As another extension of the documentary boom resonating through many a film circle, UCSB Arts & Lectures and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival have teamed up to offer “The Truth of Nonfiction: A Panel Discussion on the State of Documentary Filmmaking,” being held tonight in Campbell Hall.
The panel will consist of Les Blank, director of “Burden of Dreams” and “Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers”; George Hickenlooper, director of “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” and “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip”; Steve James, director of “Hoop Dreams” and “Stevie”; Barbara Trent, Academy Award-winning director of “The Panama Deception” and “Cover Up”; Nick Broomfield, director of “Biggie and Tupac,” and “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer”; and, finally, Rick McKay, director of “Illusions” and “Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There.”
Mr. McKay’s documentary offers over 130 interviews with a heap of Broadway legends, including Bea Arthur, Alec Baldwin, Carol Burnett, Alan Cumming, Jeremy Irons, Martin Landau, Shirley MacLaine, Angela Lansbury and many more. In fact, the film is being touted as “the largest collection in history of award-winning stars brought together in a single movie!” This blinding cluster of stars is coupled with rare archival footage as the director works to uncover just where the so-called “Golden Age” of Broadway has trickled off.
A young singer and actor born and raised in Indiana, McKay trekked to the bright lights of New York City when just a young man, eager-eyed and hopeful of beginning a long theater career. His hopes were dashed upon reaching the city, as his images of Broadway seemed to have evolved into an overpriced, extravagant affair reserved only for those of thick pocketbook. In his years since arriving in New York, McKay climbed his way though many a post in the entertainment industry, eventually landing as a filmmaker. Still, those faded memories of old Broadway never seemed to fully float away and led him to finally pursue the topic in the form of a documentary. Over the time it took McKay to put the film together, it would have been impossible to imagine the bevy of stars he would be sitting across from, nor the fervor upon the film’s eventual release six long, arduous years later. Just before the screening of his film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, as well as his appearance on the Documentary Film Panel, Artsweek nabbed McKay for a sneak peek behind the curtain of one of the most star-packed films ever created.
Artsweek: Can you tell us a little bit about your film?
Rick McKay: It’s a documentary, but I think of it as more of a journey film because it’s really one guy, being me, and my journey back in time to look for this era. I wondered over the last 20 years that I’ve been in New York, did I miss the Golden Age, or was it just something from old movies or folklore? I couldn’t resist, as a filmmaker, to go back and interview a few people to ask them. Well, I got really into it… probably a little obsessively, and spent six years tracking down over 130 interviews in four countries, and it became a little like my passion to find out what [the Golden Age of Broadway] was like.
What was the interview experience like?
It was magical. When you get [an interviewee] locked eye to eye with you, knee to knee, and they figure out that you’re fairly intelligent and you’ve done your homework, they open up and take you back in time. It’s like the key to going to the past can only be held by someone who was there, and you have that key during that hour or two that you’re with them. Since I also shot the film, directed it, did the sound and everything else, I was often in a room alone with these people, at their house or mine, with no crew, so they opened up a lot more. It was really like a fantasy come true.
How did you map out the film, in terms of putting these interviews into a story?
I decided not to write the end of the film because I had found an old Russian proverb that said just five words: “The work will teach you.” And I thought, “Omigod. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to just listen and [the interviewees] will tell me the story. They will dictate the end.” Which is a very scary limb to go out on. You’re spending everything you have, selling things to keep making the movie, having parties and asking people to make donations. But once you sit with these people, you’re thinking, “This is the chance of a lifetime to have even just once, and I’m having it over a hundred times. If I can’t learn from this, then I don’t deserve to call myself a filmmaker.” But then, it’s six years later and it’s finished and has won over 10 film festival awards and has that rare thing that rarely exists for a film like mine, which is having a distributor and theatrical release in June.
What were your thoughts while making the film and collecting these amazing interviews?
I thought, one – this is inspiring me, and two – I have to make it so that a whole young audience that has been told how different things are can see that here are a hundred people in this film who have all made it, who were all passionate and arrived and had their dreams come true. Overall, [making the film] became a really long, passionate journey for me where you just keep plugging along. I felt almost like a detective from an old noir film with an overcoat and a fedora, with a cigarette, going, “Hmm… I knew somewhere I would find the answer.”
Truly, McKay has amassed a prolific collection of stars, all of whom have graced Broadway’s stages and left an indelible mark. For those unfamiliar with the legend of Broadway’s early days, McKay’s film is a vital testament to the grand story of the American entertainment past. Yet, it seems to Artsweek that the true gem behind a film like “Broadway: The Golden Age” is a filmmaker like McKay and the hope he carries throughout the years it took to put together such an extraordinary film. His wish is simply this: that a talented, young’un like his earlier self might see his film and be reminded of that glittery dream where the curtain drops and they bring the house down in a thunder of applause.
See Rick McKay speak alongside six other panelists tonight at 7 p.m. in Campbell Hall, followed by the screening of the documentary, “Story of the Weeping Camel.” Tickets start at $10. Call 893-3535 for info. “Broadway: The Golden Age” will screen at 1:15 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 6 and again at 7:45 p.m. on Feb. 7 at the Metro 4 Theater, located at 618 State St. For ticket information, visit www.sbfilmfestival.org.