John Stanton -June 2012
by: Joshua H. Balling
Storytelling has always been at the heart of Nantucket filmmaker John Stanton’s work, the force that drives his examinations of community, and how it changes from generation to generation.
“Leather Soul” chronicled the lives of factory workers in his hometown of Peabody, Mass. “Witch City” was about the changes that came to Salem, Mass. when rampant commercialism collided with historic heritage, and “Last Call” viewed the island’s gen- trification through the short life of a legendary Main Street bar, The Bosun’s Locker.
“I guess the main thing that rubbed off from my childhood is the idea that everybody has a story. My grandfather had a million sto- ries. 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. ‘Last Call’ became an idea for a film because I had heard so many of my friends here talk about the old days,” said Stanton, 54, a former journalist who has lived on Nantucket for the last 26 years with his wife, Inquirer and Mirror editor and publisher Marianne Stanton and their two children, Kevin and Caroline.
“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.”
His current works in progress couldn’t be more different, but are tied together by a similar thread. Like all his films, at their core, they
desire to let the audience into a place they’ve probably never seen before.
“Transition Game” chronicles life in Belfast, Northern Ireland, after peace has been declared but neighbors still can’t call each other country-men, through the lens of a basketball league where Protestants and Catholics play side by side. “Wood/Sails/Dreams” examines the passion for building and sailing wooden boats, and the genesis of the Opera House Cup regatta on Nantucket.
“Some guys make love stories. Some guys make documentaries about crime, or injustice. I don’t set out to tell the stories I do. It’s just that those stories are interesting to me. I do stories about communities,” Stanton said. “Especially these days, communities are at a certain moment where they are changing, in this country because of the economy, but it’s always something. There’s always that moment.”
His work has received critical acclaim, 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 Art’s 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” 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 ashore on the island 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, he’s also made a number of what he calls “advocacy” films like “Bones of History” for many of the island’s nonprofit organizations, including the NHA, 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.
Stanton didn’t begin his career as a filmmaker, but a journalist, writing for newspapers in communities from Bluefield, W.Va. to Brookline, Mass. to Nantucket.
He got his start in filmmaking when an old friend named Bob Quinn asked him to join a company called Picture Business Productions that was making “Leather Soul,” to “help find the thread of the story by writing a script.”
“They let me go into the field when they shot, and ask questions on camera, and shape how it came out. They were very generous about that. I worked with Bob and Joe Cultrera in Picture Business for six or eight years. We also did ‘Witch City’ together, and ‘Unfinished Dreams,’ about the 1970 St. Bonaventure basketball team that went to the Final Four,” Stanton said. “After that, I kind of went out on my own. I worked for Time Life for a series they were doing, and some other things, and all of that sort of fell under the heading of learning your craft.”
Stanton said his primary goal as a documentary filmmaker is to put the audience in a place they’ve never been before, or are a part of, but don’t know all the other parts, and “let them walk around in that world.”
“My goal is usually to tell a story about something that’s not really specifically about the subject of the film,” he said.
“ ‘Last Call’ is a great example. The funny thing was, people on Nantucket thought it was about here. But I wanted it to be about something bigger, a cautionary tale about gentrification in general. ‘Leather Soul’ is not just a story about factory workers, it’s something bigger than that. It’s all about community, and how community gets chipped away a little bit,” he said. “I was invited to screen ‘Last Call’ in Omaha, Neb. out of the blue for a preservation group a few years ago. After the screening, people talked not about the film, the Bosun’s Locker or Nantucket, but about their own town, and how it changed. That’s when I felt like it was a success.”
But it all comes back to storytelling.
“When I’m making a film, the story is the most important thing. It always has been, but I notice it more these days I think, because of the digital world. We’re shown little snippets online or on TV and it’s not really a story. We see stories in movies all the time, but we don’t expect it in documentaries. I don’t understand it. What’s the sense of sitting in the dark if you’re just looking at some pictures, and someone’s not telling you a story?,” he said.
“In this day and age, when you can get a dig- ital camera and make a beautiful picture, anybody can do that by pressing the button. Everyone on the Internet is happy with that. I’m not. If you don’t have a story, and you don’t have a narrative, that’s where everything starts. Everything starts with “Once upon a time. . .”
Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and the assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.