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West 47th Street

Premiere Date: August 19, 2003


Filmmaker Statement

West 47th Street - Bill Lichtenstein and June Peoples

Bill Lichtenstein and June Peoples

A Note from Bill

When I was first diagnosed with manic depression in 1986, I did what many people do when they first encounter a difficult or life changing event. I went to the self-help section at Barnes and Noble.

I was surprised to find only a single book on the illness, the 1975 paperback Moodswing, which chronicled the introduction of lithium into America to treat the disorder. Although I had never heard of manic depression previously, nor met anyone who had it, my mother assured me that it was possible to recover from it based in large part on the fact that she had read that the playwright and director, Joshua Logan ("South Pacific," "Mr. Roberts") had manic depression, and had been able to continue working. But that's all I was able to find out about the illness. This was before Patty Duke wrote her courageous account of her own struggles with manic depression, Call Me Anna, or Kay Jamison's brilliant and moving chronicle of the lives of artistic geniuses who had the illness, Touched By Fire. There was nothing really available.

It is sort of hard to believe now, particularly because it seems impossible these days to turn on cable TV without running into some movie or biography about someone's dramatic struggle with mental illness. But in those days, in the mid-1980's, there were none.

As I began to get better, I sought out documentary films about people who had recovered, but the only ones I could find were about people who were very ill or psychotic. In part that's because there is nothing more sensational than watching someone who is psychotic on film. It is exciting, and unpredictable. However, it tells you nothing about the nature of the illness, or what it is like to get sick and get better, or even that getting better is possible.

And so I did what I had done for nearly 20 years as a TV and radio documentary producer. I produced three one-hour radio programs over a period of six years. The "Voices of an Illness" series has been hailed as the first to focus on what it was like to get sick — and get better — from serious mental illness (manic depression, schizophrenia and depression), from the perspective of the person with the illness. The schizophrenia show began with the words "I was walking across the campus at Yale in spring of my sophomore year, and I looked up at the sky and it shattered into a thousand pieces. I don't know why I didn't take that as a serious sign that there was something wrong with my head and I needed help." At the end of the day, the programs received over 20 major broadcast awards, including a George Foster Peabody Award, TV and radio's highest honor, and were featured in an article in Time magazine.

West 47th Street in New York City

West 47th Street in New York City

By 1995, I began thinking about the possibility that the series could somehow be translated to film. This was fueled, in part, by the success of the arrival of new, highly effective anti-depressants (Prozac was the first) and new "second-generation" medications for schizophrenia. These new drugs, unlike Thorazine, which had been the treatment of choice for schizophrenia since the 1950's but was nothing more than a serious tranquilizer, were actually able to quell the symptoms of the thought disorder and more and more people were getting their lives back.

When we began thinking about how to shoot a film, it became clear that what had worked so well for radio and oral history would not work in a film documentary. That's because while oral history works really well on radio, in film you want to "see" the action, not be told about it. So we began thinking about how we could actually follow people from the time they were sick, through getting better.

We were stunningly fortunate to have found Fountain House, which was only blocks away from our offices. A staff member suggested we think about it as a place where there were interesting people as well as a program that could provide a backdrop where their lives would intersect. We were even more fortunate that Fountain House agreed to let us shoot there, and gave us the one, most important thing that any filmmaker needs to make a film like this: Access. Not "Call me if you want to shoot next week" access, but "Feel free to just come and shoot anytime you want" access.

West 47th Street - Fountain House (exterior)

Fountain House (exterior)

I lured my fiancé at the time (now my wife), June Peoples, away from a successful career as a newspaper city editor to work with me on the film. She explained how she knew nothing about making movies, but I convinced her that what I needed was someone who could help me get to know the hundreds of people at Fountain House and follow their interesting personal stories.

In the beginning we were naïve. We thought that if we shot for six weeks (and later six months) that somehow we could capture the curve of someone's recovery from serious mental illness. We finally decided a year would be enough time, and budgeted for a camera crew to shoot 100 days over 12 months. In the end, it would take three years.

At the end of the first year of shooting, we realized the stories were just starting, but were beginning to run out of funding for a camera crew. So June and I kept filming, with June on sound and me on camera. We ended up shooting for two more years, from November 1996 through April 2000, and gathered more than 350 hours of material.

Veteran cameraman Mark Petersson, who shot Barbara Kopple's Academy Award-winning documentary American Dream, was teamed with a young sound recordist, Tracey Barry, whose exceptional commitment and dedication to "getting the sound" allowed us to tell the story through our characters' own words. We also hired Spiro C. "Spike" Lampros as editor, after witnessing the indescribably powerful and haunting quality of his previous work ("Compassion in Exile: the Story of the 14th Dalai Lama," which was nominated for an Emmy, and "The Shot Heard Around the World.") Later, we were fortunate to gain the assistance of one of the truly great cinéma vérité filmmakers, Charlotte Zwerin ("Salesman," "Gimme Shelter") who served as story editor, working with talented editor Bernadine Colish to cut the film from two-and-a-half hours to a final length of 83 minutes.

This film is the result of all of our efforts.

— Bill Lichtenstein

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