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People in Your Neighborhood

West 47th Street takes a straightforward look at the rocky road to recovery of those struggling with mental illness.

By Ann Jackman

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There is a moment in West 47th Street, the deeply moving documentary by June Peoples and Bill Lichtenstein, when a character we have watched grow over the course of the film receives some terrible news. The moment is both nakedly candid as it captures the character’s immediate reaction to the life-changing news, and deeply personal and affecting as we share in an emotional experience that has resonance for all of us as human beings.

The difference here is that this character is one who, for many years, society ignored and considered as less than human, a person diagnosed with mental illness. West 47th Street tells the story of four very different people as they navigate the struggles in life that we all face -- finding jobs, finding places to live, and learning to interact with others -- but with the added burden of simultaneously struggling with mental illness.

Tex, Fitzroy, Frances, and Zeinab are members of Fountain House, a rehabilitation center founded in the late 1940s on the philosophy that people suffering from mental illness should be treated with respect and dignity and be made active participants in their recovery. Through its vérité style, West 47th Street unflinchingly documents the emotional, physical, and situational ups and downs of these very different four people over the course of three years, and in the process involves us in their journey. One character goes from, as Lichtenstein describes, "being the kind of person you would cross the street to avoid," to someone for whom we develop a lasting emotional attachment.

Lichtenstein himself was diagnosed with manic depression back in 1986, and eventually left his eight-year job as a producer at ABC News. Frustrated by the lack of resources and information about mental illness, he formed Lichtenstein Creative Media (LCM) in 1990 to produce a series of radio programs focusing on stories of recovery, one of which, Schizophrenia: Voices of an Illness, won a Peabody award. The success and enthusiastic reception for the series sparked the initial idea for a film version, for which he enlisted the help of June Peoples, a newspaper editor and 30-year veteran of print journalism, but a newcomer to filmmaking. Today, Lichtenstein and Peoples produce award-winning programs focusing on neuroscience, mental health, and human rights issues, most notably The Infinite Mind, a radio series that airs nationally on NPR.

Shot and edited over a seven-year period, Lichtenstein and Peoples have crafted an honest, sympathetic, and eye-opening look into the everyday journeys of those diagnosed with mental illness. The film has won numerous awards and commendations, has been seen on P.O.V., and continues to be used in community outreach programs.

Ann Jackman: How did you come to produce this documentary?

Bill Lichtenstein: In the early ’90s, we did a series of three shows that were the first programs to feature people talking about what it was like to get ill and then recover. And what we realized out of that was that these were very compelling, dramatic stories. So we began thinking about whether it would be possible to do this as a film.

June Peoples: He called me up and he said, "How would you like to come work with me on the film?" I said, "I don’t know anything about filmmaking." And he said, "Well, what I really need someone to do is to go over to Fountain House and find stories and people who would make compelling characters. Do you think you could find good stories?" Phrased that way, of course I can find good stories. I’ve been a reporter and newspaper editor, and finding stories was what I was all about. I jumped from a 30-year career in newspapers into broadcast without looking back once.

It was an interesting process, because you don’t go into a situation where you have people who have very recently been homeless or hospitalized with some sort of psychotic disorders and start aiming cameras at them. You have to really explain to people what you’re about so they understand your motivations. So before we even brought a camera in, I was over there every day for the first three months, talking to people, working with them side by side in the various work units around the place, peeling potatoes in the kitchen next to people, licking stamps and putting letters into envelopes in the clerical unit. And word started to move around about what June and Bill were about and that we were going to make this film.

AJ: Why did you select Fountain House particularly?

Peoples: Fountain House was a model of a particular type of rehabilitation center, called the clubhouse model, that had at its basis involving people in their own care in a very organic kind of way. Clubhouses were actually started by people with mental illness for people with mental illness. The guy who founded the program believed that if you provided people with an environment that made them feel good about themselves, that they could see a payoff in terms of their recovery. The people at Fountain House are very fond of saying that you can’t tell the staff from the members.

Lichtenstein: And part of the whole importance of the program to people is that it says you’re valued by the very structure of the place.

AJ: How did you decide who to follow and who to select?

Peoples: We started out by going to these orientation meetings. They were these two-week sessions, seven hours a day. We didn’t know who we would be following over time, so we just recorded everything. We came back to the footage maybe a year and a half later after we identified who the characters would be, and we found some really remarkable connections there, foreshadowings of things to come in what people said during those orientation sessions, so it was very valuable footage for us to have.

Lichtenstein: Because it was longitudinal and we wanted to tell a three-act story, these initial meetings became really important, because it was a chance to really catch the first moments of somebody’s arrival, where they were asked to tell their whole story, so you got this effect of "Here’s who I am."

AJ: In terms of who you picked, what specifically were you looking for?

Lichtenstein: The initial idea was, could we make a film about people overcoming the obstacles in their lives, who would be heroic and compelling, and along the way people would learn something about these illnesses.

Peoples: We had hoped at that point to be able to find one or two people whose entire arc formed the dramatic arc for the film. Someone would come into the program, they’d start to get better, they’d get a job, and pretty soon they’d be on their own. And we quickly found that mental illnesses don’t work that way. People’s lives don’t work that way. It’s actually more of a two steps forward, four steps backward, then six steps forward process. So at that point, we started to figure out who is compelling on camera, whose story seemed to fit, and where do we think it’s likely to go.

Lichtenstein: The core mission of the film, from the start, was basically to do three things. First, it was to show what is mental illness and what does it feel like, because this was ’95, ’96, so it was long before A Beautiful Mind. Secondly, people can recover, which was a novel idea. And the third was, what are these community mental health programs and how do they work? And showing that they really do work.

Peoples: We followed people wherever they went through their daily lives and recorded what the challenges were that they experienced. And what you discover is that they had all the same sorts of hopes and dreams and challenges that anybody has. They needed a place to live, they needed a circle of friends, they needed meaningful work to do. These are all things that we can all relate to. Those things don’t change if you have schizophrenia. They’re just innate human needs.

Lichtenstein: The other commitment we made from the beginning was to shoot vérité, which is a very abstract term, but what it meant to us was that we were going to do this without interviews, without anything preset or preconceived. And so the difficulty in this was really walking into a program of 400 people, and when people would say, "I was trying to figure out if I should go to the Social Security office today, what do you think," we’d say, "You should do what you want to do." You had to almost train yourself in that vérité style of what’s happening today.

Peoples: We’re the fly on the wall. We had to train them too.

AJ: How long did you film there?

Peoples: When we wrote the grant proposals, we thought we’d go in for a year, and we budgeted for a year. How could you fail to get a film after a year? But after a year, we looked at what we had, and if your dramatic arc goes from point A to point Z, we’d come to about M.

Lichtenstein: The stories were just starting. And they clearly didn’t have a payoff. The question throughout was, how do you know when it’s done? And in each case, there was a finite moment.

Peoples: We actually shot, over a period of three years, more than 400 hours of footage.

Lichtenstein: Part of that was the commitment to doing it vérité. If you could do it in an interview, you could just sit the executive director down and have him tell you the history of the program. But we were stuck with finding instances where he talked about the history of the program. What we kept realizing was the magic of vérité really is that you can’t make this stuff up. If you try to bring your own preconceptions to it, it’s never as real and amazing as what really happens in real life. And so the more we sat back and didn’t try to affect things, the more interesting it got. By the second year, third year, at that point --

Peoples: They just assumed that we would be there. We actually became like wallpaper .

Lichtenstein: And that’s when the magic started. There’s this rather involved scene, where we’re there filming and this other character walks in and it all just starts to unfold in front of the camera. What it really takes is the commitment to just be there to that point where people forget about you and also to have the restraint not to try to direct. Because I think as soon as you start trying to direct the action, people are immediately asking themselves what it is you want, and people instinctively will try to give you what you want.

Peoples: There was some tension with our editor and assistant editor. They’d say, "Just get them to pick up the phone and say ‘Fountain House.’ They do it all the time." It was like, no, we’re going to wait until they actually do it.

Lichtenstein: Having worked at "20/20" for years, I knew what that kind of "just pick up the phone and say," looks like. You can’t improve on reality. It’s Ricky Leacock’s famous, "If you missed it, it didn’t happen." You have to believe that, because anytime you ask them to say it again or do it again, it’s never something that you can use. So you just have to have that very Zen-like, I was meant to get what I was meant to get and not meant to get what I didn’t.

AJ: What was the editing process like?

Peoples: We started editing a year and a half into the process. And then we edited for two and a half years out from there. Our initial rough cut was 12 ½ hours long. We actually had our friends and family come and watch a 12-hour rough cut.

Lichtenstein: We shot 300 hours of footage, and then just to make life difficult, we found 400 hours of footage that had been shot going back to the 1960s in this program. And our characters were in this footage from 20, 30 years before. So we were starting to see "Shoah" or something.

Peoples: Our editor had visions of a miniseries.

Lichtenstein: We went through each scene, and our editor, Spike Lampros, basically threw out the unnecessary stuff and would show us a very, very raw assembly of every scene that we shot. Out of that, he would do more polished assemblies, until we had a whole lot of assemblies that somehow had some integrity.

Peoples: Jennifer Fox, who made American Family had shot over 800 hours of footage for that, and she actually shared her database system with us, which enabled us to cross-reference every scene based on who the characters were, the emotional level, and major things that happened. So Spike used that database and then developed these color-coded cards for each scene, and we mixed and matched and cross-referenced.

Lichtenstein: He also had a photographic memory. We got the film down to about a two and a half hour cut focusing on four characters. And we felt this was it, this was the film.

Peoples: We really liked it a lot.

Lichtenstein: It was accepted at Cinema de Réel, and they said, "We love the film, it just feels long. Can you cut a half hour out of it?" We were tortured about what to cut. We looked at it over and over again to find that one frame you could take out and not ruin the film. So we started calling around, wondering who might be able to lend their help. And interestingly, when we started the project, just so we were all on the same page about what it takes to shoot vérité, we looked at two films, I Am a Promise and Salesman. So there was an aesthetic we were looking for that was directly derivative of Salesman.

So we’re looking for somebody to come help us fix this film, which would have been inspired by Salesman and a friend of ours said we should call Charlotte Zwerin [the editor of Salesman]. So we called Charlotte’s machine and we left a lengthy message. Days went by and nothing, and so we gave up hope. And then all of a sudden we got a call and she said, "I can’t promise anything, but I’m willing to work." So Charlotte appears, cigarette in hand, and sits there for two and a half hours, motionless, eyes fixed on the screen. And at the end, she looks up and she says, "I don’t think I can help you. But thank you for thinking of me." And she left. We were devastated. So we’re sitting there into the night looking at the same scenes that we looked at so many times.

Peoples: Tearing our brains out.

Lichtenstein: And all of a sudden at 10:00 at night, the phone rings. And this voice says, "Have you ever thought about putting Tex at the beginning of the film, where he’s at the hospital, as a way of explaining who these people are?" And I said, "Who is this?" And she said, "It’s Charlotte." So this became the process of working with Charlotte, who I think really gave the film a form. The impact of the end of the film, which is a very powerful ending, is derivative of her influence. I think this was the last project she actually worked on, and it was such a privilege and an honor, and it was one of those things where you learn so much just by being in proximity.

Peoples: Now there’s a chick who could make some flicks.

Lichtenstein: The other piece of it that’s instructive for filmmakers is we got it down to two hours, and then P.O.V. wanted it down to 83 minutes. And I think that final cut to get it down to 83 made it a better film.

Peoples: But, oh boy, did it hurt.

Lichtenstein: We had a lot of expositive stuff, and I think what people tend to do with vérité is there’s the stories of the characters, but then we also want people to know about this and this and this. And Charlotte said, "This film is about these four people. Whatever points you want to make, you need to make it through their stories. If you didn’t get it in the context of their stories, you didn’t get it. So start by taking out anything that’s not tied to the stories of these four people and see what you have left." And as soon as we did that, it got us to time, and it really worked, because now it really is that these are the four people and the stories of their lives. And that was a huge insight about how to structure it that I think really helped the film.

Peoples: And really has informed our work since, because any time you’re working on something that’s a character-driven story or you’re trying to convey a particular message, the temptation is to underestimate your audience. You don’t need to hit people over the head with it. You can just show the impact of whatever it is on that person’s life and let that tell the story, and it’s usually much more organic and subtle and beautiful.

Lichtenstein: The quality of most documentaries is directly proportional to the amount of time you spend editing. It’s just the ability to take something and work out the problems until it’s right, which I think cuts against the trend these days to just make films faster and faster, spend less and less time shooting and editing, and quickly get it out. We weren’t going to let it out until we felt it was done.

AJ: So what has been happening with the film now?

Peoples: We did a really extensive community outreach campaign which has continued to this day. There were more than 100 community screenings. They had it at grand rounds for Yale. They said they never had that many people come out for a grand rounds presentation. We showed it to psychiatrists at the American Psychiatric Association annual conference, who also took something completely different away from it.

Lichtenstein: Because it’s vérité, there’s no prescribed point of view. It doesn’t say feel this way about these people. So doctors who look at it see one thing, people with mental illness feel something else, families feel different. So it’s been used in all these different settings.

Peoples: The community screenings were really interesting, because people would come up to you afterward and say, "Thank you for telling my story. No one’s ever told my story before." And that’s when we kind of knew that we had maybe gotten it right.

Lichtenstein: There’s this repeated observation I’ve heard, which is it will change the way you look at people with mental illness or at homeless people, because you see the positive change in people’s lives who get some help. And I think that’s the shift we really tried to get.

AJ: After all this, what did you learn from the film itself and from the whole experience as a first-time filmmaker?

Peoples: I learned that being a filmmaker is primarily about being a storyteller. And for me, that my skills as a storyteller in print journalism translated exactly. It was just like moving from checkers to three-dimensional chess. You had more tools to enable you to tell the story.

Lichtenstein: I think I got from the film, having worked in network news for so long, a sense that, as a filmmaker, you can easily bring your own preconceptions to the process and then you’re limited by your own imagination. As a filmmaker it’s so tempting to go, "Oh, I’m going to Gloucester, let me get some fishermen in the morning when they’re putting the nets on the boat," because we’ve seen those images and that’s what registers. That’s what I learned, is to just suspend my own preconceptions. And I think the payoff for going into a situation and just observing and watching what’s there and seeing the complexities, the paradoxes, and the realness of people’s lives, that there’s so much more there and it’s so much more interesting and dramatic.

Peoples: This film touched me very personally, because the people that we worked with at Fountain House and the characters in our film, we became very involved in their lives on a really deep personal level. And they were so generous in how much of themselves they shared with us. It was such a warm community environment, that I feel like we were nurtured in the process of making the film by these wonderful people that we worked with.

I will never again see a person with a difference, a physical or medical difference, as being any less than me or any better than me. They’re just like me. We all have our issues and our challenges and deal with them as best we can. So that radically shifted my perspective.

For more information West 47th Street, visit www.pbs.org/pov/pov2003/west47thstreet The film can be purchased at BuyIndies.com at www.buyindies.com/listing/ 1005618234796.