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Deconstructing Dad with Stan Warnow

Deconstructing Dad with Stan Warnow

Articles - Directing

If someone had suggested to me 20 years ago that I make a personal film about my father, I would have dismissed the idea out of hand. And probably not very diplomatically.

Sure, my father is a reasonable subject for a documentary film. Though basically forgotten in the early 1990s, he was an enormous musical talent who had household-name success under the stage name Raymond Scott during the mid-20th century. He was a composer and bandleader, the musical director on NBC’s “Your Hit Parade” and in the ’30s and ’40s his Raymond Scott Quintette sold millions of records and appeared in major Hollywood films. Warner Bros. licensed his music for their Looney Tunes cartoons. (You may not know his name, but you almost definitely know his music!) And he had a whole other side as the inventor of groundbreaking electronic musical instruments during the ’50s and ’60s and as a composer of electronic music. His crowning electronic music achievement was the Electronium, a “simultaneous composition and performance machine”—the thing actually wrote music! Clearly, my father was a man of many talents…

But one of those talents wasn’t fatherhood. Like many successful men, his work dominated his life. I have no childhood memories of sharing any of the traditional father/son activities—no sports, trips or playing games, nothing but shared family dinners and occasionally attending rehearsals of his TV show. My sister and I would sit in the studio’s empty audience section and watch him drill his orchestra while he ignored us. And before long he left my mother for his young protégé, who had lived in our house and basically been a sister to me and a daughter to him during my early childhood… he was always ahead of his time!

So, as an adult, I had minimal interest in him. I hardly ever saw him and rarely, if ever, mentioned his existence to friends and colleagues.

Then why did I end up devoting thousands of hours over many years to making a personal film about him? I had a reasonably successful career as a film editor for hire—why trade that in for the low-budget life of an independent filmmaker? It all started at the small memorial service we had for him a few months after he died. As his oldest son, the rest of the family wanted me to write and present some kind of eulogy. OK, no problem—I dashed off something and at the service strode more or less confidently to the podium. But I had only gotten a couple of sentences into it when I was completely overcome with emotion and could barely continue. I remember biting my lip to try and control my feelings and not break down completely.

After this wrenching epiphany I realized that despite all my denials I did feel the traditional son’s love for his father. It didn’t take long for me to feel a sense of injustice that after all my dad had accomplished the public had essentially forgotten him. How to help restore his reputation? Of course—make a film!
But having an idea for a film and making it are two very different propositions, and it’s taken over 10 years to go from conception to completion. But once I decided to make Deconstructing Dad it became a matter of needing to do it, rather than only wanting to. I think this OCD attitude is vital to the successful completion of almost any independent film.

My first challenge was to decide on the form. At first I wasn’t particularly interested in making a personal film, but I ended up doing just that for a couple of reasons. I was worried that if I just made a straightforward film about the forgotten musician Raymond Scott it would reach only a tiny niche audience. If the parent-child relationship was the significant strand of the film, it would appeal to more people. I decided to explore the timeless desire of offspring of any age to understand their parents, themselves and the ties between them. Additionally, as much as I wanted to restore Raymond Scott’s public profile, I felt I couldn’t simply let him off the hook for his failures as a parent. I realized it was important for me to explore that theme, and I also really wanted to create a work that transcends its specific subject matter and sheds light on universal issues.

Some more of those issues ended up being the nature of the creative process as expressed specifically through my father’s work; the Jewish American immigrant experience; and the elusive interplay between art and commerce—how vital promotion can be in recognizing and perpetuating creative achievement and, conversely, how a lack of it can consign an artist to the dustbin of history. Similarly, the film would deal with how an artist’s persona can be a major component in success or failure—Raymond Scott didn’t enjoy being the center of attention, and consequently he had less of a following than he could have.

But how was I going to finance this venture? I didn’t have the resources to fund a conventional production, and though I contacted some potential producing partners, none of them were interested in a film about an obscure musician who happened to be my father.

Fortunately, around this time, just after Y2K, the low-cost digital production revolution was happening and I realized that I could basically do everything myself with acceptable professional quality, which is important to me. I already owned my own Avid editing system, so I bought a Sony DV camera and started intermittent production. I still needed to work for a living and to pay for my sons’ college educations, so for the next five years production was on an occasional basis with me doing everything myself.

By 2007 I had finally paid for all of my sons’ college tuition, and my original self-imposed deadline (September 2008—the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth) was looming. I resolved to turn down any other work (always tough for a freelancer!) and concentrate on my film.

Fortunately, I now had the footage for that all-important fundraising trailer, and I was awarded grants by the Foundation for Jewish Culture and the New York State Council on the Arts, both of which helped a lot. I was finally able to finish the film, and it’s now been seen by thousands of people in over 25 film festivals, both in the U.S. and abroad, and is opening on July 13th at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan.

I hope viewers will come to see my Dad as I have: An enormously accomplished and deeply dedicated man of many talents despite his flaws and limitations as a parent. And I hope they will develop a new awareness, as I have, of just how vital his contributions are to the music and technology of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s been enormously satisfying for me to learn so much about him while making the film that I hadn’t known previously. (One example is that when CBS Radio wanted him as their music director in the 1940s he wouldn’t take the job unless he could hire the best musicians he could get, regardless of color. At that time the network orchestras were all white, and the CBS execs resisted his demands. But he finally got his way and became the bandleader for the first integrated network orchestra.)

I feel like I’ve achieved a kind of closeness with my father that we never had in life, and that alone makes those thousands of hours of work all worthwhile.

Deconstructing Dad opens in New York City at the Quad Cinema on Friday, June 13th, with director Stan Warnow scheduled to attend several screenings. More on the film can be found at scottdoc.com.

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