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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Jim Bigham and Mark Moormann--'For Once in My Life'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Editor's Note: For Once in My Life, which won the IDA/Mujsic Documentary Award last month, airs February 1 on PBS' Independent Lens. What follows is an interview we conducted with director/producer Jim Bigham and director/cinematographer Mark Moorman when the film screened as part of IDA's DocuWeeksTM.


Over the past couple of weeks, we at IDA have been 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 are Jim Bigham, director/producer, and Mark Moormann, director, of For Once in My Life.

Synopsis: For Once in My Life is a documentary about a unique band of singers and musicians, and their journey to show the world the greatness--and killer soundtrack--within each of them. The band members have a wide range of mental and physical disabilities, as well as musical abilities that extend into ranges of pure genius. In a cinema vérité style, the film explores the struggles and triumphs, and the healing power of music, as the band members' unique talents are nurtured to challenge the world's perceptions.




 IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Jim Bigham:  I've always loved still photography and capturing that moment that can be suspended in time forever. I was greatly influenced by still photographers, people like Robert Frank. Looking at life as it is without manipulating it and putting those images together in order to tell a story or evoke an emotion was a direction that fascinated me early on. I was fortunate to be exposed to the area of editing docs while attending the London Film School. While being entrenched with several masters of the art there, I learned to appreciate the craftsmanship required in revealing the proper balance of information in a story. 

Mark Moormann: In 1988, in North Florida I met and shot a docu-travel video with Ned Deloach, author of the Diving Guide to Underwater Florida. Soon after, Ned invited me to travel with a group of cave divers he'd assembled to explore and shoot the underground aquifers of the Yucatan Peninsula for Hidden Rivers of the Maya. I shot all the topside 16-mm images and served as the camera technician on the underwater camera systems. I was a young guy at the time, and the expertise, professionalism and attention to detail these divers displayed made a lasting impression on me. On a side note, Wes Skiles, an underwater cinematographer on that expedition, died this week (July 21st) while shooting here in the waters off the Florida coast. RIP Wes Skiles.


IDA: What inspired you to make For Once in My Life?

MM:  I met Javier Pena while shooting a job. During our initial conversation I mentioned making documentaries, and at his urging I related some stories about the making of the music doc Tom Dowd & the Language of Music. He invited me to visit the Goodwill facility in Miami and check out the Spirit of Goodwill Band. I went down there with a camera and shot a band practice. It was obvious there was a terrific story there, with great potential, and I agreed to help Javier develop the project. Some time later, while meeting with director/producer Jim Bigham regarding a documentary I'd helped him shoot, I showed him a short demo of the film project. He and his wife, Cathy, were impressed with the band, and expressed an interest to get involved. We all met with Lourdes Little, executive producer of the film, and the project ultimately became a reality.

JB:  In our meeting, we set goals and determined we would make a film designed to appeal to mass audiences that would change pre-conceived notions about disabilities. We all realized at that time, we were signing on to a passion project.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

MM:  One of the biggest challenges with any documentary film is getting the audience to care about the characters. In many cases with the Spirit of Goodwill Band members, that involved breaking down some very strong barriers born from preconceptions and misconceptions. At first glance it's easy for audience members (and society at large) to dismiss disabled people's ability to contribute in a meaningful way. While shooting the film, I think we made a real effort to capture the band members on camera as we would any other person. Over time, that allowed their personalities to come out, allowing the audience to relate to these individuals as they would any other person. In the end, it's the band members themselves who show us all how to overcome obstacles, especially when they are playing music for an audience, and their true essence emerges from behind the disability for the audience to see. 


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the npre-production, production and post-production processes?<

JB: The things that didn't change were the focus of making a film about the characters and the need to tell it in an entertaining fashion. When we first started filming, the only plan was to capture these interesting characters and their music. We were hoping for the storyline to present itself. A couple months into it, we got a lucky break when Miami's mayor, Manny Diaz, along with Emilio Estefan, visited the band and the mayor invited them to play at a large, prestigious event. The film now had a path to follow. From there we found a natural build and a timeline of events to work with. At that point, we began working with Javier Pena on music choices. That meant choosing music where Javier could create interesting arrangements that made full use of all band members and their skills. By working with our editor, Amy Foote, we were able to find the links to keep the story progressing forward and reveal a progression in the characters as well. We tried to find the perfect balance between the music, the characters and the build-up of events. We chose to experiment with The Edit Center in New York, where we were editing, by allowing students to take pieces of the film and edit segments as a student project. It gave us some interesting feedback as to what a general audience might be looking for because it was difficult not to become too attached to all our characters and the moments that impacted us as filmmakers. We also did a couple private screenings to see what scenes had the most impact and to lose other moments that we felt were great but maybe didn't have as much to do with the story.


IDA:  As you've screened For Once in My Life--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?  

JB: There's always fear when first showing your film to an audience; you never know what reactions you'll get. But I've been amazed at the strong response of our audiences at the festivals. We've only been in four festivals to date and have received five prizes, three of which were audience awards. Mostly I felt a gratitude and a humbling feeling from people as they watched and learned about the band members and their families. It was the same feeling I've experienced, and I was relieved that those feelings were conveyed. The film seemed to make people proactive. Everyone wanted to know how they could help the band and help the film to be seen. Many were grateful for exposing a sometimes uncomfortable subject in a unique way, and they praised Javier Pena for his work. I'm often surprised that audiences made up of all age groups and backgrounds have gone out of their way to express their love for this film, from young filmmakers and artists to seniors to working class, faith-based groups and more. On more than one occasion grown men have approached me in tears and have expressed that it really struck a chord. That's been absolutely awesome for me, and I feel privileged to have been able to be part of this story. From our positive experiences and a couple of rejections from festivals, we've learned a lot about finding the audience. Although we may not be the sexiest film out there, we do have a very wide audience and are figuring out how to market to them.  


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

MM: I know Jim Bigham and I were both influenced by DA Pennebaker's work. Dont Look Back, Monterey Pop and The War Room all serve as a powerful reminders that as a filmmaker you can capture history-in-the-making, and if you don't, who else will? I was also influenced by the work of the Maysles brothers, and Albert personally taught me a valuable life lesson. I had the honor of sitting next to him on a Sundance panel featuring several distinguished music documentary filmmakers. After all the other panel members introduced themselves to the audience, it was my turn to speak. I had always been more than a little nervous in front of crowds, especially being in this very elite company, but I managed to introduce myself and speak about my film. Upon finishing, I looked beside me to see Albert staring at me with a sly grin. He picked up his microphone like it was a weapon, and told the audience, "He's going to be okay, because he's got respect for his subjects, unlike . . . ," before going on to excoriate a modern-day documentarian for a one-sided, unbalanced approach to making documentaries. The lesson learned? If someone hands you a microphone (or a camera), don't you dare be nervous or timid. You chose this career for a reason: To tell stories, to say what you've got to say, to tell the world a story that needs to be heard.

JB:  In addition to what Mark said, when conceptualizing the story behind For Once In My Life, there were two other films that kept coming up in the back of my mind.   think documentaries such as Jean-Luc Godard's, Sympathy for the Devil and even Milos Forman's narrative classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest were both influences in structure and content.


For Once in My Life will be screening July 30 through August 5 at the the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles and August 6 through 12 the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.

To purchase tickets for For Once in My Life in Los Angeles, click here.

To purchase tickets for For Once in My Life in New York, click here.