(EDIT: This blog post was written in 2015 and I have archived it here - as I update my new website. It's a bit of a time capsule)
I always like dawn departures. This one felt different, but the same. There’s something about raising up the window shade and looking out and realizing there’s light again, – something comforting. I raised my phone and snapped a shot, immediately, reflexively opening an adjustment app and fiddled with the color and contrast. What to do next. Couldn’t upload since the airplane was moving. As I stared out the window on my way, I tried to realize why this trip felt significant. It was a job, an assignment, a freelance opportunity. I was working and flying and it felt good. Why different? The destination? I have flown and driven to San Francisco many times, shooting television projects, going to a conference for documentaries, traveling with family, doing some PSAs and promo films. I started to understand why, all of a sudden. This was too much for a quick post or caption. This needed to be a blog, or an essay.
Over 25 years ago, in the fall of 1989, I traveled to San Francisco with a small camera in a bag in carry on. Today I have a small camera in a bag in carry on. There was some kind of epic 25 year loop happening, a circular recurrence, a flashback of powerful force ensued. I was attending a Columbia College Chicago documentary class and the earthquake during the World Series had just occurred – the Bay Bridge crushing quake of ’89. I had been procrastinating in doing a class project, then I called my friend Joel to see if he was OK and the conversation led in interesting directions. We talked about the obvious; fires, fear and destruction, but also the emotions and psychology surrounding the disaster. Somehow Joel or I had the idea that I needed to fly out asap with a camera, and do my project on the quake, or the aftermath, or something. I had been doing film and video for a couple years by then, had shot independent projects, worked on commercials, even interned and freelanced for the awesome documentary company, Kartemquin Films, but I had never flown to shoot a video documentary.
In 1989, I traveled with no tripod, no lights, no car rental. My friends Joel and Kerry were so generous with their time. They become part of my documentary project, I shot Joel’s Dad, his friends, Kerry’s friends, coworkers, anyone I could. I slept on the floor or often on an old mattress in an empty spare room, or on a couch. Joel had a motorcycle and that was how we got around town. I shot off the back – with my hand held VHS camera. Somewhere around the first morning I woke up there, walked down the street and used a newspaper machine as a camera support, it dawned on me – yep this is for sure what I want to do. I will keep doing this as long as I can. I shot the entire length of the Golden Gate Bridge off the back of that motorcycle, one-handed low angles through the streets of North Beach. I vividly recall the rush of those shots, meeting wild characters – sometimes in the streets, and just talking to them about how they were feeling, and surprise, they talked back! This was pre reality show era, this was what I understood as documentary at the time. I would hesitate to call it cinema verite, but it was raw. Shaky, no lights, crummy old tech, but trying to tell a story, getting at the feelings and the methods of dealing with disaster. I had one high quality tape, one medium and one cheap tape. I had rented a camera from a local Chicago AV consumer shop, as Columbia would not approve the use of school gear for out of state travel. I bought a ticket from some guy in "The Reader" and traveled under the name of Roger Witkowski or something like that for that trip. No one checked ID in ’89.
I also shot homeless people, and got some great quotes like how the earthquake meant nothing, since he had no home to loose. “People with quarter million dollar homes – it means a lot to them.” When I got back to Chicago, literally the same day, I went out for lunch with the friend who picked me up at the airport. (Remember those days?) Gordon from Kartemquin happened to be at the counter of the Salt and Pepper diner. This was the ONLY time I bumped into him by accident EVER. He asked me what was up and I told him. “Hey,” he said, “call Tom Weinberg, he’s got this new show called "The ‘90s," he might be interested in that stuff you shot.” Bingo. Tom bought some of my footage, and later licensed and screened the film on Image Union. All my expenses were then covered.
Joel and Kerry have left town and it never really felt the same without them here. Especially Joel, the native San Franciscan. Today I have a lighting kit checked in baggage, a tripod, gels, all the little necessities checked into two bags, a laptop, a digital Pro Res recorder so small it fits in the camera bag like another little charger. My project is work for hire for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Will post more about that later. I am hired to shoot one interview with a well known musical artist. I’ll sleep in a hotel, won’t be living on burritos, and everything is paid and covered. I turn over the footage at the end of the shoot and in a month or so I then turn over the money to support my family.
When I finished that Earthquake film, I made post cards with the WTTW screening time, and sent them around. This turned out to be a really good idea because it led to paid crew work and a little recognition. Joel even hired me to come back and work for his agency as a freelancer in 1990. That job gave me the cash for a security deposit on a rental apartment in Bucktown, Chicago. I was launched, for good. Maybe the memory of that trip, and the striking similarities and differences are why today feels significant as a mirror to so long ago. Thanks friends, for your time, ideas and support, I should have thanked you more at the time! Alan and Kriss even performed and recorded some original music with me for the film, what a blast! Another area of interest that has only grown deeper over the years.
The flight from Los Angeles is so short, I am already about to land.
Written primarily on the plane Sunday morning 7 AM.
Had a great shoot, remarkable location, great dinner, and nice local crew support thanks to a referral from fellow Kartemquin associate and friend Frederick. Can’t do these projects alone! I got to see the post sunset glow from the formerly collapsed Bay Bridge. Fitting.
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Categories: Cinematography , Director of Photography , Documentary Director , Documentary DP , Documentary Film Production , Producer , Video Production