With all of the hoopla around the Alexander Hamilton musical and the exaltation of the just discovered genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda (who else gets invited to the Rose Garden to freestyle rap?), I wanted to bring another historical labor of love to the foreground. A Hamilton project that was released before Hamilton projects were cool.
Back in 2000 I was given a thick script that would change the direction of my life. I was living in Beaufort, SC at the time, working at a performing arts center as a PR guy. Besides classrooms rented out for art and dance instruction, the place featured a massive performance space that was home base for a local theater company. We were putting on a production of Shelby Foote’s Shiloh, an ambitious civil war drama that required a huge number of soldiers, which was a challenge to cast given the smallish pool of young professional actors in the tiny community. So I got a part in the play, though I’m not really an actor, and performed many other functions given the “all hands on deck” requirements of community theater. As it turns out, being a “floater” has served me well while jumping between oddball jobs along my meandering career path.
Enter Michael Bober from New Jersey. Mr. Bober, aka “The Bobester,” was an old friend of Shiloh’s Director, Peter Holland, and had come down to visit and videotape a performance. I liked Bober immediately and, at a late-night party after one of the shows, he told me about a film script he had just finished. It was a self-financed documentary film project called Favorite Son, and the title referenced the close, almost familial, relationship between George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Bober had completed the script and now hoped to shoot it in the coming months—Favorite Son was going to be something of a meta-documentary film, with fictional characters working on their own documentary film about Hamilton to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the infamous duel with Aaron Burr. (2004 was the bicentennial of the notorious event that took place in Weehawken, NJ.) Bober’s love of venerable French directors would influence the style—so it would be less Ken Burns and more Truffaut. He told me all of this while I was half-stoned and I pretended to understand his references to French New Wave film and hinted that early American History was a keen interest of mine (lies!) Though I was merely an inebriated rube nodding along to impassioned, high culture dissertations, I was so convincing that The Bobester left me the script and asked for my feedback.
So I read it, scribbling things in the margins when duly entertained or confused. I’m still struck by its breadth of subject matter. I flash to the first days with Bober’s script when I pondered how in the hell all of the information could fit into a watchable movie. Not only did it tell the history of Hamilton and the period players that helped shape that history, but there were pages and pages of dense yet lyrical script about the regional Lenni-Lenape tribe, a careful deconstruction of the treasonous story of Major John Andre and Benedict Arnold, what could be thesis notes about agrarianism versus industrialism with the Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, NJ as a backdrop, and richly-detailed academic reflections on William Carlos Williams and Washington Irving, two luminary writers that wrote about the local geography and history and helped to inspire Bober’s vision. It was like everything that he researched before writing the script was interesting and must be included and imparted to the hypothetical audience. It reminded me of a time in 9th grade world history when I basically highlighted entire pages of the textbook since every bit was enthralling and worthy of remembrance and future inspection.
I mailed the marked-up script back to Bober and somehow, a few weeks later, was invited to come to north Jersey to assist in the upcoming shoot. Peter and I both went to help with the production and I felt like I’d been given a scholarship to film school.
One of our first tasks was to act as location scouts—a surprise considering we were two southern hillbillies who had never been to that part of the country. Being in and around New York City felt like the center of the universe. Every site was a cool place to shoot since everything was so new and exciting. We dubbed this particular affliction yokelvision, where everything looks spectacular through new eyeballs—and we both had it bad.
Our eventual locations took us all around northern New Jersey—Weehawken, Radburn, the banks of the Hudson River, the Great Falls in Paterson, Ringwood State Park—up to Tappan and Tarrytown, NY, down to the revered memorials of Washington, DC, and the Virginian presidential estates of Mount Vernon and Monticello, and to the southern tip of Manhattan—Trinity Church, the New York Stock Exchange, and finally, indelibly, The World Trade Center. We shot down in the PATH escalators and at the top of the South Tower exactly one year before the 9/11 attacks, with much of the haunting footage becoming unusable in the middle of the editing process. How could we include shots of all of those commuters riding the escalators up from the subway to their office buildings when some of them would die in the rubble a year later? And whatever we were trying to say by including these images in the first place would now be a totally different comment.
Beyond scouting, I got a lot of other production experience. Editor was my main job but I was also script super, boom guy, craft services, transportation, foley artist (if you watch the movie, I challenge you to identify the sound effect that was used in the duel the moment the bullet hits Hamilton), and about a dozen other titles and their attendant tasks. Anyone that has worked on an independent film will recognize this insane division of labor.
The historical and artistic nuances of the documentary format created even more interesting jobs to perform—applying for grants, researching historical correspondence, negotiating print usage with major art galleries. We would visit museums in Rhode Island, DC, Williamsburg, scrub through classic films like America and Birth of a Nation to drop into the timeline to support long passages, mine letters from the fathers of the country that would become voiceover to cover all spaces in between–this multi-media approach with live action, art, and film played side by side in the same sequence. All of this stuff had specific places to go and I was frequently amazed by The Bobester’s complete vision.
Regardless of the level of effort, it’s hard to attract much attention or interest without some star power. As it turns out, we had some. Michael Emerson—who ended up playing Benjamin Linus on the chronophrenic, ABC hit drama Lost—provided the voice of George Washington. Yes, it’s strange now, the thought of Ben melding with the Father of Our Country, a tidbit that should warrant a limited re-release of the film. At the time Emerson was less known although he had won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for The Practice. Although Lost has been off the air for nearly a decade, I imagine there are people still out there rewinding scenes on their DVDs, looking for clues. I can’t tell you that there are Easter eggs in there that connect Favorite Son to Lost but I wouldn’t put it past The Bobester to have some little blue index card somewhere in his office that says, “Dharma Initiative?”–like he had a premonition and wasn’t quite sure what it meant or how to fit it in.
But not every project is going to be a smash hit. Not everything strikes like a lightning bolt and electrifies its intended audience. Alas, few people know even know the film exists. It’s like a giant temple that took the concentrated labor of many men and many years to build and it’s now sitting in an overgrown and remote jungle. But let’s jump cut to another metaphor. The film is also like a bustling train station. It’s busy and fast moving, with people coming in and out, it’s a little confusing sometimes—you’re not quite sure what’s going on or where you’re supposed to be. The sound is distracting and changes volumes erratically. But by being there you can be sent off into many different cool directions—wherever you want to go. Go to the indians, go to the literature, go to the history, go to the landscape, the period art, go to the geography. It’s all there and if you slow down and look closely, there’s some beautiful stuff in every small place you look.