Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Matthew Kallis, director/producer of MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS.
Synopsis: Across the USA, high school sports are regularly lavished with funding, publicity and scholarships, while theater departments, hoping for some attention of their own, struggle to put on a school musical. It's no different in sports-crazy Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, except for the "Freddy Awards," a live television event that recognizes excellence in local high school musical theater. Illustrating that arts education encourages the same teamwork, camaraderie and confidence as sports, MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS follows three theater troupes on their creative journey to the elaborate award ceremony--the "Super Bowl" of high school musical theater.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Matthew Kallis: I began making Super-8 movies when I was 9, enlisting my friends and family as cast and crew. I was fascinated as much by the technology of the craft as the art of visual
storytelling. Although I studied filmmaking in college, when I graduated I took a completely different path: to Wall Street and life as a professional investor and serial entrepreneur. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to change course, and I decided to pursue my lifelong dream to be a filmmaker.
I feel extremely blessed because even though the journey has been at times harrowing, frequently frustrating and often discouraging, I can say it has been a fantastic and extraordinarily gratifying ride. I have met and collaborated with incredibly talented artists and formed strong and lasting bonds with the people in my films.
IDA: What inspired you to make MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS?
MK: My producing partner, Christopher Lockhart, stumbled upon a clip of the Freddy Awards on YouTube. He dreamed up a potential documentary and pitched it to me. He thought I'd be a perfect fit for the project because I'm a big believer in arts education. I fell in love with the commitment to the arts demonstrated by this Pennsylvania community. And I knew we had a film.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
MK: We had to convince Shelley Brown, the CEO of the State Theatre in Easton and the creator of the Freddy Awards, that we had the best intentions in making a film. Some of the schools and community members were not all that cooperative at first, either.
In addition, the production itself was a logistical nightmare. Our limited budget demanded that the core crew be very small: two producers, a DP and a production sound mixer. There were 27 schools participating in the Freddy Awards program that year, so we had to make some hard choices early on about which schools to follow. The gamble was complicated by so many other uncertainties. It wasn't just a question of which schools to film, but we also had to decide which students to focus on. Also, since we were coming from across the country, we had to limit principal photography to three brief phases over six months. What if we were not in town when something important happened? Finally, we had no idea which schools would be nominated. This meant we might be spending time with a school that could potentially be shut out from nominations and our story. Not knowing which schools would be nominated also prevented us from securing music rights in advance.
From the beginning, our vision was for MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS to have a cinematic quality Every decision before, during and after production was designed to make that possible. We commissioned an original score performed by a live orchestra because we wanted the music to carry the film instead of narration. We shot all our material at 24 fps. Even the "kid-cams" we gave students were selected for that capability. Although the TV station did not have HD, they were willing and able to shoot the telecast using a 16x9 aspect ratio. Ultimately, including archival footage, we had over 300 hours of source material. I originally mapped out our workflow on a napkin, but we ended up needing a California king-size bed sheet of technical machinations to edit it all together seamlessly.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
MK: Perhaps the most difficult and delicate issue we had to address was that one of the people within the world of the film was diagnosed with cancer during production. While we were extremely sympathetic to his plight, we feared that it might change the tone or overshadow our message. We always intended to show the experience of participating in high school performing arts through the eyes of the students and teachers involved. What became clear while we were making the film was just how much arts education encourages the same teamwork, camaraderie and confidence as sports. Ultimately, arts education, like sports, is really about developing the skills necessary to become a well-rounded, functioning adult human being.
IDA: As you've screened MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
MK: It's been wonderful to learn that people with no interest in the subject matter find the film to be engaging. The comment we hear most often is that the film has a lot of "heart." Also, I'm always surprised at how many people were high school thespians. After the movie, people seem proud to confess that they did the high school musical. Many say the film captures the universal experience of performing in the school play or taking part in any high school activity that wasn't part of the sports program. The producers of Glee saw the film and told us they were "glued" to the screen. That was a happy moment.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
MK: One of the earliest documentaries I remember seeing was Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames. I was very young, but the film changed my view of the universe in a visually compelling way. When I was in college, I took courses taught by Richard Leacock and learned about cinema vérité or direct cinema, the novel approach to documentary filmmaking that he, Robert Drew, DA Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers had pioneered. I was inspired by the ability of the filmmakers to put the audience inside the experience as real events unfolded.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS will be screening August 6 through 12 at the IFC Center in New York City, and August 13 through 19 at the Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles
To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.
To purchase tickets for MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS in Los Angeles, click here.
To purchase tickets for MOSTVALUABLE PLAYERS in New York, click here.