Extended Director's Statement

I first visited the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway about 10 years ago.  The boatyard was abuzz with activity — a symphony of planing, sawing, drilling and hammering.  Lumber, machines, hand tools, fittings, paints, rope, and chandlery filled the shop.  Every tool and machine was well-worn, indeed it was hard to imagine that they had ever been new.  I puzzled over the hieroglyphics written in sharpie and pencil on the painted-white floors, and watched the boatwrights go about their work.  It seemed to be organized following the principles of maximum functionality and minimum pretense, with an overriding concern not to discard anything that might prove to be useful someday — with the terms “useful” and “someday” very expansively defined.  The wooden boats in the shop, sitting in the cradle on the railway, and tied up in the harbor were graceful, robust, and inspiring; their wood topsides were stunning and down below the cabinetry was sumptuous, yet eminently practical.  As I explored, I couldn’t help but to pass my hand over the wood surfaces.  I was smitten.

The boatyard embodied a certain “American” ingenuity and a can-do spirit that immediately attracted me and I began to imagine making a film to provide a glimpse of what ingenuity, dedication, and workmanship can bring into the world.  I wanted to spend time with the boatwrights and convey what I found to others.  I envisioned an observational film constructed in a cinéma vérité fashion, one that allowed the people, their work, the materials, the boats, and nature to “speak” for themselves.  Cinéma vérité invites the filmmaker to be honest, direct, practical and to avoid embellishment, all qualities that are reflected in work and ethos of the boatyard; it is also a form that allows a great attention to be paid to the physical, material dynamics of a situation, to show rather than tell, to demonstrate rather than explain.  But I am experienced enough to know that infatuations of the heart not a movie make and I well understood the difficulties of translating what moved me into the form of film.  My approach wouldn’t allow me to import anything exogenous into the film — if it didn’t unfold before the camera it didn’t exist — and there wasn’t a discernable dramatic arc that I could readily take hold of and build a film around.  I couldn’t quite figure out how to make the film, and I couldn’t walk away.

During these years I continued to visit the boatyard.  I would speak to Nat and Ross upon occasion — they were always cordial, but “talkers” often wander in and out of the boatyard and I sensed that they were (properly) weary of people and their fanciful ideas.  I photographed the boatyard as well, developing a set of images to meditate on while contemplating the film.  The visuals were captivating.  The well worn hands of the boatwrights, the massive boards of tropical woods, with their color, grain, surface texture; the jointing, planing, and cutting the boards into useful shapes; how everything was weathered and worn, bearing the scars of years of use.  And then there were the beautiful, elegant finished boats.   But the static character of the photographs was frustrating, for as much as they revealed, I yearned to document the activities of the yard in their evolving, unfolding motion.

Along the way Nat introduced me to Brian Dowley, a consummate cinematographer with a wonderful facility for vérité filming.  Brian had spent quite a lot of time in the boatyard, and had shot some launches and other events; moreover he was a friend of Nat’s and an accomplished sailor.   We met during the summer of 2004 and discussed the project at length; I was satisfied that he would be the ideal collaborator.  That winter, while I was shooting a film in Iceland, Brian sent an email saying that Nat was beginning work on a 50 foot gaff rigged schooner, based on Nat’s original design.  Not only was the boat one of the larger vessels that the boatyard set out to build, it was Nat’s personal boat.  This felt like the opportunity that I had been waiting for — I imagined that this was the boat that Nat had always wanted to build, and it would be the fullest expression of his practical and aesthetic sensibilities toward boatbuilding.  I convinced myself that this was enough of a “story” to base a film around, half knowing, though consciously denying, that it was more of a justification than an actual story line. 

The first critical decision was to determine the medium in which to shoot the picture.   Video was the obvious choice from a cost perspective and for its capacity to effortlessly shoot hour after hour.  However, when we did some preliminary tests I couldn’t get over the feeling that video didn’t render the boatyard as I saw it.  There was an electronic sheen that removed me from what I was observing; also, it did a poor job handling the extreme lighting conditions with which we were faced.  Also, we were planning on shooting in all weather conditions, with extreme variations of temperature and humidity, something that video cameras don’t generally deal with particularly well.  On the other hand, film just felt right.  It rendered the scenes beautifully, where its natural grain complimenting and extending what was being photographed; exposure extremes, harsh shooting conditions, no problem.  Film was tried and true, predictable and reliable, the major drawback was the expense.  However I even managed to see the cost in a positive light: I knew it would instill discipline on the shooting process, where we had no choice but to be thoughtful of every foot of film we shot.  Perhaps the deciding factor was that Brian owned an Aaton Super 16mm camera, and was superbly well adept at handling it. 

Brian began shooting in the Boatyard during the winter of 2005, and I joined him the following summer.  It had always been a pleasure to visit the boatyard, but making a film about it heightened my experience.  My senses were attuned to everything that was going on — a planki being planed there, an apprentice sweeping up over there, the birds flying through the shop, the moisture in the air — and I was focused on how to best capture what was going on around me, and how it could be conveyed to others.  The experience was exhilarating, but there were also times, usually when I was tired, when everything starting to look and feel the same and the process grew tiresome.   And then there were the frustrations, large and small, like running out of film right at the moment that a garboardi was ready to be attached or following an interesting conversation only to realize that a key piece of information needed to understand what was under discussion was missing.  But we persevered, and over time we began accumulating wonderful, compelling footage.

Charlotte (the schooner) began as a set of basic line drawings hand drawn by Nat on large sheets of paper.  They are spare, deceptively simple drawings.  The lines that trace the shape of the hull are smooth and sinewy — in Nat’s words they are “fairi lines.” Through the use of three views, and the application of multiple “waterlines” “diagonals” and “buttocki” lines, the two dimensional drawing gives a remarkably accurate representation of the curvaceous three-dimensional hull.  The offset table gave the distances between these lines at full scale, and this allowed Nat and the crew to translate the line drawings into full-size plan on the shop floori; a process that is called loftingi. Though the principles of loftingi are elementary, this process appears puzzling to the uninitiated, a feeling that tends to bloom into complete bewilderment by the apparent ease with which a master Boatwright lofts a boat.  Once Charlotte had been lofted, the boatwrights used the full size drawing on the floori to guide them in shaping the parts that comprised the structure of the hull. 

Nat’s drawings didn’t show any construction details, and every step of the way he guided the construction process, informed by decades of experience and study, and built upon millennia of boat building practice.   Nat mapped out the dimensions of the deadwoodi, the number of planks, the width of the garboardi, the dimensions of the deck beams, etc. and communicates this information to his fellow boatwrights.  Nat explains, makes sketches on odd pieces of wood, and often demonstrates what he means.  The boatwrights don’t simply carry out orders but ask questions, make suggestions, and ultimately do the work within the limits of their abilities.   Actions, not words, are the primary means of communicating between the boatwrights.  The apprentices are given just enough instruction to get them to working — its takes a couple of minutes to explain how to set a bungi, but the learning really comes from completing the action a thousand times.  There is constant exchange of information, but no less important is the passing on of knowhow, and a certain ethic toward work, materials, tradition, and nature.   This is essential for building the boat, but it precisely what keeps the craft traditions alive and vibrant, and allows them to be passed down from one generation to the next.

And then there is the wood from which Charlotte was built.  Angelique, Wana, and Silver Balli from Surinam, and White Oak, Black Locust and old growth Cypress from the United States.  Each species has qualities that make it ideal for specific functions.  Angelique is a hard, dense, oily wood, that is virtually impervious to water; it is used for much of the keeli and floors of the boat.  White Oak is flexible, strong, workable and it is ideal for frames, deck frames and other structural items that need these qualities.  The boatwright doesn’t simply pick up a piece of wood of the correct species and size and begin working it; first it must be carefully examined to determine if it is a suitable for the particular task — every piece of wood has a unique grain pattern and array of “defects.”  The variations of the wood are not considered a nuisance, merely the inherent quality of working with “living” materials.  In fact variations are essential when, for instance, the Boatwright carefully selects a piece of wood with a sweeping grain that matches the curve of a particular futtock or kneei; by following the grain the piece is stronger and more resistant to breaking.  This is a profound contrast to using fiberglass or steel, which are engineered to be inert, the more uniform (i.e., “dead”) the better.   The relationship of the boatwright and the wood is profound, and fundamentally shapes the particular character of the work in the boatyard, and the boats themselves.

The building process is a wonderful blend of formal engineering, know-how, tacit knowledge, hand skills, and what the available material allows.  The work of boatwrights was not much different from those working a century ago, or a century prior to that (except that the advent of power tools has made the process more efficient).  Their focus, clarity, and dexterity was a pleasure to view; every operation involved in building Charlotte was guided by the Boatwright, using his or her hands.  The end result is organic, strong, intelligible, and repairable.  Most of the work moved along seamlessly, but when confronted by a piece of wood that showed an unanticipated defect, or when a mistake was made, they took a step back and began to rework the part until it was done correctly.  There was an overwhelming sense that their work is important to them and that carries with it a sense of accomplishment; though the process can be slow, it is cumulative and progressive.  Every contribution — from placing a bungi to a installing the transomi — is important and tangibly contributes to the final form of the boat.   Moreover the integrity of the boat depends upon the quality of their work, and of course the pleasure and safety of the sailors depends on the integrity of the boat.  Their work is is a repudiation of this age of impatience, superficiality, incomprehensible technologies and disposability. This work is a world apart from modern office work, where people sit at computers “processing information,” designers manipulate pixels or, indeed, directors edit films.  While the work at the Boatyard is neither easy nor free of frustrations, there is a general feeling of connectedness, wellbeing, and satisfaction among the boatwrights, and this work is the opposite of mass manufacturing, which depends on interchangeable and anonymous people and parts.

During the initial stages of construction, the resemblance of the hull to the skeleton of the whale is uncanny, and not accidental — nature has evolved forms that are robust and beautiful, which is what Nat aspires to in his designs.  One fascinating aspect of wooden boats is that water will pass through the hull (hopefully in very small quantities) and the wood will expandi and contract depending on its moisture content.  Wooden boats are inextricably intertwined with nature, in a very tangible sense they remain alive, a reflection of the forests from which the wood is harvested and the oceans on which they sail.  The ocean is as unforgiving as it is majestic.  The salt air, water and sun are life giving and unremittingly corrosive; the wind propels sail boats through the water, but when too powerful in can tear them apart, as can the swells that arise from the interaction of tide and wind.  It somehow seems improbable that boats made of wood could withstand, even thrive in, this environment.  The fact that they do both is a testament to boatwrights’ ingenuity and their wherewithal to treat the natural world as an active partner in the process.  The construction and sailing of wooden boats has much to teach us about the natural world, ultimately leading one to accept nature’s awesome power and agency.

After three and a half years of filming Charlotte’s construction, she was ready to be launched.   I anticipated that the launch would bring out a large crowd, and for the occasion I splurged and brought on a second camera-sound team to film the event — our crew swelled to five people that day!   Hundreds of people showed up, filling the workshop, lining the beach, and covering the dock.  They were Nat’s family and friends, customers of the boatyard, wooden boat enthusiasts, townspeople, and some who just wandered in to see what the celebration was about  — they came around the corner and across oceans.   The ceremony consisted of speeches, music, prayers, and the christening.  What I found most moving was the extended community that turned out to support the launching of the Charlotte; so many disparate people, brought together to express their support and admiration for Nat and the work of the boatyard.  Charlotte was Nat’s boat, but she was also a gift to all those who were present, to all those who would see her in the harbor and the high sea.  As Nat said in his remarks, the boatyard could only survive with the support of the Community; and while material support is important, I took Nat to be referring to a more vital, ethereal form of support, spiritual in character.

Seeing Charlotte finally set sail was thrilling.  The crew pushed out the sails to catch the breeze, and Charlotte gently pulled away from its mooring.  Soon she moved into the channel, picking up speed, pulling herself through the water.  She was strong, beautiful and glorious; Nat was happy and relaxed, in his element.   I had always imagined that this would be the final scene of the film, and it fully delivered.  This also marked the end of the shooting process, a moment I greeted with equal measures excitement and trepidation.  During production everything seems possible, one is excited by all of the new and wonderful things that are being filmed, and one never knows what captivating, pivotal event will transpire next.   But everything changes when the camera stops rolling.  The universe closes, the possibilities are reduced to what exits on a finite number of camera and sound rolls.  This is a daunting moment for any film, but with a vérité documentary the stakes are higher — one can’t shoot another interview, write narration, or do reshoots — the film is either in the can or not.

I sat down with David Smith (the wonderfully talented editor who was also my collaborator on Soul Power) to begin the process of transforming the footage into a film.  David and I screened all of the footage, noted what we felt was compelling, and then embarked on making assemblies of scenes — the tried and true process of editing vérité documentaries.  Truth be told, at this point I didn’t know exactly what the finished film would look and feel like, and at times I even doubted whether we would be able to craft a satisfying film from the footage.  But I put my faith in the process.  At a particularly rough moment, when we felt “lost at sea”, I printed out Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) and taped it up on the edit room wall.  I meant it humorously; to remind us that we were not, in fact, dealing with life and death issues.  Periodically I would read the stages aloud, in an appropriately grave voice.  The practice was amusing, but it was also did serve to becalm and focus us.  I realized that rehearsing these stages was helping me overcome my resistance to moving forward, to accept the finite materiality of the footage, and to fully embrace the cinema vérité ethos with which I had approached the film.  I had to accept the death of the ideal, to allow the film to live.   Ultimately, we created a film with which I am very happy.  By embracing the (limitations of the) footage and transcending my preconceptions about the ultimate form of the film, I came to a film that was much richer and I had imagined.

I have long admired the beautiful lines of wooden sailing boats, the richness of their bright work, their majesty as they glided across the water under sail.  In this film I set out to understand and convey what is behind this beauty, i.e. what makes this beauty possible.  When I look at Charlotte (the schooner, not the film) I think about all of the skilled artisans who worked on it, the trees that were felled and the thousands of pieces of wood that were carefully shaped and fitted together, the metal elements that were fabricated and forged, her elegant rigging and generous sails, the families of the boatwrights and the wider community of supporters and admirers who nourished and encouraged everybody involved.  This is all present in the boat, and necessarily so.  Though Charlotte followed from Nat’s design, it was equally dependent upon the bounty of the forest, the hands of artisans, the traditions of boat building, and so much more — it could not exist but these myriad contributions.  All of this is evoked when I see Charlotte, and my deepest desire is that some measure of this feeling is communicated to those that see the film.