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A WWII Veteran Pursues His Dreams in 'Clarence'

Clarence in the library
Director’s Cut “Clarence” airs 9 p.m. Friday, July 3 on Wisconsin Public Television.

This week on Director’s Cut we welcome Kristin Catalano, the creative force behind the documentary Clarence. Clarence tells the story of World War II veteran Clarence Garrett who decides to return to college to pursue his degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee after “cutting class” for more than 50 years.

It’s hard enough to stay focused on your education after a week-long spring break. Picture yourself returning to the world of academia after fighting in a war, raising a family and having a full career while now being hard of hearing, lacking computer skills and moving at a snail’s pace while going from class to class.

The film is a thumbnail of Clarence’s life, one spent overcoming obstacle after obstacle and doing so the only way Clarence knows how, with a never-say-die, can-do attitude. The story Catalano tells is not only inspiring but also uplifting. Clarence’s infectious personality elevates those around him with his “you’re only here once so why be anything but upbeat” attitude.

Catalano does a nice job of showing how Clarence immerses himself in campus life, making solid friendships with a generation of students at least twice removed from his own and engaging his professors in the process. There is no way anyone can not feel great about life while watching Clarence achieve his long postponed dream after making sacrifices to provide for his family and putting the academic needs of his children before his own.

The biggest challenge for Clarence, and possibly Catalano as director, was when Clarence was hospitalized shortly before completing his first semester, forcing him to fall behind. Clarence takes this in stride as just another of life’s inevitable hurdles. Since quitting never seems to have been an option for Clarence in his life, he pushes on as he has always done, with a determined yet whimsical grace.

Please put the bottle rockets down for an hour or so and join us for Director’s Cut on Wisconsin Public Television 9 p.m. Friday night to celebrate a nice little film about a great, inspiring American. Hope to see you then, indie film fans. Have a fun and safe 4th of July!

Parkinson's and Modern Dance Meet in 'Capturing Grace'

Capturing Grace airs 9 p.m. Friday on Director’s Cut. Watch an encore 6 p.m. Sunday, June 28, following the film Life With Parkinson’s or watch Capturing Grace for free on-demand at video.wpt.org.

Dave Iverson and host Pete Schwaba
Click to watch the interview now.

This week on Director’s Cut we welcome director David Iverson to discuss his film, Capturing Grace.

Capturing Grace follows several people with Parkinson’s disease and tells the story of what happens when they team up with acclaimed dancers from Brooklyn’s highly regarded Mark Morris Dance Group. Iverson is quite familiar with this debilitating disease. Not only does he suffer from Parkinson’s, his father and brother do as well and his passion for telling this story, and filmmaking in general, are evident from the start of the interview.

Watching people with Parkinson’s dance is fascinating in that those with the most advanced stages seem almost more at ease dancing than sitting still. The most severe case in the film is Cindy, who struggles through sentences when talking and is constantly moving while sitting. Watching her dance so fluidly is fascinating and therapeutic even to the viewer.

One of the other cases in the film is Charlie, a former star athlete and fitness guru. Seeing Charlie embrace dance as an escape and new form of exercise is even more uplifting than it is heartbreaking. The moments of ‘grace’ in this engaging documentary are too many to list.

Iverson is a Wisconsin Public Television alum. He worked as a writer, reporter and executive producer during his time at WPT and it was a pleasure to interview him and to see his excitement for being back in Madison.

Dancers in a still from the film Capturing Grace
“Capturing Grace” airs Friday night. Encore broadcast 6 p.m. Sunday.

He also was the writer, correspondent and co-producer/director of the award-winning 2009 Frontline documentary My Father, My Brother and Me which also explores Parkinson’s and his family’s experience with the disease.

His new film, Capturing Grace is as informative as it is entertaining with each character experiencing their own personal triumph of the human spirit. If you or anyone you know has Parkinson’s or if you just appreciate deft storytelling, please join my this Friday night for Director’s Cut. Hope to see you then!

Isthmus of Misfits on Director's Cut

This week, Director’s Cut welcomes Andrew Butts to discuss his film Isthmus of Misfits. This documentary explores Madison’s stand-up comedy scene through the eyes of comics who have been performing for years and others who are just starting out. Despite the fact that the film’s subjects are a bit green, they are not camera shy and are very eager to discuss comedy stylings, theories and venues.

Pete Schwaba and director Andrew Butts on the Director's Cut set
Pete Schwaba and director Andrew Butts

Not only is the energy of the comics the most compelling part of the film, Isthmus of Misfits actually depends on the charisma of its ‘actors.’ That is the definition of a low budget film. Butts had all of the comics sit on the same couch in the same spot and started recording.

From struggling parents, to people working three jobs to recovering addicts, this film definitely captures what it’s like starting out in comedy and pursuing a dream. As a recovering stand-up myself, it was fun to revisit those days of uncertainty and the idea that the whole comedy world awaits you.

Misfits is not fancy or visually stunning by any means, yet Butts does a nice job of bringing out the artist behind the performer in the film. During the interview we welcome two of them to the set – Jackson Jones and Ian John. This is Butts’ first feature length documentary and with his connections to the burgeoning Madison comedy scene, the subject of his first film is a no-brainer. Be sure to check out my interview with Andrew Butts on Director’s Cut this Friday night at 9 on Wisconsin Public Television. Hope to see you then!

Seeking Love and Taking Chances

This week on Director’s Cut, our guest is filmmaker Bob Murray. Bob is the director and star of his film Date America, which follows Murray as he drives across the country in search of the perfect mate. At first I couldn’t figure out if Bob was just an adventurous auteur or desperate to meet girls. After talking to him, I realized it was a little bit of both.

Director Bob Murray using a computer
Director Bob Murray

The film starts in Bob’s hometown of Milwaukee where he goes on the first in a series of blind dates set up over the Internet ahead of time. The film follows Murray and his cab driver — you heard right, cab driver — as he journeys west in search of love. Along the way Murray sets up some very creative and cinematic blind dates, one of which is skydiving. Skydiving is risky in and of itself. If things went awry, it could very well have been the end of Murray’s date, film and life.

Obviously this is a guy who is not afraid to take a chance. Murray has no prior filmmaking experience on-camera or behind it. Bob is a banker by day and made this film on a whim just to do something different, as if blind-dating your way across the country isn’t enough. Despite his lack of experience, Bob Murray is an entertaining enough guy and does a nice job in the lead role despite having no priors.

Mixing the worlds of dating and film making, Date America is a fun ride and will make you appreciate the fact that you have a significant other…or that you don’t. Check out my interview with Bob Murray this Friday night at 9 on Director’s Cut on Wisconsin Public Television and stick around to watch the entire film immediately after. Hope to see you then!

Lifers: A Prison Documentary

This week on Director’s Cut, we welcome Mark Mederson, director of the film Lifers: A Prison DocumentaryLifers is the well-told story of prisoners serving life sentences without parole. Mederson looks at the lives of several inmates and at the crimes that landed them in prison. In some cases, he explores whether or not the crime equals the time.

The most fascinating storyline in the film is that of Steve Watt, a highway patrolman and one of the victims of a featured lifer. Steve was almost killed after being shot several times by a man in a drug induced state. After years of therapy — both physical and mental — Steve not only forgave the shooter but became best friends with him and tried to get him released from prison. This story alone would make a great film, but it is merely one of the many fascinating and layered stories that Mederson tells.

Mederson is originally from Kentucky but is in the process of getting his Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He wants to teach and inspire other filmmakers, which I have no doubt he will be successful at. I enjoy talking to filmmakers who also teach and find they stay energized on both fronts as the two professions seem to go hand-in-hand.

Lifers is a can’t miss documentary — even in a season with and abundance of great docs on Director’s Cut! Please join me this Friday night at 9 on Wisconsin Public Television for my interview with Mark. Be sure to stick around for Lifers: A Prison Documentary on Director’s Cut Presents immediately following. Hope to see you then!

Image of host Pete Schwaba. Watch new episodes of Director's Cut online.

A Solid Indie Film Produced in Wisconsin

This week, Director’s Cut welcomes David Nordstrom: writer, producer, director, editor and lead actor for the film Sawdust City. Everyone who makes an independent movie wears multiple hats. But with all the hats Nordstrom donned for this project, he could open his own millinery.

Sawdust City is the story of two brothers; one on leave from the Navy, the other a hometown husband and soon-to-be father. They are searching for their estranged father in the dive bars of Eau Claire.

As the brothers immerse themselves in the Eau Claire tavern scene, they have trouble finding their dad. But they have no problem finding a cast of characters all too familiar in Wisconsin bar culture. My personal favorite is Gene. If you’ve seen that guy in the bar walking around with his empty glass looking for a fresh pitcher bought on someone else’s dime, then you know Gene. Sawdust City delivers solid writing and storytelling as the brothers reconnect, argue and bond amid the Eau Claire winter.

Nordstrom makes his home in L.A. now and is staying busy pursuing new projects. As a Wisconsin filmmaker myself, I have to tip my hat — yes, just the one — to David for getting his film done entirely in Wisconsin. I look forward to seeing his next effort.

Nordstrom gives a great interview, and Sawdust City is a solid indie film definitely worth checking out this Friday night starting at 9 p.m. on Director’s Cut. Hope to see you then on Wisconsin Public Television!

Official Sawdust City Trailer from Small Form Films on Vimeo.

An Inside Look at the Custom Van Scene

Vannin' DocumentaryThis week on Director’s Cut, I sit down with van enthusiasts and filmmakers Nick Nummerdor and Andrew Morgan to discuss their documentary Vannin. Nick and Andrew co-directed this feature about vans and the people who love them, people who take van customization very seriously. This directing tandem has really captured the culture and artistry of this hobby.

Vannin’ has no shortage of characters. The film is packed with freewheelers who are thrilled to talk about their hobby over a cold beer in the hot sun. Nick and Andrew have gotten hooked on the culture themselves. They have been to several rallies and vouch for how much fun they can be.

This is a nice little film about a fairly unknown American subculture that I had no idea existed. Nick and Eric are fun to interview, and the energetic young filmmakers have many other projects in the works. Vannin’ is a fun watch that might just put you in a vannin’ state of mind. Hope you can tune in to Director’s Cut this Friday night starting at 9:30 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television.

An American Comeback Story Set in Wisconsin

This week on Director’s Cut, I sit down with Matt Sienkiewicz, producer and co-director of The Ragged Edge: An American Comeback Story. The Ragged Edge is a documentary set in the world of motorcycle racing. It tells the story of Erik Buell, founder of EBR (Erik Buell Racing) and the struggles he has faced as an engineer and businessman. This is a very well done and interesting film, even to those of you who may not know anything about motorcycle racing.

Poster for The Ragged Edge and American Comeback StoryMatt Sienkiewicz and co-director Joseph Sousa discovered Buell’s story while Matt was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is a bit of a departure for Sienkiewicz, a professor at Boston College who gives talks on making films about the Middle East and writes op-eds for countless periodicals. As worldly as he is, this didn’t stop Matt from recognizing a great story right here in Wisconsin.

Buell’s story is inspiring to anyone with a dream, especially a small business owner who has struggled to find funding or failed at some point. Buell’s first company was acquired by Harley Davidson, which seemed like a victory until Harley eventually shut them down, forcing Buell to start over with EBR. Buell is committed to his industry and providing jobs to the people of East Troy.

The Ragged Edge: An American Comeback Story is deftly told, well-paced and doesn’t disappoint on any level. Check it out this Friday night at 9:35 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television.

An 'Unforgettable' New Season of Director's Cut

Director’s Cut kicks off its eighth season with the documentary “Unforgettable.” Director Eric Williams and his brother Brad — the subject of the film — join us to discuss the film, as well as Brad’s condition known as hyperthymesia. People afflicted with hyperthymesia have an unbelievable ability to not only remember specific events throughout their lives, but the actual dates on which they occurred. When given a random date, Brad can recite the day’s happenings — from the newsworthy to the mundane. Absolutely remarkable!

Brad Williams in a still from "Unforgettable"
Brad Williams in a still from “Unforgettable”

As a newscaster in La Crosse, Brad has read and reported on tons of stories throughout his career, further filling his brain with even more information. I think it’s a safe bet he’s using more than ten percent of his brain. The rest of us are such slackers!

Director Eric Williams has been a writer for years. His most notable writing credit at the studio level is the screenplay for the John Travolta-Dustin Hoffman film “Mad City.” Despite writing other narratives, Williams’ primary focus is documentaries, and “Unforgettable” is a story that has been with him his whole life. The brothers are soft spoken but enthusiastic and complement each other well while navigating an interview.

“Unforgettable” has many memorable (see what I did there?) moments, including Brad’s many appearances on national news shows, as well as his appearance on “Jeopardy”. In the film, there is a great scene where he and all-time “Jeopardy” champ Ken Jennings square off in a game of trivia. Wondering who wins? To be honest, I forgot (Bing! Did it again!). Sure I could tell you, but instead do yourself a favor and tune in Friday night at 9:35 p.m. to see for yourself. The full film airs right after my interview with Brad and Eric.

Get a head start on your viewing and watch the interview right here now.

A True Political Satire Unfolds in Iowa

Poster for the film Janeane From Des MoinesThis week on Director’s Cut it is my pleasure to welcome the very talented Grace Lee, director of “Janeane From Des Moines.”  This is a unique look into the 2012 Republican caucuses in Iowa through the eyes of Janeane Wilson, a housewife played by Jane Edith Wilson. This is a film you won’t want to miss because of Wilson’s portrayal of the troubled Janeane and some deft storytelling by Lee and Wilson who co-wrote the script.

‘Janeane’ is a genre hybrid. The film is scripted and improvised but shot documentary style which will keep viewers guessing for the first 30 minutes, at least those viewers who don’t read this blog.

A staunch conservative, Janeane searches for a candidate to throw her support behind in the 2012 election. The film is engaging from the start when Diane Sawyer throws to a clip of Janeane talking with Mitt Romney. She manages to talk with just about every candidate in the race without breaking character and even gets a sit down with Michelle Bachman. As the story progresses, Janeane’s life unravels and she struggles with her beliefs and political ideology. Political leanings aside, you find yourself really rooting for this conflicted character.

Grace Lee is an accomplished filmmaker with a diverse and award-winning track record. Her credits also include “The Grace Lee Project” and her most recent film, “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” which premiered nationally on POV on Wisconsin Public Television last month.  In case you’re wondering,  I do confront Lee about the fact that she has two films with her own name in the title. I don’t back down from the tough questions!

Lee is a director to keep an eye on and you can start by watching my interview with her and then “Janeane From Des Moines” on Director’s Cut Presents tonight at 10 on Wisconsin Public Television.  Hope you can watch!