Case study, Part 1: ‘Nilsson’ doc began in an SD world, is flourishing now nonetheless
When John Scheinfeld started making his documentary on Harry Nilsson, it was in a standard-def world.
The Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker has always juggled various projects (often on musicians), but the film “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?),” which was first shown in 2006 as a work-in-progress but came out this past fall after a series of production issues, was made in its own time.
The film tells the tumultuous story of Nilsson, who songs are well-remembered (“Put de Lime in de Coconut,” “Jump Into The Fire,” “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “Without You,” and many others). The film includes interviews with such celebrities as Robin Williams, Mickey Dolenz, Terry Gilliam and Dustin Hoffman.
The film, released to DVD and Netflix, is squarely a 4:3, SD product. He says few have even seemed to notice.
“This, in so many ways, was a real indy film. It was independently financed, it didn’t have a huge budget. We called in a lot of favors and did it betwixt and between other things. The first interviews we shot in depth were in 2004. It was really on the cusp of HD then. So we hadn’t anticipated that we would need to do that.
“Because we had started to shoot the material in standard def, and because all the archival was standard-def, we thought that would match fine.”
He says what didn’t happen when the film was released this year was that people said, “I didn’t like it because it wasn’t in HD.”
The HD (and now 3D) arms race has escalated, but the Nilsson film hasn’t seemed to have been hurt. In today’s New York Times, in an article entitled “The Revolution Is Being Shot on Digital Video,” Manohla Dargis writes,
A decade ago, when independent movies shot in digital video like “Chuck and Buck” (2000) started hitting the big screen, it was easy to tell you weren’t looking at film because the often smeary, muddy visuals looked about as bad as an old VHS tape. Audiences didn’t seem to care, possibly because, after decades of watching battered home videos on standard-definition televisions, they were accustomed to degraded imagery. For many the pleasure of being able to rent a Billy Wilder movie at their leisure outweighed complaints about how lousy the videos looked.
The Nilsson film is well-lighted, well shot and just not quite as razor-sharp as films shot on more recent/expensive camcorders.
“We were concerned a bit when we knew this would be going into theaters that this would hurt us. I’ve now seen reviews of this film for two-and-a-half months, and I swear not one review I saw made mention of HD vs. SD. Nobody really cared.
His new film on the Chicago Cubs is shot in HD, so Scheinfeld is no Luddite, but the notion of story-over-pixels is foremost with a man who was a writer earlier in his career.
Scheinfeld, who has done documentaries on John Lennon, Bette Midler, The Bee Gees and others, began his career at Paramount Television, where he worked in development, then later at MTM, Mary Tyler Moore’s company; in the late 1990s he was writing pilots for network television.
“I knew Groucho Marx’s grandson, and he said ‘Why don’t you do a documentary about the Marx Brothers?’” Scheinfeld says. “I said, ‘What do I know about making documentaries?’ and he said, ‘You’re a storyteller.’”
Scheinfeld got the rights for that doc and teamed with a filmmaker named David Leaf, who knew people at the Disney Company looking for documentaries on pop-culture subjects. “Back then, Disney was a pay channel, and they’d program for adults from 8 p.m., on.”
“The Unknown Marx Brothers” got “great response,” and he was on to other projects. That includes work on films on John Lennon, Bette Midler, Ricky Nelson and Peter Sellers. “We Believe,” his documentary on the Cubs, connects with his roots as a Northwestern grad.
“You spend a lot of time on these projects and you better love it, you better have a passion for it,” he says. “Does is nurture my soul? Does it make me laugh? Does it inspire me?”
Part 2 will run next week