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A filming we will go: Gail Levin follows her passion

Another of my articles about documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, this time taking more of an overview of her career.  If you’re a PBS television viewer then chances are you’ve seen at least one of her films on Great Performances or American Masters.  My profile of her originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com). I did a more recent piece on Levin for the same publication, this time having to do with an edgy collaboration she has with editorial cartoonist Steve Brodner.  Look for that story posted on this site as well. Gail and I recently lost a dear friend in Omaha, Ben Nachman, who devoted much of his life to collecting and preserving Jewish oral histories, including the recollections of Holocaust survivors. Look for some stories on this blog site about Ben and his work.  He led me to many survivors and rescuers, and a selection of those stories can be found on the site as well.  Rest in peace, Ben.

Gail’s most recent film to find wide viewing is her documentary profile of actor Jeff Bridges for American Masters. You can find my story “Long Live the Dude” about the project, The Dude Abides, on this blog.  She also has a recent film about Cab Calloway that hasn’t yet found a mass audience. Also on this blog you’ll find my stories about Gail and her Making the Misfits film, her James Dean: Sense Memories film, and her work with political cartoonist Steve Brodner.



Gail Levin



A filming we will go: Gail Levin follows her passion 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)


Reared in Nebraska, New York-based, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Gail Levin captures an encyclopedic gallery of subjects that resonate with her eclectic life. She grew up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family with a string of retail clothing stores and a taste for the arts and humanities. Levin, a die-hard cineaste since seeing Fellini’s 8 1/2 at the Dundee Theater as a teen, followed the example of her aunts, including a pair of English teachers/published poets, and a noted psychologist who was a pioneer in aging research, to choose a field diverse enough to encompass her many passions and interests.

Her most recent work, James Dean: Sense Memories, premieres May 11 (8 p.m. CST) on the PBS American Masters series and takes an impressionistic look at the life imitating art aspects of the late actor’s short but event-filled life. The film comes in the 50th anniversary year of Dean’s death in 1955. It follows another Hollywood-related piece she did, Making the Misfits (2002), for that acclaimed series.

Until its recent demise, Levin was producing and directing small documentaries on artists for a new high-definition satellite television network called Voom.

The Omaha Central High School graduate earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did grad work at Wheelock College in Boston. She enlisted kids in a Boston Head Start program in homemade photo-film projects borne of her curiosity about the era’s heady free cinema movement. She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational media and filmmaking doctorate.

An internship on a Boston WBZTV kids show led to an associate producer’s job that turned into a senior producer slot. In only a few years, she evolved into the kind of independent filmmaker she is today, where she goes from essaying a rite-of-passage on the open sea to sweating out a shoot in the scorching desert to recording candid conversations with famous figures from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.

Impassioned Projects
Twenty-five years into her career as a television producer-director and documentary filmmaker, Levin considers her work a calling despite the endless pitches she makes, the constant leads she pursues, the interminable lulls between projects and the inevitable production glitches that crop up.

“I’ve been so blessed. I have had a career that I love and that I hope is not going to end any time soon,” she said on an Omaha visit. “As hard as it is sometimes, I don’t even care. When you know the roller coaster, you know how to ride it, I guess. Besides, I don’t know how to do or like anything else. You know, you are lucky in this life if you get to do a couple of the things you really want to do, and I already have, so, I think I’m already ahead of the game. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects…and I’ve been able to see them go from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”

One of those dream projects came quite early in her career when, in 1980, she and   a small crew filmed a transatlantic voyage made by several young mariners aboard the Lindo, a 125-foot, three-masted, top-sail schooner built in Sweden in 1925. The ship left Boston harbor June 4, docking in Kristiansand, Norway 23 days later, where Levin filmed. Then the ship made out to the open sea for additional shooting before completing the return crossing in mid-July. She landed the Lindoassignment through her children’s programming work at Boston’s WBZ-TV. Her film charts the bonds that develop among a group of Boston-area youths initiated in the maritime traditions of old wooden sailing ships by a crew of seasoned sailors.





As soon as she heard about the prospect of this “across the ocean documentary,” she said, “I knew I wanted to do it. I couldn’t go fast enough.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity made possible by some unusual circumstances. The U.S. boycott of that summer’s Olympic Games in Moscow freed-up hours of programming that needed filling by then-NBC network affiliates such as WBZ. “I can’t imagine it would happen today,” she said. “That a television station or even a network would send a filmmaker and crew off for what was a fabulous several-week adventure. This is what you now go out in the world and try to pitch people to finance for you.”

Despite “hitting some particularly bad weather” and nursing a cameraman who “became very seasick right away,” the journey and resulting film, The Tall Ship Lindo, lived up to her high expectations. “I loved every minute of it.” The experience of being ensconced in tight quarters on an old sailing vessel, totally exposed to and buffeted by high seas was, she said, “quite extraordinary.” She added, “To this day I’m still friends with the people from that voyage.” Her most lasting impression is of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the ocean. “A 125-foot boat is not a very big boat and you don’t know that until you go across the ocean on it. It’s tiny. You are very aware from the very first second…that you are just a speck. You’re out there and you are so tiny and it is so big, and but for the grace of God…You have to be in awe of it.”

The Tall Ship Lindo won Emmys for outstanding cinematography and sound.

The Boston Years
By the early-’80s Levin moved to New York to work as a TV producer-director and by the middle of the decade formed her own production company, Levson, which she’s since renamed Inscape. During those first years as an independent filmmaker, her deep ties to Boston often led her back there for projects, including a few she counts among her finest achievements. One of these prized Boston projects is The Story of Red Auerbach, a 1985 film she made as a WHDH-TV special profiling the shrewd, crusty architect of the Boston Celtics NBA championship dynasty.

A lifelong sports fan, Levin knew the Celtics legacy and Auerbach’s anointed status in its mythology. When she sensed old-school Red was resistant to an upstart woman treading on his traditionally male turf, she sagely deferred to one of his trusted friends, Will McDonough, the late sportswriter, to handle interviewing the curmudgeonly coach and his players. “Red was very funny about me. I think he thought, Who’s this girl? She can’t do this. And my reaction to that was, Yes, I can, but I’m not going to try to shove this down your throat. So, Will did the bulk of the interviews because I thought Red wouldn’t talk to me the same way he would with Will. It didn’t have anything to do with how much I knew. I knew a lot. I make it my business to know what I’m supposed to know about these things. Well, it worked out great and Red ended up really trusting me. One of the great things of my life is to have met Red and to have done that documentary.”

Another Boston project she regards warmly is Harvard, A Video Portrait, a 1986 film made in conjunction with the 350th anniversary of the prestigious Ivy League school. “It’s just an amazing place. We started shooting in the reading (pre-exam) period, which meant I didn’t have one working classroom to shoot,” she said. “So, we made it the great academy. The great hall of learning. Everything quiet and beautiful and iconic, which it is.” Her on camera interview subjects included famed lawyer and legal educator Archibald Cox, Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner for literature Seamus Heaney and leading architect Moshe Safde.

Making the Misfits
Then came a dream project — Making the Misfits. This documentary about the celebrated and ill-fated 1961 feature The Misfits starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe takes the measure of one of cinema’s most exhaustively analyzed motion pictures, yet one about which a documentary had not been made until Levin’s. Shot on location in and around the Nevada desert, the film, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller and directed by that late great lion of American filmmaking, John Huston, became a cause celeb due to the legendary figures involved in its making, the personal dramas unfolding during and after the shoot and the constant presence of Magnum Photo Agency photographers documenting the entire production. Levin’s impressionistic film touches on it all.





Penned by Miller as a vehicle for his then wife Monroe, the story of troubled Western drifters refusing to be reined-in by encroaching civilization had nothing over the on-the-set intrigues playing out amongst the rarefied company of creative titans making The Misfits. Hounded by the press since their headline-making union a few years before, the unlikely match of the intellectual Miller and the bombshell Monroe was falling apart by the time the movie began. Monroe was at a personal and professional crossroads. Desperate to shed her sexpot image, she was finding studios and audiences less than eager to see her in a “serious” light. Already suffering from the emotional turmoil that defined her last years, she caused much disruption and many delays with her chronic tardiness, absences and blown lines.

The Misfits has long been overshadowed by the looming, larger-than-life legacies of the three Hollywood idols who starred in the project and died untimely deaths after its completion. Gable, the one-time King of Hollywood, suffered a massive heart attack only 11 days after shooting wrapped. Gable, who was 59, lost weight in preparation for his part as a lean, laconic horseman. Plus, he did his own rigorous stunts, including wrangling wild mustangs on location in the unforgiving Nevada desert. About a year later, Monroe, the then and forever reigning sex goddess, died at age 36 of an apparent drug overdose. Co-star Montgomery Clift, the romantic screen idol who made male sensitivity sexy, passed away at age 45 in 1966.

Long an admirer of the film, Levin got the idea for her documentary when she ran across a book detailing the making of the movie with images by Magnum photogs given complete access to the set. Aware of the rich, behind-the-scenes goings-on of the United Artists release, she immediately saw the potential for a signature the-making-of project. Besides funding, which soon fell into place, she needed to access Magnum’s superb photos, along with excerpts from the film itself, and to record new interviews with surviving principal cast and crew members.

When she began making inquiries about doing a documentary, she assumed she was too late — that surely someone already had something in the works — but much to her surprise and delight she found she was the first in on it. “That was auspicious somehow, because it felt like it was mine to do,” she said in an online PBS interview with writer Gia Kourlas. “I love the notion of being able to approach the creative process on several levels, including the points of view of these photographers. The Misfits is a great film that wasn’t received in that way, but I think it’s so extraordinarily modern and courageous.” She also secured rather quickly the releases needed from Magnum, United Artists, cast and crew. Even the indomitable Arthur Miller agreed to participate without much prodding.



American Masters creator Susan Lacy, actor Jeff Bridges, and Gail Levin



Framing the Image
A film and photography buff, Levin also liked the idea of looking at cinema through the lens of still imagemakers, whose approach she is influenced by.

“I just loved The Misfits,” she said. “And I just love still photography. It’s very influential in my thinking. I do like what a frame does. I would never say I’m involved in formally composing shots, but some part of me is. I am looking at things always in terms of how I can use a frame, how the frame fits with the next image…I’m very informed by it. I think you can see it all the way through my film.”

Levin prefers “portrait-type” shots. “I am not afraid of a talking head. I like a tight shot. I like faces. I want to see them. I believe you hear people better the closer in the camera is.” Tony Huston described to her how his father, The Misfits’ director John Huston, considered the human face “a landscape unto itself” and therefore something to be explored in detail. “And I shoot like that,” she said.

That’s why Levin was furious with herself when she got back to her editing suite and discovered a sequence in which she’d inexplicably filmed interviews with crew members from The Misfits in wide body shots instead of closeups. The seated subjects were paired off in the open desert and the interviews shot using two cameras. Levin was there the entire time, even eying a video feed, and so she can only assume she got so wrapped up in the content of the scenes she lost sight of how she wanted them composed. “I was absolutely stunned by how much I hated it and by how much I couldn’t bear the notion that this was my frame. This was not the way I wanted this to look. I don’t like commonness in anything and I felt like these were common, bad, sloppy documentary shots.”

That’s when inspiration became the mother of invention. “So, I was looking at these pictures when suddenly I lined them up on the editing screen and I saw how I could use the shots like images on a contact sheet.” And that’s just what she did with the footage, breaking up the frame to run streaming, parallel interviews side-by-side. “It was a very still photographic-inspired solution for me to then take those wide shots and make them work as two shots, one next to the other. It was the opposite of the intimate, beautiful portrait shots I prefer, but what it gave you was all the activity of the interaction of these people.”

Airing to good reviews on PBS’ Great Performances in 2003, Making the Misfits satisfied Levin’s intent “to not have it be another one of the zillions of movies about movies. I wanted to make it have some resonance and to mean something to somebody, and have it not be another, ugh, Marilyn Monroe saga.” Her film played on a continuous loop during the Joslyn Art Museum’s 2003 showing of the traveling exhibition, Magnum Cinema: Photograph from Fifty Years of Movie Making.

Artists and Other Projects
Although she loves the documentary form, she doesn’t consider herself strictly a documentarian. Some of her favorite work includes segments she made for A&E’sRevue series that variously featured conversations between artists or profiles on individual artists. She’s particularly enamored with the programs that paired artists for free-wheeling, unscripted discussions. “I did one after another with incredible people. Martin Scorsese and Stephen Frears. Tom Stoppard and Richard Dreyfuss. Francis Ford Coppola and John Singleton. Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin. I just think this notion of giants talking to each other is a very interesting concept. And I actually think they speak to each other far differently than they speak to anyone who interviews them, no matter who you are. It’s just fascinating.” Other notables she’s profiled include Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts and filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci.

She’s revisited the creative landscape with her current film on James Dean. The hour-long Sense Memories examines the art imitating life aspects of the late actor

She’s now trying to secure backing for a couple documentary projects she’s eager to develop. One would explore the price and promise of life on the Great Plains and the other would reveal the real life affairs that inspired a famous author’s literary romances. As always, her excitement about these new subjects consumes her.

“When I discover something, it does fuel me. I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up in exactly the right way…and when that happens, oh, that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”

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