INTERVIEW: Jeremy Spear Throws a Damn Good "Fastpitch," Documentary, That Is
by Erin Torneo
(indieWIRE/8.23.00) –Sports films aren’t usually what you’d expect on the arthouse circuit. But then again, you probably wouldn’t expect to find a Yale-educated, Manhattan-based artist playing fastpitch softball in the Midwest, either.
Heflin Builders shortstop Jeremy Spear defies expectations. Twelve years after playing baseball in college and subsequently establishing a career as a sculptor and painter in New York City, he decides to return to sports, where he makes yet another surprising turn.
In his newest role as first-time documentary filmmaker, Spear introduces a film about a sport on the verge of extinction, and challenges the idea of baseball-and-apple-pie Americana. With a rich, varied cast of characters like the legendary Native American pitcher Big Z (in slo-mo, a spectacle of brutal grace), New Zealand aboriginal-turned boy-next-door Shane, and the Ferrari-driving, manicure-getting slick money of Pete Porcelli, Spear’s “Fastpitch” presents a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural heart of America straight from the heartland. Along the way, he also discovers an America of contrasts –tradition vs. change, small town America vs. big corporate America, as they are all played out in the context of a sport, its past and its future, replete with proud communities and local heroes. “Fastpitch” opens at the Village East in an exclusive New York engagement on August 25.
From the Fastpitch World Championships in St. Joseph, Missouri, Spear talks to indieWIRE’s Erin Torneo about the making of “Fastpitch,” identity in America, wearing different hats, and budget hotels.
indieWIRE: Did you have any intention of making a film when you returned to sports, or did you develop the idea after you had been ensconced in this community?
Jeremy Spear: I really was flying by the seat of my pants initially. I just had this idea that I was going to make a film. But it was a large leap of faith that there was a story here, something that needed to be told. Initially, I wanted to center the piece around Shane Hunuhunu, who is one of the prime characters, and it was going to be called “The Mayor of Ashland,” because of his celebrated status. It had this folkloric charm. And it represented something to me that was truly American, something about dichotomy, and all the strange dichotomies that occur in this country. But as it unfolded and I found other characters and other people who I was naturally drawn to, I felt it really needed to be more of an ensemble piece.
iW: Did you have a crew?
Spear: I knew I wanted to transcend the idea of a simple sports story, so the first time I went out, I had Elia Lyssy, who I met through Christine Choy at NYU, as a cameraman. Elia’s Swiss-born and didn’t know anything about fastpitch, so I wanted to see his take –what aspects he was pulled to as an outsider, what characters he felt were engaging?
iW: Did he stay on throughout?
Spear: No, that first time I had him and Mike Harlow [“On the Ropes“] for a soundman. Those two had worked together a lot. But once I realized I couldn’t afford to continue with a beta rental and the Sony VX1000 was available, I decided I would shoot as much of it as I could myself. I also wanted to get more intimate footage and the Sony allowed me to do that.
iW: Had you any experience shooting?
Spear: No. I was a one-man crew when I was on the road during the season, but other events, especially ones that I wanted to highlight like the World Championships where I was also playing, I obviously had to have those guys available. On occasion, though, I had no other choice but to hand the camera to one of my teammates or anyone who was in the car with me.
iW: Michel Negroponte has a great history of helping first-time doc directors, like Jason Rosette, whose film, “Bookwars,” like yours, is an insider’s, rather than an ethnographic, view of an obscure community. At what point did Michel get involved?
Spear: Michel is somebody I had known from the neighborhood for years and really hadn’t thought of in terms of his film background until I had a 10-minute sample tape that I cut somewhere 2 years into the project. Upon his seeing that, he was very excited by it. He’s really been this shining beacon throughout the process. Every time it seemed like I was at a crossroads or I wasn’t sure how I was going to clear the next hurdle, lo and behold, Michel would have left a very inspiring message on my machine, or I would have a conversation with him that would put something in perspective.
iW: What is so amazing in watching “Fastpitch” is its scope: it’s not just a sports film, but actually speaks to many different levels of being American, raising questions about identity and community. In terms of your own background, you actually have a very hyphenated ethnic identity: You’re German-Jewish, Polish, Chinese —
Spear: Austrian —
iW: American. Did we get them all? There’s a very poignant scene in the film where you are in the graveyard of your great-great grandfather, who was German-Jewish, and had settled in Plymouth, OH and there you are training in Ohio just down the road. Where do you think the sense of identity comes from most powerfully? Race? Nationality? Community? The uniform you wear?
Spear: We’re becoming a hyphenated culture. That’s where we’re heading. But I think what I would like people to walk away with after they see this film is really it’s about pride in who you are. And if you have pride in who you are, it transcends all the affiliations of region or race. Who would have thought that Ashland, Ohio with a population of like, five black families would embrace Shane, who, for all intents and purposes, is like the brother from another planet plopped down there in Ashland, Ohio.
iW: One of the characters says, “Why play a game where no one gets rich and no one ends up with his face on a box of Wheaties?” And I thought that was a provocative question to pose, because in many ways it carries over to independent film, especially documentaries, where your chances of distribution and commercial success are so slim.
Spear: Well, I think you’re absolutely right. It’s a parallel structure. I mean, why do these things when you are faced with multiple hurdles, without any sense that it’s ever really going to be pulled off? But as one of the characters says of the game, “It’s in your blood, and you just can’t get it out.” If you wake up with something and you have a driving desire to do it, you can see it through. Sometimes, it might have to take place in a marginalized arena, like independent film, or fastpitch softball.
iW: Early in the film, you say of your return to sports that not only were you seeking the thrill of competition after “years of making art and polite conversation,” but also because you were seeking a purity in sports. Is purity easier to find in marginalized arenas?
Spear: The idea of “purity” is a tricky term. Somewhere along the line this country has gone a bit overboard with sports and what it means in our society, and certainly all of the hoopla and money and commercialism that surrounds it. And the parallels are there in independent film — the “indies” and their co-opted relationship to Hollywood. Most people want money, and it’s hard to turn down, but it does change the nature of the game.
iW: Getting distribution can be quite a game in its own right. When did Artistic License acquire the film?
Spear: Beginning of the summer. They had been somewhat interested in the project last year. Sandy Zeig had seen a very early roughcut, and I think on the basis of the Walter Reade screening at the Independents’ Night Series in May, which was a sold-out, standing room only crowd. There was a huge crossover of people who normally wouldn’t have seen an independent film, and it had such a positive response that I think that’s where they got really excited about the project.
iW: How does the festival circuit compare to life on the road with a fastpitch team?
Spear: I’ve been in more budget hotels than I can handle in one year.
iW: What is primary for you, being a ballplayer or being a filmmaker?
Spear: In the long-term, probably being a filmmaker. But in the short-term, I have to recognize that I never would have made a film if it wasn’t for me being a ballplayer and being passionate about a game, and the people I met in that journey, but there’s a smaller window with being a ballplayer.
iW: What’s next?
Spear: I have another project — an idea for another feature documentary, which is sports-related.
iW: Another insider’s perspective? You’ve worn a lot of hats?
Spear: I have worn a lot of hats. It’s something that I have somewhat of an inside track on but not as a participant. Again, it is a project that deals with identity and American journeys, using the vehicle of sports to address it. But first I need to get “Fastpitch” out into the world and promote it as much as I can. Once that’s over, I’ll probably go to sleep for a month and wake up and start the next project.
[Erin Torneo is Associate Editor of ifcRANT. She was also captain of the softball team in junior high.]