Teen’s Eye View -June 2014
by: John Stanton
photography by: Jim Powers
NCTV is your classic production office.
You step into a large room with some equipment stacked randomly here and there, a green screen built along one wall, a couch, a coffee pot, a couple of edit rooms, offices. It is the kind of place you can imagine someone looking back fondly on, from the vantage of a successful film career, as the place where it all began.
Jeff Tocci is sitting in that production office, talking about a program he runs and how it might give young filmmakers a chance to reach that vantage point. The program is called Teen View, and is an initiative of the Nantucket Film Festival.
These days everybody seems to have a digital video camera, or use their cell phone to shoot video. We live in an age that is flooded with YouTube videos, not many of them worth remembering. Tocci has something else in mind.
“I’m trying to make them all raise their standards, make them accountable,” he said. “This is a stage and I’m really trying to make them all step up and tell their story. What is it you want to say?”
In short, he has set about teaching the process of filmmaking. And instead of beginning by picking up a camera, Tocci has his students begin my picking up a pen.
“I think they thought they’d pick up a camera as soon as they walked in, but we started with a writing workshop,” he said.
The curriculum is based on his own film studies as a student at James Madison University, and is heavy on story. So there were three classes on story elements, working with fellow students to shape their story ideas.
“Once they have something to call their own, their eyes began to sparkle and they took ownership of their projects,” Tocci said. “Some of them were already used to the process, having gone through much of it last year with Jay Craven as their teacher.”
Craven, a Vermont-based independent filmmaker who is currently in production on the island with a narrative film called “Peter and John,” worked with students for the last two years.
This will be Teen View’s 12th year. It began as a sort of six-day guerrilla-filmmaking program, during the week of the festival, and has grown each year. John Johnson, a member of the film-festival board of directors, oversaw the early years through an organization he created called EyeBeam Art and Technology Center, which has a youth film-education program in New York City.
Johnson wrote and directed the films “Without a Trace” (1991) and “Ratchet” (1996). Other filmmakers who have taken a turn as teacher include Garret Savage, whose documentary “4-Cylinder 400” played at the festival in 2004, and Ben Niles, who wrote and directed the documentary film “Note by Note.”
“This program is constantly growing,” said film festival executive director Mystelle Brabbée. “What I’m excited about is that this new crop of students will be able to grow with us. When we first started we thought students should only participate once. After a while we said, what’s the point in that? We like to see students coming back. The Daly twins (Nantucket High School seniors Emmet and Ronan Daly), I think, have been doing this since they were freshmen.”
One major difference in this year’s program is simple. Tocci, the director of Nantucket’s public-access station, NCTV, lives here. He has been able not only to offer a series of classes, and a place for student filmmakers to work on their projects, but a flexibility that takes into consideration their schedules.
“It’s at the point now where I have almost daily communication with students, about equipment or scripts,” he said. “We’re past the scheduled classroom thing.”
There are 14 students, producing seven films: Grace Bartlett, Virginia Bullington, Katie Castle, Emmet Daly, Ronan Daly, Ty Fleischut, Ally Laredo, Alex Monto, Cecilia Ponsati, Sophie Proch, Courtney Yancy and Mike Viveiros.
So far there are three documentaries, one “mockumentary,” one film noir, one profile and one horror movie. Because they require actors, the mockumentary, the film noir and the horror movie by definition require filmmakers to see the film on extra levels. And like every film ever made, things do not always go as expected.
“There is nothing like getting out into production, shooting your film, and learning how to correct your mistakes as you go,” Tocci said. “And we are getting to where people want to lend a helping hand to somebody else’s project. One thing is that at this point everybody understands the importance of writing, so that they are not just going out and shooting things that look cool. They are shooting things their film needs.”
Since 2009, the All-Star Comedy Roundtable has been one of the most popular events at the Nantucket Film Festival. It is hosted by Ben Stiller and has featured the late actor, writer and director Harold Ramis (“Ghostbusters,” “Groundhog Day,” “Animal House,” “Caddyshack”) and Peter Farrelly (“Dumb and Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary”) as well as comedians Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Seinfeld, Colin Quinn, Aziz Ansari, Mike Myers, Chris Rock and Jim Carrey.
“Because of the Comedy Roundtable’s success we are able to fund the Teen View program,” Brabbée said. Being able to use the roundtable as a way of underwriting the educational initiative allows Brabbée and her staff room to grow the program. She met Tocci when working with NCTV on festival coverage.
“He has the right temperament, and a much stronger film background than I realized at first,” she said. “I knew he had a production background, but not that writing was his first love. It was not until we talked about it and he wanted to take the labs and expand them from four to eight or 12, that it morphed into him being able to be available all the time. He’s a real film mentor.”
After college, Tocci and a classmate opened a small production office in New Orleans.
“We had one camera and two lights,” he said. “Every shot we did was next to a window. But we did a couple of jobs and were able to buy some new equipment. They’re still in business.”
He made the documentary “Beardo the Movie” about the 2009 World Beard and Moustache Championships. Then he came to Nantucket and worked for PlumTV, before taking the reins at NCTV.
From the very first year, the festival’s underlying theme is that all good films begin with good writing. It is something Tocci feels strongly about, as does Brabbée.
“Even if their projects are a minute long it needs to have a story and a structure,” Brabbée said. “These days we film everything with our iPhones and technology makes everything super-accessible. How do you channel that into something watchable? It goes back to the message that it all begins with the writing. Jeff is definitely on the same page with us. We really want them to learn to work on their craft, starting with their story.”
Filmmaking is a craft, an art, a trade. Tocci is hoping to give his students a glimpse at the work-a-day world of film production, to give them a feel for it and let them see if they want to pursue the craft.
“To give them a glimpse of the world of professional video is important,” he said. “If they are in the writer’s room or in editing and loving it that’s one thing. If it feels like a chore that’s another thing. But at least they’ll be able to take a look before they start paying for it in college.”
At least two of his students will take that step. The Daly brothers have already been accepted into the film program at Emerson College in Boston. Tocci’s students will get a chance for some added production experience by working on NCTV’s coverage of film-festival events.
“I think they know what they want,” Tocci said. “We’re able to introduce them to a whole new arsenal of gear to use and they are starting to see the possibilities in that.”
Tocci knows how that feels. A public-access station in Norton, Mass. was where he first picked up a camera. This was at the tail end of the analog days, when filmmaking had a large cover charge. The expense of camera and editing equipment, prior to the advent of digital, made it just too expensive for a young kid to try it out on his own and see if he had the passion to learn more.
“If they do want to pursue a career, they’ll be more advanced than many of their classmates in college,” he said.
Then there is the chance to be part of the film festival as a filmmaker. The student films will have their premiere that week (June 25-30), and when that happens there is the feeling of being accepted, as being not simply a student but a filmmaker at a film festival, with a film premiering.
“This business is all about relationships,” Tocci said.
“There is a ‘who knows’ factor at film festivals. Who knows who you might meet, or what moments you will find yourself in. And if you are into film, those moments stick with you.”
It is not necessary, however, to want to chase a career in filmmaking, or have an epiphany at a film festival, for the Teen View program to be a worthwhile experience.
“No matter what, they will have made something tangible,” Tocci said. “And that in itself is an achievement.” ///
John Stanton is a documentary filmmaker living on Nantucket. His latest film is “Wood, Sails, Dreams.”