Filmmaker’s Journal

Apr. 24, 2003

I’m extremely pleased to announce that the National Alliance For The Mentally Ill (NAMI) will show the documentary at its national convention Monday, June 30 in Minneapolis. This is a very exciting development because it will gain national attention for the project in the mental health community and hopefully jumpstart efforts to show the documentary around the country. The St. Louis chapter of NAMI has nominated BEFORE THEY FALL OFF THE CLIFF for a national media award. The local chapter of the National Mental Health Association has also nominated the project for a national media award. I’ll certainly let you know if we win. Thanks to both local mental health organizations for supporting this project! October 18, NAMI Illinois will show the documentary at its state conference in Springfield, IL. Plans are underway to have an extended showing in St. Louis later this year. When those plans are finalized I’ll let you know. Next month, I’m going to New York to meet with documentary doctor Fernanda Rossi, a filmmaker and columnist for The Independent Film and Video Monthly. Ms. Rossi works with filmmakers to fine tune their projects and help them realize their potential.

The documentary screened most recently as a work-in-progress last fall at the Webster University Film Series and 550 people attended the 3-day showing. Thanks to Vicki Woods for being a great host and thanks to those of you who came out to see the documentary (some of you for the second time!). Since then my editor Jon King and I have been working on a fine cut of the documentary, trimming more than 25 minutes from the 108 minute version that was shown at Webster. In some ways this is the hardest part of completing a project like this, deciding what stays and what goes. We’ve also moved some parts of BEFORE THEY FALL to improve the flow of the doc and focus the story. St. Louis musician Javier Mendoza recorded some new music for the documentary several months ago which has also improved the project. Besides working on the final cut of the documentary, I’m also producing a dvd which will eventually include the documentary as well as a lot of supplemental material that didn’t make it into the documentary. I’ll keep you posted on the progress of the dvd and the new website where it will be available for purchase online.

The documentary website has been on line since September 2002 and we’re approaching 2800 website visits. I’ve received emails from as far away as Oregon, California, New York and Florida inquiring about the documentary. Considering that we’ve done little marketing of the documentary, it’s surprising to get as many emails as we have. Obviously a lot of people are using the internet to seek information about schizophrenia. Thanks to the people at Gray Communications (Joe, Doris and Mike) for helping me with the website. I’ve received a lot of compliments about the design of

There will be some other major developments which I can’t go into now. The momentum is building again and I want to thank all of you for supporting this project, especially the talented people who have worked on the project at various times. Stay tuned. The best is yet to come.

July 4, 2003

Just returned from three days at the National Alliance For The Mentally Ill(NAMI) national convention in Minneapolis. The documentary screened Monday, June 30 in front of around 450 people. They brought in extra seats and people were sitting on the floor. The two standing ovations were the high point. The low point came about 20 minutes into the documentary during a very dramatic moment when the dvd audio disappeared. Then it came back. Then it disappeared. I’m thinking, just shoot me, it’d be quicker and more humane. Thankfully Mark McBride grabbed a microphone and told the audience what he was saying in the documentary. This went on for several minutes and then everything was fine.

I returned home, put in the dvd, fast forwarded to the part where the audio went bad and it was fine. DVD Technology 1, Art 0. I was momentarily despondent during the convention screening until the end of the doc when the entire audience rose and applauded. And they did it again a few minutes later. That’ll keep me jazzed for a few more months.

There were many positive comments about the doc. But that was tempered by the number of NAMI members I spoke with who are in pain because of this insidious disease schizophrenia that destroys lives and frustrates and terrifies families. Everyone had a story to tell and although there were some success stories, many of the stories were quite sad. Sick family members who’ve run away and haven’t been seen for years. Sick family members who go on and off their meds causing a cycle of futility for their families.

A handful who had committed violent acts. Tears came easily during the story-telling. So much pain caused by mental illness. It was a very sobering experience. So many people said they appreciated that we made the documentary and are using it to raise awareness. That means a lot.

A NAMI member from L.A. came up to me the day after she saw the documentary and said she knew some people connected to the Sundance Film Festival and offered to help get the doc into the festival. Her business card is under lock and key right now. Getting into Sundance would be like winning the lottery.

We’ve made a lot of changes to the documentary and it’s a lot better thanks to suggestions by story editor Fernanda Rossi, a filmmaker/documentary doctor in NY I recently worked with. That day-long session in NY was amazing. We watched the documentary twice, examined it scene by scene, experimented with a paper edit and then it was left up to me to decide what changes I wanted to make. Fernanda’s suggestions were a little scary at first, but her advice has paid off in the form of a leaner, more streamlined documentary that flows very well. Thanks, Fernanda.

I still see minor flaws which will be corrected soon, but now that we’ve gotten to the point where the doc is 95% done, that’s a good feeling. Jon King, my editor, continues to do an amazing job. The next step is to raise the level of quality just a little bit higher, seek a distributor, enter film festivals (including the St. Louis International Film Festival) and work with NAMI to get the doc into the marketplace. The next scheduled showing is October 18 at the NAMI Illinois state conference. We’re also finalizing an October 11 showing in Columbia, Missouri.

July 26, 2003

Just found out Saturday afternoon that “Before They Fall Off The Cliff” has been selected for the IFP Market in New York in September. The Market is an important opportunity for filmmakers to present their new projects to documentary buyers, TV executives, distributors and film festival programmers.

I’ve been smiling all day…

The players who’ll be at the IFP Market are the people you email and call on the phone and pray they get back to you. They rarely do. Now I get to go to cocktail parties with them. “Waiter, more champagne, please. What do you mean you’re out of Tattinger’s?”

Annually, IFP Market films have appeared at major film festivals like Sundance and Berlin and have been purchased by HBO and PBS. It’s an understatement to say this is a huge development for our documentary! During the five day Market there will be networking opportunities with industry decision-makers as well as seminars and workshops with film professionals. This is a serious turning point and when you’ve been working on a project for six-plus years, I can’t describe to you how satisfying this moment is. It’s fantastic and I wish I could skip August and head straight to September. But two months is good because my editor Jon King and I will do some additional editing and polishing.

Eli Lilly, which has been a supporter of the documentary since late last year, recently presented a one-time education grant of $10,000 to help in the completion of the documentary. That was a R-E-A-L-L-Y good day (even though Visa gets most of the money). Lilly has also nominated me and the documentary for a brand new media award which will pay $5000 to the mental health organization of my choice if I win.

Waiting to hear from film festivals in Chicago, LA, San Diego, San Francisco and here in the STL. Submitting to Sundance in September. How cool would it be to meet Robert Redford in Utah?

August 24, 2003

Just returned from a one day trip to NY for the IFP/New York Gordon Parks Award Finalists Film Series. “Before They Fall Off The Cliff” (BTFOTC) is a finalist for the directing award for African-American filmmakers making their first or second film. First prize is $10,000.

On Friday August 22, excerpts from the four directing finalists were shown at The Studio Museum in Harlem, followed by a discussion featuring the directors. The discussion was hosted by George Alexander, author of “Why We Make Movies: Black Filmmakers Talk About the Magic of Cinema”.

The other movies and their filmmakers include “Anguish” directed by La Monte Edwards, “Jeremiah Strong” directed by Kevin Shaw and “Tea Time with Roy and Sylvia” directed by Alison McDonald. The event was attended by about 120 people. The event was sponsored by the NY Times, IFP/New York and supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

I think the chief competition will come from Alison McDonald, whose “Tea Time with Roy and Sylvia” I felt was the best of the fictional films. It’s about an interracial couple anguishing over their relationship and their differing views on Sylvia’s pregnancy. Alison acted as well as directed. It was very strong and well done. I also received several compliments from IFP staff members who had seen the entire documentary.

It felt pretty good being treated like a filmmaker. The highlight for me was when film critic/filmmaker/author Nelson George asked several questions about our use of blue screen while shooting the interviews for the documentary.Then he said it was a very well done and powerful film. Very cool. I met a member of the Harlem chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill who wants to talk about bringing the documentary back to NY. It makes me really look forward to the return trip to NY in September for the IFP Market when film industry representatives will have an opportunity to view BTFOTC. My goal is to attract the interest of HBO and Sundance. And that’s when I’ll find out the winner of the Gordon Parks Award. It should be a very interesting week in NY, where we’ll show the documentary twice.

September 26, 2003

Greetings from the city so nice they named it twice, New York, New York. The IFP Market (Sept 21-26) was an amazing experience, one of the best weeks I’ve ever had. IFP Market, sponsored by HBO, Sundance, Microsoft, Apple and a number of other companies, invited hundreds of filmmakers and screenwriters to show their completed films, works-in-progress and scripts to film industry decision-makers, the people who can make filmmakers’ dreams come true by saying “yes, I like your project, let’s do some business.” It was a first class event in every way. 107 documentaries were screened, 75 percent of them works in progress. Before They Fall was one of 21 completed feature documentaries.

From the time I realized the magnitude of the IFP Market, my goal was to have “Before They Fall Off The Cliff” (BTFOTC) seen by HBO: mission accomplished. What that means won’t be known for awhile, but I was thrilled to find out HBO actually attended one of my showings. The way I found out was a little unusual.

Tuesday, the day after my documentary was shown, I attended a pitch session breakfast hosted by HBO where filmmakers got three minutes to pitch their film project. I thought each filmmaker would get up in front of the entire group and make a three minute presentation, so I had been practicing my three minute pitch for several days. It turned out to be much more informal than what I imagined. Each HBO member was seated in a restaurant booth and when it was your turn, someone from IFP came to get you and seated you across from the HBO rep. No one really explained this to any of the filmmakers beforehand, so we were nervously trying to figure out how the pitch session would go down.

After getting some food, I was looking for a place to sit down, so I asked to sit across from a man I assumed was a fellow filmmaker. I introduced myself and we started talking. He asked questions about my film, which is what all the filmmakers at the IFP do when meeting each other. I asked if he had a film at the IFP and he said he was with HBO. That’s when I suddenly realized I was in the middle of my pitch session! No one told me. At least I didn’t have time to get nervous. The man I was sitting across from was Greg Rhem, Manager of Original Films for HBO Documentaries. During our conversation he said that he came to see BTFOTC Monday afternoon at my first showing. When I asked his reaction to the doc, he was pretty non-committal, saying that HBO would send each filmmaker an analysis of their film, and I assume whether HBO is interested in buying it. I asked for Greg’s business card and will follow-up after the IFP.

After that HBO pitch session, my feelings about the first screening of BTFOTC improved greatly. At any given time there were four to six films being shown, so some films were better attented than others. About 25 people came to the first screening and afterward, several filmmakers came up to me with complimentary remarks. But knowing that someone from HBO came to see it really makes that a special screening that I’ll always remember whether HBO buys the doc or not.

Tuesday, there was a luncheon for the IFP awards finalists. I was a finalist for the Gordon Parks Directing Award for African-American filmmakers making their first film. Gordon Parks is a legendary Life Magazine photographer, cinematographer and director. Esteemed actor Ossie Davis introduced all finalists and read my name…that was cool. I got to stand up for some polite applause. Later I went over and said hello to Mr. Davis and reminded him that I had interviewed him and his wife, actress Ruby Dee on KSDK’s morning newscast a few years ago. What a classy gentleman and wonderful actor. I’d have to wait two more days to find out if I won the $10,000 first prize.

Wednesday afternoon I took a break from the IFP and hung out with Bob Costas for a couple of hours at the HBO studios where “Inside the NFL” was being taped. Bob was a great host even though he was busy taping and introduced me to former NFL stars Dan Marino, Cris Collinsworth and Cris Carter, who appear on the show every week. That was big fun.

Got to see some excellent films at the IFP Market. A film to watch is “Rock School”. It’s a documentary about a school where middle and high school age kids go to learn how to be rock stars. Jack Black’s “School of Rock” is the fictional version of the documentary I saw. I was very impressed with the 15 minute sample that was shown. I think this film has a chance to do well.

Thursday was a huge day: my doc screened for the second time and the awards ceremony was held that night. As I waited for my doc to screen at 1:15 p.m., I struck up a conversation with two filmmakers making a documentary about the Alzheimer’s disease of one of the filmmaker’s mother. I told them my mother died of Alzheimers, which led to an extended conversation about our shared experiences with this dreadful disease. This was one of numerous interesting conversations I had with other filmmakers that week. About 15 people came to see Before They Fall. Among them was my New York-based story editor Fernanda Rossi, a guest panelist at this year’s IFP Market. Many of her suggestions were included in the most recent version of the documentary, so I was very pleased she came and even more pleased with her praise. It meant it a lot.

The IFP Awards ceremony was held at a very cool-looking NY club, Deep. Actress Rosie Perez was the celebrity MC and my name was the first one she read when the Gordon Parks Award directing nominees were announced. I didn’t win and truthfully I thought being the only documentary director put me at a disadvantage in this category. It was still cool being one of the five nominees. The party was great and I got to hang out with some amazing directors and screenwriters whose careers I’ll be following.

I had several opportunities to talk about my next documentary about Rock and Roll Hall of Fame keyboardist Johnnie Johnson and the reaction was very favorable. My goal is to bring that project to the IFP Market when it’s done. As I said in the beginning, it was an amazing week that reaffirmed how much I enjoy filmmaking.

February 18, 2004

Filmaker’s Library, a distribution company in New York has obtained the rights to sell and rent “BTFOTC” for educational use. Filmaker’s Library ( has an extensive collection of award-winning documentaries on topics such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, women’s studies and multicultural issues. Sales and rentals are to institutions like universities, libraries, schools, businesses and community groups.

Contact information for Filmaker’s Library is:
Phone: 212-808-4980, fax: 212-808-4983, e-mail: or write:
Filmakers Library, 124 East 40th Street, New York, NY 10016.

In November, BTFOTC screened before 250 people at the St. Louis International Film Festival at the Tivoli Theater. In February, the documentary was shown at the True False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. It’s a first year all-documentary festival which was well attended and seems to have a bright future.

The opening film at True False, the excellent TOUCHING THE VOID, had well over a thousand in attendance at the Missouri Theater.

The next scheduled showing for BTFOTC is April 3 at Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Missouri.

When you produce a documentary, there is a certain amount of rejection. After getting turned down by Sundance, Slamdance, Cinequest and Sarasota Film Festivals, I’m waiting to hear from Full Frame, Silverdocs, Nashville and Cleveland. It’s frustrating (and costly) submitting to festivals and not getting chosen. There are a lot of films being made and the competition is fierce. But I’ve learned patience and humility during this documentary journey. You learn to not take the rejection personally and not let it deter you from promoting your project.