Monday, July 26, 2010

An Interview with Beth Harrington

Beth Harrington is a terrific filmmaker and a good friend.  I have been a fan of her work since her film, The Blinking Madonna and Other Miracles, her film Welcome To The Club: The Women of Rockabilly is one of my all time favorite documentaries.  She is working on a new film, The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and The Course of Country Music.  I am looking forward to it.

We rarely get to see each other anymore but when we do the conversation is always wonderful.  Enjoy the interview.

What’s your background in film/video?

I’ve been doing this in one form or another for over 30 years! (How the heck did that happen?)  Came from an artsy family, went to college for media (Syracuse University, Newhouse School of Public Communications, TV-Radio sequence), graduated and moved back to Boston – my hometown – and did a few related jobs (PR, audiovisual company scriptwriter) and then went off and joined a touring rock & roll band for a few years, only to realize that I did indeed have some marketable skills as a scriptwriter and producer.  So I pursued that from then on mostly as a freelancer. In 1990, I got a job working for a company called The Documentary Guild which in turn worked for WGBH in Boston. So I was an associate producer on shows for Frontline, NOVA, The Health Quarterly and some PBS specials.  Then I came to the Upper Left Coast for love and have been working as independent filmmaker since I arrived, but mostly with Oregon Public Broadcasting.

You made Welcome To The Club with some funding from ITVS, and they helped fund your film The Blinking Madonna & Other Miracles.  What is it like working with them? 

I think very highly of the people at ITVS. They have a tough job administering a funding process that is essentially giving public monies to independent filmmakers.  They have to do that very scrupulously and, I think, they catch a lot of flak for how exacting their process is. ITVS is also highly competitive so there are always hundreds of disgruntled filmmakers who are disappointed they didn’t get funded.  I’ve been one of them, too.

For a filmmaker applying to them, I would say the bottom line is this – you need to help them (which is to say, the panel of jurors they assemble) choose you.  Read their guidelines VERY carefully and answer the questions they ask.  Don’t just cut and paste your proposal into a rough approximation of their template and expect it to work.  They need to be able to say that your film is one designed for public television AND that your film serves an underserved audience. If they can’t say those two things they can’t fund you, no matter how cool your idea is. They don’t want to hear that you want to make a theatrical film (they’re happy if it has theatrical release but the first commitment is to public TV broadcast) and they don’t want to hear you say it will appeal to everyone (not true, anyway).  So, if your film doesn’t fit those criteria, you may want to rethink even submitting to ITVS. 

If you do get funding from them, I think you will find the ITVS folks extremely supportive. They want you to be successful.  They also are hands-off on the editorial part.  They will make suggestions but you are not obligated to follow up on them.  You have artistic control of your project.  But they will want you to be scrupulous with the funding they gave you and they really like it when you stick to your timeline!

You were nominated for a Grammy (long form music video category). Did that make it easier to get your next film going?  Or did it make a difference at all?

It’s hard to say because things like that make ripples we can’t always see.  I think people in the music business I’ve been dealing with on my latest film probably see it as a sign of legitimacy, which, of course, is helpful.  But my sense that the Grammy nomination was going to open doors for funding was not borne out. Sometimes I think that these kinds of honors give people the opening to say, “Oh, she doesn’t need our help.  She’s big time.  She’ll get the money from somewhere else.”  But maybe down the line, I will see that as an erroneous take, too.  Just hard to know from this vantage point.

Tell me about your new film?

It’s called The Winding Stream. The logline is: The Carters, The Cashes and The Course of Country Music. It’s an epic tale about the origins of the form we call country as told through this one family – The Original Carters.  It takes their story from the early 1900s all the way to the present generation of family musicians and, of course, along the way talks about legend Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash.  It is a history film but it also features studio performances with John Prine, Rosanne Cash, George Jones, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Murry Hammond of the Old 97s, and others to come (among them the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and hopefully Wanda Jackson and Jack White!) It’s got great interviews and archival footage and will have cool animated graphics and photos, too.

What was the coolest part of making your new film?

The coolest moment so far has been meeting Johnny Cash.  Might be the coolest moment in my film career.  He was awesome. Intense as you might expect but also kind and genuine and really funny.  Looked right through you when he was talking to you. 

Beyond that, I’d say it’s just a kick to interview musicians I admire and talk about this great shared reverence for these fantastic roots music progenitors. Joe Ely said, “People should know who the Carters were, just like they should know who the first president of the United States was.”  Amen.

What’s next?

Well, I’m trying to see my way past this film, but I’ve still got a long way to go.  But having said that, I would like to do a film about a photographer I’m intrigued by, a Japanese immigrant named Frank Matsura.  His work was awesome (powerful photos of settlers and folks from various Northwest tribes – intimate, really compelling) and his story of coming to NE Washington in the 1900s is really touching.  I feel some affinity for this guy who came to this state and tried to fit in and just started documenting the people and places he encountered.  Plus, if I did do this film it would make it so I had to go back to Japan to do research! I just went there for the first time this spring and that country has become a big source of fascination for me.

Is there a film that was a huge influence on you?  What is it about this film that influenced you?

Oh gee, I never know what to say for this question. I’m not the encyclopedic film buff sort of person.  I have super eclectic tastes and a very bad memory, too.  I find things that influence me in almost everything I see.  But I guess I’d say I really admire Errol Morris’ body of work and there are things about how he tells stories that really impress me.  He’s so oddly evenhanded, even when you know he has a point of view.  But it’s not that fake-y “fair and balanced” sort of evenhandedness.  It’s something more profound and artistic.  And surprising. 

Where can I buy copies of your films?

Some of my films are sold through PBS and OPB, some through me.  Visit my store on my website and there’s info there about all of them.

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