Films By Friends and Neighbors

There are a number of films this year made or contributed to by South Fork natives or part-timers
Casey Brooks, Michael Halsband, Jack Heller

   The Hamptons International Film Festival has feature and short films from all over the globe, but one of the opportunities the festival affords is to see films that may never pass this way again, made by friends and neighbors, on a big screen. There are a number of films this year made or contributed to by South Fork natives or part-timers. The Star caught up with three of them to hear about their stories and their films.

 Casey Brooks, Editor:
“Plimpton: Starring George Plimpton as Himself”

A true local boy, Casey Brooks grew up in East Hampton and went to the School of Visual Arts after graduating from East Hampton High School. He started out working on short films and for commercial film and photography directors, and did some interview documentaries, among them “Still Bill,” on Bill Withers.
Film editing was something he “stumbled into. A commercial director needed someone to organize media. I was doing some photo stuff and I fell into full-time editing mode, moving up the ranks that way.” He said he appreciated the way editors shaped the final product. “They have a lot of power, especially in documentary films.”
He came on in the middle of the making of “Plimpton,” not knowing much about the subject. The directors, Luke Poling and Tom Bean, “had a rough cut, not really cohesive. It needed to be sussed out. I knew it was going to be a lot of work. So I quit my job and went head-deep into film.”
What little he knew about the subject became much more through the work on the film and his discussions with Mr. Bean, who was also a friend. “If you could do a full feature documentary on George it would have to be in 12 parts, not a half-hour movie.” The filmmakers settled on 89 minutes.
They decided to focus on how he became who he was — the founder and editor of The Paris Review, the bon vivant everyman adventurer who never backed down from a challenge, be it playing as a professional quarterback or a percussionist for the New York Philharmonic — from a Mayflower heritage of lawyers, publishers, politicians, and even a Civil War general.
    “He was a kid who wanted to be a writer, didn’t know how. He used his privilege and spirit to reach all these people. He started The Paris Review and stumbled into these roles of participatory journalism. The one thing we wanted to show was how important The Paris Review was to him. It was the glue that held him and his work together. In fact, he was fund-raising for it up until the night he died. It had some of the best American writers of his and other generations.”
    Although Plimpton was known here for his busy social life and his love of fireworks, his heyday was a few generations removed from the East Hampton of Mr. Brooks’s youth. “It was such a different world than the world I grew up in, it was hard to relate to it.” Still, he said, “It is easy to romanticize the writers of that era, especially how much fun they had.”
    “He looked for any excuse to throw a party, have the Grucci family light some fireworks, whenever he could. He could go to five parties a night, and usually did.”
    The film culled some 50 interviews and a vast amount of archival footage, including Plimpton on the road with Robert F. Kennedy the day before Kennedy was shot and killed. All of that material “made it really difficult to edit, there was so much. You almost prefer to work with less.”

Michael Halsband, Director:
“Growing Farmers”

    Michael Halsband is well known as a still photographer, but he has a number of music videos, commercials, and documentaries to his credit. His 18-minute film “Growing Farmers” tells the story of a new breed of young farmers who have come to the East End from desk jobs or other careers out of a commitment to locavore growing and eating and a way to find more meaning in their work.
    Mr. Halsband said being a part-time resident of Water Mill for 37 years and seeing the changes over time made him realize the importance of keeping the area’s traditions alive. The Peconic Land Trust has been helping these younger farmers find preserved land to buy or lease to keep their dream alive.
    “It’s so fundamental to the area — farming and agriculture — directing and co-producing the film was a great fit for me.” It was also a bit of a relief, he said, after spending a stressful time in India on a previous project.
    “I took everything I learned from that experience to this experience. I knew what we needed up front and needed at certain times,” in terms of resources and financial backing. “There was so much fresh energy from the farmers, everyone kept saying how much fun they were having.”
    The film visits a free-range chicken farmer on the North Fork, Sang Lee Farms, which has developed into a large distributor of lettuce and other produce; a Jamaican farmer growing his native staples, the wheat farmers from Amber Waves in Amagansett, and others.
    The only challenge in making the film was choosing where, of all the spectacular East End settings, to shoot.
    In the end, what Mr. Halsband has taken away from the experience is that “Life is important and happiness is important.  These are people looking for things less about commerce and more about a better quality of lifestyle, and food as essential element of being healthy and happy. Cheap food isn’t good food, and people are starting to realize that.”

Jack Heller, Producer:

    Jack Heller, a part-time resident of Southampton for most of his life, realized about three years ago that making films here in the winter made sense not just for his bottom line but also as a boost to the off-season economy.
    “I noticed how quiet it was here in the winter and spoke to the local business people, who were marvelously supportive of my filmmaking in offering locations, catering, and other help. We just finished the third movie we’ve made in the last three years.”
    His latest film release, “Refuge,” which he produced with Dallas Sonnier, was directed by Jessica Goldberg from a play she’d written. The film often feels like a play in its sometimes claustrophobic attachment to the house where the heroine, Amy, lives as caretaker to her younger siblings after their parents abandon them. Yet the exterior shots are familiar: Catena’s market, long views over Meadow Lane, back roads that look deceptively like Anytown, America, but are immediately recognizable as South Fork locations. All the exteriors — the Blue Color Bar, the Hess station, the Princess Diner, and others — are in Southampton. Mr. Heller, who graduated from film school at the University of Southern California in 2004, and his crews do their interior shooting at East Hampton Studios.
    He has been making films since 2008 and has 15 in various stages of development. He said he likes to film here, both in helping train those interested in filmmaking and sometimes finding undiscovered talent among the extras. In the case of “Refuge” he has caught lightning in a bottle with the current “it” girl Krysten Ritter and Brian Geraghty, known from “The Hurt Locker.”
    He is looking forward to the festival screening for many reasons, one of which is being “able to see the film with the people I made it with,” all of whom are excited to take part in the screening. “Our crew becomes a family. There are no star turns, everyone sits at a communal table when we eat.” It’s difficult to understand the story of a film while being involved in the day-to-day making of it, he said. “It will be just a fun thing for them to see it come to fruition.”