For documentary film producer/director Jon Frankel, it all begins with a good story. Their story, not his. In an age of bespoke everything, in which no object, service, or duty is too small or insignificant to be perfectly tailored for an individual client, Frankel is the master of the custom "home movie." Anyone, after all, can pull out the video camera at a family reunion. Frankel, using professional crews and equipment, artfully cuts, pastes, and lovingly combines that seemingly simple process with memories, confessions, and real life.
Frankel, 42, has spent almost 20 years behind the camera as a reporter, anchor, and producer. Two years ago, with no publicity or advertising, he started Ajax Productions, which, in addition to doing "family video biographies," as he prefers to call them, creates custom documentaries for corporate and nonprofit clients. He takes on only a handful of projects a year, as each one can require a few months with travel, interviews, filming, and editing. Prices for an hour-long film start at around $40,000 and can run much higher, depending on the research and travel involved.
Mostly, Frankel's clients come by word of mouth. Allison Lutnick approached him to make a film about her marriage to Cantor Fitzgerald chairman Howard Lutnick as a ten-year anniversary gift. Restaurateur and real estate developer Dean Palin wanted to create a record of his father's life. Caryn Zucker, who was looking for the ultimate 40th- birthday present for her husband, Jeff, commissioned a film that traced his life from childhood to his position as head of programming at NBC.
"I realized that there really is truth to the cliché that everybody has a story to tell," Frankel says. "The key is in helping people shape the raw material of their lives into something memorable."
But then storytelling runs in Frankel's family. His father, Max, was a Pulitzer-winning journalist and executive editor of The New York Times for eight years. His brother, David, who won an Oscar in 1996 for his short film Dear Diary, recently directed his second feature, The Devil Wears Prada. Frankel's own career started in 1987 at NFL Films, where he worked as a producer and editor, and has since included stints as a reporter for NBC's Today Show, ABC News, and the CBS Early Show.
All those years of experience have given Frankel the ability and the connections to tailor his approach to particular projects. In making Palin's film he traveled to Las Vegas, where he hired a two-man team from an outfit called CoverEDGE to handle lights, sound, and camera. After that Frankel came back to New York and shot everywhere from an old-fashioned bath club in Midtown ("All the guys in their towels with their cigars— it was like a lost bit of the city come to life," he says) to east Brooklyn while interviewing Palin's father and his friends.
In order to get images of the family's history, Frankel went through their old videotapes and photographs, making high-resolution scans and transferring them to digital format. The result is a kind of Ken Burns–style documentary of the elder Palin's life: Archival images blend with his own reminiscences and voices from the neighborhood to produce a powerful narrative.
Making Zucker's birthday gift involved a different process. It needed to be done secretly and the film had to be short, since it was going to be shown at a surprise party. The finished clip is fast and funny and the stories pop. In ten minutes it goes from his boyhood to the present day, drawing on interviews with everyone from old girlfriends to his high school badminton coach. The entire project, from initial research to the final edit, came together in three weeks.
Although Frankel usually hires a full team, if he needs to work fast and doesn't require lighting, he'll do the filming himself. He uses a Panasonic DVX100A, which he says produces images that look more like film than those of any other digital video camera.
On all his projects Fran- kel does his own logging, keeping a detailed record of each relevant photo, home movie, letter, and diary. It's an exacting—and decidedly unglamorous—task, one that many directors would give to an assistant. For the Lutnick film, he went through some 50 hours of home movies in addition to producing 20 to 30 hours of his own footage. But Frankel believes such close involvement is crucial when creating an intimate record of someone's life.
Once filming is finished, Frankel writes the script and turns the footage over to an editor. Clients typically see two cuts—"It's never taken more than that," he says. The approved film then goes to a postproduction house, where it is transferred to a personalized DVD.
Now that Frankel has gone back in front of the camera as a correspondent for HBO's Real Sports, as well as wrapping up his own documentary (about Harlem's only high school football team), he's had to be even more selective in taking on commissions. But he still wants to do a few custom films per year. Naturally, he's always on the lookout for a good story.
Ajax Productions, 917-690-8823; email@example.com
Friday-Night Lights, Camera
For the past couple of years, Frankel has been working on a documentary about Harlem's only high school football team, the Hellfighters. "They're named after the first all–African American squadron in World War I," he says. "They were started by a former NFL wide receiver named Duke Ferguson."
But the film isn't so much about the coach, who is intensely private. It focuses on the players—the quarterback figures prominently, of course—and their personal struggles as they try to make it through the season and their young lives. "For a long time I couldn't figure out what the story was," says Frankel, who played linebacker as a freshman at Syracuse before an injury cut short his career. "I finally realized it was about how desperately people need guidance, some kind of mentor."
He hopes to enter the film—which he describes as "a poor man's Hoop Dreams meets Coach Carter"—in several festivals next year.