Field Notes: An Interview with Filmmaker, Clayton Worfolk

Last week, we saw something amazing.

The new film from Heist for The New York Times showed a world that is often overlooked: prison baseball leagues (watch here). Going inside the walls of San Quentin State Prison, filmmaker Clayton Worfolk and his crew created a humanizing portrait of prisoners finding solace through sports within a rugged environment.

This is a film full of juxtapositions. Balancing the gritty imagery, the soundtrack is orchestral, ambient and empowering with tracks from Marmoset Artists Kye Kye, Matthew Hollingsworth and La Liberte.

We got a chance to dig deep with Worfolk, as he takes us behind the scenes of such a powerful project while finding the right soundtrack to his story.


M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

CW: I got into film through documentary. I attended UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism thinking I wanted to be a writer, but as soon as I picked up a video camera for the first time (a Sony PD-150) and started pointing it at stuff, I knew this was the medium I wanted to work in. I was always interested in telling stories, and film is really the most powerful, most visceral way to tell them. 

M: What's your favorite moment in the filmmaking process?

CW: My background is in editing, so I’m partial to the decision-making that goes on in the edit suite. I really enjoy the day or days where a cohesive story starts to shine through in the edit. You usually go into a project with a rough idea of what you where you want to get to in the end, but in all production — and especially documentary production — there are surprises along the way. They can be as subtle as discovering a particularly effective camera angle or as huge as a new character emerging. Oftentimes you don’t know what you may have stumbled upon until you get into the edit. That’s where it all comes together for me. 

M: What do you think defines a filmmaker's "voice"?

CW: In documentary, I think it’s an intangible combination of knowing what you want to make, but being willing and able to pivot with a story. The other critical thing is surrounding yourself with collaborators. This was a team effort, with everyone making huge contributions. Dana Ross found the story and produced the piece, James Niebuhr shot and colored it, Dylan Bergeson spent weeks lining up access and scheduling with the prison, Thomas Nores was our Movi tech and an awesome first AC, Casey Newlin found the music that eventually made its way into the cut and Defacto Sound (http://www.defactosound.com) handled the sound design. Everyone else at Heist lent a hand at some point along way, whether by giving feedback or helping publicize the film.

M: What inspired you to make a film about the San Quinten Giants?

CW: Senior Producer Dana Ross was the first here to hear about the team at San Quentin. She brought it to the team’s attention and we went to work trying to work out access. San Quentin State Prison has a ton of programs for inmates and with that a very helpful public information staff. The baseball program, in fact, has been the subject of several magazine articles, some news coverage and even a feature length doc (http://www.badboysofsummer.com). But we thought there was room to approach the story from a new angle. I was interested in focussing less on the story of the program itself, less on the story of individual characters, and more on the experience of playing baseball in such an unlikely place. This got James and me thinking about different ways to film this that would bring the aesthetic of the piece in line with the way the guys talked about playing the game. We used vintage anamorphic lenses and the Movi to get a really heightened, cinematic look that seemed to fit the surrealness of the place and the act of engaging with America’s pastime behind huge walls.

M: How were you able to film inside San Quinten?

CW: Associate Producer Dylan Bergeson and Senior Producer Dana Ross made the arrangements with the public information officer, Lt. Sam Robinson, at the prison. Sam and really everyone we met on staff there was very accommodating, and gave us a lot of leeway both in terms of access and in terms of letting us tell the story we wanted to tell. There was nobody stepping in to make sure we were asking only a certain type of question or stepping in to censor anything the inmates said. The inmates, for their part, were quite forthright. For obvious reasons, most of them have a lot of time on their hands to think about things, and they came off as very thoughtful. That was actually a challenge at times, in that their responses could almost seem too practiced. But in the course of the interviews, folks opened up and made real off-the-cuff, human statements, and I think it’s those that make the piece.

M: Did you have a clear story in mind? Or did you allow things to unfold while filming?

CW: We spent an afternoon scouting and taking stills around the yard primarily to identify characters and feel out some stories. But the story for me was always going to be about the game itself. I think I was actually planning for the piece to be MORE about baseball than it actually ended up being. I was picturing real nitty-gritty chorus-of-voices accounts of what’s going through a shortstop’s head as a batter steps up to the plate, what a pitcher is thinking as he comes set to throw, etc.. Real experiential stuff. But as we learned more about different characters during their interviews, it was clear there was room for some backstory. And as we saw what visuals we had to work with inside the cell block, it was clear that the film shouldn’t JUST stay on the field. 

M: Favorite moment off the screen?

CW: As we were setting up an interview with Frankie Smith, the inmate skipper, another prisoner holding a deck of cards came up to us and proceeded to perform a half-dozen magic tricks for the camera. Really really good, sleight-of-hand magic tricks. We’ve looked back at the footage and even there it’s not clear how he’s pulling it off. See for yourself

M: Were there any happy accidents on this projects?

CW: We were originally scheduled to film our last day a few weeks before the season officially ended for the San Quentin Giants and San Quentin A’s. But we had to move some dates around and ended up being there on the last game of their season. The program’s organizers had arranged for the oldest living Yankee, Rugger Ardizoia, to be the guest of honor for the game and throw out the first pitch. It was outside the scope of the piece we were trying to make, but seeing how some of the inmates looked at this 94-year-old — asking him to sign balls, quizzing him about what pitching to different Yankee greats was like — was pretty awesome for a baseball fan.

M: What role do you feel music has in film?

CW: I think that good editing (and good filmmaking) has a lot to do with rhythm: The way a line is delivered, the space between different voices, the degree to which different shots are left to breathe. These things end up contributing greatly to the feeling of a film. Music (and sound design) are crucial elements in helping to establish that rhythm. It’s amazing to see how different scenes, be they montages or dialogue-driven passages, change when put to different music. 

M: When did you know you had the right soundtrack?

CW: Casey Newlin, Heist’s music coordinator, worked with Marmoset to find a shortlist of tracks before the edit began on this project. As it worked out most of our soundtrack came from that initial search. When I heard several of the tracks on their own early on in the process I wrote them off as "too much." “Fantasize,” for instance, sounded way too big for what I initially saw as a quieter, more ruminating piece. But when we paired it with one of the more epic Movi shots of inmates walking towards the diamond, it felt exactly right. The tracks in this film ended up being quite “big,” and I think they really help tease out the tension between the immenseness, the timelessness of the sport and the very contained reality of the rest of prison. 

M: How do you feel music is misused in film?

CW: I think music is often used to set a tone as opposed to complementing what’s already there. I think it’s also easy to fall into the trap of playing it safe with music - using the predictable genres in particular types of work. But I think documentary work in particular allows for a lot of opportunities to break the rules on certain kinds of sounds. I think there’s lots of room to get interpretive when what you’re really doing is translating someone else’s story.

M: What's coming up?

CW: Heist is always mixing in these sorts of projects amidst our commercial work. We’re in post on a couple of large commercial spots at the moment, and then our next big endeavor will be a really cool on-location music video.

Posted on November 4, 2014 and filed under Field Notes.