Sunday, February 17, 2008

"Citizen McCaw" documentary nears completion


After quietly collecting dozens of interviews, shooting more than 80 hours of footage, and poring over archival material, a group of local filmmakers are gearing up to unleash the end product — a full-length documentary examination of the past year and a half at the Santa Barbara News-Press and its effect on the community.
Titled “Citizen McCaw,” the film is in its final stages of preparation and will premiere at the Arlington Theater on March 7. For those involved in the production, it’s been a time-intensive labor of love, but one they all felt a deep desire to pursue.

“It’s an important film, it’s a smart film, it’s a controversial film, and it’s right dead-on about a very important story in America today,” director Sam Tyler said. “And that is, who owns the news.”
Billed as a cautionary tale, the film delves into the contentious labor dispute between newsroom employees and News-Press owner and publisher Wendy McCaw, a dispute deeply rooted in the resignations of top editor Jerry Roberts and five others in July 2006 over ethical concerns.
For Tyler and his fellow producers — Rod Lathim, Charles Minsky and Peter Seaman — it is a critically important story to tell.
“I’ve been reading the Santa Barbara News-Press since I was old enough to read,” said Lathim, a fourth-generation Santa Barbaran heavily involved in the local arts community.
“…I’m very loyal to Santa Barbara and I feel very strongly about the fact that our news here is what keeps us connected and informed. There’s so much going on in this community that without a really in-depth daily news source the way the News-Press was for a long time, the fabric of the town starts disintegrating.”
Tyler had just finished putting together a film for public television in 2006 when he returned to his home in Santa Barbara and really had time to pay attention to the developing situation at the News-Press.
“I woke up one day and said this is a story that needs to be told,” Tyler said.
He called in cinematographer and editor Brent Sumner of Studio 8 and headed out to shoot the initial footage of what would turn into a yearlong pursuit. Minsky, a renowned cinematographer of “Pretty Woman” fame, accompanied the duo and helped set what Tyler called a high visual standard for the film.
Shooting took place over the following months at numerous locations throughout Santa Barbara, including union rallies and court hearings.
“It’s not a fun story all the time. Some pretty nasty things happened to people along the way,” Tyler said. “We shot it all over town so we could bring up the beauty of Santa Barbara and use that as a background to a story that isn’t always so beautiful.”
Following the constantly shifting circumstances of a labor struggle has not been an easy task.
“It’s a complicated story and a very human story with a lot of sadness,” Tyler said.
Adding to the difficulty of telling such a convoluted tale has been the refusal of News-Press management to participate in a sit-down interview for the film, he said, along with repeated legal warnings and a subpoena of all footage from attorneys representing the newspaper.
“I considered that not the friendliest environment to make a film,” Tyler said. “…We really tried to open it up to them and all we got back was threats essentially. But this is America and those threats don’t work.”
Despite offers to send in an anonymous film crew, provide questions in advance, and leave their statements uncut, McCaw and others — such as co-publisher Arthur Von Weisenberger, attorney Barry Cappello and editorial page editor Travis Armstrong — declined to participate in an interview.
“We did anything we could to give them their side and they just flat-out refused,” Sumner said.
Despite the lack of direct interviews with newspaper management, the filmmakers said they made a conscious effort to include quotes from McCaw, Cappello, and others.
“Whenever we had a chance, we put out both sides,” Lathim said. “…I don’t think there is anything unfair about this movie. It definitely has a voice, but it’s not a Michael Moore film. We don’t insert ourselves. We just said to people, tell us what happened.”
Facing hour-long interviews with many of the key figures in the unionization of the newsroom, along with journalism industry leaders such as Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, a great deal of material had to be left on the cutting room floor.
“What everyone said was just amazing,” Sumner said. “It was so hard to pick out one particular thing. … [Santa Barbara Independent editor Nick Welsh] said so many great things. Eventually we had to cut, we call them ‘darlings,’ out because he was just in the movie so much.”
The filmmakers also faced the question of how to end the film. Despite a federal ruling largely rebuking the newspaper management’s role in the labor dispute, the story is still far from over. But while it didn’t work as a way to close out the film, that ruling did help in terms of storytelling.
“The things that were said up to that point kind of left us with a big, dark cloud,” Lathim said. “When you see the faces of these people that you’ve seen from the whole way though looking pretty dour and pretty defeated, when you see them light up at the end is something we didn’t even need to use words for.”
Initially put together in a highly detailed and chronological sequence, the film benefited from the touch of Peter Seaman, a screenwriter by trade who is known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
“Pete came on really strong the last six months of the project,” Tyler said. “He made it dramatic, entertaining, powerful, informative. He gave us the whole structure we might not have had.”
And as far as the name, “Citizen McCaw,” the idea just seemed to resonate beyond the obvious connection to “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles’ fictional masterpiece about the death of a wealthy newspaper baron.
“The word citizen and the way this story has impacted the community, and the fact that [McCaw] is a citizen here, as are all of us, it really did impact the weight that it carried,” Lathim said. “It totally ties in to the human element of this film.”
Plans beyond the March screening include pursuing a national television release, possibly through PBS or HBO, along with theatrical and DVD releases. Sales have been brisk for the sign language-interpreted screening at the 2,200-seat Arlington, Lathim said, and he recommended not waiting until the last minute to get tickets.
“You couldn’t write a story like this,” he said. “You couldn’t make up characters and put together a story like this.”

No comments: