Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Shooting Jerry Lewis

In the summer of 1996 I taught a Film Tech I class. This class is truly filmmaking101- the first production class students take. As a teacher I try to encourage my students and place the least amount of limitations on them as possible. I don't want them to make a good Tech I film, or student film, but a good film by anyone' s standards.

That summer, done the street from school, Jerry Lewis was starring in a revival of Damn Yankees. A group of those students decide dto make a film (a comedy,16mm, black and white, silent) about a hit man who has to kill Jerry Lewis. I read the treatment and saw the comic possibilities, BUT, I asked, wouldn't this be a better film if Jerry Lewis was in it?

They laughed and I stared back at them. He's just down the street, why can't he be in the film, I said.

From that moment on the class was united in getting Jerry. They sent letters to his theater, they learned the hotel he was staying in, they dogged him. A student was riding a bus and saw Jerry walking down Michigan Avenue. He hopped off the bus and chased him. Very quickly my students were making a real life King of Comedy. Just as they were about to give up, school announced Jerry Lewis was going to lecture on campus. Suddenly, Jerry was coming to them.

I need to explain that, despite what you think about him, Jerry Lewis is a an excellent film director.
He invented video assist- the device that allowed him to act and direct in his films. Despite today's image of him, those early Jerry Lewis films- The Bell Boy, Nutty Professor among them, and his work with Dean Martin are really brilliant pieces of 20th century American art. He was coming to school to talk about his ground breaking work as a film director.

When Jerry came to school there were a series of ground rules. Tickets were required and it was a sold out house. No cameras were allowed. I encouraged my students to do whatever it takes to shoot Jerry. I told them I would back them up. If they got pinched, they could blame me. I told them if they are kicked out of the theater, shoot that it could be in the film too. So, three students smuggled 16mm spring-wound Bolex cameras into the theater. They shot as much of Jerry as they could without being busted and got some really good footage.

When he spoke, Jerry was wearing a red v-neck sweater, sneakers and white tennis shorts. To "kill" him for the film, they decided to have their "hit man" wear reflector sunglasses and have a double in v-neck seater and tennis shorts appear in the reflection of the lenses. The sequence cut together perfectly and in my opinion it was the best Film Tech I film ever made.

I share this story because I want my current students, as well as my future ones, to know that despite limitations a class might put on them, there are far more possibilities. This is film, anything can happen.


1 comment:

Zep said...

That was a moving story! Thank you. Thinking of Jerry lewis I remember the first time I saw "Ace Ventura" with Mr. Carrey. I asked myself: This is Jerry Lewis for the 90ies. But is it better?