Victoria Film Festival 2011 Interview - "Lesson Plan" Directors Philip Neel and David Jeffery
By Jason Whyte
Posted 02/05/11 21:11:39
"Lesson Plan” is a documentary film featuring interviews of the original students and teacher of the 1967 Third Wave experiment, which happened at the height of student radicalism in Palo Alto, California. With salutes and Gestapo-like informants, 30 students grew to over 200 as this exercise in fascism spiraled out of control and unwittingly re-enacted the roots of the Third Reich. The original story has been novelized and is required reading in much of Germany and Europe. Among those interviewed is Dr. Philip Zimbardo, creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment. What makes our documentary a bit unique is that the co-director, Philip Neel, was an original member of the Third Wave." Co-director David Jeffery on the film "Lesson Plan: The Story of the Third Wave" which screens at this year's Victoria Film Festival. Both David and co-director Philip Neel are featured in this interview.
Is this your first film at the Victoria Film Festival? Tell me about your festival experience, and if you plan to attend Victoria for the film’s screenings.
David: We’re excited and proud to have our film in the Victoria Film Festival, and this is our first time here. The co-directors Philip Neel and David Jeffery, with producer Bob Del Valle, will all be in attendance at Saturday night’s screening, the 5th. We wish we could make the gala opening on the 4th, but we’re traveling from southern California and working that Friday. As a result, we’ll have to fly up Saturday morning.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background, and what led you to the industry.
Neel: I have been a film editor and post-producer in television for the last 30 years. Together with co-director David, this is our first documentary. I have had the pleasure of working on such shows as “Moonlighting”, “Twin Peaks”, “Ally McBeal”, and “Boston Legal”. I'm currently editing a television series that will come out this summer called “Franklin & Bash”.
David: I'm a a Co-Producer on the popular TV series “Bones”. I have also been a post producer on shows such as “American Family” and “Walker, Texas Ranger”.
How did this whole project come together?
Neel: Throughout the years I’ve spoken at several schools regarding my experience in the Third Wave. I thought it would be a good idea to try and elicit other former students’ comments on the experience, so I set out to contact them and try to consolidate their comments with my own for future lectures. Then it dawned on me, why not interview them with a camera? And then, being an editor, the inevitable leap for me was to make a documentary. On its face the story is compelling and a natural for a documentary. But the message is even stronger. I decided to have the former members retell their stories from day one as we experienced it 40 years ago, not foreshadowing the surprise that was in store for us. Once I had everyone’s interview recorded, I intercut their comments, sometimes letting a sentence from one student be completed by another former student.
Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.
Neel: David Jeffery (the co-director) handled the cinematography, as this was his concentration when he attended NYU film school. We shot the film on mini-dv using several cameras, including a Canon XL-2, GL-2, HV-30, and HV-20. We shot at least two angles per interview, which allowed me flexibility in the editing. For sound, we recorded with a sennheiser mic on a boom whenever possible, but we always had a lavalier microphone as a backup.
Out of the entire production, what was the most difficult aspect of making this film? Also, what was the most pleasurable moment?
Jeffrey: The most difficult aspect was the amount of travel involved, and the fact that we had to shoot much of it on weekends as we all had full-time jobs. They made several weekend trips to Minneapolis, New York, Park City, Seattle, and even 2, 3-day weekends to Germany.
Neel: The pleasurable moments occurred after every interview, knowing that the people who I spoke to felt a sense of satisfaction having reflected on this important experience in their life, and I felt happy knowing that I got on tape more than I had hoped for. What was surprising was how many former classmates, and Ron Jones (the teacher), were willing to talk, and how much they could remember. "Lesson Plan” touches on the societal-pressure themes that many kids experience today, including the psychological makeup of gangs. I would hope it also helps to educate today's students about paying attention to what goes on in their own government.
#7. Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?
Neel: My inspirational documentary directors are Davis Guggenheim ("Waiting for Superman"), Errol Morris ("The Fog of War"), Andrew Jarecki ("Capturing the Friedmans"), Leslie Iwerks ("Recycled Life"), and Stacy Peralta ("Riding Giants"). Fantastic documentarians that are masters at creating a distinctive mood and emotion. I’m inspired by all of them, and from viewing their films and reading their interviews, I was able to apply nuggets of wisdom from them in the production of our movie.
How has the film been received at other festivals or screenings? Do you have any interesting stories about how this film has screened before? What do you think you will expect at the film’s screenings at Victoria?
We premiered last October at the Mill Valley Film Festival in northern California. Both screenings were well attended -- one was a sellout -- and our film was extremely well received. It generated intense interest from the entire audience. The full house stayed on asking questions until kicked out of the theater, lingered long in the lobby, discussed out the door and down the street. Lots of teachers expressed their reactions and eagerness to show it to their classes. A viewer told one of the former students, who was present for the Q&A after the screening, that because of her she had renewed faith in humanity. This former student had “done the right thing” and had tried to dismantle the Third Wave. We’re excited to see how the audience here will react to “Lesson Plan”. The theme is universal and we’re continually surprised by how many people worldwide are familiar with the original story. And the movie is consistently a conversation-starter. Next month, we’ve been selected to screen at the Winnipeg Real to Reel Film Festival.
If you weren’t making movies, what other line or work do you feel you’d be in?
Neel: I’ve always liked medicine. I would have wanted to try to become a doctor. And I’ve always loved photography, taking pictures and collecting great photographs.
How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?
We think that film reviews are extremely important. The internet provides quick, widespread response to movies, no matter what their budget was. We like the immediacy of the internet reviews, and their ability to create buzz for a film. It can even generate a larger audience turnout for the second festival screening.
If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?
Neel: Film Forum in New York City. I would be curious to see how our film would play in New York.
If you could offer a nickel’s worth of free advice to someone who wanted to make movies, what nuggets of wisdom would you offer?
Neel: For the documentarian, I’m convinced that when someone, anyone, retells their life, their highlights, their tragedies, their rewards, their surprises, that there ends up being enough material to create a story that is both compelling and valuable. There are many documentaries out there ready to be told. The key is to try to tell their story as eloquently and convincing as possible.
What do you love the most about film and the filmmaking business?
Neel: Where do I start? I’ve edited most of my adult life, and I know it sounds like a cliche, but editing is magic. The cumulative effect of juxtaposing images and interviews, combined with music, adjusting the pace, choosing the order of the interview quotes; all of this added together can create a piece of storytelling that is more powerful than any other medium.
What would you do or say to someone who is talking or being disruptive during a movie?
Neel: I would ask them politely to save their conversation for after the film. If it were to happen at a film festival, I would suggest they save their comments for the Q&A.
A question that is easy for some but not for others and always gets a different response: what is your favourite film of all time?
Neel: Random Harvest, a 1942 film from Ronald Colman & Greer Garson.
"Lesson Plan" screens Saturday, February 5th, 7:15pm at Capitol 6. There is an additional screening on Saturday, February 12th, 2pm at Capitol 6.
This is one of the official selections in this year’s Victoria Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to www.victoriafilmfestival.com.
Be sure to follow instant happenings of VFF ’11 on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a Tweetphoto or two. #vicfilmfestival is the official hashtag.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com