In June 1983, business columnist David Osborne took a look at Connecticut's small, but accomplished, independent filmmaking scene. Though Connecticut's film industry was overshadowed by New York, he found a number of talented filmmakers mostly on the documentary and commercial side of the business who were able to apply their craft, for love if not necessarily for money.
This article is being posted to the web in April 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
It certainly isn’t Hollywood or New York, but a small group of independent filmmakers prefer working in the greener pastures of Connecticut.
By David Osborne
The silver screen. The image is a romantic one: glamorous actors on faraway locations; Hollywood moguls sipping drinks beside Olympic-sized pools; beauty queens and love scenes. One thinks of California, New York, Paris, Rome. But rarely Connecticut. Here at the southern gates of New England, however. a small but growing number of independent filmmakers are at work, turning out features, documentaries, even an occasional Hollywood picture. They are few and far between, and one could hardly call them a film community. But they are here—working at their craft, turning out their products, manufacturing images for the silver screen.
They are here, for the most part, because Connecticut is but a stone’s throw from New York City, the acknowledged capital of the East Coast film industry. And with few exceptions, it is their relationship to New York that defines them: there are those who have made it in the Big Apple and moved out for the more pastoral lifestyle of Westport and Greenwich, and there are those who are still on their way.
The most successful are, of course, in the former category: people who have put in long apprenticeships in the city, working their way up from gofers to assistants to editors to directors, until finally they have established the name and clientele that free them to work in greener pastures. The best example, perhaps, is Westport's Bill Buckley (no relation to William F.). A bearded, almost burly man of about 50, Buckley got his start back in the '50s with MGM's News of the Day. After stints with NBC and other companies, he moved to Westport in 1959. But it was not until 1964, when he was hired to produce the half-hour documentary on Lyndon Johnson shown at the Democratic National Convention, that he set up shop in his basement studio. He has been turning out films from Westport ever since.
The results have been impressive enough to make Buckley one of the nation’s leading documentary artists. Working with writer and illustrator Tracy Sugarman, also of Westport, he has made dozens of films. The most prominent is his series of 10 documentaries on civil rights, with which he has collected a fistful of awards, including several CINE Golden Eagle Awards, an International Film Festival Award, a New York Film Festival Award and many others. His latest projects include The Time Has Come, on the nuclear freeze movement, and Never Turn Back, the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Both aired on public television this winter.
Buckley has little interest in feature films, preferring to earn his money from commercial work and to pour his heart into documentaries. And for that kind of work, Westport seems the perfect place to be. With so many people moving out from New York, he explains, "there is a wealth of fine professional talent to draw on—writers and actors and sound people and the like.”
Buckley’s counterpart on the theatrical feature side is probably Michael Roemer, who has taught film at Yale for almost two decades. Like Buckley, Roemer, who is in his 50s. served a long apprenticeship in New York, working on films for the Ford Foundation, the National Science Foundation and NBC. It was NBC's refusal to air their documentary on poverty in a Sicilian slum, in fact, that led him and his partner, Robert Young, onto the independent path. "I think we did it as a kind of emotional revenge," Roemer says, smiling as if remembering the follies of youth. “We were like the girl who gets jilted, and then goes out and gets herself married just to prove something to the guy who jilted her."
Whatever the motivation, the film they made was a great success. Called Nothing But A Man, it was a drama about a young black couple in the deep South. To prepare for it they traveled widely through the South, being passed from black family to black family, along the way meeting many of the great names of the civil rights movement. Ultimately they shot the film in New Jersey, however. "In 1962,” Roemer says simply, "we couldn't shoot in the South, not with black actors and a mostly white crew."
Nothing But A Man sent Roemer on his way, showing on public television and being distributed widely by Cinema Five. Since then he has written and directed a string of independent features, most of them for the Public Broadcasting System. His most recent, Haunted, a story about a young woman coming to terms with her adoptive family, will show on PBS next fall.
Back in the late ’60s. Roemer was offered the chance to direct Goodbye Columbus, the Hollywood version of Philip Roth’s bestseller. He turned it down because he was too busy with his own projects, and to this day he has little interest in Hollywood. “I find life very precious, and I don’t like to waste any of it if I can help it,” he explains. "I don’t mind sitting around for a year doing a script, and I’m very willing to work with an idea over a long period of time on the assumption that something decent will emerge. But the idea of doing something I know right from the start I don’t really care about—I can't do that."
To artists such as Roemer and Buckley, proximity to New York—with its actors, its optical houses and sound studios, and its wealth of talent—is a blessing. But for Connecticut filmmaking in general, it is in one sense also a curse. New York acts as a magnet, drawing young filmmakers away from Connecticut, draining the local filmmaking community of its lifeblood. The common wisdom is that one must go to New York, if one really wants to make it. Thus, unlike Boston or San Francisco, where lively independent film communities have sprung up, filmmaking has never reached a 'critical mass' in Connecticut.
Michael Roemer illustrates that point. “I have never suggested that a student of mine stay in Connecticut," he explains “Not because I think it’s a bad idea, but because it just doesn't come up. Most students need a context, and so far Connecticut is not a filmmaking context."
Bill Buckley agrees: "It's a matter of experience. I think you have to handle hundreds of thousands of feet of film if you're ever going to develop the kind of proficiency necessary to be a good filmmaker. Where the hell you get that opportunity in the boonies, I don't know. You have to get where it’s happening. There are certainly fine filmmakers who never went to New York, but I think the lack of experience often shows. They have not had the laboratories, the optical houses, the sound studios, the mixing facilities, the equipment, they have not had the budgets. The firm in this area that wants to make a picture for any kind of bucks goes to either Hollywood or New York."
A small number of young filmmakers are fighting that reality, however. This is a new breed, a generation that has grown up making home movies, then gone to film school to learn their craft. Many depart for New York or Los Angeles upon graduation, of course, but a few find reasons to stay.
Gerald Wenner, 33, who earned a master's in film at Yale and now teaches filmmaking at the University of Bridgeport, explains why he chose Connecticut. “When I applied to Yale, they grilled me. 'Why do you want to come here, why would you want to come to such a dinky little place? We don’t have anything to offer you.' But what I saw was a very small community I could work with, because competition sometimes was overwhelming to me. I just couldn't function with a million people and everybody grabbing for something."
Upon his arrival, Wenner was already an accomplished maker of experimental avant-garde films as well as a veteran of commercial work in Boston. He chose Yale for its emphasis on ideas over technique. And while there he began researching a film that turned out, four years later, to be among the best Connecticut-made documentaries in recent memory. Called Essie, and distributed by Filmmakers Library, it is the story of a young woman's long battle against cancer.
In addition to teaching at Bridgeport, Wenner is now at work on two screenplays. His goal is to raise his own money from a variety of local investors and produce the films himself, using Bridgeport's ample facilities. "I think there's great potential right here in this university community," he says. “We have everything, we could easily do a sixteen-millimeter feature. When we put ads in the trades for actors we get hundreds of replies, most of them from Screen Actors Guild members in the city. A lot of those people aren’t working and they want the experience."
Another graduate of the master’s program at Yale is Robert Menefee, who is launching his own documentary career in New Haven. Like Wenner, Menefee, 29, has little interest in the fabled trek to New York. “It's very tough there, very competitive,“ he explains. “One friend of mine who went to New York has had a lot of trouble. Another found a job at CBS, in the news department. But he wasn’t doing anything creative, and he finally quit. The way I'm doing it, I have a lot of freedom. I can pick out something of interest and then I can do it. It isn’t like working for someone else, which might have more financial security. But I can do my own thing."
So far, Menefee has written and completed three documentaries, two of which—Stranger in a Family and The Royce Dendler Story— have shown on public television. He is already at work on the fourth, in collaboration with Connecticut Public Television and the Yale Media Design Studio.
Two of the most successful of those who have never made the pilgrimage to New York are Bill Burns and Dennis Peters of Hamden. Peters, 26, is a graduate of the University of Bridgeport cinema program. Burns, 36, did his “apprenticeship" at Sleeping Giant Films, a now-defunct commercial firm in Hamden.
Burns got his start with Hot Ice, a short documentary he made back in 1974 about the nationally ranked Hamden High School hockey team. Its success led him to form America Films in Hamden, under whose banner he and Peters have since done a host of commercial and television work. “It took us a while," Burns says, “to realize that there really isn't much serious filmmaking in Connecticut. So we finally started looking outside the perimeters of Connecticut to see where we could get better business."
The answer seemed to be the television industry in Los Angeles. They have since worked on a variety of projects there, including a two-part pilot for a new comedy series. But the project they call their own is a feature they are showing around Hollywood—a psychodrama written by David Heilweil and Eva Wolas, two industry veterans who now teach dramatic arts and screenwriting, respectively, at the University of Connecticut. Burns admits that he misses some jobs because he’s in Connecticut. But he thinks it’s well worth it. "People in California say to me, ‘Why don't you move out here? You do most of your work out here.’ And I say, ‘Why? Why should I leave Connecticut? It’s an ideal place to live, it's an ideal place to be. If you want me bad enough you'll do what you just did, you'll pick up the phone and you’ll call Bill Burns. And we’ll come out. But there's no reason for me to move out there to breathe your smog and wait for the phone to ring, at your outrageous rates for real estate, when I’m set right here.’ And they nod their heads and say. ‘Yeah, that’s right.' "
Perhaps a dozen other independent filmmakers work in Connecticut. Most of them producing documentaries. But few make a living from their documentary work. Most teach, like Wenner, or do commercial work, like Bums and Menefee. Bill Buckley makes his living largely by producing half-hour films for legal firms, a “day in the life” of someone who is suing for damages, such as a paraplegic who has been crippled in an auto accident.
“If you’re making a documentary and you care about it, in most of the cases where I’ve been involved, there just isn’t that much money,” explains Buckley. "You either try to take the money out of it, or you put the money on the screen. And if you're gonna take the money out of it, why the hell not do something commercial instead?" Even Roemer, who has regular contracts with PBS for his features, makes little profit on his films. “I lost money on Pilgrim Farewell, I lost money on Nothing But A Man, I lost money on Harry," he says. “That’s the way it works. My wife works. I take all kinds of other jobs, and I teach. I wouldn’t say I make a living making my films. If Barbara hadn't been teaching all these years, I don’t think it would have worked.”
When an independent filmmaker wants to make a documentary, he has two basic sources of funds to tap: grants and public television. And in the present economy, both are extremely tight.
Bruce Fraser. who is acting director of the Connecticut Humanities Council, provides an average of $20,000 to film projects he chooses to back. The filmmakers involved then go to corporations and foundations to raise the other $50,000 or $60,000 they need. “Off they go with a script in hand, with an endorsement from us in terms of general merit and style of the film, and with an offer of matching money from the National Endowment for the Arts for any grant that’s received,” says Fraser. "But they’re finding the funding climate very chilly. All I can conclude is that if our own filmmakers, who have been given our grant and the matching offer, can't find money, then my God, what is happening to the people who don’t have any of these things? I'm very discouraged.”
The same is true with public television, whose federal funding for the next few years has been cut sharply. Money is so tight now,’’ explains Dorria Marsh of WEDW (Channel 49 public television) in Fairfield, “that in almost one hundred percent of the cases, unless a producer comes to us with a completed project they want aired but don't need any money for, or a project that's already got funding, we really can’t get involved.”
CPTV, the statewide public TV network headquartered in Hartford, has similar problems. Money is tight, and the national network provides more than enough programming, much of it free. The result is an uphill battle for independents who need funds. "Being an independent filmmaker," says CPTV’s Andrea Hanson, "is probably worse than being an aspiring actor."
On the other hand, for those independent producers who can raise their own funds, CPTV has become more open in recent years. The station at times will help complete a project, even if it's only a matter of donating labor, facilities and air time. But overall, CPTV is hardly the kind of force that can stimulate the growth of an independent industry in Connecticut. If it were, the future might be much brighter. Michael Roemer points to the example of WGBH, which he believes has been the key to Boston's viability as a center of independent film. “Boston has a very active public television station which for years was a training ground and a source of employment for a good many filmmakers," he explains. “I know because I worked out of that station for some time, and I still work with them. I think WGBH produced a core of people who are now at the center of the filmmaking community in Boston."
Another boost to the state's fledgling film industry is expected to come from the slate government. Governor William O’Neill is requesting that the legislature appropriate funds in the 1983- 1984 budget for a full-time film commissioner. Previously, the Commission on the Arts has given very little money for films, and the Department of Economic Development has done little to bring outside filmmakers, with their big budgets and hundreds of jobs, into Connecticut. "We put out a directory for filmmakers, and we squire them around when we can, but we don’t do as much as we could if we had a full-time film office," explains David Driver, assistant to the commissioner for economic development. “We've probably considered it every year since 1974. but we just haven’t had the money to do it right."
If Connecticut did have a film board, as do New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and an increasing number of other states, it could bring millions of dollars into the state, Driver believes. “When we're lobbying for the money to do this, we frequently cite the fact that Katharine Hepburn had some interest in filming On Golden Pond inConnecticut," he says. “But we just didn't have the manpower to take the producers around to every lake in the state. So eventually they settled on New Hampshire, and ended up spending three million dollars in the state."
Today, says Driver, “We’re lucky if one Hollywood film is shot here each year. And it could be many more. With our proximity to New York, and all the stars who live in the state, we could do a lot. Initially, it could easily mean two or three million dollars a year to the state's economy."
Bill Bums, who would like to see aspiring filmmakers get the assistant type jobs such films would bring into Connecticut, is even more vociferous on the subject. "That is no good reason not to try it,” he says. "We have everything here that New Jersey has, everything that Boston has, and more. We have every location you could want, except palm trees. We have good proximity to New York, good airports, good locations. In New Jersey, five or six films are shot every year—but that's because people there are out hustling. There’s no reason we can’t do the same.”
Bums is right, and if his advice were taken the Connecticut economy could bring in millions of new dollars every year. Between a recruitment effort and solid funding for public television, in fact, the state might just be sitting on a small gold mine. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking of regional cinema as a quaint, artsy diversion, and to start thinking of it as an industry waiting to be born. There are dozens of aspiring filmmakers who would be glad to provide the elbow grease, if the state would only provide—or attract—the funds.
Stories about Connecticut and the movies from the Connecticut Magazine archives:
Utopia Studios promised bring a piece of Hollywood to Preston, but it turned out to be a paper moon. ("A Giant Plan," September 2006)
Go to Redding for a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of The Stepford Wives. ("Stepford's Mechanical Wives," November 1974)
Meet some independent filmmakers who preferred working in Connecticut over New York or California ("Connecticut Filmmakers," June 1983), like Friday the 13th producer and Westport resident Sean Cunningham. ("Fade to Black," March 1981)
A professor of cinema takes a critical look at the (not always flattering) ways Hollywood sees us ("Connecticut in the Movies") and a quick overview of Connecticut's history as a filmmaking location. ("Everything But the Sahara," May 1987)
Take a stroll through a timeline of notable movies either filmed or set in Connecticut. ("Lights, Camera, Connecticut!," February 2017)