Bill Lichtenstein and June Peoples filming in the Fountain House kitchen
POV: Since people in West 47th Street have mental illness, how were they able to give you an informed consent to be filmed?
Bill Lichtenstein and June Peoples: We are often asked how people who have serious mental illness were able to give us their release to be in the film. Many wonder, specifically, about people who may give permission while they are ill, even psychotic, only to regret it later. Making sure that we secured permissions that we could support both ethically and legally was a central concern to us when we began the film. It is our strong belief that every person has the right to make decisions about his or her life, and that people with mental illness are no different from anyone else in that regard. In addition, we worked out an agreement with the mental health program where we filmed that provided that our permission to shoot on the grounds of the program was contingent on getting permission from everyone as we shot. If someone didn’t want to be in the film, we didn’t film him or her. For those that did, we got both verbal and written releases (our lawyer thought the verbal releases were stronger because they indicated the depth of the person’s understanding and support for the project). And finally, we agreed that anyone (including major characters) who had given permission and been filmed could request to be taken out of the film, for any reason, up to the rough-cut stage. Even though no one ever discussed changing his or her mind, we would be lying if we didn’t confess that it was a little nerve-wracking as we entered our second year of editing, and we certainly were happy when we finished our first rough cut.
Zeinab prepares her stuffed peppers
POV: You had more than 350 hours of videotape. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
Lichtenstein and Peoples: We were privileged to work with a brilliant editor, Spiro C. “Spike” Lampros, who became involved in the project early in the filming and edited another two years after principal photography was completed. Spike screened every minute of the 350 hours of raw tape, and, we believe, managed to hold them in his memory for the duration of the project. By the time Spike had concluded his work, and moved on to his next project, we had a great two-and-a-half hour version of the film, still a little too long for public television. At this point, we enlisted the services of Charlotte Zwerin as story consultant. Charlotte, one of the true pioneers of cinéma vérité documentary story telling, co-directed and edited many of the Maysles brothers’ films, including “Salesman” and “Gimme Shelter.” Charlotte’s advice was to focus on the stories of our characters, letting viewers learn about the Fountain House program and staff through their interactions with Zeinab, Tex, Frances and Fitzroy. Working with Charlotte and editor Bernadine Colish, we were able to cut the film to its current length of 82 minutes — the perfect length, we’ve now concluded.