A new documentary-in-progress about Fred Hersch looks at a musician's return from the brink.

Lagarde, Lozano Jam with NY Jazzman

Michael Fox February 16, 2011

The fellow sitting next to Don Loeb last September on the JetBlue flight from New York to Oakland said he was a jazz pianist playing a gig at Yoshi’s. When his seatmate dozed off, Loeb went online and found a lengthy—and galvanizing—New York Times Magazine profile from January 2010. Fred Hersch, he discovered, wasn’t only a pioneering and influential pianist who’d recorded some 45 albums; he was working his way back from a near-death experience. “I think you should meet my wife,” Loeb said, when Hersch woke up. “She’s a filmmaker.”

“He sent Fred [my] IMDB link,” Carrie Lozano (Reporter Zero) relates. “And that was kind of that, really. I got in touch with Fred and he invited us over to his [Manhattan] studio. We met with him, had coffee, talked for a bit. An hour, basically.”

To hear Lozano and producer Charlotte Lagarde—who relocated to New York last fall after several months of jetting back and forth between her longtime Berkeley office and the Big Apple—tell it, Hersch required hardly any convincing. He had been seriously impressed by Heart of the Sea, Lagarde’s 2002 portrait of Rell Sunn, the beloved Hawaiian surfer who died of breast cancer.

“He liked the way I handled the illness,” Lagarde recalls on the phone from New York. “It wasn’t about her having cancer, it was a much more full portrait of her.”

Hersch, you see, was stricken with AIDS-related dementia in 2008. He was out of commission for such a long spell, including two months when he was in a coma, that he required rehab and therapy to regain his motor skills and strength. When he returned to his usual packed schedule of performing, composing and recording, Hersch embarked on an unusually ambitious project with the alluring and self-explanatory title My Coma Dreams.

The multimedia piece, which has its world premiere in early May in Montclair State University’s respected performance series, employs the varied talents of actor and singer Michael Winther (playing a slew of characters), writer and director Herschel Garfein, animator and graphic designer Sarah Wickliffe and, of course, the Fred Hersch Ensemble. My Coma Dreams then goes on a tour that brings it to Herbst Theater in October.

“The urgency for us right now is to cover the making of this particular piece, because it’s at the core of who he is,” Lagarde says. ““Fred lives 20 minutes from me, so I can go and shoot whenever he’s available. I’ve been going there when he has a rehearsal with the musicians, and also hanging out when he’s composing or having breakfast with his partner. The idea is to be there as much as possible so it’s an intimate portrait of him.”

“The conceit is we’ll document up until the premiere,” adds Lozano, when we talk later that day. “But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop shooting. There are people we have to interview before May, but there may be other people—students, music writers, his contemporaries, musicians who’ve been influenced by him—we interview after May.”

The untitled film falls in the category of tight-window or time-sensitive documentaries that require the filmmakers to make a quick decision and jump in. Lagarde confides with a rueful laugh, “I promised myself I would never go into a project without funding, and I’m breaking my rule.”

To keep a lid on costs, at least until they raise a chunk of money, Lagarde is sharing cinematography chores with Andy Schocken. It had been a while since she’d wielded a camera, she said, and was a little nervous about it. But veteran verité filmmaker Steve Bognar provided some reassurance “We shot 500 hours for A Lion in the House, and the first 100 hours were terrible,” he told her. “You just have to be there.”

The truly interesting problems, of course, relate to the creative aspects of the documentary. The filmmakers have cleared the high initial hurdle of access and trust. But subjects often have expectations about what they’ll get in return.

“There’s a clear understanding that at the end of the day this is our film,” Lozano declares. “We want to tell compelling narratives. On a certain level we definitely don’t want it to be what we call a homage film. But at the moment that you and I are talking, we don’t know what will happen yet, and what will unfold [before the camera]. Building the film around a performance has its own inherent drama of trying to get from Point A to Point B.”

The fact that Fred Hersch is an uncommonly independent and self-confident artist is a definite plus, Lozano asserts.

“With a really well known performer, you deal with issues you don’t have to deal with in other films. You have copyright issues, music labels, managers. He’s unique because Fred likes to do things himself. He’s very much in control of his own calendar, and whatever agreements are made about his work. And he’s very open to providing as much access as he can to the rights to the music, to the performance, to everything.”

She chuckles and adds, “But there will still be hurdles.”

Don Loeb, if you’re wondering, will receive an executive producer credit. It’s not a reward for introducing the subject and the filmmaker, though. His duties involve actively fundraising and strategizing about the online presence. For the moment, you can get updates on the project at swellcinema.com

Notes from the Underground
Rebecca Solnit, Christian Bruno, Sam Green, Chip Lord and Julie Lindow wittily and poignantly tout the glories of single-screen theaters in “Cinematic San Francisco,” a benefit for the Red Vic Movie House set for Thursday, February 24. Get details and reserve tickets (a mere $20) at redvicmoviehouse.com … For the fifth straight year, DOC Film Institute of SF State screens all of this year’s Academy Award–nominated feature and short docs. The Balboa Theater hosts “Oscar Docs 2011” February 20-22. Showtimes and more info at BalboaMovies.com.

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