Finally, in 1997, I began to work full-time at acquiring the technical skills necessary for effective camera work and non-linear editing. In the absorbing process during these years I have found the work very exciting, sometimes frustrating, never boring.
At the same time I found some similarities to my publishing experiences which have been helpful, such as concept development and finding one’s own ‘voice’ during the production process.
Whilst admiring the production skills in managing a large-scale film, and in spite of the obvious limitations, I have taken particular pleasure in working alone.
To date I have completed 14 films.
I n t e r v i e w: Speaking for Shapiro By Carla Merolla Odell
There are 8 million stories in the naked city, and at The County Theater on November 8, filmmaker Bert Shapiro is “telling” eight of them.
A tabla virtuoso, a singing poet, an organist, a Noh performer. That’s half of them. An instrumentalist, a Broadway actor, a concert pianist, and a dancer. These are the subjects of Shapiro’s latest film, “Speaking for Myself,” and the latest in the cast list of people he finds…intriguing.
Bert’s interest isn’t piqued, however, without feeling the drive that a laborer, an artist, a hobbyist or enthusiast brings to a job, the stage, an instrument. “Passion. That’s the pre-requisite, that’s the trigger,” Bert says, sitting at his editing screen in his studio nestled in the wooded cliffs of Pipersville, where he’s finished all 13 of his previous films with focuses ranging from a Hollywood hairpiece-maker to cigar-makers, to fencers, church bell ringers, and organ-builders.
Although born in Britain, decades of NYC living means nurture trumps nature. And with city living comes city smarts; things are rarely as they seem. “I’m interested in what’s behind the façade of appearances,” Bert says, and what drives a person to create, to succeed. “I ask and I’m lucky. People talk to me and tell me things.”
Listening is how Bert conceptualizes each next film, and the pursuit of finding what lies beneath the words is what drives the 82-year-old, who after a long career in educational publishing became interested in making documentary films. In 1995, when he was 64, instead of settling into retirement, Bert began working full time learning camera work and non-linear editing, and launched his own production company, Pheasants Eye. For a fellow who can’t even type, technology continues to be challenging. “I compensate by having good friends who can help.”
Friends like Loic De Lame, his “very talented” cameraman and editor, whom Shapiro describes as “not a Hollywood type. But he knows what the power boys do and how they do it.” How these two did it on “Speaking for Myself” is through freestyle storytelling. No script, no plan of action, not even a shooting schedule. It was more like, Say, are you off on Monday? Can we film you for an hour or so? The camera started rolling, and there were no retakes. The challenge to stay authentic, allowing the artists to indeed speak for themselves, came during the conversations and in Loic’s subtle editing. The choice of what to ask and what to delete is always intentional. Because while there may have not been a plan, there was a goal, which is to advocate for the artists whose dreams are powered by commitment, and challenged by disappointments and dead-ends. The scales tip when the successes are weighed down by what review doesn’t make the paper, what film doesn’t get screened, whose music doesn’t get played, who doesn’t get the part…. An artist’s life, Bert says, is more than the sound bites in a two-minute TV news segment or a two-column review in the NY Times.
So in Bert’s film, the audience hears how important it was for Noh performer Toshinori Hamada to reinvent himself in Manhattan, and how tabla virtuoso Samir Chatterjee sees limitless opportunities in a city with only geographical boundaries. Organist Renee Anne Louprette feels “pushed by a city that can pressurize you,” and actress Irma Sandrey loves the “gorgeous risk” she takes at every performance. Eclectic instrumentalist/composer Elliott Sharp is grateful for a place where he can “exist on the fringe…in this strange corner,” in the same forgiving town where pianist Jenny Lin hears 24-hour “inspirational noise.” And along the streets where poet singer Tracie Morris feels rhythm beneath her feet, Baroque dancer Carlos Fittante can strut the pavements behind a mask…and no one cares.
That’s probably because in their way, every New Yorker is on his or her own stage, whether a street performer doing a shtick in front of Saks or an office assistant animatedly talking on a cell phone on a lunch break. Between each of these eight vignettes, New Yorkers – in all their honest, brash, idiosyncratic behaviors – are seen living the life the camera has captured. This is Bert Shapiro’s love letter to his city… and all her actors.
I n t e r v i e w:
with Andrew Krucoff, November 2008
What’s your background?
Being born in Europe in the late 1920’s and transported here in the 1960’s has had its advantages. There has been a lot to see and my brain seems to have a vault that stores moving images. My formative years were spent in London factories and on a farm. I lived through scenes rich in detail and filled with characters that were left over from Dickens stories. The London Blitz also created its own daily stories and visuals. Moving parts of slow moving machines fascinated me; Cogs on harvesting equipment, inking rollers on printing presses – all had a rhythm that later was to delight when I discovered Leger’s “Ballet Mechanique.” Working as an apprentice in a small printing factory was a grim experience, but I saw that there was a “story” played out every day. The pressmen and the women bookbinders had worked together for years – this was their factory family. Their lives were proscribed by long workdays and short nights. Humor was an essential part of their interaction; with a background of machine clatter, some murmured Cockney ditties, others sang funny songs and one man danced like Chaplin. I was an outsider, an observer. I don’t think that I went to the cinema more than a dozen times before I was 16 – it held little interest for me. Music brought joy, and some of my friends were violin and piano students. We formed a society to help “undiscovered artists” make a debut performance. I found myself in halls and homes well outside of my background – I was a spectator in an environment that was more interesting than the movies.
Though you work almost improvisationally (i.e., without a storyboard or plan of action), you must still do some sort of pre-shooting fact-finding.
I film alone as much as possible because I am looking for the unrehearsed, spontaneous moment. This is made easier because there are no large cameras or truckloads of equipment. Having a crew and equipment has obvious rewards. But working alone is a luxury that I find irresistible. I carry a small camera wherever I go and use it as a notebook. Editing with no storyboard, no plan of action is fun – just spread out the thousands of frames like a massive jigsaw and watch for those “telling” clips yelling for attention. Ride the story that starts to appear and be ready to cut it or run with it; it nags, gnaws, exhausts, exhilarates and excites.
Your Eye & Hand series attempts to capture “skills that may soon disappear in the high-tech production factories of the 21st century.” Are you making these films because you bemoan the loss of people who have these skills (e.g., wigmakers, cigar rollers) despite the relative lack of need for them anymore?
Preserving old skills may not be as important as trying to communicate the characteristics of the practitioners. There is a dignity expressed in the work, with pride and good humor that needs to be preserved on film. This is what I am working to show in my Eye & Hand series.
Why did you move from the publishing industry to “very independent” filmmaking? Was there an allure to working in a visual and sound-based medium that attracted you?
After book publishing for more than 30 years, it was time to get into my vault of images and memories and see if I could make sense of all the accumulated information. The technical challenges in making films have been somewhat overcome, but my focus is on content with a continuing interest in passions.
Tell me a bit about the Contemporary Artists series.
The idea for this series was motivated by a couple of thoughts. First, I would show a glimpse into the lives of these performing artists and give a sense of what it takes, both creatively and practically, to maintain a life in the arts. In doing this, I hope to also dispel some of the common misconceptions about what it actually means to be an artist, and perhaps open a door into a set of possibilities for younger viewers. The other main motivator is really down to something fundamental; I’m interested in people. I love interviewing and getting to know people discovering all something of their personalities and background, and learning what makes up their identities, as artists and as people. Sometimes I feel a bit self-serving in that I get so much out of the process, but ultimately I’d like to think something meaningful is communicated.
M o v i e h o l e I n t e r v i e w
NYC is known as a mecca for the creative and talented, so it’s no surprise that award winning filmmaker Bert Shapiro decided to explore the lives of eight artists living there. Moviehole had the chance to ask the immensely talented Shapiro about the moving film, and found out why he chose to capture the unseen New York.
”Speaking for Myself” explores the life of a tabla virtuoso, organist, Noh performer, a Broadway actor, and more. How did you go about finding the artists that were featured and how did you begin telling their stories?
I originally set out to make a film about the “unseen NYC” and spent more than 2 years wandering the streets with a camera, seeking unexpected sights and events. I accumulated many hours of this unusual footage. Once I started editing, however, I began to realize that I’d end up with a more satisfying, personal and meaningful result if I used this material as a background/foundation to a film about how artists survive in Manhattan. I had been connected to artist friends for many years, and once I started interviewing, I was “passed on” to others that had real-world stories, were articulate, and had unique things to say. I also wanted to help dispel the common myths about the “romantic lives” of artists often portrayed by Hollywood and the popular media. Looking back on it, I regret not including a painter, architect and opera singer/producer. These are individuals I’d like to eventually feature in a separate film.
What struck you most about how the artists in the film viewed New York?
They were tough, uncompromising in quality standards and competitive.
You’re a seasoned filmmaker, who has been granted numerous accolades and critical acclaim, how does this film differ from your previous work?
Until the Elliott Sharp film, my focus had mainly been on people who work with their “Eye and Hand” (series name). The starting point of ‘Speaking for Myself” was to move onto a larger canvas and also raise the production standards of my work. Working alone up to ‘Speaking for Myself” was fun (an essential component for me), but I found that I could not continue as a “one man band”. Also, because of my background in educational publishing, I felt the need to help correct the misrepresentation and trivialization of artists and their work that is frequently presented in our schools.
You worked in the educational publishing industry for most of your life, what led you down the path of documentary filmmaking?
Drawing on years of working with creative people, I realized that I can’t dance, sing, write or paint, so this is my medium for self-expression.
The film is set to screen in NYC at on Tuesday, March 13th, 6:00PM Ticket $6 Anthology Film Archives 32 Second Avenue & 2nd Street, New York City For more information about Bert Shapiro and his films: www.pheasantseye.com
An interview with Bert Shapiro The introduction of inexpensive digital film cameras to the mass market in the 1980s and ‘90s created a huge subculture of budding filmmakers working around the world.
The Intel Corporation sent a professional film crew around the USA to interview some of these filmmakers. I was one of those selected to be interviewed. This was an encouraging and somewhat flattering experience. They suggested I speak in general about the approach to my films, as well as relating specific experiences such as interviewing a famous person.
The interview took place in early 1999.