Bruce Weinstein Documents Fan Passions
by Michelle Erica Green
Filmmaker Bruce Weinstein first came to my attention in my Fan Girl persona, because my name is still linked to several Star Trek web pages. He had sent out requests for serious fans interested in taking part in a documentary about fandom - or, rather, fandoms. Sports figures, musicians, television shows, movie celebrities, all aspects of American popular culture.
While Weinstein is encountering large numbers of Star Trek and X-Files fans on the net, he wants to cover the entire breadth of media passions. Madonna, Michael Jordan, Mario Lemieux, morning talk shows are all the subjects of passionate followings, which he is eager to hear about. Clips from the documentary will air June 20th at the Florida Film Festival, where Weinstein hopes to seal a deal with a distributor that will enable him to make a much longer film.
"The film that I'm making may end up being a pilot for a series - I'm considering that as an option, but we want at least a one-hour documentary that will focus on four fans from four different areas," he says. "There are several studios and a major cable network looking at it. In the past two years, documentary filmmakers who have shown their works in progress at this gathering in Orlando have gone on to the highest honors at the Sundance Film Festival, and national distribution, so I'm hopeful."
The director is himself a music fan, but he's been passionate about film since childhood. While he holds a Ph.D. from Georgetown University and was a professor of medical ethics for many years, he was also a member of the Metallica fan club. "I own the collected works of both Frank Sinatra and Metallica - Frank Sinatra sings about love, and Metallica sings about everything else, so these musicians have the whole range of human emotions covered," he laughs. Fandom's not a new thing to Weinstein...at least, less so than filmmaking, which he took up relatively recently.
"In 1993, I was selected for a national fellowship by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation," he explains. "They select people who want to become better leaders, and they give you money to pursue a passion outside of your discipline. This fellowship allowed me to study film while I was a professor, so I had this safety net - I ended up studying at NYU's film production school for a summer. At the end of that fellowship, I decided that if I was going to really follow this passion, I needed to leave teaching. I was one year away from getting tenure, I had published three books, but mostly my heart really wasn't in it."
Sounds fannish, yes? But Weinstein says, "I wouldn't qualify to be in my film." He's looking for people who "know exactly what their passion is, and every day of their lives they are living it." Not someone who owns six Madonna albums and would go see her if her tour came to town, but someone who owns imports and bootlegs and would drive over five state lines to see her. Not someone who never missed an episode of Star Trek, but whose life was transformed by the presence of the characters on the bridge to the extent that he recreated the entire set in his home. Weinstein invites ultrafans to contact him at Producer8@aol.com, explaining why they should be selected to appear in this documentary and what activities they have planned that would make for a great segment in his film.
"Any great story takes you on a journey and introduces you to experiences you haven't had before - the central figure is taken to the end of the line, as far as he or she can go, and that's really what ultra-fans do: they take their passions to the end of the line," he points out. "I remember when I was a member of the Metallica fan club, I read an article by a teenager who was following the band all around the world, keeping a journal. And I thought, 'What would motivate someone to follow a band around?' When I love a band, I have to read everything about them, I have to know the lyrics inside and out, but I found that there were people who were so much more passionate - I may have every official Metallica release, but there are people with bootlegs and studio cuts."
Weinstein has been doing research for over two years on the international phenomenon of American popular culture fandom. "There are Barry Manilow fan clubs in Japan and South Africa," he reports. People are dying to tell their stories about why The X-Files or Star Trek or James Bond was it for them. I hope what this film will do is show how much more alike we are than we'd like to believe - someone will say, 'Barry Manilow! Who would like Barry Manilow?', but they'll find life lessons from a Nirvana song. People are telling pretty much the same story, whether it's about NASCAR, soap operas, or Princess Kitty."
While he is aware of Denise Crosby's Trekkies, a much-hyped insider documentary about Star Trek media fandom, Weinstein doesn't see it as competition - in part because his film is so much broader in scope, and in part because fans will of course want to see both. "When Amy Fisher got arrested, there were three films, and people watched them all!" he points out.
Though he uses his academic background to study fandom, Weinstein does not want to make a detached, scholarly film. "I'm considering having scholars in the film, but I'd like to just let the fans speak for themselves, and meet their friends, their co-workers, their neighbors. There will be a story structure but there won't be a third person voiceover narration setting things up. I don't want to tell people what to think. And I don't want to make a Jerry Springer knockoff." One of his hopes is to capture a dream-come-true on film: a fan meeting a celebrity he or she has always dreamed of meeting, who has had a large impact on that person's life.
While one might think the switch from academia to entertainment might have landed him in culture shock, Weinstein says that he doesn't find entertainment particularly sleazy compared to the behavior of some medical ethicists, and laughs that he no longer reads academic film criticism since it's obvious that too many of the critics have never spent a day watching an actual shoot. "Jacksonville, Florida is a very up-and-coming center of filmmaking, and the media and production companies here have been very supportive - I can't imagine having done what I've done in L.A. or New York, starting out."
The film which brought Weinstein to the attention of the Florida Film Festival, a documentary shot in South Africa that followed a children's choir as they sang for President Mandela, was made on two weeks' notice and "nine credit cards." He showed it at the Independent Feature Film Market in New York last September, and a Florida Film Festival scout alerted the programming director. The South Africa film was picked up for CNN and international distribution, so they asked Weinstein to show clips from the work in progress.
"As you can tell I'm pretty passionate myself," he says of his common ground with fans. "The best films are the ones which arise from the passions of the filmmakers. Titanic arose from the passion of James Cameron: he was singlemindedly pursuing this thing. There's something to be said for doing what you love and the money will follow. My role in this film is to get out of the way and let people tell the story themselves. I want people who have been ridiculed by family or society to find a great community and camaraderie in one another - this is one thing I keep hearing, that it's like having a family, it's like meeting a soulmate, someone else who gets it. I personally are concerned about these things, and I think anything we create ends up reflecting the sensibility and values of the maker."
The director admits that he took offense to William Shatner's infamous "Get a Life" skit on Saturday Night Live a number of years ago. "Because I have felt marginalized myself, I feel protective, and I want to show a level that people haven't seen before - people have told me how an X-Files episode helped them overcome the death of a child, and Metallica's "Fade To Black" has prevented at least one young man from committing suicide. Some people clearly found some kind of kinship with the Monkees because it represented a kind of sweetness they just didn't have in their lives. People will come away with a very different appreciation of ultrafans, whether or not they consider themselves to be fans."
Weinstein concludes that lot of fans find stimulus from celebrities to do important things themselves. "Barry Manilow has fan clubs all over the world that follow his lead and do charitable work, so while they might not be able to sing like Barry, they are making a large contribution. The love for the artist may have started because of the singing, but fans stay in the club for the people they're meeting, and the artist becomes almost secondary," he points out. "It's going to be hard for this film to be all things to all fans, but I want to get as wide a range of fandom as possible."