Interview With Documentarian Jeff Werner

For Class #11

 Instructor: Norman Hollyn T.A.: Beth Moody
 Office: 310-821-2792 Phone: 323-472-1164

 E-Mail: nhollyn [at] cinema.usc.edu

E-Mail: elizabethmoody [at] gmail.com

Jeff Werner Edits "Go Tigers!"
How He Fashioned The Storyline

As usual, any comments which pertain to topics that we're covering in class are highlighted in yellow.


By Cecil Seaskull
Sep 21 2001

A small football town, Massillon, Ohio, provides the stark background of Americana for Ken Carlson's feature documentary "Go Tigers!" -- which screened earlier this year at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. The film has been picked up by IFC Films and is currently in theatrical release in the Midwest and New York. According to Variety.com's Joe Leydon, the film is "Arguably the best sports-oriented documentary since 'Hoop Dreams.'"
In Massillon, football is life. But when the town is split in two over the politics of a school levy, football is no longer merely life; it becomes a matter of life and death. The story of "Go Tigers!" follows the Tigers' 10-week season, the adventures of three young Tigers and the politics of the town levy.
Seasoned industry editor and sometime director (HBO's "Bloodlines") Jeff Werner, whose editing credits include "Beyond the Mat" and "The Mirror Has Two Faces," was hand-picked by Carlson based on Werner's work on "City at Peace." "I didn't know Jeff at that time, but I told my wife, 'This guy can really cut, and when I need somebody, I'm going to pursue him.' When the time came, I found Jeff and started the full-court press. I came in with some footage that I had already shot in Massillon for 'Go Tigers!' Basically, he said he was really busy. So I begged. Jeff looked at the stuff, and said, 'Well, let me think about it.'"
Because Carlson grew up in Massillon, he had ready access to its whole world of people. That was one of the things that originally attracted Werner to the project. "It was a great indication that there might be something there," Werner said. Because he had that access. Plus he knew the field. Those are inviting tenets to build a film on. So I told him I'd do it."
Carlson was convinced that the story was there, but he admits that a clear narrative architecture was missing at first. No doubt there was an incredible backdrop. Massillon has a 22,000-seat stadium; it is a stone's throw from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton; every year a live tiger is paraded around the town as a mascot. And Massillon has a tradition of "red shirting," or holding back the good boys in eighth grade so that they'll get bigger, stronger and faster -- all for the sake of football.

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"I knew the tradition was there," Carlson said. It's where football started. I knew I had a great back story, but I was really looking for the narrative, the story, the through-line, the boys and the personalities to carry the film. And I couldn't find it for several years. But I finally found it in the three boys we followed: Ellery Moore, Danny Studer and Dave Irwin."

It took him a few years of meeting with the kids and the coaches -- just kind of sniffing around -- before he found the three boys he thought had the kind of personalities that could carry the narrative of the film. It was in the spring of 1999 that he met Moore.

"Moore told me that he had been behind bars for 15 months for rape. When he got out, he was stealing cars and doing drugs, and the football coaches got a hold of him and turned his life around. He told me straight away, 'Football saved my life. It gave me hope and gave me a reason to wake up in the morning. It gave me hope.' That told me it was time to do this story."

The other two boys were Studer, an artist and a third-generation football player wearing the same number 55 that the other generations had worn, and Irwin, a talented quarterback and chronic party-goer. Carlson knew he had three strong characters. But these elements were not enough to make a compelling documentary. The pieces needed to somehow fit together.

That's where Werner came in. "What Jeff brings to the table is that Jeff knows story in a big way," Carlson said. "And that was very clear when I saw 'City at Peace.' Jeff knows social issues and he gets the overall picture. I, on the other hand, get that to a certain degree, but I also love football and I love the essence of football, the tradition, the towns. I knew that Jeff would keep me in check. I knew that Jeff would say, 'Hey, this is great to show a lot of this football, but don't forget what the overall story is.' I knew he would bring me back to the story, and he did it quite effectively."

Werner had dealt with the same issues while working on Barry Blaustein's wrestling documentary "Beyond the Matt." "I wasn't really interested in wrestling," Werner said. "Blaustein was into wrestlers, but I was more interested in the life outside the ring. What was the life behind the wrestlers?"

The same sensibility prevailed with "Go Tigers!" Werner said, "Ken and I had a partnership in more ways than one in the sense that the football part of it was of interest to me, but there was something else that was going to be of interest. This film was going to be more than just the season, or the story of the season of the football team. I was also interested in other aspects of the town -- its traditions, its growth and its decline -- because it’s a run-of-the-mill steel town."

They ended up with 300 hours of footage, a daunting number to bring into the cutting room. Carlson digitized everything in his basement on an Avid with an assistant and then shuttled it over to Werner so that he could start cutting. Carlson provided notes on what he thought was important and which reels might be the most interesting. But for the most part, he gave Werner carte blanche.

It took Jeff six weeks just to look at everything. Then the arduous process of choosing the selects began. "The question really became if the film was going to be more than just a football film, what was going to make it that?" Carlson and Werner brainstormed about the much-needed third element that would glue the story together. They finally hit upon the levy that the town was trying to pass to prevent the bankruptcy of the school district.

Werner said, "That seemed to me to be a very strong counterbalance to the overwhelming football momentum, football tradition and football concern. It seemed to me to be a more universal story -- about the conflict between our schools and the sexier aspect of high school life, like football. So where will this town come down? Will it come down on the side of football and ignore academics, or will it somehow try to integrate the two?"

The film was shot on high-definition (Sony, DV and Super 16). Moore, Studer and Irwin were given cameras to capture private moments in their personal lives -- at parties, at restaurants, at home. The freedom of this format allowed the film to be shot in a cinema verité style. The viewer is in Massillon, in the middle of the story.

Carlson went with high-definition for its flexibility. "It really gave us the ability to catch incidents on the fly, as opposed to lighting, changing film out and doing 400 foot loads. All of a sudden it gave us a 40-minute block of time that we could run around. We had two cameras, so we were able to catch things, and I didn't have to be there to say what stop we should be at or do I want to catch this. It was basically high school football. It happens in a matter of two-and-a-half hours on a Friday night. Let's get it."

Werner liked high-def for other reasons. "Because of the nature of the film," he said, "the wide-screen aspect of the high-def gave it more of a motion-picture feel. One of the things that I had tried to do with 'City at Peace' was to make a documentary that was more like a movie than a documentary. So rather than a written narration that takes you through the scene, it became more of a three-act classical drama. The wide-screen that Ken shot in high-def gives you more of that feeling when you're watching the movie."

But there were problems, Werner admitted. "The major problem with high-definition is that when you down-convert, you're going to lose a little bit of north and south in some of the frame. In the finishing, you're going to have to reposition some shots. For the actual editing, we took everything and transferred it to 3/4-inch, which I used as a north for editing. Once we went back on the on-line, we had a typical on-line from your high-def. In a sense it's a blessing, in that you can see a lot more detail. We also had many different formats; we had DV, beta, super 16 and high-def. Those always had to somehow, at some point, get back to high-def. So there were a couple of additional steps we had to do."

Carlson is aware of the current projection limitations of high-def. "It's still an electronic image and, in my mind, it cannot replace the beauty produced by the chemical process of film. In my opinion, we're not close. It's the flexibility element it allows."

"It's a very expensive medium to shoot on as well. In the beginning, you think, 'Oh let's just shoot a ton of this because it's tape and it doesn't really matter.' Film is expensive because by the time you're done with the production end of it, you've spent a ton of money on film. High-def doesn't hit you up that way. The bell curve is slow and wry. But yet it goes up very high because once you get into post-production, people are asking $600 an hour to do your posting. We finaled on high-def, but of course we had to blow it up to 35mm anyway to take it to Sundance, so going through the transfer process we just went through -- it was a $40,000 expense at minimum." Carlson has high hopes for high-def, noting that 24P will help with some of the transfer issues.

© 2001 EditorsNet




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