Sara Fishko makes her directorial debut with “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith.” Fishko is an Emmy Award-winning film editor and public radio broadcaster/podcaster whose explorations of culture on WNYC/NPR have won her a devoted audience and dozens of prizes. Fishko was the writer, producer and host, in 2009, of “The Jazz Loft Radio Series” — a multi-part deep dive into W. Eugene Smith’s audio archive that has now been expanded into the “Jazz Loft” film. (Press materials)
“The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith” will premiere at the 2015 DOC NYC Film Festival on November 13.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
SF: It’s the story of a brilliant, tragically obsessive photographer — a pioneer of the photo-essay at LIFE Magazine in the ’40s and ’50s — who left it all, including his suburban family life, to move into a run-down loft building in Manhattan in 1957. While living there, he spent nearly a decade tape-recording and photographing the goings-on in the building, which included hundreds of jazz jam sessions and rehearsals with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, Hall Overton and other remarkable characters. The film uses his photos and tapes to tell stories about the life there.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
SF: The story touches on so many things that are interesting to me: jazz and music in general, the post-WWII arts scene in New York, photography, not to mention the whole idea of this man documenting a dilapidated building and everything in and around it for eight years. Just fascinating. I felt I had to do it.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
SF: The sheer volume of material was a tremendous challenge. Gene was an obsessive, and we had to find our way through his obsessions to make sense of it all. It was a massive edit!
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
SF: I hope they’ll think about art and obsession and about people who insist on living unconventional, creative lives — no matter what the cost.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
SF: I’m not sure the cliché “casting is everything” is any different for women than it is for men, but I would say cast and hire your partners and colleagues [carefully] and hope you find those who won’t hold your gender against you — or might even consider it an advantage!
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
SF: This is a film produced by the WNYC Studios in New York (in association with Lumiere Productions) and almost entirely funded by National and Foundation money. Our funders were The National Humanities and Arts Endowments and a group of wonderfully generous private foundations. We applied to these organizations for grants and were lucky enough to be awarded enough to make the film.
One thing that helped raise money for the project was its former life as a book and a successful public radio series. It was something of a known quantity, and I had already been associated with it in its radio life.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
SF: Well, I’m a great Elaine May fan: “A New Leaf,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” etc.
But a more recent film I like very much is “An Education,” directed by the Danish director Lone Scherfig. It has a modesty and a richness of detail that I appreciate very much and a sense of the filmmakers’ affection for even its most difficult characters. And then there are so many women making excellent documentaries now — it would be impossible to choose just one.