NOTES FROM BY MICHAEL SELDITCH
I’ve produced non-scripted television on a variety of topics: medicine, food, fashion, the environment, child birth, sex, new age practices, even exorcism. But architecture I know better than any of these subjects. I was an architect for 14 years. I practiced mostly in New York where I was licensed. I taught for 10 of those years at universities in New York and California, where I met Stan Bertheaud [the co-creator] while we were both teaching architectural design studio at Woodbury University in Los Angeles. That was 1989 and at the time Stan was also studying screenwriting at USC.
I never lost my passion for architecture — it was the profession of architecture that repeatedly tested my dedication to this demanding field. The frustration and stress of working with contractors whose agenda is to build as cheaply and easily as possible, thus shortchanging the design, takes its toll. Over the years, I had witnessed too many contractors hijack the architect’s valued position as the client’s trusted representative, capture the client’s ear and take control of a project. As if all this isn’t bad enough, this admirable and respected profession offers a rather mediocre salary. Amarit (one of our main student characters) jokes in the first episode, “A friend of my parents is a big architect in Chicago and he says, ‘Get out of the business while you still can. Don’t expect to make any money.'”
Teaching architectural design was always gratifying, though. I got to talk about buildings and debate and experiment and draw. I always had a strong interest in film and I started to discover that the process of making a building and making a film had strong parallels. In fact, the key concepts of what I have learned in architecture are the same principles that drive my work as a filmmaker.
When Stan and I were students ourselves, there were no architecture curriculums that involved construction (that I can recall). If they existed, they were rare. The idea of sending a bunch of unskilled students out in the world to build a building was a stretch, not to mention a liability. The time alone that it takes to construct a building is a limiting factor, and the money it takes, makes it even more complex. Today, there are a growing number of design/build programs across the nation, becoming more prevalent each year. Most of these programs have students designing and building structures in-kind for individuals, families or neighborhoods that are in need.
Since our meeting in ’89, Stan and I have collaborated on several screenplays and wanted to develop a project about architecture students in a graduate program. We kicked around the idea of writing a narrative script, and/or a competitive reality show (Project Runway with architects). But the idea of a documentary series shot in a university was always the clear front runner in our hearts.
I pitched the idea to the Sundance Channel. Let’s see what goes on behind closed doors in a graduate architecture program. There’s design; there’s debate; there’s competition. They were intrigued. Now, add a design/build curriculum to the mix. When students go out and build what they’ve designed, (altruism combined with the creative) the potential becomes clear for a documentary series that is visual, stimulating, informative and moving.
A week later, I was preparing to join Stan on a symposium panel at Auburn University, a renowned architecture school in the Deep South. They have a design/build program started by Samuel Mockbee in the early 90’s, where the students build structures out of junk and found objects: a house shingled in old license plates, a chapel with a 20-foot glass wall made of car windshields. There are several published books on the built works of these students, and I returned to New York with one under my arm.
The folks at Sundance took one look at the book, and the foundation for our project was laid. Stan and I went onto research eight different design/build architecture programs in universities across the US and Canada. There were a lot of exciting programs to choose from, each with its own specific circumstances regarding the people they were building for. When we learned about the collaboration between Tulane’s School of Architecture and a local New Orleans non-profit organization that helps families purchase homes — we were all excited by the possibilities. It was unanimous; we would go to New Orleans.
Architects in fictional movies and television are typically portrayed in unrealistic or overtly glamorous ways. The rare documentary will surface — Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect or Ken Burns’ Frank Lloyd Wright — that accurately depicts not only the joy of architecture, but the architect’s personal process.
I want this documentary series to give the viewer a fly-on-the-wall glimpse into an architect’s psyche. What do architects think about? What do they talk about? What is important to them? And why do we, as a society, need them? When I was an architect myself, I never felt like the general public got what we do, or really understood why we are needed. “I don’t have to hire an architect,” I once heard a potential client say about his impending kitchen renovation. “I know exactly where I want the sink to be and I’m capable of picking out my own countertops. I just need a contractor to build it.”
Construction is tangible; while design, to some, is cerebral. Sadly, with cheap and fast construction so prevalent these days, many people are not always aware of bad design. But when it’s good; when the space functions like a dream; when it is beautiful and comfortable; when it is clever and resourceful; then good design is abundantly clear. How exciting for the viewer to be in on the design process, from start to finish.
For this series, the students at Tulane University’s School of Architecture are our main characters. And both the study of architecture and the design process must be prominent. However, equally important is the narrative of the construction of the house: a group of 21-year-olds building this house from the ground up with shovels, hammers, nails and sweat, having never done anything like it before.
One of the things that Rob Tate [our senior producer] and I had always been certain about is that we were not making a “how-to” series. The viewer is not going to come away with instructions on building a deck. Though, learning about a “cantilever” or a “stringer” is another story. The vocabulary of architecture is compelling. It has a rich language of its own. And this was always a challenge in shooting this series. How do we coherently tell these stories that speak that language, while remaining accessible, and not “dumbing it down” for the viewer?
There are additional stories to be told here beyond the students and construction of the house — Tulane’s collaboration with Neighborhood Housing Services, the non-profit agency that helps low-income families purchase a home; the frustration families face as they try to cut through the red tape of government subsidies and mortgage lenders; and the crime-ridden neighborhood these students are building in.
And then, there’s the “Big Easy.” When I think of New Orleans, the first word that comes to mind is, authentic. Everything and everyone feels original; unique to that city. Every establishment feels mom-and-pop. And while NOLA has its share of ubiquitous coffee-house-chains and corporate-big-box stores, they seem to be relegated to the outskirts of town. The city proper is rich with color, soot and sounds; and the camera loves it.
In the second episode, Reed Kroloff, the former dean of Tulane’s School of Architecture, alludes to this richness with eloquence as he describes the state of New Orleans’ architecture and the ill-fated conditions of its housing. “This city hides true decay under a thin veneer of charm,” Kroloff says. “…there is such outright degradation of the physical environment where many of these people live. We saw that mission right away. The storm simply accelerated the clock.”
Byron Mouton, the director of the URBANbuild program articulates a similar sentiment regarding “the storm” and “the accelerated clock.” Mouton states, “People come to town and we drive them through neighborhoods and they say, ‘Wow, look at that! That’s a mess! I can’t believe the storm did that.'” Mouton continues with a chuckle, “And often we say, ‘Well, that’s not due to the storm.’ This type of condition has existed in this city for decades. Katrina has given us the opportunity to repair and fix pre-Katrina problems.”
Who knew? Not me. Prior to researching this project, and before visiting New Orleans, I had no idea the extent to which this city’s housing needed attention and consideration …pre-K!
As construction progresses and a house emerges, the students are faced with unexpected criticism. New Orleanians (generally speaking) tend to be somewhat squeamish about Modern Architecture. In the fifth episode Emilie Taylor, the project manager and a recent Tulane graduate herself, sums it up beautifully: “The city is drowning in its own nostalgia.” The students find themselves the target of bitter blogging with regards to the design of the house and how it fits into the neighborhood. Once again, the arguments are worthy of inclusion in the documentary and we try to present all sides in an unbiased manner.
Whether it is about tension on the construction site, financial frustrations of potential buyers, crime in the neighborhood, safety issues during construction, or the modern architectural style of the house — there are many stories here to explore, and we have six episodes to do it in.
DOCUMENTARY vs. REALITY
“It’s not a reality show–it’s a documentary series,” I’ve heard myself say on countless occasions. Press, students, faculty, crew, have all at some point uttered the baggage-laden phrase “reality show,” and I am always compelled to clarify. “What’s the difference?” asked a journalist, who rolled her eyes when I made the distinction. “Style and purpose…” I went on to explain. With a reality show — whether it’s competition-based like The Apprentice, or shared-quarters like Real World, or make-over like Queer Eye — they are all manufactured for camera. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. The rules and circumstances of manipulation are acknowledged and embraced by the producers. No one claims that the events in these shows would actually happen in real life without the show’s existence. In the case of Architecture School, the students at Tulane University are designing and building a house whether I’ve got a film crew there or not. We are documenting events that are already taking place, in spite of the presence of cameras and the subsequent television series.
I’m not knocking reality shows. I have worked on my fair share. As a producer or director, the process between reality and documentary is very different. Rob Tate [our senior producer] and I have collaborated on docs prior to this experience. We are both drawn to a verité style where the story is told mostly through character interaction and scenes, rather than relying on the “lit” interview or the crutch of narration. We enjoy telling stories by weaving in and out of scenes (non-linear) and sprinkled with informal OTFs (on-the-fly thoughts of the character). We like to shoot in a narrative or cinematic style with extreme close ups, over-the-shoulders and lots of foreground. But even once you feel like you’ve honed in on a “style” you are faced with the bigger challenge: How to tell this story?
Production is a sequence of decision-making. As with architecture, time, money and logistics all factor into every choice; and the documentary genre must be considered as well. Documentary (shooting actual events) versus Reality (manufactured and controlled) greatly affects production with regards to time. With Architecture School, we are covering a story that spans 9 months (an entire academic school year). Since it would be virtually impossible to cover that on-camera 24/7, we are forced to make choices about what, when and where to shoot.
Even with this kind of prioritizing, we anticipated as much as 500 hours of raw footage. Rob and I decided early on, to shoot single camera to avoid making it 1,000. Shooting a scene that has 10 characters in it with one camera requires careful listening and a commitment on the cameraman’s part to stay with the action at hand as it plays out. Even with careful logging and organization, we certainly had our jobs cut out for us in the edit room, and like building a building; we were faced with one big challenge after another.
RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME
When it comes to film locations, you can’t ask for a livelier, more multi-colored urban backdrop than New Orleans, Louisiana. And we tried to include this vibrant city in our series whenever possible. The obvious place to start is Mardi Gras; the Tuesday preceding Lent, the day before Ash Wednesday. Many cities around the world boast grand Mardi Gras celebrations, but New Orleans’ festivities are perhaps the most infamous and adored; and we were lucky that our shoot coincided with this celebration.
The forth episode, simply titled, “Mardi Gras,” is punctuated with imagery of parades and merriment throughout. Before experiencing it for myself, I (probably like most) had imagined Mardi Gras as a weekend of debauchery filled with drinking and girls-gone-wild behavior. I was wrong.
First of all, it’s more like a season than a weekend. Parades begin over a month before actual Mardi Gras and they grow ever more relentless in numbers, size and scope. The parades have names (and themes) — Krewe du Vieux, Krewe of Bilge, Perseus, Cleopatra, Excalibur, Babylon, Bacchus, Barkus, Zulu… the list goes on and on (I counted 77 on a recent parade calendar). These parades are steeped in tradition and intention. Krewe du Vieux, for instance (named for the Vieux Carré, the “Old” Quarter) is known for depicting adult themes mixed with biting political commentary. Bacchus (the first krewe to have celebrities appear as Kings of the parade) has spawned the growingly popular “pun” parade, Barkus — you guessed it — dressed-up dogs are the Kings of this parade. After all, who can resist a canine in costume?
Besides Mardi Gras, another big thing that comes to mind when thinking of New Orleans is music. And the locals take their music seriously. It’s hard to walk through the French Quarter without hearing the sounds of multiple live bands penetrating the streets from all directions. We were anxious to highlight a slice from the abundance of local musicians in our series. And the students were more than happy to invite our camera crew along, while taking in a live band.
In the third episode, we feature a performance by the legendary, Little Freddie King. He sings his hit “Dig A Hole.” This smooth blues ballad provides just the right accompaniment to our weary students as they dig trenches for the house’s foundation, (although I suspect the lyrics are actually about digging a grave). Episode five features a live performance by the local band, Rotary Downs, as they serenade three of our female students unwinding and dishing about the boys.
Happy coincidences often link the students back to New Orleans. One of our characters, Amarit, eagerly informed us one morning that he was going to volunteer for “crowd control” at a rally on campus. Senator Barack Obama was coming to Tulane University to give a speech during his race for the democratic presidential nomination. Amarit was thrilled because he was a supporter of Obama and wanted to hear him speak.
As filmmakers, we were excited by the timeliness of this event. Amarit’s participation clearly (and organically) locks our documentary in time, and connects the series to the greater context of the country as a whole and the political climate in which these actions take place. In addition, Obama’s speech focuses on the rebuilding of the city of New Orleans, which seamlessly blends with images of students constructing the house.
As a documentarian, it is stimulating and certainly challenging to find ways to incorporate the city and its events into the story as they unfold around our subjects and their lives; our ears and eyes always wide open.