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An Interview with Robert Steven Williams, Director of Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story

by Mike Haberfelner

September 2020

Films directed by Robert Steven Williams on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new movie Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story - in a few words, what is it about?

 

The source of inspiration of The Great Gatsby turned out to be in Connecticut, not Long Island. Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story explores that spark and Scott and Zelda’s first year together, his instant success, their wedding, the parties and the drinking.

 

What motivated you to make a documentary about F. Scott Fitzgerald in the first place, and what do the man and his writings mean to you, personally?

 

The project started out as a ten-minute film for the Westport Historical Society to ensure future residents didn’t forget the Fitzgeralds lived there (most people in town didn’t know). As we delved deeper, we discovered how important this short period was to both Scott and Zelda.

 

To the 2nd part of the question: Always been in awe of Scott’s sentences, the word choices, the melody and lyrical sensibility of his phrasing. The Great Gatsby packs so much into a small package, its less than 200 pages.

 

How did you first happen upon the story about the Fitzgeralds' (rather brief) stay in Connecticut?

 

I quickly discovered they lived in Westport from a sales clerk in a local bookstore when I moved here in 1992 and always thought that was cool, but it wasn’t until 2013 when I put together a literary roundtable to celebrate that town’s artistic heritage at the historical society as part of my effort to promote my novel, that the significance of their time first came to my attention (My Year as a Clown—available on Amazon).

 

What can you tell us about the research you did on your subject at hand, and what were some of the things you've come up with that surprised you?

 

I teamed up with a local historian and together we read everything written on the Fitzgeralds. We also dug into the archives, read four years of local newspapers, reviewed tax rolls and other town documents, looking for anything on the Fitzgeralds or that mystery millionaire that lived next door to the Fitzgeralds who threw extravagant parties.

 

We interviewed over a dozen scholars, spent several days at Princeton University reviewing the Fitzgerald collection of original writings, correspondence and photographs. We spent years tracking down a diary written by a Princeton pal of Scott’s who kept meticulous notes about Scott and Zelda’s parties, arguments, and other antics.

 

Uncovering the lawsuit between the world’s leading Fitzgerald scholar and the grandchildren was one helluva surprise. Watch the film to learn more on that, don’t want to spoil it.

 

Do talk about your directorial approach to your story at hand?

 

Fitzgerald footage was extremely rare, and yet, we had access to their writing (Zelda also wrote a novel), and of course, letters, postcards etc. I avoided inserting my words into the narrative as much as possible, relying instead on the writing and correspondence of Scott and Zelda. The trick was to figure out how to best bring those words to life. Keir Dullea did a remarkable job, but of course, he played Scott in a one-person off-Broadway play in the 90s. We interspersed interviews, clips from the ’49 and ’74 Gatsby, and the incomparable Sam Waterston to make the viewing experience both educational and entertaining. The last thing we wanted was to make this feel like a college lecture. This had to be fun to watch, a journey back in time, but at the same time, we wanted to make sure that what we presented held up to scholarly rigor. We assembled a team of leading scholars to help advise and guide us along the way to ensure that what was included was accurate and held up to academic scrutiny.

 

It was an honor and privilege to work with Sam and Keir, both legends, both live in Connecticut and were intrigued by the project. Of course, Sam played Nick Carraway in the 74 The Great Gatsby, so there’s an organic connection that just made sense. Local actress Marguerite Foster did a great job bringing Zelda’s words to life too.

 

What can you tell us about the people appearing in your film, and why them?

 

We were grateful to everyone that took the time to speak with us. And of course, getting one of Scott and Zelda’s grandkids to talk about their grandparents was incredible because they rarely talk in public about them. Charles Scribner III, the grandson of Scott’s publisher was another key interview. Our objective was to find the leading voices in Fitzgerald scholarship. Of course, we would have loved to have gotten one of Matthew J. Bruccoli’s partners to talk with us, several politely declined.

 

A few words about the shoot as such?

 

Independent projects are typically woefully underfunded, and ours certainly fit that category. And because we shot this over seven years, we used a variety of crews and cameras, often scraping together whatever we could afford at the time. But often when you have no money, you are forced to be more creative. I also spent a lot of time begging and cajoling friends to cut rates, donate their time etc. I continue to be humbled by the many super talented people that contributed to this documentary at rates well below what they deserved.

 

Anything you can tell us about audience and critical reception of Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story?

 

We’re early days here, having said that, we have been giving presentations, showing clips for several years, and everyone loves the program. Scott and Zelda were America’s first pop stars. 1920 was a pivotal moment in history, and as it turned out, the Fitzgerald’s most important time too. When audiences understand the context and impact of this time period on their work and relationship, it really excites them. It also makes everyone wonder how it got missed.

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

I mostly make short films for not-for-profits to help them generate donations to continue their work. While filmmakers are mostly on the sidelines in terms of shooting due to COVID, I spent the summer in a Sundance Documentary Development program working on a business plan to shoot a documentary series on Impact Investing. I’m keen to explore this intersection of business and philanthropy and hope to have phase one funding in place once it’s safe to get back out there with a crew. Fingers crossed.

 

What made you go into filmmaking in the first place, and documentary filmmaking at that, and did you receive any formal educaiton on the subject?

 

I was a novelist, musician and entrepreneur, mostly doing shorts as fund-raisers for not-for-profits before stumbling into this Fitzgerald project. Prior to that I was in the music business. I also have an MBA from Harvard Business School. I love film, but had no formal training. But I’m a fast learn and I know how to find people that know more than me and somehow get them to join in, show me a few tricks along the way. I find the key to success is to surround yourself with passionate super smart people that know what you don’t and create an environment where they are empowered and feel as committed as you are to the project.

 

What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story?

 

I produced a short film about the legendary drummer Omar Hakim about ten years ago. Omar has played with everyone from Sting to Madonna and we followed him around for a week when he launched one of his solo projects. It was great fun and I realized then that film required a lot of skillsets, many of which I’d haphazardly had picked up over the years. One moment you're behind the camera, the next you’re raising money, negotiating licensing, reviewing a contract, editing an interview, working on a storyboard with an animator, the list is endless, and that’s what makes film, directing and producing so interesting.

 

How would you describe yourself as a director?

 

I try to empower the team to contribute and be their best by creating a collaborative environment. Not looking for a bunch of yes-folks, but at the same time, once an agreed upon strategy is in place, I’m looking for results, not excuses. So the standards are super high, but hopefully the joy and fun along the way makes it worth the effort.

 

Filmmakers who inspire you?

 

I’m in awe of the filmmakers who risk so much to capture stories that need telling - Petra Costa’s Edge of Democracy, Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light, Raoul Peck’s I am Not Your Negro. Also love David Lynch, Katherine Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle, Jordan Peele, Ron Howard, Ken Burns.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

Petra Costa’s Edge of Democracy, Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light, Jean Rouche’s Chronicle of a Summer, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, Amy (Amy Winehouse). I just watched the Michael Jordan documentary series. Interesting in terms of how they weaved the last season across the ten episodes. Perhaps Michael had too much say in the project, but it came along at a time when everyone was hungering for something new in sports to watch.

 

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Your/your movie's website, social media, whatever else?

 

You can find us here:

www.gatsbyinct.com

www.facebook.com/gatsbyinct

www.twitter.com/gatsbyinct @gatsbyinct

www.instagram.com/gatsbyinct

My production company: www.againstgrain.com

 

Anything else you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

You did a great job coming up with interesting questions. Thanks a lot.

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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Thanks for watching !!!



 

 

Robots and rats,
demons and potholes,
cuddly toys and
shopping mall Santas,
love and death and everything in between,
Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

is all of that.

 

Tales to Chill
Your Bones to
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a collection of short stories and mini-plays
ranging from the horrific to the darkly humourous,
from the post-apocalyptic
to the weirdly romantic,
tales that will give you a chill and maybe a chuckle, all thought up by
the twisted mind of
screenwriter and film reviewer
Michael Haberfelner.

 

Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

the new anthology by
Michael Haberfelner

 

Out now from
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directed by
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