Living Arts January 2008
A Filmmaker’s Story
Introducing Documentary Filmmaker
by Nicole Pugh
It’s hard to discuss a Global Community without exploring the ways in which this “Community” has been created in our modern consciousness. The significance of film in forming the 21st century reality cannot be ignored. Documentary filmmakers use this medium along with their own ingenuity, skill and resourcefulness (often times in lieu of big budgets) to present the issues of our times with creativity and passion. A rising star in this genre is New Orleans-based filmmaker Steven Scaffidi, owner of Ghost Rider Pictures. Scaffidi’s award-winning films Execution and The People’s Story-Forgotten on the Bayou, are scheduled for release to the public in 2008.
Vision Magazine: Can you tell us about your film, Execution?
Steven Scaffidi: Execution follows a man through the last seven days of his life and ultimately, his execution. I wanted to make this film as real as it gets, meaning that I wanted the audience to actually believe they were witnessing a real execution…I wanted the film to be authentic, so instead of getting actors to play the roles of the warden, the condemned man and the priest, I wanted real people to play those roles. I found a man by the name of William Neil Moore who lived in Georgia. He was on death row for sixteen years…He murdered a man in the mid-seventies and he is [alive] today because the family of the man he murdered fought for his freedom. [Moore] read the script and I hired him on the spot to play the role of the condemned man. He was seven hours from the chair in real life [when he was freed]. I didn’t want to make a pro- or anti-death penalty film. I just wanted to put the audience in the font row and let them decide.
VM: It seems to be in the same technical genre as “Reality TV and “Reality Film” but with a totally different intention.
SS: You mentioned reality film and that is not a bad description…We have a real warden and a real priest playing those roles. The man who plays the warden is John Cabana and he has been a warden for thirty years. He has executed five men in his career. The priest is played by Father Joel Labeau and he actually ministered to death row inmates for ten years in Angola Prison. He has witnessed dozens of executions. Going back to “reality film” and “reality TV,” I want people to experience the realism of an execution. Some people go into the theatre and when they walk out, they think that they have witnessed a real execution…In people’s minds, they want to believe that it is real. There is a big debate on the website (www.executionfilm.com)—is this real or is it not? They are blogging all over the world on this thing. I find this fascinating. But we are not hiding. Obviously, if this were real, William Neil Moore would be dead. He is alive and well. Hopefully people can put two and two together and figure it out…We just played it in the U.K. and fifty percent of the audience thought that it was the real deal, [yet] we advertised the fact that it stars a condemned man.
VM: Forgotten on the Bayou is another one of your recent creations. It is a great story about one man’s journey to the White House after Hurricane Katrina. You made the film, but you were also affected personally by the storm. What was it like to be both part of the documentation of this historic event and also someone who was affected by it?
SS: I had a weekend house on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that I also used as a creative office where I would write. I had all my memorabilia, all my old films [there]…It was right on the bayou. It was a beautiful cottage and I just loved that place. A thirty-foot tidal surge came in and took the house…Yeah, I was personally affected. At the same time, I was getting calls from everybody who knew I did a Hurricane Mitch documentary years ago (The Peoples Story-The Devastation of Central America). They were expecting me to do another hurricane documentary. I didn’t want to do a negative film about Katrina. I just kind of washed my hands of it and said, “I am taking a break on this one.” Then all of the sudden, I get a call from Rockey Vaccarella and he tells me the story of how he survived the storm. He says that he’s got this footage of him riding Hurricane Katrina out on his roof. For some reason, I was in a good mood and I said, ‘Okay, I will meet you.’ I looked at [the footage]. It looked great [but]…he didn’t have enough for a film. He asked what we could do about it and I just kind of blew him off, really.
About a month later, I decided to go down to St. Bernard parish. I got this itch that maybe I might do something, but I wanted to do something positive about the rebuilding…I wanted to focus on the people who said, ‘The hell with it. I am coming back no matter what and I refuse to quit.’ So I met Rockey again…He said he would show me around the parish. Then for some reason, I decided to put him in front of the camera. There was this shrimp boat that [had] landed in the middle of somebody’s front yard—a big 70-foot shrimp boat. I said, ‘Hey, why don’t you get in front of the camera and tell me what you see.’…I took that shot back to my office and I [thought], ‘Oh my God! This guy is pretty good.’ So I go back to St. Bernard parish and put him in front of the camera some more.
The next thing I know, my film becomes one of following him on this journey of rebuilding St. Bernard Parish. Then we came up with the idea of hauling the FEMA trailer to the White House and inviting President Bush for dinner in the trailer. It was a ball rolling down a hill that just wouldn’t stop. It took up the next five to six months of my life…Rockey wound up getting a 32-minute meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office one-on-one. It was an amazing story.
VM: Is there a greater, more universal significance to Forgotten on the Bayou?
SS: This is not a historical film about Katrina. This is a film about…the little guy who gets knocked down and gets up and says, ‘I refuse to quit.’ This is an American story about dreams and hopes and ‘you can get there if you try.’ I think the biggest significance here is that we…have a film that can stand the test of time…In the beginning of the film, there is some hurricane footage. There is Rockey on the roof and it is breath-taking footage. [Then], all of a sudden, you realize that this film is different. People start to laugh in the first ten minutes of the movie. From there on out, it is a hell of a ride to see this guy’s dream to get to the White House and rebuild his home. It is an amazing journey.
VM: I think it also shows the spirit of the people in New Orleans.
SS: Most people here want to see the city come back. Most are very hopeful. A lot of [the city] is still not one hundred percent. It might not be one hundred percent in my lifetime. There are still people living in trailers two and a half years later. The spirit down here is that these people are resilient. They love this area. Most of them want to come back—that is Rockey. He is like Rocky Balboa: ‘You can knock me down but you can’t knock me out.’
VM: In your view, what is the responsibility of documentary filmmakers to their audiences and their art?
SS: I think that, number one, if you can marry entertainment with a film that has a deep meaning where people can watch [it] and maybe it can affect or even change their lives, that is powerful. There have been some great films made [that have] opened people’s eyes. I love films like that and that is the kind of film that drives me. But let’s not forget, we are in the entertainment business. I am not out there right now doing just educational films. I don’t want to be labeled as an ‘educational filmmaker.’ I want to be labeled as a filmmaker who makes entertaining films that [also] make people think and motivate them…You can do something on the big screen and you can push people’s buttons and evoke emotion and get them thinking. I think that is powerful. That is what gets me going.
Both of Steven Scaffidi’s award-winning films, The People’s Story-Forgotten on the Bayou and Execution, are scheduled for public release in 2008. For more information on Forgotten on the Bayou, visit www.thepeoplesstory.com. For more information about Execution, visit www.executionfilm.com. For Ghost Rider Pictures information, visit www.ghostriderpictures.com