Finding the Angle: Documentary Filmmaker Finds the Story

Documentary filmmaker Roger Sherman
Documentary filmmaker Roger Sherman

By Annette Hinkle

Documentary film making is about being in the right place at the right time. It’s also about understanding the story you want may not be the story you end up with.

And that’s why documentaries can be magical. It’s also why documentary filmmakers tend to be a special breed — perceptive, flexible and willing to switch gears on a dime if the story they are pursuing turns out to be nothing more than a red herring.

For Roger Sherman, there’s never been any doubt that it was his genre.

“It’s always been documentaries for me – I feel that portraying real life is more powerful than making it up,” says Sherman. “It’s also more difficult. There are so many incredible stories. I’ve done films on social issues, the environment, history, culture and art. I try to make a difference when I can.”

Sherman’s in good company. While studying film at Hampshire College in Massachusetts his roommate was none other than Ken Burns — the filmmaker best known for pioneering the use of archival footage and photographs in historic documentaries. Sherman, Burns and another friend, Buddy Squires, formed Florentine Films in the 1970s and began cutting their teeth by working as a remote crew for European broadcasters in the U.S. They also took on commercial work and low budget features to hone their skills.

“Then we started doing ‘Brooklyn Bridge,’” says Sherman of the 1981 documentary based on David McCullough’s book on the famous span. Burns directed and Sherman and Squires were the producers. “That was our first Academy Award Nomination. The other was ‘Garden of Eden’ a short from the mid-‘80s. It was the first film to show it could be a good business decision to save habitats.”

Though the three filmmakers have gone their separate ways in recent years to pursue individual interests, they still work under the name Florentine Films.

“After quite a few years together, no one wanted to do the nuts and bolts business,” explains Sherman. “So we decided to separate our businesses. At the time Ken had not yet become famous, but had done a number of good films. So we decided to share the name, be an association. Even today we all use Florentine Films and are still close friends.”

Sherman will be the focus of an event this Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Bay Street Theatre Hosted by the Hampton’s Take 2 Film Festival, two of his films will be screened — the Emmy winning “Alexander Calder,” the definitive biography of the artist which he made in 1998 for American Masters, and his latest, “Zapruder and Stolley: Witness to An Assassination.”

When asked how much he knew of Alexander Calder, the sculptor who invented the term “mobile,” when he began making the film, Sherman responds, “Like most films I do, I was not an expert when I started it, and I think that’s a really good thing. It means I can represent the audience. If you know too much about a subject, you leave things out the audience needs to know. Not knowing is a good thing — becoming a mini-expert is what happens.”

And like many documentary projects, the subject presented itself. In this case, a group in Michigan was celebrating an anniversary of a Calder sculpture and asked Sherman to do a film on him.

“I said ‘I love Calder, let’s make it a much bigger film.’ They said ‘We’ll help you raise the money.’ Then they disappeared,” says Sherman who was left to raise the money himself. Then Susan Lacy, the executive producer of American Masters (and a Sag Harbor resident) came along.

“She saved the day,” says Sherman who traveled to Calder exhibits in Europe and Washington, D.C. to shoot the artist’s work. For Sherman, one of the biggest technical hurdles turned out to be figuring out how to shoot Calder’s sculptures.

“That was not an easy process,” confesses Sherman. “How to light it, how to make the sculpture pop and look fabulous. You can’t just throw a light on it.”

“The second thing is shooting Calder mobiles,” he adds. “I blew through thousands of feet of footage, because it was dead. It took me a while to figure out they needed to be moving. Today a small Calder mobile can send your child to college, so everyone became sensitive to them moving. But when I started looking at footage of Calder with them, he would fling them around with the wind.”

“The Europeans were a little more loose, so I shot a lot more there than here,” he says.

And in the end, Sherman found that letting the work speak for itself was the best course of action.

“One of the joys was not predicting what would happen,” he says. “And the sculpture does exactly what it wants to do, which is not how I planned it. It turned out to be wonderful, I had to dance with this sculpture and see what was happening as I shot.”

If the Calder film is a study in one artist’s joy in life, then Sherman’s other offering on Friday brings a surprising angle to a tragic story that most believe can offer no new surprises at this late date.

In fact, “Zapruder and Stolley” is a straight forward interview with Richard Stolley supplemented by archival footage from the era. On November 22, 1963, Stolley, Life magazine L.A. bureau chief, rushed to Dallas upon learning President Kennedy had been shot. He was the first journalist to find Abraham Zapruder who captured the horrific incident on his 8mm home movie camera.

Now well into his 80s, Stolley, who told the story during a luncheon at a summer Stanford Publishing Course, recalled that within hours of the assassination, he tracked down Zapruder and convinced him to grant Life magazine exclusive rights to the stills from his infamous footage. Stolley was the first civilian to see the footage when Zapruder screened it for him and two Secret Service agents at his home on the morning after the assassination.

“Getting this Zapruder footage was one of the greatest journalistic coups of the 20th century,” says Sherman who filmed the Stolley interview at the urging of his wife, Dorothy, a teacher at the Stanford event. “I figured he’d told it a million times. But when it was over, he said he’d never told it before.”

It turned out that Zapruder’s secretary was from Illinois where Stolley covered the high school basketball team as part of his first job at a community newspaper. That was the sort of thing, explained Sherman, that helped Stolley convince Zapruder to grant him the rights to the footage, even as other journalists began arriving and were literally banging down the door to have a chance to woo Zapruder.

Ironically, Sherman adds that Zapruder initially didn’t bring the movie camera to work with him that morning because it was raining. It was the secretary who made him go home to get it.

“She said, ‘It’s not every day the president comes to town,’” notes Sherman. “Because of that, it’s the only complete capturing of the entire assassination from start to finish.”

“Plus it’s 8mm — a three minute spool of film,” adds Sherman. “The first part was the family at the beach. Then the motorcade comes into sight, you can see Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy waving and smiling and Connelly — the horror happens and seconds…seconds after they speed away, the camera runs out of film.”

Sherman supplements Stolley’s interview with the Zapruder film as well as still photos from Life magazine and images from the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza — the only place the film has been publicly screened to date. But with 2013 the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, Sherman sees the film as one that audiences will appreciate given the new take it offers on history.

“It’s just him telling the story — a very simple story — that’s why it’s so captivating.” says Sherman. “I have shown the film at private screenings — but for the public, this will only be the second time.

“No one moves while he tells this story. It’s our story.”

An evening with Roger Sherman is Friday, May 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Bay Street Theatre on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. Both films will be followed with a Q&A by the filmmaker. Tickets are $15 at the door.