So, as if today wasn’t enough of a time warp for me, with the wedding hurtling at us at lightspeed, YESTERDAY, it seems, was an anniversary.
One year ago, my students did something kind of amazing.
I took a teaching job at a performing arts high school in 2012. I was having a bit of a crisis, in that I liked working at my network and producing content, but there was almost no upward mobility and I’d been passed over for promotion a couple of times. In no line of thinking had I ever considered going corporate and being a numbers person. That having been said, I’m a suburban New Jersey guy, a Shore kid who likes a yard and trees and fresh air. Moving to the city, or the city overflow (basically anything north of the Driscoll Bridge) did not appeal to me
Then I did a piece on my soon-to-be employers. They have a special performing arts program that is similar to a magnet school in that they audition interested students from around the district for acceptance. At the time, I focused on the dance program though I did get to see some of the music students in action. Little did I know that on camera were some of my future film students. Somehow it came out in conversation that I had a teaching certificate and I guess the wheels started spinning behind the scenes. They invited me back to talk. Now, I had been doing this for three years. Helping set up video programs was part of my job. It didn’t dawn on me until mid-interview that this wasn’t just a consult.
I had taught once before, in Warren County, but the hours commuting and taking night classes wore me out. I just couldn’t handle it. I was a filmmaker fresh out of college that was learning a trade my colleagues spent years perfecting. The fact that I never got the chance to bet on my own skills also gnawed at me. Circumstances convened in a way that I decided to give film a shot and I swore I wouldn’t go back to teaching. Not unless it was an amazing program, with nearly collegiate level students.
Five years later, I was back in a classroom.
I spent four years watching the class of 2016 grow. The program had won awards almost immediately that first year, with each subsequent year highlighted by more scholarship money, bigger name film schools, showcases in bigger venues and higher acclaim for the students’ work. So I had to try something in year four to up the stakes.
Enter the All American High School Film Festival.
The Festival had shown off a couple of films my kids had done in 2014 but this time they were doing an Invitational, a competition among schools from around the country to complete a project to be shot only in New York City. No pro crew, just students using what they’d learn and doing their best. I convinced my boss it was a good idea and we were off to the races.
The script, Daytime Summit, was a non-linear piece that came together late in post-production. We were given clearance to film at Grand Central Station, Washington Square Park and spent the rest of the incredibly good weather outside filming in the area. We got so far ahead of pace, the director, Bernie, was able to write another scene while her DP went upstairs to film a different location. I know she was stressed- we all were, the departure time for parents in the caravan was around 5 am- and we had a mixed team of juniors and seniors, but it came together well.
The team moved fluidly. When things got rocky, they seemed to know, without asking, how to handle the situation. They may have been ready to explode, but they kept it contained. The best example of this was simple 3-second shot that involves the main character Becca’s pictures flying away in a gust of wind. The lighting was good, the acting was phenomenal and the shots looked smooth. The problem was the wind- there wasn’t any. They tried everything- waving their hands, notebooks, hoodies…nothing worked. Finally our other lead, Zach, walks up, takes our wind reflector and smacks it down next to the camera, causing the pictures to shoot down the path.
The crowning moment was filming in the gorgeousness that is Grand Central Terminal.
Each team had a block of two hours to film there and no more. There would be no crowd control and police would be aware of whatever was happening. Unfortunately for my guys, we got the last possible slot to film on the second of the two filming days. Complicating this was the fact that Grand Central was also the setting for a scene that both closed AND opened the movie. Without the shots needed, the movie wouldn’t make sense. And to top if off, our camera team decided they wanted to do a 360 degree arc shot around a fight around our two main characters.
These kids went to work immediately, blocking out the scene in the downstairs cafeteria while awaiting their timeslot to begin upstairs. As soon as the clock hit 8, they were on the floor taping out their marks. The argument between Will and Rebecca was so realistic that it stopped people on multiple levels of the concourse. They took pictures and watched as students became teachers to a Grand audience. I reverted back to a student, watching as these people almost half my age worked in unison as if they’d been rehearsing together for months and not minutes. Thanks to some creative subterfuge by our script supervisor Courtney, who quietly added a minute or two each time she was asked for a time check, we we finished with nearly eight minutes to spare.
I was blown away. If my kids (barely able to drive legally!) could put something together…what could I do?
The award show was the Sunday capper on the weekend’s festival activity. It was held at the historic Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, just a short hop from where my great-great grandmother settled down when she came over from Ireland. Needless to say, I was hoping we’d win something- we’d screened three films and had Daytime in the running for the Invitational. In the middle of the ceremony, the Invitational category was announced with a prolonged drumroll. It probably lasted 20 or 30 seconds, but it felt like an eternity.
In that time, I remember closing my eyes and asking God for a favor. The kids had worked so hard. I think every other team stayed in the city while we commuted in each morning. I’d raced (far too fast) to the city to drop off the final product on a flash drive, beating the deadline in pouring rain via a hellacious cab ride with only 20 minutes to spare. We’d been through a lot together, these kids and I. After four years of hard work, I felt like this would be vindication for all of the choices I’d made going back into teaching.
When they announced our name, there was a split second silence. Then my students ERUPTED.
And that’s all I remember. For the next few minutes, I have a gap in my memory. I just kept my eyes closed and said my thanks. I know I shed more than a few happy, grateful tears. I vaguely remember their parents telling me to go up on stage to accept the award with them, but I wanted this moment to be purely theirs. I caught up on the stories of what happened the next day in class.
The movie wasn’t perfect by any stretch but it was damn good under the circumstances. I remain exceptionally proud of it and the kids who made it and the grads who volunteered their abilities and resources to make it a reality. It inspired me to get back to work, to start prepping my own films. They each could say they were now national award-winning filmmakers. I wanted to get that title myself.
The road back to creative accomplishment seemed to be smooth- I had a superhero pilot I was helping produce that was weeks away from production on a proof-of-concept, I had begun research on a short film about a little-known Revolutionary War hero from New Jersey and had placed highly in two international writing competitions.
Then the aortic dissection was like:
And my Creative Brain was like:
I don’t know why I haven’t been able to get back into gear. The depression definitely plays a part. I’ve read that it saps or dampens old interests and hobbies, not to mention the chemicals that sort of accelerate artistic ventures. I’m not just fighting my own history or nature. I’m literally fighting own body.
Compounding the mixed emotions on this anniversary of the pinnacle of my teaching thus far, is the knowledge that I couldn’t replicate it. Not yet, anyway. We had a complicated audition process only to have it rendered useless by my heart problems. I know I didn’t do it intentionally and there was no way of knowing what was about to happen but I still feel guilty. I know the kids that would have competed this year are undoubtedly disappointed. I don’t blame them. All I can do now is look ahead and see what other opportunities I can provide for them.
Looking back on Daytime Summit though, proves that you can work against the odds and with a little perseverance, courage and verisimilitude, good things can happen. So for now, I’ll wait ’til next year.
Until next time,