Working with a film subject…

This will be the first of three posts on lessons learned from three of my films: Captain, and two artist bios…
Many and wondrous are the rewards garnered from working with a film subject. I mean “film subject” as in a person I’m interested in filming – and not a theme or topic per se.

The people I’ve filmed are people I like, find interesting, and who I find inspirational in one way or another. Someone I can learn from, someone who has something to share or who has qualities or traits that are elevated – even virtuous. Richard Updaw, the character I followed in Captain is certainly such a person. After meeting, getting to know, and ultimately making a film with Rich, I can finally say that I’ve met a man’s man, (I’d heard that expression throughout my life, but never really knew what it meant – or maybe I never knew an individual I could apply it to!). Dick is good looking, calm, confident, charming, down to earth, – and a born leader. Those were my impressions of him the day Ann, my wife, and I met him and they still hold true today. Amazing how those first impressions can be so dead-on… He rendered us Good Samaritan assistance by jump-starting our car which had developed a dead battery due to a case of my leaving-the-headlights-on-negligence. He was glad to help out. I noticed his Marine cap, of which he has an amazing assortment, and within moments were were talking about his days as a United States Marine, his time in Vietnam, and his own personal quest to learn more about a dead World War 2 vet that eventually became the basis for the film we made.

We socialized for at least a year (with no thought of making a film on my part), just enjoyable, regular get-togethers, until it finally dawned on me that Dick’s story about a long dead Marine could make a good film. And once I proposed the project, there was complete buy-in from Rich. So the timeline for the film was thus: we became friends, got to know each other pretty well, and then we made a film. I realize now that the trust bank that we had built up prior to making the film was the foundation for the success of the project.

There was never a time that Dick didn’t give complete cooperation to the needs of the film. He was always willing to accommodate my, “just one more shot”, requests. He respected my judgement during the editing/shaping of the story. And I learned to respect his wish that the story be focused on Robert Hodes, the 19-year old killed at Iwo Jima, and not himself. Ironically, in doing so I believe Dick’s character comes through all the stronger.

An example of Dick’s cooperation-and commitment to the project: when he became tearful during one interview, he didn’t pull in and ask me to remove the shot from the film. He realized it was true and authentic and was enough of a man to be easy-going about this private moment going public. Dick’s agenda was simple: to tell this forgotten Marine’s story. To that end he put his own ego a distant second … at least that’s the way I perceived it.

The film has received some good reviews, and our friendship has continued. Rich still comes to dinner regularly even though he’s a busy guy. At 67, he drives school bus everyday AND maintains a 60 acre farm by himself. He has lots of pets. Cats, dogs, horses, goats, and a mule with that lets go, when he thinks he should be fed, with a bray that reminds me of the alien mother ship from Close Encounters of The Third Kind letting loose with that window-shattering volley of notes…(go to 5:58 in this utube clip to understand my rather obscure reference)

Anyway, looking back I know the film benefited from the trust brought about by our prior relationship. We both knew enough about each other to know that we had each other’s best interests at heart – and that ultimately came to include the best interests of the film as well… So the takeaway moral, for me at least from this experience, is do your homework! Develop a relationship with your film subject. Find out who they are and go with your gut about first impressions, but in the words of Ronald Reagan, “trust but verify”. Do it not only to make a better film, in the sense of delving deeply into your subject, but to ensure that you ultimately avoid the disaster of not having a film at all.

My next post will talk about lessons learned from an experience that didn’t turn out so well…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *