Looking for Emmanuel Radnitsky
By Peter Stuart
From time to time, I lecture on the subject of documentaries. And I've found that the most frequently asked questions deal with funding: how do you obtain money for a specific idea.
Many times, sheer luck has a great deal to do with creating and funding a concept. In my most recent experience, fortune came into my life in the guise of an old friend, William Cartwright, who has edited many of my films. He suggested I read a book about Man Ray, the early 20th century avant-garde artist, with the hope that we might be able to obtain funding for a documentary. The book, Man Ray—American Artist by Neil Baldwin, was very well-written, a concise narrative that detailed a rather amazing journey, beginning in Brooklyn and extending through the art world of Paris in the 1920s and 30s. Man Ray was not only one of the major photographers of this century, but he was a painter, an object maker and an avant-garde film maker. Among his close friends were Picasso, Brancusi, Satie, Hemingway, Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst et al. (there 's nothing better than "dish," even if it's back in the '20s). He had an acerbic wit and he wrote a fascinating autobiography. Best of all, he had extended affairs with two of the most exciting women of his time , relationships that—being photographer and painter—he had documented to some extent. What more could I ask for? In my mind's eye, I saw a visual banquet about the life of an unusual artist who lived and worked during one of the most explosive artistic eras of the century. Now all I had to do was to find a source of funding. I knew that wouldn't be easy. Man Ray isn't exactly "People" material. It would be much simpler to find a buyer for, say, an other television "snuff" film, if I could find a new twist on disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, tidal waves, killer bees, etc. However, you only come this way once and I didn't want to waste my time on the 14th version of Volcanoes that Kill! Man Ray would be a lot more fun.
Before I could look for funding, I felt it was necessary to secure the rights to Neil Baldwin's book. In truth, there are very few public events or major figures that can not be made the subject of a documentary without relying on a particular pre-existing property. Most public figures have been covered ad nauseam. However, if I used Neil Baldwin's book, I felt obliged to properly compensate him. His research, contacts and understanding of the subject would be invaluable in shortening the pre-production time. Also, since I am not the world's greatest wordsmith, I wanted Neil to write the script. From my days working with David Wolper, I learned the value of attaching a distinguished property to a project. For instance, it might be possible to sell a program about JFK's campaign for the presidency, but it was much easier to find funding for Theodore White's Making of the President. And, there were hundreds of documentaries about the Nazi era, but tying up The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer made it easier to sell to the networks. Having a respected author in your corner increases your chances of obtaining funding; in general, this makes life easier.
Accordingly, I met with Neil Baldwin and worked out an arrangement to make him part of the production team. Bill Cartwright would serve as co-producer. Through Neil, I met Eric Browner, the administrator of the Man Ray estate, and I was assured of their cooperation in regard to reproducing Man Ray's various works of art and private photographs. That was essential before I could move on to the next step. Now it was time to confront the bete noire: funding. I should explain that I am a television baby. Perhaps I was spoiled during my salad years. I created documentaries and features for people like David Wolper and Alan Landsburg , people who had an extraordinary ability to get funding for a variety of project s. Now that I am on my own , I follow their example, go out, pitch, and if I am unsuccessful, I move on to another subject, at least for the time being. I have enormous respect for the filmmakers who pursue a project for years, like Steve James with Hoop Dreams, or Terry Zwigoff with Crumb, or Leon Gast with When We Were Kings. I am also in awe of filmmakers who apply for and wait out grants from the NEA, NEH and various other initials. Just the thought of filling out those forms makes me dizzy. Finally, I can not bring myself to ask Uncle Mortimer or my dentist for a donation of five hundred dollars so I can buy enough tape stock to begin production. Patience is not my strong suite.
I looked at the network and cable arena: at the four networks, there was no future for a documentary about Man Ray, the avant-garde artist of the '20s. (Seinfeld didn't have to worry about my program taking his time slot.) As for cable, things didn't look too good either. The obvious thought would be A&E 's Biography Series, but I knew that Man Ray was not quite their cup of tea. And even if they wanted the project, I would never work for the notoriously low license fee they offer—somewhere between $75,000 to $110,000 for an hour program. Ditto for the Learning Channel. The subject matter and/or budget considerations precluded National Geographic, TNT, Discovery, etc. I knew my best hope to fund this quality level of programming lay at PBS, but in reality, only at one unit of PBS: "American Masters" at WNET in New York. Over a period of eleven years, executive producer Susan Lacy has been responsible for the production of over seventy documentary portraits of the American creative community, featuring artists like William Styron, Buckminster Fuller, William Faulkner, Lena Horne and Richard Avedon. If Man Ray would have a home, it would probably be at American Masters. I talked with Susan, sent off a three-page treatment and received a positive response. Susan had an affinity for Man Ray's work, and she appreciated the fact that I had lined up the rights to both the book and the estate. A few weeks later, I flew to New York with a detailed outline, and after a series of discussions, the project was underway.
The license fee was quite reasonable, enabling me to shoot at various locations in Europe and afford the kind of research and stock footage acquisitions that make for quality programming. So, as have we all, I began the special adventure that comes from making a documentary. Suddenly, you are projected into an unfamiliar world, meet some extraordinary people and explore the depths of a subject that you knew only slightly. In the case of Man Ray, this turned out to be an extremely rewarding experience—for one thing, the locations where Paris, London and New York. Secondly, our research turned up some very unusual items.
Neil Baldwin, in addition to being a joy to work with, uncovered some unique footage. The great find was an interview with Man Ray which was taped in hotel bedroom in Rotterdam in 1972. It had never been televised. There was Man Ray lying on a hotel bed, smoking a cigar, holding forth on his life in a most uninhibited manner. The perfect talking head interview. During the research period, I remembered that as one of my first directing assignments, I had filmed Man Ray more than thirty years ago for Walter Cronkite's Twentieth Century Series. In the interview, Man Ray described the first screening of his dada film, Retour à la Raison, which turned into a riot. I made a deal with CBS news for the footage. My still's researcher in New York, Julie Claire, scavenged through the storage bins of Boy's High in Brooklyn, where Man Ray went to school, and located a 1908 yearbook containing his sketches: the book hadn't been seen since that time. As an additional bonus, we were able to sprinkle the film with the on camera wit of Man Ray himself. My favorite quote was, "Anyone who does creative art is sacred person. I don't care what he does, for he can not do any harm, whereas a bad politician, a bad doctor or a bad cook can kill you."
The program took three months to assemble. During that time I sent rushes to Susan and let her know what changes I was making in the basic structure. Then Neil and I screened the rough cut (with can ned music cues I had chosen) for Susan Lacy and her senior producer, Tamar Hacker. There's something exhilarating about screening your film for the first time when the people watching it with you are professionals, people who care only about the quality of the film, not about making points or making notes. Without a word being said, you know what is working and what isn't. Afterward, we discussed and agreed on the necessary changes. A week later I came back to New York, screened the final cut and that was that. It will be televised on the PBS network, April 9th, at 9 o'clock. For over three decades, the films I have made were produced by the television networks or major studios. This is my first experience with public television. I look forward to the next one.
The Emmanuel Radditsky of the title is Man Ray's real name, which he changed when he was 18 years old.
MEL STUART is a trustee and former president of IDA; he has produced and/or directed more than 100 documentaries.