would play the very next day.

So the next morning the three of us went to the location in Brooklyn, and found a nearly abandoned street. We hung around a long time, and just about the time we were ready to give up, a car rolled up in front of us -- with some of the players. All three of us ran cameras, and we even got to play a little. Later, the players -- a great group of guys -- took us to their favorite bar.

CN: What is your education and experience, and how did it prepare you for taking on this project?

TF: I used to be a photography curator. My background is in photography and art -- I have an M.F.A. from Claremont Graduate University and a B.A. from Cal State San Bernardino. When I moved to New York, I discovered that the New School was starting a Graduate Certificate program in Documentary Media, and that seemed like the perfect way to get into documentary production. Much of my background in photography -- even the work that was aimed at "installation art" -- really came out of the documentary tradition. So our process on this film -- go and meet people and get a glimpse into their life -- seemed really natural.

CN: Your submission came from New York, New York. How did you find out about this quirky group of characters, and what inspired you to focus on their once-a-year reunion?

TF: Well, we arrived just hoping to see any signs that there was still stickball in New York. I had lived here one year and never run into it all. It was just a huge bonus that we accidently found great guys with roots in the community and history that went back decades. It was a very rich experience to get to hear their stories -- and see that they were hoping their kids would keep playing the game. We were lucky enough to find them on the day of their once-a-year reunion. Sometimes, that's how documentary goes -- you find something that is so much better than any fiction you might have imagined.

CN: If you ran into any problems or adversities while making your film, what were they, and how did you overcome them?

TF: Before we found "Brooklyn's Best" we had wandered around in both The Bronx and Brooklyn -- and found ourselves in a few places where cameras were not welcome. So when we found that location at 12th and 3rd, we had no idea if the guys playing there would accept us. Well, they took us right in -- even let us play -- and later took us to their favorite bar.

CN: "12th & 3rd in Brooklyn" has a rather unique, black-and-white style. How did filming and editing style play a part in your project?

TF: When we shot and edited the film, we were studying the history of documentary film. There's a whole tradition of gritty, New York docs that we had been looking at and that clearly had a big influence on our approach. Once we saw the site for the game, it seemed like a perfect match.

CN: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers, who are hoping to get over the first few creative or financial hurdles?

TF: Well, there does seem to be a lot of pressure put on aspiring filmmakers to feel they need top- of-the-line equipment, a huge crew and a big budget before shooting the first frame. But I've shown at a lot of film festivals and I've never had anyone who pulled me aside and wanted to talk production values. The thing that gets audiences excited is story -- and there's no reason you can't find a compelling story on a small budget. So my advice for any filmmaker is that there are times when it's most important to just go and do it and see what you can make out of whatever you manage to get. There's no perfect shoot in documentary, and that's actually a virture, in my opinion.

CN: I went to school for documentary filmmaking, so I have to say that your project was one of my favorites from the festival. Do you prefer producing documentaries over scripted films?

TF: Well, I love fiction film -- but I find that nothing matches real life for richness of material. That is, if you do a fantastic job imagining a world, writing characters into it, and finding a way to translate that vision onto the screen, you can make a terrific, nuanced and deep narrative film. But documentary always thrills me because if you just go out into the real world you'll find that there are profound and surprising stories already written there.

It's an intense challenge to find them and to work with them -- but the material that's there is already deep. Real characters have built-in mysteries, wants and needs and quirks -- and while one can write any ending you like for a fiction film, in documentary whatever happens, happens. I find myself more often surprised by documentaries than by fiction films, so that draws me to the field very strongly. I get the sense that while narrative cinema is very developed in our time, we are in some ways still early in the era of documentaries.

CN: Do you have any current projects in the works, or future projects you would like to get off the ground?

TF: Maya and I have worked together since this film on a few short documentaries. We also work separately on a lot of projects. The last time I saw Iris, she had gone back to school -- but I wouldn't be surprised if she makes some films in the future. I think the tougher goal in documentary production is to shift to making feature-length films. Making shorts has been fantastic practice for that -- but to me the future I'm hoping for is one of making full-length documentaries.

CN: Ultimately, where do you see yourself in five years?

TF: Well, I teach television production and editing, and I do a lot of freelance editing. I will probably continue all three types of work. But I'd like to be in a place where another channel in my life will be making documentaries, both short and feature length.

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