2000 ID Award Winner: LEGACY
Terrell Collins was the fourth generation in his family to live on welfare in one of Chicago’s oldest and most dangerous housing projects, Henry Horner Homes. His mother, a crack addict, had been working the streets since she was 12. Despite these obstacles, Terrell was taking positive steps to make his fate a different one, and by 14, he was an honor student and a leader in his community. In 1994, producer/director Tod Lending of Chicago-based Nomadic Pictures, took notice of Terrell’s extraordinary accomplishments and decided to profile him for a PBS series he was filming titled No Time to be a Child, one segment of which focused on kids growing up in violent communities. On September 28, 1994, while walking home from school for his first meeting with Lending, Terrell was shot and killed.
In dealing with their grief, a friendship formed between the family and the filmmaker, and Lending – who was also filming Terrell’s cousin Nickcole for a Child segment profiling children growing up in poverty – decided to document the Collins’ struggles as an aside to his work for PBS. ‘They were facing all the barriers of poverty,’ explains Lending. ‘All of the physical barriers, and psychological barriers. They were facing community violence day in and day out, public housing, welfare, drug addiction, racism. They were facing it all.’ The result is Legacy, a documentary which sees the family through extraordinary changes in the five years following Terrell’s murder.
The Bottom Line: Begging and choosing
Filming a project over such an extended period of time raises challenges, one of which is how to sustain financing. When Lending decided to continue filming the family, he was faced with enough unknowns to make pitching the film an impossibility. ‘I had no idea what the story was going to be,’ remembers Lending. ‘I knew I was looking at poverty and I was looking at a family struggling to get out of poverty, but there is no way I could have sold it to anybody. My goal was to keep filming, whatever way possible.’
One solution was to keep crews small. Throughout filming, Lending was accompanied by only a cinematographer, which meant every scene was shot in natural light with a hand-held camera. This both reduced costs and achieved an intimate setting. Over the five years, Lending worked with six cinematographers. ‘I was lucky to know so many cameramen in town, because they worked on deferment,’ says Lending. The Child series continued filming for three of the five years Lending spent shooting Legacy, and the filmmaker credits that income with keeping him afloat.
In October 1998, one year before Legacy was complete, Lending cut a 12-minute promo with his partner, Daniel Alpert, and pitched the film to PBS and HBO. Both parties were interested, but HBO offered an 18-month licensing agreement for U.S. rights, which covered a ‘nice portion’ of the US$350,000 post-production costs. With money in hand, he turned to foundations to raise additional funds. ‘I didn’t want to do any pre-sales with other broadcasters because you get less money,’ explains Lending. ‘ [Broadcasters] are taking more of a chance [with pre-sales], so you can potentially make more money without one if your film wins awards and does well, and you sell afterwards. Most importantly, I was fairly confident I could raise the funds through foundations once I had HBO on.’
Lending approached a number of foundations including Carnegie, Rockefeller and Arthur Vine Davis. Finally, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which places a strong focus on families and poverty, rewarded Legacy for addressing sensitive social issues and approved a $137,000 grant. Minor funding also came from the J.R. Houlsby Foundation and the Richard H. Dreihause Foundation. Next, Lending pitched the film to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. They were enthusiastic about the project and donated an initial sum, but explained that in order to give more, an outreach program needed to accompany the film, as the primary goal of the foundation is to provide social support.
Necessity provided Lending’s motivation. Legacy was closing in on its final production budget of $550,000 and the crew, although small, had yet to be paid. Lending approached Judy Ravitz of L.A.-based outreach consulting firm Outreach Extensions, showed her the Legacy trailer, and asked for help. Ravitz wrote a proposal for an outreach program on spec and presented it with Lending to the MacArthur Foundation. Legacy, around which the program would center, would be used to identify information gaps and act as a tool to effect social change.
The pitch was accepted and the foundation invested additional funds for a total of $150,000 for production and $200,000 for outreach. Ravitz also returned to Annie E. Casey, which gave $375,000 for outreach. ‘In retrospect, I’m really glad [MacArthur] required [the outreach] because as a filmmaker you get tunnel vision,’ says Lending. ‘It’s so hard to raise money for the damn film that to think of raising money for another project, even though it’s a project that will support the film . . . it’s not filmmaking, it’s social activism. And it just seems overwhelming.’
Lending struggles to balance the needs of the outreach program with his needs as a producer. ‘One of the more complicated issues that we need to deal with in terms of outreach is, how many full-length versions of Legacy do we give away to the community? We have to be really careful, because we also want to distribute this educationally and if an educational distributor hears that we’ve given away a thousand copies to various groups or libraries in the community, they’ll take a pass on it.’
Legacy will be distributed internationally by Jane Balfour Films, and Lending is negotiating with California Newsreel for educational distribution. The film will also continue on the festival circuit. Legacy screened at Sundance to much critical acclaim, although it failed to win any awards. Lending has since been approached by Cinema du Reel in France as well as the Havana film festival and the Sao Paulo International Film Festival. Costs for production remain outstanding, but Lending has promised the Collins family 50% of any profits.
The Story: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire… and bullets
Throughout filming, Lending’s relationship with the family continued to develop, and he occasionally found himself in a predicament often experienced by filmmakers who spend quality time with their subjects. ‘There were conversations I would have with members of the family that were very intimate or revealing, and I would be listening and I’d think: ‘Oh God, I should have this on film’,’ he recalls. ‘But, I needed to be there as a friend. They didn’t want to be filmed at that moment, they were just talking to me as a friend.’
The question of whether or not Lending, simply by being there, effected some of the changes documented in Legacy, is one he has given considerable thought to. ‘It’s interesting,’ reflects Lending. ‘The camera facilitates a certain kind of therapy. It gives family members an excuse to open up and say things to each other that otherwise would not have been said.’ The one character Lending does feel he actively influenced was Wanda, Terrell’s mother, who by the end of the film, is drug free and holding down a job for the first time in her life. ‘The day she decided to go into treatment I was filming an interview with her and I was really pressing her on her lifestyle . . . She was making excuses and one of them was: ‘I don’t even know where a treatment center is and I don’t have their phone number.’ I knew of a treatment center in the area. I gave her the phone number and said: ‘Here, make the call.’ We were filming the whole thing. This was the footage that was lost.’ Lending is referring to the office fire that would have destroyed five years of work, if his wife had not advised him to make copies of everything he had shot. The scene with Wanda was recent enough that it had not yet been copied.
The environment in which the film was being shot also presented unique difficulties for the filmmakers. Somebody from the community had to chaperone Lending and his cameraman into the Collins’ building. Once, they had to escape to a nearby community center to avoid a shoot-out at the complex. Occasionally, Lending wore a flak jacket for protection.
Originally, the film was going to be narrated by Nickcole’s mother, Alaissa, who was struggling to break her dependence on welfare. But after showing the original cut to HBO, Lending decided to have Nickcole narrate. ‘My big fear was losing the audience very quickly, with the audience feeling this is yet another urban tale of tragedy. Nikki keeps you involved. She’s the youngest, so it makes sense that she’s seeing this unfold. It could be told through Alaissa’s eyes, but it’s more hopeful hearing it from Nikki.’
The presence of hope is consistent in the film, even in its darkest moments. Five years after his death, Terrell’s achievements continue to inspire both his family and Lending.
Sticks & Stones: KING GIMP reveals what a disease had eclipsed
Back in 1986 when Reaganomics, Wham! and John Hughes were influencing North American culture, producers Susan Hadary and William Whiteford became intrigued with Dan Keplinger, a 12-year-old boy suffering from cerebral palsy. Over 100 hours of film later, King Gimp, a 50-minute doc that follows Keplinger until he’s 25 years old, went into post-production.
Hadary and Whiteford originally set out to study six children coping with functional limitations. ‘We were curious as to what would happen to Dan,’ explains Hadary. ‘Dan had the most severe disabilities. We could not predict what would happen.’
Although each of the children went on to become the subject of their own film, Keplinger’s was the only one that became epic, turning into a long-term project when his mother decided to transfer him to a mainstream high school. His discovery of art and his decision to attend university further delayed a satisfactory end point.
King Gimp was largely filmed in Hadary and Whiteford’s spare time, with the duo dependent on Keplinger and his mother to alert them of important events. As co-owners of Baltimore-based University of Maryland Video Press, the filmmakers were busy creating corporate videos, shooting other films and holding regular positions in television. ‘There were lots of times when we would have loved to be there, but couldn’t,’ explains Hadary.
When King Gimp was complete, the producers were faced with the challenge of presenting Keplinger’s story. ‘In our minds, it was always going to be Dan telling the story. The questions was how to make that happen,’ explains Whiteford, referring to Keplinger’s severely impaired speech. To start, Keplinger spent two summers screening footage and writing text to accompany the images. Apart from the sheer volume of film, the process was made longer by the fact that Keplinger has little control over his limbs, and types using a stick attached to a head brace.
Once the text was written, both Hadary and Whiteford considered having Keplinger narrate with the aid of a computer, but Keplinger disliked the impersonal voice it produced. Next, they entertained the idea of an interpreter. ‘The dilemma was what to listen to,’ says Hadary. ‘A beautiful voice that’s not his so the world can understand him better? Or do you just take a fragment of his thoughts and let him express it the way he wants to?’ The decision has Keplinger speaking some parts on screen, accompanied by subtitles. ‘You can really understand the emotion and how difficult it is for him to communicate when you see him trying to speak,’ says Whiteford. Where Keplinger is not speaking, his thoughts are expressed by subtitles that appear at his typing speed.
Nancy Wolzog, of New York-based distributor Tapestry International, joined the project in 1996 as executive producer. King Gimp was about three-quarters finished and closing in on its final budget of about us$400,000. An influx of money and a distribution plan were clearly needed. Fortunately, HBO bought the North American broadcast rights. Other broadcasters that invested in the project include National Geographic. King Gimp is scheduled for a summer theatrical release in New York and L.A., and in February it was nominated for an Oscar.
The film’s title (Keplinger’s idea) was one of the few points the producers disagreed on. The word ‘gimp’ has several definitions: one is slang for a person with a limp, another refers to spirit or pep. When Keplinger suggested the title, he was playing on these two definitions. While Whiteford approved, Hadary was fearful people would think they were being derogatory. It’s Wolzog’s concern as to how the title will translate on the international market, however, that presents the most difficult question.
They Mite Be Giants: CANNIBAL MITES’ directors wrestle technology in a bed full of mites… and win
‘We met this crazy American guy who is a world specialist in fleas. He’ll speak of fleas to you all night long. We met him in Lyon and thought, well, what is there on fleas?’ Quincy Russell, co-director of the 52-minute doc Cannibal Mites is clarifying how he and director Thierry Berrod became involved with the microcosmic world of things both creepy and crawly. Mites is the second installment of the six-part series Squatters – Wildlife on Man, which takes the wildlife genre into new territory with segments on fleas, mites, flies, termites, mosquitoes and lice. ‘The concept of the series is to treat these animals within history, the present, the future, and [document their interaction] with man,’ explains Russell.
To make a doc that was less like a high school science film and more like Wild Kingdom, Russell and Berrod insisted on filming the mites alive and in their natural environment, be it cheese or bed linens. The problem was the technology to do so didn’t exist. Up until this point, the equipment capable of filming anything as small as a mite required the parasite to be clean and coated in gold – which meant it had to be dead. So when mutual friend and photographer Pascal Goetgueluck showed the pair pictures he had taken with an Environmental Scanning Electronic Microscope (ESEM), developed by Philips Electronic Optics, that included leaves not coated in gold, they decided to investigate.
‘When we first met with Philips, they told us it was impossible to make good footage with the ESEM technology. The scientific consultants agreed,’ recalls Berrod. Despite prophecies of failure, Philips lent them an ESEM and some engineers who worked with the directors for four weeks. With US$11,000 of pre-production funds from France Television Distribution, Berrod and Russell entered into an intensive two-month research period. ‘We would go in for several days of trials, take them back to our studios and post-produce the images to see what they looked like,’ says Russell. ‘Then we would moan about it, go back and do several more.’ The pair finally met with enough success to begin filming and have since signed an exclusive agreement with Philips.
The ESEM footage for Mites, which amounts to approximately 13 minutes of screen time, took two months to film. As the technology was in its infancy, there were still many challenges. Recalls Russell: ‘The animals were not surviving . . . the quality of the images were bad. It was really, really hard. This is the first time I’ve made a wildlife film in a room that was about ten square meters, in total darkness. I remember spending the whole month of August in this dark room thinking: ‘We’ve got nothing! We’ve got nothing!”
Once filming began, Mites became a coproduction between Berrod and Russell’s Lyon-based Mona Lisa Productions and Paris-based pubcaster France 2 Television. France 2 will share broadcast rights with La Cinquieme, alternating the broadcast over six years. For their US$59,000 investment, France 2 will get the first window. For its part, La Cinquieme invested $34,000.
Discovery Channel also pre-purchased the film, investing $44,000. Additional funding came from the National Center of Cinematography ($44,000), SITIS ($22,000), the Ministry of Education, Research and Technology ($10,000) and PROCIREP ($7,400). After the ESEM footage was shot, filming the rest of the segment took three months.
Once complete, post-production – including editing, final script changes and English-language dubbing – took an additional five-and-a-half months. Two years after they began in 1997, Mites was complete.
In addition to television broadcast distribution, Mites has entered several film festivals, and will compete at Cannes. The doc has already won awards, including Best Scientific Photography at the 1999 International Scientific Film Festival in Paris as well as The Jury’s Special Award at the 1999 Telesciencia Festival in Lisbon.
Despite Mites’ innovative use of technology, it was the stars themselves that occasionally sold the film. ‘A program buyer asked me where she could go to find a bed without mites,’ explains Berrod. ‘I told her if she bought Cannibal Mites, she would find a solution. And she bought it!’