POV: Who are you and why did you decide to make this film?
Bill Lichtenstein and June Peoples: West 47th Street came out of a series of three public radio programs produced by Lichtenstein Creative Media called “Voices of an Illness.” They were the first documentaries of any kind to focus on the experience of becoming ill with and recovering from serious mental illnesses. Bill created the “Voices of …” series after his own recovery from manic-depressive illness in the 1980s. Bill had worked for eight years as a producer for ABC News, and when he became ill was surprised to find that there were virtually no books or other resources to help people understand serious mental illness and the potential for recovery. The “Voices of …” program about schizophrenia won a Peabody Award, and led Bill to consider doing a film version. He recruited June, who was working as a newspaper editor, as co-producer, and began shooting West 47th Street in the fall of 1996. (We were married during the course of the project and also adopted a little girl, named Rose, who is now three years old.) Lichtenstein Creative Media, which produced the film, also produces the award-winning weekly public radio program The Infinite Mind, which airs in 210 radio markets across the U.S. and has a weekly audience approaching one million people.
POV: Who pays for Fountain House, and is there a clubhouse like it near me?
Lichtenstein and Peoples: Fountain House is funded by a combination of sources, including private contributions, foundation grants, fund-raising events and government subsidies for housing, employment, education and training. There is no cost to members or their families. More than 300 Fountain House-model clubhouses have been created around the world. To find out if there is a clubhouse near you, or learn about starting one, you can contact the International Center for Clubhouse Development at 425 West 47th Street, New York, NY 10036 (Telephone: 212.582.0343), or visit their website at www.iccd.org.
POV: Why are there no interviews or narrator in the film?
Lichtenstein and Peoples: West 47th Street is made in a style of documentary filmmaking called “cinéma vérité” or “direct cinema,” a method pioneered in the 1960s by filmmakers like the Maysles brothers and D.A. Pennebaker. Since we both came to filmmaking as journalists, we were fascinated with the potential of cinéma vérité to convey a more authentic experience by letting the viewer see rather than hear about the subject matter.
POV: It really seems like people in the film aren’t paying any attention to the camera. Why is that?
Lichtenstein and Peoples: Many of the people taped for the film had been
very recently ill, some with psychotic illnesses, most of them either hospitalized
or homeless. It was important to introduce the idea of the camera and sound recording
in a way that would make members of the Fountain House community feel like they
were partners in the project. Before we began recording, we spent three months
at Fountain House getting to know the members and staff and letting the community
get to know us. We peeled potatoes in the kitchen, licked stamps and stuffed
envelopes in the clerical unit, and, in the process, explained our goal: that
the film might help people understand what it is like to live with and recover
from a serious mental illness. We were at Fountain House so long that we started
to fade into the woodwork. “You have recorded how many hours?” people
would ask. “How long will the film be?” As the ratio of tape to film
steadily increased, people relaxed even more, doubting their actions would make
the final cut. (The final ratio: about 300 to 1; 350 hours of tape were recorded
for an 82-minute PBS film.) In addition, we followed fairly strict “cinéma vérité” rules — not directing or staging actions — and believe
that approach greatly contributed to the ability of characters to completely
disregard the camera at some pretty critical moments in their lives.
POV: How did you pick the characters?
Lichtenstein and Peoples: New members at Fountain House participate in a two-week orientation program. Over the first year, we taped four such sessions from start to finish, a hefty investment of time and tape that we have never regretted. We actually followed seven people over the three years of taping, and an earlier four-hour rough cut included all of them, but time constraints required us to focus on just four Fountain House members: Frances Olivero, Fitzroy Frederick, Zeinab Wali and Tex Gordon.
POV: What did people at Fountain House think when they saw the film?
Lichtenstein and Peoples: We held a special screening for people who participated in the film, and it was lots of fun. We served popcorn, and it was kind of like, well, home movies. People really participated, yelling out comments and cheering at all the high points in the film. That said, West 47th Street also deals with some really emotional issues, and clearly some of the more moving scenes were difficult for everybody to watch. Many people cried at the end (and we did, too). In general, the film has been received warmly by people living with mental illnesses. One of the most gratifying things about public screenings is the experience of having people come up to us afterward, after everyone else is gone, to quietly whisper “That happened to me. Thank you for telling my story.”
POV: How much did it cost to make West 47th Street, and where did you get the money?
Lichtenstein and Peoples: West 47th Street cost just over one million dollars to make, in part because it took about seven years from onset of filming to the PBS airdate. Funding for the film came from government and foundation grants, corporate underwriting and individual contributions. We are still in the process of raising additional funds to support an ongoing national outreach effort, which uses the film to promote awareness of mental health and mental illness (more below).
POV: What do you hope will happen as a result of the film?
Lichtenstein and Peoples: The national broadcast premiere of West 47th Street marks the beginning of a yearlong national campaign using the film to change attitudes and raise awareness about mental health and mental illness. This effort to educate and inform the public was part of our very first proposal in 1994. More than 50 activities and events, including screenings, panel discussions and special PBS local broadcasts, are already scheduled (see News and Events Calendar for details). In this effort, we are working with the national and local affiliates of the National Mental Health Association, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, the International Center for Clubhouse Development and the National Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Depression. It is our greatest hope that West 47th Street will help America take another look at mental illness, realize that people with these serious but treatable illnesses have much in common with the rest of us, that they are in fact, us.