Influences on Woodward’s Filmmaking
From an interview with Stan Woodward recorded by Saddler Taylor and Tom Davenport on September 9, 2015, edited for Folkstreams by Daniel W. Patterson.
I came from a long-standing family of storytellers in South Carolina, my home state. It seems that everyone who is native South Carolinian comes from a tradition of storytelling. It’s the way we entertained ourselves back in the days before rural electrification. I would dare say that all South Carolinians are storytellers to one degree or another. It’s “in the blood, son,” as my Dad would say. A good example from my upbringing that I can give is how on the Fourth of July a black family that helped farm my Granddad’s place in Williston—known as the asparagus capital of the world in the 1920’s and ‘30’s—would start preparing and cooking a hog over a hand-dug barbecue pit lit with a wood charcoal fire in the late evening of July 3rd. The man who specialized in barbecuing hogs in the Williston area and his family would tend to the slow-cooking early into the next day until he would turn the hog over for finishing to my family. Then my uncles would take over and all of my aunts and cousins would gather around.
But well before that transfer I would slip down to the pit in the early morning so I could hang out and play with the black kids and be where the black folks would be telling their stories. Stories like “Sally Jack,” about a scary old haint that occupied an abandoned, overgrown ante-bellum civil war plantation house back in the pinewood forest. Anybody walking by or riding by at dusk who happened to catch sight of her in the widow’s-watch window at the peak of the roof was cursed to die. Stories like that would abound, and so I kind of immersed myself in that black family storytelling until the rest of my cousins would show up and the ritual took place where the hog-cooking chore was passed from the black family to ours. Uncle Ralph would take over after the black family had cut away a slab of meat for their 4th of July meal and parted for home.
Then my extended family of twenty or so folks would sit around and start telling stories. And inevitably one of the cousins would ask my Aunt Essie to tell the story of Sally Jack. It would have a slightly different telling from what the black family had told, but Aunt Essie’s version was particularly spellbinding and she always added different nuances and colorations to the tale. Other stories would follow, but you would always hear somebody say, “Aunt Essie, tell that Sally Jack story again.” And so you’d have stories often repeated, told by different members of the family. And that became ingrained in me. And so when I say that I came from a family of story-tellers, that’s the sort of deep background on where that that comes from in me.
My Aunt Essie was a colorful character and a wonderful story-teller. She always had a twinkle in her eye. Essie was quick to leave the farm in the South Country Lowcountry and move to Charleston, where she married a wealthy man named Colonel John Messervey, whose family of several generations owned the livery in Charleston. Essie came to love horses and loved to race them. But when her husband died suddenly she was left with the house on Rutledge Avenue, disowned by the Messerveys, who always felt their son married well below his station, and began an adventurous life of racing her horses, being courted in New York by Diamond Jim Brady, buying the first all-black music radio station in Louisville, Kentucky, and selling antiques in Charleston. Essie became my favorite Aunt, and I tried to visit her often because she would always carry me all around Charleston to meet different characters, like the black woman who was a fish monger who sold she-crabs on the streets. And Aunt Essie enjoyed my hanging out with her while she would swap stories with these characters. So the storyteller got a good start in me, to the extent that by the time I entered Clemson University I majored in English with thoughts of being a writer.
I had the gift of an artist in me. My dad was an architect who pioneered modern architecture with his innovative buildings in Upstate South Carolina and my mother a creative partner who helped him in areas of interior design and managing the business. But the Spartanburg public schools did not offer adequate art training, so I would go on sketching trips with my father and dabbled with painting under the instruction of a local artist who designed window displays for Belk’s department store. At Clemson I turned my long-standing interest in editorial cartoons into a job working for The Tiger college newspaper, where my Southern raising showed forth in the way I responded to the integration of Clemson by the first black man, Harvey Gantt —whom I came to admire, encourage, and support.
It is with considerable embarrassment, though, that I look back on the naïveté reflected in my early cartoons, especially those dealing with the conflicted emotions of a young man of the South adjusting and growing in the midst of experiencing the integration process first-hand. My most memorable and life-changing moment in all this was an incident that occurred in the college cafeteria on the first day of attendance by Harvey Gantt. I was somewhat prepared for this by the planning meetings that President R. C. Edwards had required The Tiger editorial staff to attend. Here we learned how carefully the administration under Dr. Edwards had planned for Harvey Gantt’s entry, taking heed to learn from and avoid the mistakes made earlier at the University of Mississippi and University of Georgia as they tried to oppose the integration of their respective universities. Under Dr. Edwards’ leadership, the way was prepared as thoroughly as possible for Harvey Gantt to receive peaceable admission to Clemson with dignity in place for the University as well as for Mr. Gantt. His admission was to be delayed by court injunctions until second semester, after the end of the football season and the rabid fever of pep rallies held in “the quadrangle.” This huge concrete slab was surrounded by the four dormitory buildings that remained from the recent days when Clemson was a military school, and freshmen were housed on the first floor with windows facing the “quad.” This would have posed dangerous exposure for Mr. Gantt to reactionary and racist students, many of whom were sons of the agrarian South and fathers who inherited farms from their fathers who toiled to rebuild them from the ashes and impoverishment of the Civil War.
The incident I refer to occurred while I was in the lunch-line that first day of Harvey Gantt’s attendance. He was the third person in front of me as we were being served, and we were in line near the tables where the football team traditionally gathered to eat. Cat calls began as soon as Harvey drew near the end of the line. The first, a “Hey Harvey!” which Gantt automatically responded to by looking up in the direction of the call. Of course when he looked he saw a table of men with faces buried down pretending to be eating. The second call was not followed by a response from Gantt. But they continued, until Harvey took a seat at a vacant table several tables away. I thought immediately of Neil Marshal, the African American woman who raised me from a child and loved me so that she became a second Mom to me. What if this had been happening to her? I felt the curl of anger form at the nape of my neck and a sharp turnover in whatever activates one’s moral and spiritual interior. When I got my tray I walked to the table where sat Harvey Gantt and took a seat across from him. As I sat, I said, “How you doing?” “I’m fine,” he answered calmly as he ate. “Welcome to Clemson,” I said. He did not respond. But the cat-calls ceased.
By doing editorial cartoons and pursuing interviews over the next two years with professional cartoonists in the South over the next two years, I got the idea that I could go into advertising design as an art director in an advertising agency. An editorial cartoon encapsulates a very complex set of thoughts in one image. And I liked that. I figured that an art director had to be no more than a kind of glorified editorial cartoonist, so I decided that I would apply to several advertising design schools. A friend from Spartanburg had gone to the Art Students College of Art and Design in L.A., so I applied there. Within several weeks of submitting my pitiful portfolio I received a letter saying, in effect, “Having reviewed your college records and your portfolio, we strongly recommend that you concentrate on pursuing a graduate degree in English and get certified to teach in public schools.” I was at once deflated, insulted, embarrassed, and reproved, thinking “Who the hell do I think I am? I’m from a lousy art background, thinking I’m some kind of big shot, and like my Dad, who was told by his agrarian brother when he learned that Dad was transferring from horticulture to a major in architecture as a student at Clemson, “You think you’re something but you ain’t nothing!”
My dad had always wanted to go to Pratt Institute [https://www.pratt.edu/the-institute/ ] in New York and get a Master’s Degree in Architecture. I learned about Pratt from him before he died at the age of 51 early in my life. And so I applied to Pratt, and I received an application kit that had 12 standard art problems in it. But the 13th problem could be in any medium you chose. Knowing my art background to be inadequate, I concentrated heavily on the editorial cartoon medium as my 13th solution. When I was accepted into Pratt, I learned from my academic adviser how slim that acceptance had been. He told me, “Mr. Woodward, you wouldn’t have gotten into Pratt Institute if it hadn’t been for your submission of problem 13.” When I said, “Why is that?” he answered, “Well, you just are deficient in a lot of the areas that our students, who are from top high school art programs around the country, are very proficient in. But you submitted an editorial cartoon about the strike by dockworkers at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, and you included a copy of the New York Times story that you based your cartoon on. It had a map that showed Pratt Institute in close proximity to the Navy Yard. You in South Carolina got the idea of doing a cartoon that the people about to evaluate you would be able to relate to. You displayed a degree of originality and creativity in your thinking that convinced them to admit you into the Advertising Design and Visual Communication program. As one person noted, “It was a clever ‘reach’ on the applicant’s part. Let’s take a chance on him.”
I was admitted into Pratt, based on a funky cartoon: An Irish cop twirling his billy while walking past a shop with a “Closed for Business” sign in the window, and in the shadows there were four tough guys who looked like they might have worked at the Navy Yard, and they had clubs and knives and they were crouching down, ready to attack. The cutline was, “An idle mind is the devil's workshop.” I kept what that advisor had said to me in the forefront of my mind as I began my studies at Pratt: “Your cartoon showed us that you had the kind of mind that would enable you to do the kind of high-level creative problem solving required of students here, so we took a chance and admitted you to Pratt Institute. You’re the first student from South Carolina that’s been at Pratt Institute in fourteen years.” So I felt I got blessed in being able to get into Pratt.
I majored in Advertising Design and Visual Communication. And the foundation year at Pratt is required as a first year of study for everybody, no matter whether you come in with a degree from another university or a Ph.D. That first year of study ensures that everyone is “grounded” in the Pratt foundation for studying any kind of art you might be interested in. It starts everyone off with the same fundamentals. So I didn't get into my film courses that first year. But I did have a photography course. And I remember that the photography instructor called me in after class one day after we had turned in a self-portrait assignment, and he said, “Mr. Woodward, you need to know something about yourself. You have an eye. Do you know what that means?” And I said, “No, sir.” He said, “That means that intuitively, you know what a photograph is going to be as soon as you look through the lens of a camera. You are gifted with an unusual compositional sense—knowing how to arrange subject matter in the frame in a way that is visually appealing.” The medium of photography as a way to create images came quite naturally to me.
In my second year at Pratt I was able to combine sophomore, junior and senior level courses together, and I elected to take a filmmaking course taught by “underground filmmaker” and author of the textbook Understanding Filmmaking, Kirk Smallman. [http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED048758 ? ] I learned that he produced short, three-minute experimental films using a Bolex 16-mm camera, the camera of choice in that day by moving image artists who had begun a movement in New York called “independent filmmaking.” The first day of class Smallman began by screening this strange little film that started out with a dark, grainy image where you could detect a slow, undulating movement in the grain. The sound that seemed to be coming from the movement was a chorus of deeply bass but somehow discordant and not in unison groans, as if a herd of giant pre-historic dinosaurs buried deep in the earth were pleading to be released, and the occasional clank and grind of metal against metal made you feel that they were straining against huge chains to free themselves, As the first minute passed the image remained, and I became cognizant that Smallman had pulled these blackout curtains over the windows turning the classroom completely dark and I was sitting in that pitch black room trying to figure out, “What in the world am I looking at here?”
The filmmaker had taken complete control of my senses and was working me through a very intimate linear film experience in time as sound and image he had designed and created would take me wherever he wanted me to go. But so engrossing was the experience that my mind was soon drawn back into the image with its middle earth growling, so that my senses adjusted to figure out that I was involved in a highly controlled, slow, zoom-back shot that had begun to reveal the strange, undulating rhythm of the face of a gigantic counterbalance that by the passage into the third minute had become part of an oil derrick that was now shown to be in a “herd” of similarly undulating but not-in-unison oil derricks in an oil field on an Arizona desert that was experiencing early morning sunrise, affirmed when, in the last passing seconds until the 3-minute film reel ran out, the sun shown at first rise breaking over a far distant mountain range in the dead center of the composition shot in the middle of a desert with a high-powered lens mounted on a rock-steady tripod. By the end the entire classroom of students were left breathless and broke into spontaneous applause. In that moment I knew that my medium for visual storytelling would be filmmaking.
As we began asking questions about how Smallman came up with the idea for the film, I could not shake the impression of the backlit counterbalances in a silhouetted oil field that looked like a field of giant ants with their weirdly-shaped heads dipping down to earth to gnaw at their prey, then slowly rising back up—all in disharmonious synchronization—as they prepared to take their next seemingly endless bites, all performing in one extraordinarily slow and long zoom-shot. I learned that the entire film was shot in one take - a slow, three-minute pull-back zoom shot with a long-reaching telephoto lens that centered compositionally on that first big counterbalance weight as the camera recorded the pull-back. And that last shot, we learned, had been pre-timed out so that the sun was caught at first-rise. Smallman revealed that he got the idea and envisioned the shot while working early mornings as an oil rigger. So he rented the camera and lens and shot it. His first film! And I thought, “Here I am sitting in a classroom in Brooklyn and suddenly I’m transported to the middle of an oil field in an Arizona desert at sunrise, but have no idea where I am for the first two minutes of a three-minute film because a filmmaker has control of my point of view in one long camera zoom-shot. I like this. This is good. This is what I want to do.” Somehow in that moment I knew that filmmaking was my medium, and I embraced that and committed to it.
I guess the long and the short of all this is that for our final class project we were to produce a silent short film, and I produced the film called “7 Up: You Like It; It Likes You” (which was then the commercial logo etched onto the green glass 7-Up cola bottles). The idea for my visual metaphor was suggested by the landmark books of Marshall McLuhan and in particular by his phrase “the medium is the message.” This internationally recognized media-and-culture guru, writer, and professor of English Literature Marshall McLuhan had begun teaching and collaborating with cultural anthropologist and social media commentator Edmund “Ted” Carpenter at nearby Fordham University in New York. In making my film, I managed to get a very imaginative fellow-student to serve as my actor—William “Bill” Whitehead—who was studying acting, had taken the Foundation-year courses with me, and shared my enthusiasm for McLuhan’s work. After I revealed the concept for my film and we roughly blocked out the shoot, Bill led me on a one-day trek on the Staten Island Ferry to a deserted and surrealistic, very remote and very strange beach littered with things like washed-up automobile engines and refrigerators and such barnacle-clad stray objects. This spot on Staten Island was one Bill had discovered and used as a kind of retreat where he would go to learn his lines for plays. We carried four props with us—the McLuhan paperback book, several different graduating sizes of orange paper which we would pixilate into a huge replica of a 7-Up logo, and a giant bottle of 7-Up.
The film went like this: Bill sat down with his back against a huge log that had washed up on the beach and began speed-reading the McLuhan book, occasionally taking giant swigs from the 7-Up bottle. He grew more intent, flipping faster and faster through the pages. Cut to close-up of his eyes. Close-up of him pausing to finish off the giant-sized 7-Up bottle. Glances at the bottle label. Cut to label logo “7 Up. You like it. It likes you.” Puts bottle down beside him and continues reading, flipping pages more rapidly. Cut to close-up of the label again. He takes a final swig from the bottle and it’s empty. So he stands up and hurls it in slow motion into the air towards the ocean. It lands with a big splash, bobs several times, and we’re back as Bill returns to the log to continue reading. Suddenly the bottle appears, this time bobbing, but this time with an orange-colored piece of paper appearing to be carrying some kind of “message” protruding from its neck. In a series of cuts we animate the bottle, standing it up at the water’s edge, having it “wriggle” a path via pixilation towards the reader, who intermittently glances up, but pays no attention—until the bottle confronts him by tapping his foot several times. In one fell swoop Bill, still with eyes fixed to the page, reaches an arm over the log and grabs a rusty iron rod from behind the log and brings it smashing down on the hapless bottle, smashing it to smithereens. He stands up and gathers himself, leans down and picks up the piece of orange paper that had been sticking out of the now-destroyed bottle. As he unfolds it, it gets larger and larger through the means of several angle changes as we follow his action, until finally it becomes twice as large as he is. Through a series of cuts and angle changes he finally is completely covered by the logo, which trembles as his hand with fingers digging deeply into the sand in a final, desperate effort to escape, disappears underneath the giant logo. In the final shot, a close-up of the logo “7 Up: You Like It. It Likes You,” crumpled from the struggle, is displayed just before it is reduced to normal size through a series of quick cuts and camera angle changes, and is finally blown down the beach and disappears from view.
When I entered the film into the annual Pratt Student Film Festival, it won. And that’s what launched me into the independent film community that had formed in New York during the 1960’s. At that time in New York, the independent-filmmaking movement had begun. It was formed by moving-image artists who began meeting and gathering at a studio in lower Manhattan which later became a funded organization, The New American Cinema Group or The Film-Maker’s Cooperative. We just called it the Independent Filmmaker’s Co-op. At that time there weren’t any places where you could gather and screen the works of people experimenting with film, like the nutty, half live-action/half pixilation films of painter Red Grooms [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Grooms], or the sand animations made by Eli Noyes, or the experimental films by artists like George Griffin and Stan Vanderbeek. So as an extension of the Filmmaker’s Co-op they set up a place called the Film Forum.
It eventually grew to become a kind of film palace for independent filmmakers. You could go down there on a Friday night and a Saturday night and watch an assortment of films that are so different from Hollywood films that you’d have to explain it in ways that most people probably wouldn’t understand at the time. They were crazy films. Wonderful films. The film Forum and the independent Filmmaker’s Co-op became a very inspirational place for me to go. They wrote grants that enabled the Co-op to acquire Moviola editing machines (the industry standard at that time), and 16-mm cameras that they would rent to artists at very low rates to enable them to produce their films and then be able to edit them. My humble little Pratt Institute student film festival film was my entree into the Film Co-op and the filmmakers who shared film screenings and gathered to discuss them there.
While still at Pratt, I realized that filmmaking and photography had proven important to me and had empowered me to turn a camera out upon the world and begin making images that were meaningful to me personally. And this prompted the educator in me to realize that it could be a powerful and effective tool for personal expression by young people who lived in the turmoil of the Bedford Stuyvesant ghetto neighborhoods and playgrounds that surrounded Pratt. So I wrote a grant at the end of my second year at Pratt to the City of New York and landed funding for a project from the Community Foundation to run a young filmmakers photography and film workshop in Brooklyn taught by grad students in the Photography program at Pratt.
With the Grant we bought a dark room set up, little Kodak 12-shot cameras, and simple hand-held plastic movie cameras. Our plan was to recruit kids from off the streets by taking Polaroid cameras out to the playgrounds in the Bedford-Stuyvesant local neighborhood. This was a time when the Black Panthers were everywhere, and most kids had brothers and sisters hooked on drugs. It was a pretty active and volatile environment. So we would go out on Saturdays and take photographs of kids playing in the playgrounds with Polaroids. The kids would run up to us and say, “Hey, what you doing takin’ my picture?” And we would reply, “Well, we’re going to run a Photography and Film Workshop at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in the basement. And we’re trying to find some kids who’d be interested in signing up for two months of taking and developing their own photographs and making movies.” For those wanting to sign up I said, “Here’s how you do it. I’m going to have to come meet with your Mom or Dad and get them to give sign a permission to let you do this, and then you have to sign a contract.” And they said, “What kind of contract?” I said, “You have to commit to two months of involvement with the program and not miss a lesson starting this summer.” Well, that sort of generated a lot of interest among the parents and the kids, so I hired two Pratt graduate students of Photography to come in and help me run that workshop, Steve Zapton and other Pratt graduate student photographers. I began this my second year at Pratt in 1967 and ran the program in the summers on Fridays and Saturdays until I grew disenchanted with Advertising, left Pratt, and entered Columbia University to get a Master’s Degree in Education with a major in Curriculum and Teaching, and a deep sense of the importance of somehow getting filmmaking and media literacy integrated into K-12 teaching in the public schools.
I should say that the thing I had loved best about Pratt was the excellence and authenticity of the instructors. Many classes were taught in the city, and your instructors were working professionals successful in their various fields. It happened that among the advertising courses I took my second year my department had one that was especially designed for students interested in becoming an art director. The course met in the very upscale conference and screening room at Grey Advertising in Manhattan. Our instructor for the class happened to be a well-known copywriter, and he warned us on the first day of class that our preconception of the importance of an art director—that he was at the top of the creativity “food chain” in an agency—was headed for a genuine reality check. He knew from years of experience that we advertising majors were all planning to be hot-shot art directors, and it was his intention to immediately destroy this misconception. For me, what he revealed that night destroyed not only that misconception, but any desire I might have had to become a part of a deft, clever, dog-eat- dog business.
What brought this into sharp focus for me was the moment at that first class meeting at Grey Advertising when my instructor took us into the ultra-modern screening and conference room and introduced us to the top art director with the firm, who began this way: “You know, a lot of you think you want to be art directors and that they’re at the top of the totem pole. But let me tell you who’s at the top of the totem pole in our business. First, it’s a large team of social scientists and behavioral psychologists. There are three floors of them at Grey Advertising. And when a job for a client is landed, it comes to those three floors first. By the time it comes to me, my job is to create a clever storyboard that utilizes susceptibilities they have revealed in the viewer so that I can create clever visualizations to illustrate what the copywriter hands to me. He wants an ad that can create a kill that destroys and annihilates the closest competing product. So it comes down to this: Kill, or be killed. Our job as art directors is not any different from a search-and-destroy mission in Vietnam. Our purpose is to destroy and annihilate the enemy. In Vietnam Nam, the enemy is the Viet Cong. In my department the enemy is the product my product is competing with.”
Bang! That was it for me. Something deep inside me recoiled, and I knew that I needed to get the scales back in balance. What this came to mean for me was that teaching filmmaking to my young people would not be enough. I had to find a way to promote media literacy too in the public schools. The students needed help in understanding this scientific system of mind-control, this behavioral conditioning of audiences that manipulated them into consumers and blinded them to the sophisticated devices and techniques deployed to “hook” them. At first this redirected me to Columbia University and a master's degree in Curriculum and Teaching. But as I grew into filmmaking and matured as an artist, I think, in looking back over it, that my life’s work, reflects a different way to go about balancing those scales: how I chose to shoot my films and who the subjects were I chose to include in them.
My work with young people revealed to me how deeply television had etched its messages, but more importantly and subliminally, it’s manipulative visual language into the minds of children at an early age. These young people were taking up movie cameras in this electronic mass-media age and showing that they had absorbed, and not been taught, how to construct stories using the visual language of film. Seeing this launched me into working to get filmmaking and media studies, integrated as a single subject, into the curricula of public elementary and high schools. This led to my earning my M.A. from Columbia University and completing my master’s thesis on the design of a “Ghetto School of the Arts,” using an arts-centered, media-literacy-based curriculum at its core. My thesis advisor then suggested that he set me up with an appointment to meet his friend, filmmaker Julien Bryan. Bryan was an elderly but innovative educational film producer from the Francis Flaherty era who headed the International Film Foundation in New York. By coincidence, he had taught filmmaking to children in Brooklyn himself, but in 1918 using 22-mm film! We hit it off immediately, as it turned out.
The day I met Julien Bryan I had an appointment at his office but had to wait a while. Here I was, this young guy sitting and waiting to meet this big producer guy, and after almost an hour I had grown pretty anxious. Suddenly the door opened to his office and he came out, looked around, and says, “Are you the student from Columbia? Come on in here. I understand you are teaching filmmaking to kids in Brooklyn?” And I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Well, come in and shut the door behind you. I want to talk about that because I taught filmmaking to kids in my Brooklyn neighborhood back in 1918 with a hand-cranked camera that shot 22-millimeter film. What are you using?” “Just cheap 8-millimeter Kodak cameras.” Two hours later, I was offered a job, as Mr. Bryan said, “I don’t have anything for you to do but make coffee and sit in the screening room screening release prints from the lab, checking for quality. These are short ethnographic social-studies films with natural sound tracks I am introducing with no narration. Titles like ‘Building a Bridge’ shot among the Pashtun people in Afghanistan, or ‘Hunting Wild Doves’ in our African Village Life series. You’ll be looking for scratches, dust bunnies, or places where ink from the optical track has spilled-over into the picture frame. Quality control is important to me. Bad copies will go into a pile that you will have to run back over to the lab as ‘returns’ and order replacements.” All I remember saying in response was, “I’ll take it.”
And that began a process for me that became very, very important. I began screening dozens of these non-narrative social-study films, and I’d never seen films like these before. They were eight-to-ten minute films that suddenly “landed” the viewer alongside members of a remote, primitively built village who were starting a task essential to life among the peoples there. No narration. Just sounds as the work progresses. By the end of the film you have moved with the people through every stage of their work as they reach completion. The films had to be so precisely shot information-wise and so carefully edited that they visually told their story. I became fascinated with these films and didn’t mind screening thirty of them at a time, because I could deconstruct them and figure out what footage had likely been shot, but would be lying on the editing floor in order to get to the finished eight minutes. The subject may have been filmed over a period of days. But the work shown reaches completion in under ten minutes. And so I asked Mr. Bryan if I could meet with Hermann Schlenker, a German ethnographic filmmaker who worked for the anthropologists at the Institute for Scientific Film in Göttingen. But when he would go on location to shoot for the Institute, Mr. Bryan would hire him to shoot these short subjects on the side. So when Schlenker came to New York and I was able to have lunch with him, I asked him about his films and told him I had had the opportunity to view and deconstruct the editing of all his films. I pulled out my notes, and as I read them Schlenker grew quite amused. “You have it right!” he would say with a big smile.
I said, “You know, I watch teachers work these films with their students, and I think it’s just amazing how precise you are in capturing the kind of processes and information that a young student needs, to be able to sit in front of the screen and be able to extrapolate so many levels of meaning that at the end of eight minutes, he is able to sit up and tell the teacher not only what the film is about but what details he has observed in the process—that one of the tribesmen helping tie the ropes holding the thatched roof of a house together was wearing a Rolex wristwatch, and the student wonders how that Rolex wristwatch had come into such a primitive place in Africa. These students could start asking questions that would penetrate into that culture and provide more information than a narrator would be dumping on them. This encouraged student observation and drew other students to pull from it as much information as they could, amassing a rich base of observations from which a wide variety of conclusions could be drawn.” I said, “Let me ask you. I made notes about what I think the footage was that you probably eliminated in order to get to the footage that you’re using.” And he laughed and he said, “You know, this is amazing. You’re largely right; but what I’m amazed at is that you would take this kind of time to deconstruct my films. And in the process you have come to be your own documentary film teacher.”
I shared that I am teaching these kids in Brooklyn Photography and Filmmaking, and that in taking these non-narrative films and showing it to them, I had been able to observe how immediately effective they were in unleashing the powers of individual observation among ghetto kids who, with little or no social studies background, were able to observe and draw with abundant information about the culture and subjects they were viewing. He replied, “There’s something to be said for the way that a camera can tell a story by itself without somebody telling you what you’re seeing. The cultural anthropologists I shoot for are expert ‘observers’ of how man lives and what activities are a part of the life of a people. What Mr. Bryan has done is utilize their discipline in making these short cultural documentaries and his young viewers are able to duplicate the anthropologists’ powers of observation, letting the culture and activities speak for themselves. Their job becomes one of careful observation, noting all that these images convey. It’s really a brilliant way to use the documentary as a teaching tool. The viewer is much more involved in documentaries shot in this way. It keeps them actively observant and engaged.” I made note of this phenomenon and would eventually incorporate it in my own films with greater and greater frequency.
As work continued with Mr. Bryan, he would always look out for me and get me consulting jobs for schools. One of the jobs he recommended was to be a Filmmaker-in-Residence with the Darien Public Schools in Connecticut, teaching teachers how to make Super-8 films to use in their classrooms. The first day I rode up to Connecticut for this job, I pulled into the commuter train stop in Darien, where I was met by the AV coordinator there. On the drive to Hollow Tree Elementary School he was very excited and effervescing, saying, “Got something tremendously unusual that’s happening. I think you will find it very useful for teaching teachers how to make Super-8 films after school for their classrooms.” I said, “What is that?” He said, “Well, there’s a group of fifth graders who have asked their teacher whether they could make a film about Paul Revere and the Battles of Lexington and Concord rather than writing book reports about them. And the teacher’s very nervous because she doesn’t know anything about filmmaking and these kids have already set up their whole production team. They have a director, a producer, a cameraman, a director for special effects, a girl who’s called a librarian who’s going to make sure that the historical facts are correct. And she didn’t know what to do with them. So I told them I’d bring you over and let you talk to the class.” Well, when the classroom door opened, I got the only standing ovation I’ve ever gotten in my life. And the teacher said, “Thank goodness, you’re here. I know nothing about making a film, and this scares me to death. I’m going to turn the presentation of the idea for the film over to our director, Jerry Finnerty, who came up with the idea of the class making a film about Paul Revere and the battles of Lexington and Concord instead of each person writing a report on the subject.” Now, Jerry Finnerty is a D student who is just shining, glowing as he takes charge and introduces me to himself, his cameraman, and the production crew. He tells me the locations that they’ve picked for shooting their film. And that Sally has volunteered to be in charge of historical accuracy, and that her mother, is a clothes designer and has coordinated with parents to make the costumes. He introduces his special effects team which is looking into how to take film shot during the day and made it look like night. I was knocked out.
I let them know that transportation of the entire class to the sites Jerry had picked out for the different episodes would have to be worked out, and I was told that several parents had already committed to coordinating transportation. Unfolding before me was clear evidence and proof positive that what I had discovered with my group of inner-city kids in my Young Photographers and Filmmakers workshop in Brooklyn was happening in the greater culture as a whole, which was being impacted en masse by television. Here was a highly organized group of fifth graders ready to go produce a film on Paul Revere. They comprehended what a production crew entailed, and their classroom teacher was saying, “This scares me to death! I just don’t feel comfortable doing this on my own.” Fortunately Ms. Whidden had a graduate student teaching intern named Bill Bonfante who wasn’t at all intimidated and stepped forward enthusiastically to offer his leadership. So lo and behold, here was a picture-perfect setting where an under-achieving fifth grade student, Jerry Finnerty, had his entire class poised to make a rather large-scale historical film as a class assignment. And of course his mom, who has been on his back to “be a better student,” is gung ho to see Jerry pull this off and has organized total parent support. This became the opportune moment for me to produce what would become my first major documentary: “The American Super-8 Revolution.”
I started taking to each session where I met with the class the Bolex camera I had bought the year before when I had shot my first short 16mm film, “The Licorice Train,” a film about one of the students with a vivid imagination who was a member of my Brooklyn Young Filmmakers workshop. I eventually moved up to a rented Éclair ACL handheld camera and a Nagra tape recorder to shoot interviews. Since I was in a number of these shots instructing the children and helping them problem-solve their way through shooting and editing decisions, I had to hire a cameraman to shoot for me. He came from Darien, and when done shooting at the end of production he said to me, “This is so depressing to me.” And I said, “What’s depressing to you?” He replied, “All these kids making films. You know, twenty years from now everybody is going to be making films, and every kid is going to be a cameraman, and I’ll be out of work.” When you consider that this was in 1970, the guy wasn’t far off. After all, that was the year when Spielberg was shooting space ships against a star field made by punching holes in black plastic backlit garbage bags in his living room in nearby New Jersey!
My film about Jerry Finnerty making his film opens up with a shot of him sitting on a big rock behind his school along with his cameraman, Grant Harshbarger. The film has been completed, and I have just asked him to answer one question: “How did you get the idea for this film?” And he said, “Well, we were watching the Brady Bunch, and in the show they get the idea that they wanted to make a film for their classroom. And I thought, “Wow. That’s great!” I asked my teacher if we could make this film about Paul Revere and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. And if you hadn’t showed up, I don’t think she’d have let us make it. But you came, and we did make the film. And I think—well, I think it turned out great!”
When I finished editing the film, I was still working for Julien Bryan, and I entered it into the American Film Festival in the Teacher Education Category in 1972. It got nominated for an award at the same time that I had made myself known to the New York Center for Understanding Media, a seminal media-literacy-education organization that had been formed two years earlier by a Jesuit priest, Father John Culkin. He was a personal friend and supporter of Marshall McLuhan, the author of the book featured in my “7-Up” film that won the Pratt student film festival. McLuhan and Dr. Ted Carpenter had joined with Culkin, believing that such a center could receive major grants from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations to match grants from the Education and Public Media divisions of the NEA. They wanted the grants to bring in teachers from around the country and immerse them in film study and small-format Super-8mm filmmaking courses. Gaining media literacy, the teachers could it carry back to their classrooms. They later expanded the program to bring school superintendents and principals from schools in which attending teachers taught.
Around this time I saw an article in the New York Times about widespread use of family home-movie cameras by young people to create films of great imagination. The article told that The Center for Understanding Media in Manhattan would hold a Northeastern Student Film Festival to show films by public-school youth. The festival was to be sponsored by Eastman Kodak in conjunction with MPO studios and would screen around twenty films. However, in a few weeks another article reported that more than 800 young filmmakers had submitted entries for the festival. This necessitated expanding it into a three-day event.
When I read this, I picked up the phone and called Fr. Culkin at the Center. I said, “Look, I’m teaching a group of kids filmmaking in Brooklyn from Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods” and proceeded to describe how our workshop functioned. “I just saw this article in the paper and wondered if our kids could attend.” And he said, “Well, how many of you are there?” I said, “There are six who make films, but there are thirty-five more that make and develop their own photographs.” And he said, “Well, bring them all. I’ll send you a special invitation. And can you bring one of the films so we can screen it?” And that’s how I became known to John Culkin.
When the Center learned my film was being nominated for an award in the Teacher Education category, and that it was called, “The American Super-8 Revolution,” I was hired to become a teacher of filmmaking on their summer staff. Later in the year I got a call from Fr. Culkin who said, “I need to talk with you about a job opportunity.” I thought it might be another Darien, Connecticut, kind of opportunity. But he said that he was dealing with a school system in Greenville, South Carolina, that had an art lab. They wanted to develop it into a special high school for the arts. They were told to reply to a request for proposals sent out by the Center for Understanding Media and the National Endowment for the Arts. The agencies sought locations to pilot a filmmaker component in the Artists in the Schools program being funded by the National Endowment for the Arts through newly-formed state arts agencies. Since Greenville had been selected as one of three pilot sites it was invited to review films by a number of independent filmmakers out of New York and choose one to serve as Filmmaker in Residence, teaching filmmaking in the schools. However a problem had arisen: None of the filmmakers reviewed proved satisfactory.
Culkin explained, “We had sent them a list of filmmakers and sample work and they rejected all of them, implying that they were too radical. We knew that you were a Southerner—and come over as a polite, soft-spoken young man, Southern accent and all. We think that you would be able to present yourself in a way that might enable them to consider you as a filmmaker who would do no harm to the minds of their students. Your short film called ‘The Licorice Train,’ is a children’s film, and it’s pretty harmless. Would you allow us to at least send ‘The Licorice Train’ down to them along with your resume to see if there’s any interest?” Well, at that point, I was feeling a little put down. I said, “Well, who were the filmmakers that they rejected?” And he said, “They rejected Kit Laybourne, who is on staff with us. Let me read you the letter that the head of this program wrote me. She said, ‘Dear Fr. Culkin, We have reviewed your filmmakers and have decided that the filmmaker we would prefer to serve in residence is Alfred Hitchcock.’” And I said, “Well, I don’t think that ‘The Licorice Train’ in comparison to The Birds is going to please them.” However, with submission of “The Licorice Train” and my resume, I proved acceptable to the Greenville site. Taking this job meant, however, that this would take me away from New York at a time when my film on student filmmaking was to be judged at The American Film Festival. But my thinking was, “Here is an opportunity to take what I have learned by leaving South Carolina and return to contribute back to my home-state.” And so I took the job.
I have put an emphasis on this part of my journey into filmmaking to make clear how terribly under-developed my home state was as far as the emerging American independent film movement was concerned. To say the state was ten years behind the times would be putting it mildly. But in comparison to what New York had to offer the independent filmmaker there was no comparison to be made at all. I guess that is part of what motivated me to return. Some sense that it might plant some seeds of understanding and appreciation of an arts movement deeply rooted in the democratic spread of mass media via television pumped into homes across America.
So I began teaching 5th to 12th grade students Super-8 filmmaking in the classroom at an “art lab” at Beck Middle School in Greenville, S.C. Students would be bussed to the lab in this order: they would bus kids from elementary schools in for one week, junior high school for another, and then senior high school for the third week. And at the end of the whole thing, the program had produced 62 films that had been shot and edited in a three-month period.
By the time we held a community film festival to show the work of these students in May, there was this amazing buzz among the students. They were all very amped up about the program and the work they had accomplished. I remember as a highlight of the experience that there were three guys whose fathers worked as telephone linemen for Southern Bell. For the kids who produced soundtracks on cassettes to play in synch with their short films, there was a problem synching the cassette recorders with the speed of the movie projectors. But as we prepared the films for showing, the Southern Bell students came to me with what they said was good news. “Mr. Woodward, we figured out how to synchronize the sound to the projectors.” I said, “How is that?” One of them said, “Well, if you’ll take a little hole-punch that my dad uses as a lineman and punch a hole in the leader exactly two seconds before the first frame is projected on the screen, then the guys who are running the cassette recorders would see that flash on the screen and by the time they hit ‘play’ on the cassette recorder, it would come in and sync with the first frame of film.” I said, “Well, that’s pretty brilliant. Let’s give it a try.” It worked. And the films shown at the festival were “locked in” with their sound tracks. Parents and others in attendance who filled the Greenville County Library auditorium were knocked out by the student films.
At the conclusion of the festival the director of the South Carolina Arts Commission , which had partially funded this project, came up to me and said, “Mr. Woodward, we would like for you to come to work for the South Carolina Arts Commission as a filmmaker on staff.” In utter surprise I said, “To do what?” And he said, “We want you onboard as a filmmaker in residence to help us build a Filmmaker in the Schools program as well as help us build a film program. I love film, and I think film needs to be promoted as a major art form by state arts agencies.” As an historical note, the establishment of state arts councils around the country had just gotten its start in an initiative by the founding director of the National Endowment for the Arts, Nancy Hanks. The South Carolina Arts Commission was an early leader in the field, recognizing the need for promotion of the arts to enrich the lives of this largely rural, agrarian, and impoverished Southern state.
I was invited to stop by the office in Columbia after I packed up to head back to New York the next day. So I visited the Arts Commission and met with the staff and representatives of the Commission’s Board of Directors. They had been prepared for the meeting and asked me what I needed in order to take the job. On the drive to Columbia I had thought about the kind of support system I would need as an independent filmmaker working in isolation instead of in the support system already established in New York. I estimated the acquisition of cameras, tripods, lighting kits, and editing-studio equipment alone would cost anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000. And that would not cover additional staff necessary to coordinate promotion and run programs in support of the establishment and growth of independent filmmaking in the state. At minimum up front this would require a $25,000 purchase of an eight-plate Steenbeck editing machine and a sound transfer system for me to be able to continue my own work. When I presented this, the response was, “Okay. We can work with that. When can you start?” And I said, “Well, I’ve got to present this idea to my wife and consider the possibility.” I knew full well that Anda had often told our friends in Brooklyn it had taken her a long time to get out of South Carolina. She grew up in a small textile town called Ninety Six. The reason she married me, I think, was that she found out I was going to Pratt Institute in New York. She had worked to help put me through Pratt and had landed a very good job with an executive track at Met Life, with eyes on the “glass ceiling” there. Anda was very ambitious, and I was not at all sure she’d want to come back to South Carolina. The same was true for me. I had established myself as a member of the independent film community in New York, with a film selected for screening at the upcoming American Film Festival there. However, before I departed that day the director of the Arts Commission said, “I’ve talked with Chloe Aaron who directs the Public Media division at the National Endowment for the Arts and told her what you need in the way of equipment. I asked her if they would work with us to fund that equipment so we can make this job a possibility for you, and she said that they would be glad to consider it. I told her that you would stop by to talk with her on your way back to New York, and that we were very serious in our recruitment of you.”
When I arrived in the office of Chloe Aaron she took me to a map of the United States in the conference room where she pointed to five pushpins placed in five regions of the country. One was in San Francisco, one in Chicago, one in New York, one in Miami, and one in Kentucky. She said, “These are film centers that we’re priming to become media art centers. They are experimenting with ways to support independent filmmaking and film arts programs. The only one in the interior region of the South and the one closest to South Carolina is the first media arts center we piloted. It’s called the Appalachian Film Workshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky. But Wes Brusted at the South Carolina Arts Commission wants to hire you to get a media arts center started at their state arts agency. We would be very interested in planting a push pin in Columbia, and working with Wes to start one there. And if you are considering taking the job as filmmaker in residence to plan and facilitate this, our agency would be willing to help. I know from talking with Wes that this will require a big leap for you from New York back to South Carolina, and I wanted to let you know that we will do what we can to make that move attractive to you.” I took this information home and talked with my wife about it. I said, “Look, what harm could it do for us to go down there for a couple of years and get them started with this thing, and then we can come back and pick up where we left off.” She agreed to give it a try, so in the summer of 1972 we uprooted and returned to South Carolina.
My first year was loaded with adjusting to being in the South again as well as writing grants to the National Endowment for the Arts, working with the Commission’s Arts in Education division to establish the filmmaker component for their Artist in the Schools program, reaching out to teachers and young filmmakers to begin a Young Filmmakers Festival and Workshop, and reaching out to discover and initiate support for independent filmmakers in the state. I started a media arts center, acquiring a Steenbeck editing machine, a sound transfer machine, a 16-mm ARRI movie camera, and the camera used in New York by Leacock and Pennebaker that I had been so influenced by, the hand-held Éclair ACL.
One of the films that made the biggest impact on me in New York was a film by Ricky Leacock and Donn Pennebaker, independent filmmakers who had designed a 60-cycle camera motor driven by a crystal synching device that would run 16mm film at 24 frames per second in precise synchronization with a Nagra tape recorder. This freed the cameraman from the audio cabling historically required for recording sound in synch with film, resulting in the camera being stuck on a tripod. The first film shot in this liberating way was a short documentary by Donn Pennebaker called Primary –a 1960 film that followed Senator Hubert Humphrey from a hotel room to a campaign rostrum in a park nearby to deliver his first campaign speech as a Presidential candidate. The film began in the hotel where he was in a room with his advisers. They were going over notes for the speech he was going to make. A guy came in and said, “Limousine’s ready, we got to go.” Well, not only do Hubert Humphrey and his advisors get up and go, but the cameraman get ups and goes with him. The camera is still in-synch as we follow him down the elevator, enter the limo hear his conversation all the way to the location where we get out of the car with Humphrey, stay right behind him as he climbs to the rostrum, and swing around to the side of him as we follow his primary speech. Viewing for the first time this new visual spontaneity, the sense of real-time presence and the dynamic energy of this footage, took your breath away. You hadn’t seen anything like this on the screen before. It is hard for everyone to appreciate that today, but that’s the effect that this breakthrough film had on me and all those who saw it for the first time. This was then followed by a series of films shot in the same style by other filmmakers, like the Maysles Brothers’ “Salesman” and Frederick Wiseman’s “Titicutt Follies.” A number of New York independent filmmakers began producing documentaries using the handheld crystal-synch camera. And their films began to be shown at movie houses like the Carnegie Theatre, where crowds went around the block.
These films offered such a new film-going experience that I went to see them over and over, studying what made the screening of them so revolutionary for me. And I realized that this method of shooting your subject drew the filmmaker directly into the film so that you felt their presence to the point where they became part of the film itself. They became an active part of the exposition of story. This broke the cameraman through what was called by film critics “the third wall.” He or she was no longer invisible, but began to speak, to have a voice.
In purchasing the Éclair ACL camera for the South Carolina Arts Commission, I knew that I would use it in the film that I had agreed to make as part of my job as Filmmaker in Residence. Several years into my work in developing the Arts Commission Media Arts Center and a Regional Film Editing Studio, I was called into a meeting with the director, who said, “It’s time for you to make a documentary film that will appeal to everyone in the state of South Carolina. We want you to present it around the state and talk about what makes your film different from the standard high-budget Hollywood films. It needs to be on a subject that everybody in South Carolina would be interested in. Your film will need to be appealing to an auto mechanic and a lawyer, an accountant, a housewife, a farmer, or politician. You’re going to have to reach every person in South Carolina with this film. It will have to appeal at a grassroots level as a subject that every South Carolinian would want to see.”
It took me three years to get around to making this film, but we got in place a regional film-editing studio, an independent filmmakers production-grant program, a young filmmakers’ program in which we gave out Super 8 cameras and editing equipment to public schools that encouraged students to work with their parents to apply for grants for young filmmakers. We had a young filmmakers’ festival each year in which we brought in independent filmmakers like Eli Noise to run workshops for the filmmakers. We put together an Art of the Short Film Festival, making a five-volume package of film programs with program notes available to arts councils in small towns in South Carolina. So a number of tiered programs were connected to the media art center.
From the Center I was also reaching out to the rest of the South, working with 10 other state arts agencies, helping them develop filmmaker artist development programs. I used my South Carolina Regional Film Editing Studio as the base for helping organize regional support for independent filmmakers. We started COSMO, a Coalition of Southern Media Organizations (i.e., The Alabama Filmmakers Coop, Appalshop, and others), and worked with Mary Jane Coleman, student and independent filmmaker advocate and Director of the annual Sinking Creek Film Festival, the largest showcasing of new works every year from the American independent film community. These activities had the effect of molding the independent film movement in the South, helping to give it a regional identity, and elevating exposure of our regional filmmakers to the state-of -the-art of independent film movement.
But this administrative work had to culminate in my making a film on South Carolina that would appeal “to an auto mechanic and a lawyer, an accountant, a housewife, a farmer, or politician.” I had been told, “You’re going to have to reach every person in South Carolina with this film.” This directive would eventually lead to my break-through film It’s Grits. Folkstreams has that film and from its webpage streams my account of how that film came to be.