I am currently working on two documentary films in addition to my feature projects. For the past two years I’ve been shooting interviews of great performers who came out of cabaret and nightclub backgrounds for a documentary on the history of cabaret. The film–titled “Intimate Nights; The Golden Age of Cabaret”–is based on James Gavin’s excellent book of the same title and is just about ready to go out to find a buyer in the form of a sizzle reel showing highlights of the interviews. (I’ve held off editing any footage until we have a buyer as the rights clearances are bound to be expensive).
But a few months ago I began work on another doc as well. The emergence of this project is directly attributable to the posting on this blog of my fathers documentary “Mississippi: A Self-Portrait”. My producing partner, David Zellerford, was so taken with the film–and specifically with an amazing piece of footage involving a black restaurant owner/worker named Booker Wright–that he pursued (and urged me to do so as well) Booker’s story. Others on the internet also found the piece riveting and soon we were in touch with Yvette Johnson, Booker’s granddaughter, who happened to be similarly fascinated in unearthing her late grandfather’s controversial story.
So we went to Greenwood Mississippi–the location where my father’s film took place–and began digging around for stories and clues involving Booker. We shot a hell of a lot of footage in the seven days we were there. And although we’ve begun assembling the footage, we’re going back in a week to shoot more. And I’ve decided to blog the making of the film–much as I did with my film “City Island”–taking you through the week-by-week account of theshooting, editing, finishing and marketing of this particular doc.
Working on documentaries is immensely satisfying in a number of ways. For one thing it’s a form that can be accomplished without spending millions of dollars. To be fair there is now much work that can be done in narrative features on the same catch-as-catch-can, digital basis. With the advent of high quality camera’s and the Final Cut revolution, anybody can make a film for what amounts to pocket change now. But the shooting of a doc is different for a very specific reason: the interviews.
I am continually amazed at the amazing people I encounter in the making of a doc. Simply put, you often find yourself sitting across the table from some extraordinary people who you probably would otherwise have never met. When we shot my first doc, “Tis Autumn: The Search For Jackie Paris”, we met some of jazz’s true giants, people I’d admired all my life. Billy Taylor, Anita O’Day, James Moody, Mark Murphy, George Wein, Howard Rumsey, Ruth Price–these are just a smattering of those who welcomed us into their homes and appeared on camera. The cabaret doc is a similar case of “I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking to…”: Phyllis Diller, Jonathan Winters, Orson Bean, Polly Bergan, Carol Burnett and Joan Rivers are just a few of the entertainment worlds giants who have generously made themselves available to us.
This doc, titled “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story”, is a different animal. Most of the people we’re interviewing aren’t famous. Certainly none are celebrities. What they are are real folks who live in Greenwood Mississippi and who are searching their memories to give us a portrait of the volatile southern town in which they’ve made their lives. They are certainly no less extraordinary for not being famous and in some ways I find their willingness to open up and be photographed telling their stories even more moving for the fact that they don’t make their living appearing on camera. This is a stretch for them as it is a stretch for us to get to know and understand Greenwood and its environs. Greenwood is the place where Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. It was also the center of much of the heated civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Booker Wright’s story intersects with the rise of black civil rights in the south and he played a part–small but potent–in that history as well.
So join me for the next few months as I devote this blog to documenting the making of a documentary. Yvette is also is keeping a fascinating account of her journey on this cinemaventure on-line. Go here to read the Booker Wright Project. And stay tuned here for more.