JOHN KORTY, OCSCAR WINNING DIRECTOR LECTURES AT THE NILES ESSANY FILM MUSEUM, TALKS ABOUT HIS NEXT FILM
by Kathryn Joanne Dixon 6/15/09
Oscar and Emmy winning film director John Korty lectured and showed clips of his animation, documentaries and features on Sunday evening, June 14, 2009 at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, California.
Korty told the audience he loves it all -- animation, documentary and features -- and was never stuck in one genre.
As a child in Lafayette, Indiana, Korty began making drawings. By age 16 he was an animator. At Antioch College in Ohio (class of 1959) he did photography and contemplated working in graphic design and commercial art. However, while in college, he headed a group of his classmates who formed a company to make commercials for TV. Some of these were animations. Korty used direct animation, applying cut-outs to blank film stock. He cited Norman McLaren as an influence. He did cel animation – hand drawing each frame. At that time he used a Bolex H-16 camera and did straight cuts – “no fancy transitions”. The cuts were invisible or slam-in-the face type cuts. He developed his own animation techniques. He cited working single frame by single frame in animation as being instructive to him throughout his life as a filmmaker, enabling him to better analyze all his films moment by moment on the screen. Korty sold TV commercials with and without animation. However, he moved quickly into artistic filmmaking.
In 1964, his short “Breaking the Habit” won the Academy Award for Documentary short Subject.
In 1964 Korty also moved to Stinson Beach where he set up a studio in his barn and produced and directed three independent feature films – “The Crazy-Quilt” (1966) “Riverrun” and “Funnyman” (1967). In “Funnyman”, Korty directed actors from The Committee, a San Francisco improvisation group founded in North Beach in 1963. Peter Bonerz was cast as Funnyman. He later played the orthodontist Jerry Robinson in “The Bob Newhart Show”. Korty showed the Niles Essanay audience a clip of Bonerz performing. Bonerz seemed to just keep on talking as the comedy just flew out of him and the other actors played off him, generating laughs when they finally realized choke by choke, the moment they began spraying it around the room, that the product they met to promote, was in fact poisoning them. “There was no script”, Korty said, “I used 3 X 5 cards.” Korty said improvisations stay in the brain of the audience better. In improvisation, there is no hesitation, which scripts seem to create, between the mind of the actor and the minds of the audience.
Korty mentioned how he directs actors to change lines in scripts and allows them to change lines, and that this improv is mostly for the best. He mentions, however, that improv is hard on the editor.
Korty described his journey into documentary filmmaking, by stating, “In the 60’s I pledged to myself to never make anything but documentaries.” In 1960 he filmed his first documentary the “Language of Faces”, an anti-war vigil by the Quakers at the Pentagon. Korty sought “Truth in a capital T.” Korty had worked with the Quakers in Chicago. But they didn’t like talk of “bad news” in documentaries and wanted to keep it upbeat. Thus, they had little flexibility in scripting. So he went to Washington D.C. on his own and filmed the vigil with his Bolex. The price -- $3 thousand.
He showed a clip of this film, haunting pictures of ordinary people on the subway, going to work, engaged in everyday life, and then the film cut to pictures of children being crammed to hold their head down in a hall way in a public school as part of a nuclear drill. It cut to shots of a local bomb shelters and pictures of nuclear devastation.
In 1977 Korty won the Oscar (documentary) for “Who are the Debolts and Where Did They Get Nineteen kids?” Korty was inspired by Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner who wrote about the Debolt family in his daily column. The Debolts, who lived in Piedmont, had 19 children, 14 of whom were handicapped. Korty said, “It took 3 ½ years to make. No money could be raised. It was called too upsetting – severely handicapped children. One girl Karen had no legs and two arms with no forearms, yet she played the Xylophone beautifully.”
Korty said he and his editor David People shot film footage of the Debolt family for 3 ½ years. People built a film which was chronological in nature. In the end, the network found it upsetting. Korty looked at it again and he found it dull, a history lesson. Korty told Peoples, “Forget ‘chronological’ and lets’ start with 15 to 20 minutes of the most upbeat stuff, to overcome the fear people have of handicapped kids.” So Korty shot the children outdoors having fun and filmed a screaming contest in the living room among the kids and their parents. Korty said John Else was the cinematographer; he is now a professor at UC Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley, California.
Korty showed a clip of the “Who are the Debolts?” --- a group of children following their parents are running along Lake Merritt using wheelchairs, strollers and crutches. Some run normally. The last child is carried by an adult and they are all laughing and singing. Next, they are seen at home in a screaming contest – who can scream the loudest – finally, they all break down laughing and hug each other. The mother Dorothy Debolt explains directly to the camera how she and her husband Bob had their own children and then adopted 13 physically challenged children.
Korty said when he showed the rough cut of “Who are the Debolts” to ABC, NBC and CBS, the networks turned it down. Then they turned down the final cut. So he just entered it into the Academy Awards competition and it won the Oscar. However, having won, it was still turned down by the networks who felt the audiences “couldn’t take this stuff” about the handicapped children. Then an actor friend told Korty to seek help from Henry Winkler, famous as Fonzie in ABC’s “Happy Days”. Winkler called the head of ABC and asked him to do it and he immediately said yes. Later, Winkler became involved in a new version which cut the film time from 72 to 50 minutes to make it more palatable for television. The Academy Award Version was never played on TV and it is the version Korty prefers.
Korty explained how, at age 29, he got involved with dramatic feature films by filming “The Crazy-Quilt” in 1966. It was based on a story by a Bay Area psychoanalyst Dr. Allen Wheelis (“The Illusionless Man: Fantasies and Meditations on Disillusionment,"). Korty said the doctor’s premise was that our problem is not necessarily dealing with reality itself, but dealing with our expectations of reality. In the film, Henry, a pest terminator has no illusions and meets Lorabella, a constant dreamer, full of illusions. “What if they live together?”
Korty showed a clip of “The Crazy-Quilt”. Henry is working killing termites, crawling through the basements of houses, looking for them with a flashlight. He goes to the park on Saturday to rest. Soon a woman comes skipping along, Lorabella, who is looking at the sky and birds with ecstasy. He notices her, instantly attracted.
Korty said he found Ina Mela to play Lorabella by asking people if they knew any woman full of illusions and always optimistic. A friend mentioned an actress in New York City. Because Korty’s funds were limited, he had a friend of his test her in the park in New York. Korty saw the test and hired Ina Mela. Burgess Meredith, at that time, between acting jobs, narrated the film. Korty remarked that he has used older actors such as Meredith in his films because their voices sound wise though not authoritarian.
Korty said, “You see a scene 100 times in the course of shooting a move, and you get to the point, having seen it so much, that you wonder if you really know anymore if it’s funny”. At the final cut, Korty wasn’t sure audiences would laugh. The Crazy-Quilt was a big comedic hit in San Francisco where it first played. It cost $40 thousand to produce. Korty used a Bolex camera and it was shot in 35 millimeter, black and white.
Next Korty talked about his work in dramatic film. He said doing a dramatic film requires first blocking the scene, then figuring out how to shoot it, and then working out the direction of the “looks” or which way actors are looking in a scene as they move during the shooting. He learned how to do all of this quickly and save money. His sophistication in directing the looks came into play in “Getting Out” (1994 Hallmark TV) staring Rebecca De Mornay. He said De Mornay was very intelligent, spoke five languages, and could be difficult, but that she was good at what she did. In the clip shown to the Niles Essanay audience, De Mornay, who was just released from prison on a prostitution charge, tries to leave her past life, gets an apartment and a job. Her pimp returns and tries to get her to have sex with him and get back into prostitution. She refuses. He slaps her. She slaps him back. Korty indicated that some improvisation was used in this scene. The actor playing the pimp changed dialog from the script unexpectedly and this caused a stunned reaction from De Mornay as the pimp abused her.
Finally, Korty talked about “Farewell to Manzanar”, (1976, NBC, Universal) a TV movie adaptation of the book of the same title by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston.
The clip Korty showed the audience, opened with a Japanese man talking to his wife about fishing again. She says it is not likely. The camera pans to shots of the desolate mountains where they are now living with their children in the Manzanar Japanese Internment camp during WWII. In the next clip, the father learns the war is ended and they will be free. He drives up to his ramshackle hut in the camp in a jalopy car, and the wife fears getting into the old car, but he insists. They all get in and he takes them on a wild joyous ride all around the camp, then out the camp fence, knocking the sign “Manzanar Camp” down. He drives straight into the wild brush up through the mountains.
“Farewell to Manzanar” won the Humanitas Award.
Korty felt that the film, although not a big commercial success, awoke people to what had happened in the camps. In fact, a year later Congress gave restitution to victims of the internment. Korty, as a matter of principle, used only Japanese actors and a mostly Japanese crew. Paul Chihara did the music. The actor who played the father, Akemi Kikumura was actually a inmate in the camp at age 17 and he remembered much of his life there during the filming and used it in his performance.
Korty stated that Universal who owns the film will not release it as a DVD. It costs a studio about $50 thousand to promote a DVD, so they don’t want to release it unless they can make more than that.
Finally, Korty took questions and answers from the audience.
Korty said, “There is an over supply of independent features -- 12,000 at the Sundance Festival.” He said anyone can try to make a short or feature film today by using a digital camera.
Korty said, “Taste is what it's all about. Decisions are based on personal taste.” He quoted the director Francois Truffaut who stated that to make a film all one had to do was go through the shooting of the scenes saying, “too much” or “too little” or “too much” or “too little”.
Korty suggested people see the films “Enlightenment Guaranteed” and “Cherry Blossoms” by Doris Dorrie and “Firemen’s Ball” by Milos Foreman.
Korty said he is based in Mill Valley now, and shoots with a digital camera, mails a clone to his editor who edits it and sends it back to him. “I am into the digital pretty much.” He uses a 720 progressive high definition video camera.
Korty has just finished the film “The Restoration of Grand Pianos” which is about the restoration of grand pianos at Callahan Piano Services in Alameda, California. In order to promote his film, he has proposed that nonprofits in the Bay Area show it and sell tickets. Korty said, “Start with addressing the audience you want to reach, and from there, a more general audience may see it.”
The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, 37417 Niles Boulevard, Fremont, California, is featuring “Salute to Independent Filmmakers Month” this month of June 2009. http://www.nilesfilmmuseum.org/ (510) 494-1411.
Kathryn Joanne Dixon © 6/15/09