A Cinematic Voyage -June 2013
by: Joshua H. Balling
The idea for JOHN STANTON’s latest film, “Wood•Sails•Dreams,” grew out of a conversation at the post office four years ago. Stanton, a documentary filmmaker, was behind Nick Judson, then executive director of Nantucket Community Sailing, and the two struck up a conversation.
“We were standing there, like you do, just kind of talking, and I said, ‘You know what would make a great film?’ And he finished my sentence for me: ‘The early days of the Opera House Cup’,” Stanton said of the race that grew from humble origins in 1973 into one of the premier wooden sailboat regattas on the East Coast today.
That first year Stanton raised funds to make a 15-minute short, interviewing some of the sailors in the race and finding some of the old-timers from the early days. Four years later, at the end of a journey that included many of the creative and fundraising fits and starts so common in documentary filmmaking, what emerged was something so much more than a look at the first Opera House Cup.
“Wood•Sails•Dreams,” which will premiere at the 2013 Nantucket Film Festival this month, is an exploration into the soul of wooden boats and those who sail and build them. Set against a backdrop of stunning visual images by cinematographer Dan Driscoll of boats under sail in the waters off Nantucket, it features interviews with islanders, boat-owners and sailors, as well as Wooden Boat magazine founder and editor Jon Wilson. The film traces an arc from the days when wooden boats were on the brink of extinction and fiberglass boats were entering the market, through their resurgence today in boat-building shops from Vineyard Haven to Brooklin, Maine, and regattas like the Opera House Cup and Eggemoggin Reach.
This is Stanton’s third film in the 18-year-old Nantucket Film Festival. The other two were “Witch City,” about the changes that came to Salem, Mass. when rampant commercialism collided with historic heritage; and “Last Call,” which views the island’s gentrification through the short life of a legendary Main Street bar, The Bosun’s Locker.
“JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY”
This film, like many of Stanton’s projects, evolved over time. It wasn’t long after he started tracking down the threads of the story that he realized it was taking him much further afield than Nantucket in the early 1970s.
“It was a journey of discovery, like any good documentary,” Stanton said.
When he started talking to the sailors, they told him to go see Gannon and Benjamin, boat-builders on the Vineyard. In turn, Gannon and Benjamin suggested he interview Tim Fallon, who won the Opera House Cup on a catboat.
“I think the moment we knew it was going to be bigger was when we were at the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, R.I., talking to a guy named Bill Kenyon, and he used the phrase, ‘this little world of ours.’” said Stanton, who then realized the film had a much larger scope.
“Part of the job of any film is to put you in a world you don’t usually inhabit, and let you walk around in it. That’s what I hope we did in this film,” he said.
Along the way Stanton, who has lived on the island for the last 25 years but grew up outside Boston and describes himself as “more of a subway guy than a sailboat guy,” developed an appreciation for wooden boats, those who sail them, and those who craft them from rough-hewn logs into sleek and graceful extensions of nature’s awesome power. Some of that appreciation had to do with the vessels’ inherent beauty, their embodiment of form and function, and the dedication of those who make wooden boats the focal point of their lives.
“You always have a surface story, and when I’m making a film I have to ask myself that underneath, is there any depth to it? What impressed me the most was the way that these boats affected the lives of boat-owners, of even casual sailors, and especially the people who made them. The way they live their lives is determined by what they do,” Stanton said.
“It’s really the story of a way of life that sort of ripples out from any of these boat-builders to people. You can own a little sailboat, and be out in your back yard scraping and painting, and you’re a little part of that way of life. Or you can own a boat, and have others fix it for you, and others crew it for you, and still be a part of that way of life. Everyone involved loves the same thing. There’s that interesting depth to it. You can have Spartan, what a beautiful boat, it’s almost a time machine when you get on it, or a little dinghy, but it’s the same way of life, the same sensibility you are looking for. You might not lead it every day of your life, you might put it away for the winter, but it’s there,” he said.
“The builders were able to express most eloquently what sailing was all about. You have to know how to sail, and what sailing is all about, to build a good boat,” said Driscoll, whose successful career has been mainly in the 30-second commercial world. Driscoll has worked with Stanton as cinematographer on a number of other short documentaries. Tom McGlinn was the film’s sailing consultant, and an additional cameraman. McGlinn, a long-time islander, has extensive professional experience sailing in the Northeast, the Atlantic, Caribbean and the Mediterranean.
The boat-builders provided the film crew with an insight into what the film was all about.
“It’s hard to get somebody to describe their love of something. But the builders were very articulate, very philosophical about it. That was my entrance. That’s when it started to feel like the film I wanted to make,” Stanton said.
“Because the beauty, that’s always going to be there, it’s a sailboat under sail. If you have a great cinematographer, you can get great images. But what story does that tell? From the beginning, I didn’t want to make a pretty sailboat film. It’s function and form together. They were sort of the totems for the story. There are times when it gets past the beauty, almost like a metaphor. It’s form and function working together.”
All of Stanton’s long-form films delve into the fabric of community. “Wood•Sails•Dreams” is no different. It’s about a community anchored to a craft, and while at first, Stanton said he liked the idea of another film about Nantucket in the 1970s, he realized he already did that film with “Last Call.” “Right away, I could tell it was about a bigger community. Meeting Jon Wilson was instrumental in making us feel like we were on the right track, then meeting Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon. What they do is part of their life, how they live every day of it. You can see it in what they do. Nat Benjamin said ‘People say wooden boats take a lot of maintenance, but I don’t consider that a bad word. If you don’t like maintenance, you shouldn’t plant a garden, or have kids. They all require maintenance’,” Stanton said.
Over the years the direction of the film developed through meeting more people and finding more and more of their stories and those of the boats they owned.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE STORY
Storytelling has always been at the heart of Stanton’s work.
“I guess the main thing that rubbed off from my childhood is the idea that everybody has a story. My grandfather had a million stories. Every guy at the Italian Club, where my dad used to hang out, had a story. I loved listening to them all. That's how I work even now. You listen to a story from one person and you try and see how it fits into the larger story that you want to tell,” Stanton said.
“When you grow up in one of those families where everything happens around the kitchen table, it is expected that you can tell a good story. Just about everybody in my family is a better storyteller than I am.”
Nevertheless, Stanton’s work has received critical ac- claim, been selected for prominent film festivals and won national awards. “Leather Soul,” narrated by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Studs Terkel, aired nationally on PBS and was included in the National Gallery of Arts’ series on the “American Documentary.” “Witch City” was selected for the first Nantucket Film Festival and screened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and aired on WBGH’s “Viewpoint.”
“Last Call,” which featured extensive commentary by David Halberstam throughout the film, was narrated by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker, and selected by both the Nantucket Film Festival and WGBH’s series “Indie Select,” while “The Bones of History,” a piece he made for the Nantucket Historical Association about a sperm whale that washed up on the island, its reconstruction and the community’s connection to whaling, won a Muse award from the American Association of Museums.
In addition to his long-form documentary pieces, Stanton has also made a number of what he calls “advocacy” films like “The Bones of History” for the island’s nonprofit organizations, including the Nantucket AIDS Network, Nantucket Conservation Foundation, Nantucket Cottage Hospital and the Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum, including “You Have to Go Out,” about the men who served in the U.S. Live-Saving Service, the precursor to the modern Coast Guard.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
“Wood•Sails•Dreams” is in many ways a cautionary tale about what can happen when a way of life is in danger of extinction.
“In too many places in this country, there are ways of life that are disappearing. Wooden boats came very close to being another way of life that was gone,” Stanton said.
In the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s, wooden sailboats were being discarded by the hundreds in shipyards and along shorelines as the advent of fiberglass made boats cheaper and easier to maintain.
“The pleasant irony was these guys could afford wooden boats because people wanted to get rid of them. They bought them cheap, tried to fix them up, some even lived on them. That’s how the first Opera House Cup came about,” Stanton said of the 18 boats, including at least one majestic 12-meter, Mariner, that sailed in that first race.
“But we don’t want to pretend that the Opera House was the only thing that brought wooden boats back. There were four or five threads. There was the Opera House Cup and Wooden Boat magazine, which started a year later. But the end results are the same. Gannon and Benjamin are a prime example. What would they be doing today if things had turned out differently? Building houses, cod-fishing?”
Stanton said he generally finds himself drawn to stories with a social-commentary element, or an oral-history element that ends up lost forever if it isn’t collected. Working on this film he came to realize that the craft of building these boats, or restoring them, comes very close to being an art form or a true craft and trade.
“Ross Gannon describes it as ‘everybody working to the very limits of their ability’ and that in itself is an extraordinary thing in this day and age,” Stanton said. “It is a very old-fashioned and even romantic notion. These craftsmen all understand that they are tethered to his- tory, part of a long line of building boats, pushing them into the water, and sailing off. In the end, maybe that’s enough of an idea to hope audiences tap into. There is a connection that runs across the centuries. Honestly, I’m not sure that if I owned a boat I would ever think that way. But as a filmmaker it was irresistible.”
Over the course of making “Wood•Sails•Dreams,” Stanton and Driscoll had regular discussions – sometimes arguments – about how it should come together.
“I feel sometimes the camera can get in the way. A lot of what I’ve done before is about metaphor and sense of place. Sailboats are objects and ideas both, sometimes at the same moment. Dan and I have very different aesthetics, and there was a need for both of us to step to the middle a bit, in service of the film,” Stanton said.
“I come from a world where film is a collaborative project, period. I always get a little bothered by the statement ‘That is my film.’ When I go to shoot commercials, I go to work with 40 people. It’s a collaborative effort. John being the director has to hold the vision together of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what’s the story. The rest of us jump in, and offer the best of our craft in expressing that story,” Driscoll said.
IN THEIR SHOES
In the end, Stanton hopes the film will allow the audience to spend an hour in the shoes of those whose lives revolve around wooden boats.
“This is the most entertaining film I’ve ever done from a pure entertainment perspective. But I think it has a deeper level too in terms of the story it’s telling, meeting these people. If people can walk in Gannon and Benjamin’s footsteps for an hour, see their life, think about that part of their own life that brings out the best in them, I’ve done my job,” he said.
“I hope people enjoy it. You get to ride on beautiful boats, and feel the wind. There’s a great scene where the late Joe Welch, who owned Piera, talks about ski racing, and auto racing, and how a sailboat goes slow compared to both of them, but nothing made him feel speed and power more than racing a sailboat.” “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write, but I always had a desire to entertain. This film does that. It’s very entertaining. It brings people into that world of wooden boats and provides the realization that these boats almost disappeared,” Driscoll said.
“This is an interesting, graceful part of life that we’d be less without,” he said. “We live in a throwaway, digitally-enhanced kind of world. Nat Benjamin said that.
I agree with him 100 percent. This is a small moment of life that is real, and genuine. What these guys do couldn’t be simpler. It was nice to spend three or four years kind of walking around that world,” he said.
And the journey continues. For Stanton, the next story is always just around the next corner, or tapping him on the shoulder from behind. He has a number of projects currently in the works, one of which he’s been working on as long as “Wood•Sails•Dreams.”
“I began a film in Belfast, Northern Ireland, about the same time I began work on ‘Wood•Sails•Dreams.’ Its working title is ‘Transition Game’ and it is a look at life in a post-conflict world. It is about work being done on a grassroots level to find ways to cross sectarian lines toward peace. I am in touch with the people I met there, and trying to see where the story has turned four years after I began filming there,” he said.
“I am also developing a short film, a profile, about a psychologist whose specialty is post-traumatic stress disorder. She was working in one of the World Trade Center towers on 9-11 and survived. It seems to me that post-traumatic stress defines this decade the same way polio defined the late 1940s and early 1950s.”
Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today, and the assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.