Roger M. Sherman: Cutting His Own Trails

Julia C. Mead | August 13, 1998

Roger M. Sherman is a prolific documentary filmmaker with Oscar, Emmy, and CableACE nominations to his credit, but he's been thwarted in bringing to celluloid the story that is nearest his heart and hearth, the one that would tell of the frustrating, arcane, and eventually joyful experience of private adoption.

His 5-year-old son, Lincoln, was the gift at the end of a "bizarre" and "torturous" process that Mr. Sherman and his wife, Dorothy Kalins, a magazine editor, began in 1991.

The journals they kept along the way formed a narrative. About three years ago, American Playhouse bought the rights to their story, hired screenwriters, and was ready to start production when the company went out of business. ABC Pictures then began negotiations but it too went out of business.

Looking For Backers

Mr. Sherman said he spends "90 percent" of his time looking for backers for his projects - "that's especially hard when you're exploring social issues," which he is well known for - and is now talking with a third company about his adoption story.

The subject of private adoption appeals to him not only because of personal experience but because it is a common experience: It has been the thrust of his 22-year career to find the shared experiences that thread people together and the idiosyncrasies that set them apart. He calls it using "people-driven portraits that bring out what is interesting and important in them."

His "Fast Eddie and the Boys," for example, was an acclaimed, early-1990s portrait of a group of 80-year-old men in Miami Beach who played handball. They talked about "sex after 70, heart attacks and injuries on the court, fortunes won and lost."

The film won best documentary at the New England Film Festival and was featured at other festivals, including the Hamptons International, and at the Academy Awards Contemporary Documentary Awards Series.

His most recently completed film, a biography of the sculptor Alexander Calder for the Public Broadcasting System's American Masters series, was "really backed with a clear vision and a passion and an incredible devotion," said Susan Lacy, the American Masters creator and executive producer.

It took Mr. Sherman four years to complete the project; a year alone was spent convincing the Calder family to cooperate. For 20 years they had refused to cooperate on any film projects about Mr. Calder.

Another Perspective

The biography, which Ms. Lacy called unusual for being one of the few successful "anecdotal, impressionistic, yet revealing portraits" on film, ran in June and will air again Aug. 20 on PBS's new MetroArts cable channel.

Mr. Sherman's two CableACE nominations came for "The O.J. Simpson Trial: Beyond Black and White" and "Don't Divorce the Children." The former, made for the Learning Channel and a gold medal winner at the New York Festivals, asked why blacks applauded the Simpson verdict while whites called it a sham.

He was chosen to direct, he said, because he, "a middle-class, Jewish, white guy," fit the Learning Channel's demographic and it hoped to "help whites understand the black perspective."

Children Of Divorce

The perspective he uncovered was primarily of a vicarious victory - "You rich people are always getting off. Why are you complaining when one of us has the money to get off?" - over a corrupt system that permits a Harvard doctor, one of the 200 blacks interviewed, to continually be pulled over for "D.W.B.," driving while black. Therefore, Mr. Sherman said, "any evidence that could be tainted is negated."

"Don't Divorce the Children" was produced for Lifetime Television. In it, the children of seven divorced couples get to tell their own stories, without the muddying effect of "expert" interpretation.

"It wasn't easy getting kids to express themselves - kids have a studied indifference - to break through that, to talk about what they've been through," he said, adding he often had the urge to "grab the parent by the neck and say 'Look what you're doing to your children!' "

Wide-Ranging Subjects

He resisted the urge but his film may have that effect anyway; it is now required viewing for combative or negligent parents in a dozen state Family Court systems.

Mr. Sherman recalled giving a rough cut of "The O.J. Simpson Trial" to the African American owner of a film editing facility. The response was little more than a shrug - "It's what we talk about all the time" - but that told Mr. Sherman he was on target, with something that "wasn't new for blacks but was new for whites."

As fodder for social commentary, the struggle to preserve what is left of the natural environment shares room in Mr. Sherman's oeuvre alongside aging, divorce, and racial bias - other of his films have focused on women's attitudes toward food and the struggles of mental patients.

A Second Nomination

"The Garden of Eden," made for the national chapter of the Nature Conservancy but acclaimed for its far-reaching message, garnered him his second Oscar nomination, in 1985.

Using specific examples of the tension between pro and antidevelopment forces, it was the first documentary to explain the economic sense behind environmental preservation, he said.

"It doesn't look like a corporate film because I was able to convince them that this mission was more important than saying how great they are once every minute. . . . We ended up only using the Nature Conservancy name twice."

On The Environment

Instead, it showed the New Jersey pine barrens was not just a "scruffy place" but a source of a penicillin-like drug that earned billions for the manufacturer. And that a coal-burning power plant in the Florida panhandle, proposed in an area that contained more endangered species than any other part of the state, was better built elsewhere.

The message that the environment was worth preserving for its own sake was in every frame, he said. From his mentor and former college professor, the photographer Jerome Liebling, he learned that "images are not wallpaper for narration. You should be able to turn the sound off and feel the story."

Born in New York City and raised in Scarsdale, Mr. Sherman spent two years each at the University of Copenhagen and Hampshire College in Massachusetts, meaning to be a photographer.

Fellow Artists

The latter college taught photography and film as a combined sequence, with an emphasis not so much on technique as on understanding how humans react to images. So, like the other art students, he took film classes.

He made some life-altering connections in the process. Mr. Liebling, a member of the Photo League in the 1940s and a pioneer of photography as the basis for visual arts education, founded the photography and film department at Hampshire.

Ken Burns, the acclaimed maker of historical documentaries, including "The Civil War" and "Baseball," was his roommate. Buddy Squires, an award-winning cinematographer, was likewise a college friend.

Though he focuses primarily on documentary filmmaking, Mr. Sherman did become a photographer too, most recently shooting portraits of the extended Lester family of Poseyville and Round Swamp Farm to illustrate a piece on authentic Bonacker food, farming, and fishing for this month's Saveur magazine.

(Mr. Sherman's wife, Dorothy Kalins, is Saveur's editor-in-chief. They share a house on the west shore of Three Mile Harbor with Lincoln and the occasional flock of visiting swans.)

In 1976, after college graduation, Mr. Sherman, Mr. Burns, and Mr. Squires started Florentine Films, named optimistically for "a renaissance in film-making" as much as for Florence, Mass., where it all began. They made money at first by working as crew members on British and European television projects, working for per diem pay.

On-The-Job Training

"We had what I call useful naivete: You have a vision and you push as hard as you can for it. You don't know how hard that is really going to have to be and, if you knew, you'd probably go sell insurance."

One day, Mr. Sherman was hired as the sound man on a low-budget (and eventually shelved) feature film, a fairy tale about death, and, when an inept cameraman was fired, he got his partner's jobs as well. They earned their pay by acting too. Mr. Sherman was an old man, Mr. Burns the dead prince, and Mr. Squires the fairy godmother, in a purple tutu.

"We were paid almost nothing. . . But, we learned an incredible amount about shooting with minimal equipment," he said.

Groundbreaking Style

The first film of their own, "The Brooklyn Bridge," celebrated the familiar landmark's 100th birthday and ended up with an Academy Award nomination. It was based in part on interviews with Kurt Vonnegut, Julie Harris, and Arthur Miller, with a cameo appearance by Bugs Bunny. Mr. Miller later contributed heavily to Mr. Sherman's Calder biography as well.

The 1981 film broke ground by setting a technical standard for safely shooting fragile archival materials, a standard that was later made obsolete by computer scanning, and by creating a straightforward, unpretentious style for the now ubiquitous historical documentary. That style has become more widely associated with Mr. Burns' popular works but it has served Mr. Sherman well too.

Trailblazer

"I am as interested in social and environmental issues as I am in historical subjects. Therefore, there is a conscious decision to do other things besides history."

In other words, he's cutting his own trail. His close friend, business partner, and sometime collaborator has reached "his own stratosphere," and Mr. Sherman said he celebrates his friend's success, but that exploring current social issues is what drives him.

"I don't do what I do for the money or the fame. I think exploring real life, the things that affect everyone, or most everyone, is as interesting as anything else I can do," he said. "And I never want to do the same thing twice."