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Read Hank and Jilann’s Sundance Film Festival blog,

written as they went through the rollercoaster experience of premiering a film at this world-renown documentary film competition for the first time.

 

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Adventures in Documentary Shooting: Day #1

STILL DREAMING SHOOT DAY 1

What is it like to be an artists near the end of one's life? Does one still have the creative drive, or are there too many dreams unfulfilled to have any motivation for creativity? Can we still be creative as our health declines and death nears? These are the types of questions I raised to potential funders during the last year about our film called 'Still Dreaming', a doc film about Shakespeare being done in an old folks home. The main response I kept getting from funders was 'love the idea, can we see some footage?'

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Since my answer was always 'no; I don't have any yet', Jilann and I decided we needed to take the leap and go shoot some footage to put together a trailer for our idea. Go and film the characters, get a sense of the place, shoot lots of broll scenes. Take the leap. So I flew off to NYC in search of the footage.

After a decent nights sleep (remarkable for the first night before a shoot!) we made our way across the river to NJ, and to the Lillian Booth Actors Home. I gave my crew an hour to set up their gear (we hired an amazing crew: DP Shana Hagan and sound man Mark Maloof), since it was day 1 and I wanted to make sure they could work out any kinks.

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The first thing we filmed was a meeting for the acting troupe in the home, as well as for others who might be interested in being a part of a Shakespeare play. The turnout for the meeting was decent in numbers, and also pretty good in those who seemed capable. There were a few in the crowd who fell asleep since mornings weren't there best time, and a few others who were having a hard time following what was happening.

For those who were engaged though, there were many questions about what play to do, about doing an entire production—a whole play—or just scenes, and about what sort of production value the play would have. One gentleman (who seemed to suffer from dementia) asked several times 'what is the reason we are all here'? This was actually really good since it it kept picking up the discussion whenever it started to lag.

Overall the discussion was lively, and there were some definite ringleaders, but in general it confirmed my preconception that this group would probably benefit from a clear leader—a theater director to come in from the outside. These residents need guidance and motivation. And the discussion started me wondering as to why were they going to do this? Why at their age and health should they bother to do this? I was curious to see if I could get a clear answer to this during this week.

Another question that was raised a number of times during the discussion by the group was whether or not people felt ready to memorize Shakespeare—being able to get off the text was a scary proposition for them. What about more modern play writes they asked. (Arthur Miller, George Bernard Shaw and Harold Pinter were all names that came up, but they are just as hard in there own way to do as Shakespeare, I think, but perhaps easier to memorize.)

And finally, people wondered if there were enough people who could participate in the putting on of a play—whether it was that they were willing and/or capable. Did they want to do this; did they have the energy for it; was it just too challenging; a few wondered if a production would be up to their standards of excellence.  They've done Shakespeare readings, but have yet to mount a full production.

There was a fair amount of fear in the room about whether or not they could do it, but in general I think that feeling was outnumbered by an excitement about creating a community around this production. There is a lot of isolation that goes on in a home for many reasons—this production could break down barriers—and that was both scary as well as invigorating.

After lunch this first day, we went and found a man named Demo who would be our first interview. It struck me as funny, since after meeting the guy on our research visit to the Home back in the summer of 2009, I wasn't sure if I wanted to interview him this time—he seemed so withdrawn and dark, like he would be too hard to draw out in one interview. And one interview was probably all I had time for on this trip with folks since it was such a short visit. But in the morning meeting he was very present, with a flair for the dramatic (“What is all this about 'Love'?!” he scoffed when someone proposed they do one of Shakespeare's love comedies).

Never judge a book by the cover. The interview was poignant, with moments of despair and hope. Shana, my DP, called it 'stellar' afterwards. I wasn't so sure right afterwards—as I went thru the ride with Demo, which included the lows. At times, I can have a hard time separating myself from my subjects as I try to be empathetic during an interview. I was pretty happy to hear Shana say that it was stellar, especially since she works with many of the best and brightest in the doc world.

At the age of 78, living in an assisted nursing care facility, Demo still has the strong desire to learn, to create, and hopefully be somebody. “I just want to do something in life that I can be remembered by,” he said at one point. He is working on a Richard II monologue to find out what he can learn from it; he makes art out of stones and bark and junk he finds on the grounds of the Home; he stays up until midnight most nights playing the piano in the lounge, long after others have gone to bed. The man still has a strong desire to create, even in his current surroundings and health. This struck me as so amazing, and so counter to my preconception of life in an old folks home.

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One of the things I was looking out for during the morning meeting was who were the bright lights. And this would pretty much determine who we were going to try to interview over the next few days. So, Demo stood out (as I said much to my surprise), as well as a fire cracker of a seasoned character actor named Doris, a 'too cool for school' jazz musician and a sometimes actor named Paul, and Joan, a piano player made crooked by scoliosis with the sweetest smile you ever saw.

Joan spoke up at one point during the meeting to say that she wasn't sure why she was there, since she was not an actor, but that she did know that Shakespeare did have live accompaniment back in the day, and there were original songs still about, as well as Felix Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream (one of the plays the residents are considering). She proposed that perhaps live music could be worked into the production. What a great idea! So at the end of day one, we interviewed her.

And sticking to the theme of the day, she spoke about the fact that as an artist, one never stops developing, how one is always learning and sharing. Since coming to the home a few months ago, Joan has started a Wednesday Music gathering for the singers in the Home (of which there are many). She believes in community, and understands the need of artists to share and be a part. When she joined the home, she insisted that her piano come with her, for as she said in her interview, 'playing is like breathing'.

So that was Shoot Day 1—a fact finding morning meeting, and 2 potential characters interviews. A full day for sure, but one that seemed to say the creative drive was alive and well for these 2 seniors, Demo and Joan.

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