Matthew Ginsburg '88 finds family and friends helpful to his filmmaking success.
by Maura Stephens
At first glance, Frank Pour seems an unlikely hero. Until you start paying attention. Then the charm, joie de vivre, and down-home smarts of this retired 85-year-old factory-worker nursing-home entertainer become apparent.
Above: cenes from Uncle Frank.
Ginsburg with Roger Daltrey on location in Montana for an episode of Extreme History with Roger Daltrey.
Paying attention is what Frank's nephew Matthew Ginsburg '88 did -- so much so that he decided to quit his full-time job with MTV, a job he loved, and spend months following his Uncle Frank around with a camera. And paying attention is what audiences are doing to the delightful film he made about his Uncle Frank and Aunt Tillie.
Uncle Frank won the audience award for best documentary at the 2002 Newport Film Festival, runner-up audience favorite at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and honorable mention for best documentary at the Woodstock Film Festival, and it was accepted for screening at a handful of other festivals worldwide. Watching it, one senses that it is a true work of love -- of the filmmaker for his subjects and of the subjects for him.
"One day I called to ask Aunt Tillie and Uncle Frank if I could visit them," says Ginsburg. "Uncle Frank said, 'If you come at 11 you'll have to come to the nursing home. I have a gig.' So I went, and there he was, playing keyboard. I watched how the people came to life when he played and how they all interacted. And I thought, there's a lot of heart and soul in his story."
Ten months later Ginsburg left his job, started freelance consulting and directing, and began shadowing his uncle and aunt. "Two and a half years of shooting later," he says, "I had about 105 hours of footage." After editing for about a week with the help of his filmmaker friend Andrew Morreale, he says, "we decided we needed to raise money. I'd sunk all my own money into it." Morreale contacted a friend, Ross Partridge, who brought the footage to Trigger Street Productions, Kevin Spacey's production company.
"It was a long shot," says Ginsburg. "But Kevin was very interested in providing finishing funds, and one thing led to another. We went to film festivals; then HBO picked up the film." Spacey also helped get another celebrity involved. "Uncle Frank has a song called 'Patty,' which he wrote in the 1940s for his daughter," explains Ginsburg. "I thought, wouldn't it be great if Willie Nelson were to sing it. Uncle Frank loves Willie. So Kevin approached Willie. Next thing you know we're in Austin, filming Willie Nelson recording 'Patty.' "
When Ginsburg finished the film he held a private screening for his two stars. After the credits rolled, he recalls, "Uncle Frank said, 'Wow, I felt like Walter Matthau up there. I felt like Dennis the Menace!' That's high praise; he loves Walter Matthau and Dennis the Menace."
And people everywhere have loved Uncle Frank -- the man and the film. "It's been great to have people respond so well," Ginsburg says, "to a film about aging. It's a love story, but it's also about growing old in America. It's got a lot of humor, but it's serious."
Since the success of Uncle Frank, Ginsburg has created a new production company called Boom Pictures with his business partner, David Leepson. They've been producing a series for the History Channel called Extreme History with Roger Daltrey. Working with the lead singer of the legendary rock band the Who was a tremendous thrill for longtime fan Ginsburg ("My IC friends will remember that I rattled the walls up in Terrace 6 with Who's Next"). The subject matter was thrilling as well -- running with Plains buffalo, tracing the route of Lewis and Clark, going down the Colorado River in a wooden boat, and following Nascar racing were among the episodes.
The team has also produced and directed The Big Three-O, a cinema vérité project for VH1, as well as a series of short documentary films for NBC's primetime special Concert for America. While freelancing as a senior producer for the History Channel, Ginsburg had made such shows as Live From Pearl Harbor: A 60th Anniversary Special and the weekly documentary/magazine show This Week in History, and during his earlier stint as a staff senior producer for VH1 he'd produced, written, and directed documentaries and series including Legends: Bruce Springsteen, 100 Greatest Artists of Rock and Roll, and RockStory.
"I had no idea what producing really meant when I was at Ithaca," Ginsburg says now. "That's not a slight to the program; I was just focused on journalism, maybe being a reporter. I never imagined that I'd be doing my own films. I was three years into VH1 and started to get into watching documentaries -- even before the 'documentary reality' boom. The digital age was starting, and it was more attainable for a single person to make a movie on his own. It's all about telling a story."
So far Ginsburg has been spinning some riveting stories, and more are planned as he and Leepson work to grow their company. "We have a reality concept for VH1. We're working on a rock 'n' roll sitcom -- kind of like The Young Ones meet the Monkees meet Spinal Tap meet Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," he grins.
Ginsburg obviously shares some of the characteristics of his fun-loving Uncle Frank -- now 88 and still going strong -- and is proud of that fact. "If you can be 88 years old," he says, "and still be able to grasp life, crack jokes, milk it for all it's worth -- that's the key."
1st page- 2 photos: Ginsburg, Uncle Frank, and Aunt Tillie; and Uncle Frank, Aunt Tillie, and Willie Nelson. [caption] Matt Ginsburg (center) with his Uncle Frank and Aunt Tillie. Right, the new celebs with country star Willie Nelson.
2nd page-3 photos: [caption] Scenes from Uncle Frank, left and below. Bottom: Ginsburg with Roger Daltrey on location in Montana for an episode of Extreme History with Roger Daltrey.