Interview: Paul B. Germain

2953366642_a971c95fcd_mPaul B. Germain is a fantastic documentarian.  His first feature, Speedy Delivery, is a look at David Newell, Director of Public Relations of Family Communications, Inc. — or, as you might know him better, Mr. McFeely, the jovial delivery man from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  The film is also proof — if you needed any — that both Mr. Newell and Mr. Rogers are exactly as kind and loving in real life as they are on television.  Paul’s film is amazing, and is wonderful for anyone who grew up with the Neighborhood, or, in other words, just about all of us.  I was very glad I could meet Paul — another kind and loving man — and talk to him about his excellent film, and I can’t wait for his upcoming projects!

Part the First

KS: At this moment in time, what is your favorite song?

Paul B. Germain: At the moment, I’m in the midst of a Four Tops addiction.  When I was in middle school, I’d lay in bed at night, listening to a South Florida’s oldies’ station called “Majic 102.7” as I fell asleep.  I remember relating strongly to the lyrics, the vintage sound and feeling that somehow it was all very relevant to my feelings/emotions/social experiences as a young man.  Just recently, I fell back in love with The Four Tops tune “Same Old Song.”  Levi Stubbs, who passed on in 2008, left us with an authentic voice of pain and raw emotion.  When he wails out, it’s almost as if he’s dying right there in the studio.  To me, American pop of the 50’s and 60’s carried such real weight and authority.  For instance, when Levi busts out with “Now if you feel if you can’t go on!  Because of all of your hope is gone!  And your life is filled with much confusion!  Because happiness is just an illusion!” (in “Reach Out”) – the pain is SO palpable.  On top of his convincing vocals, you’ve got that Funk Brothers/Wrecking Crew vintage sound backing the Tops up – the vibraphone jamming on the melody, the vintage strings punching you in the face.  It’s that vintage mini symphony or Wall of Sound that Phil Spector came to pioneer and perfect (that is, before he shot a girl in the face).  Most people today remember Spector as the guy who wore the crazy afro wig to his murder trial.  While this is extremely memorable, he’s also the guy who inspired Brian Wilson to achieve “wall of sound” on Pet Sounds – a monumental album that directly inspired Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  I guess I like looking at the musical family tree – it all seems so connected.

I love John Lennon’s “Imagine”, too.  Love isn’t even strong enough a word.  To me, there are good songs, and there are GOOD SONGS that say much about who we are, why we do things and our potential.  “Imagine” has been overused so many times in pop culture, but the meaning and the weight are still very present.  The song is a challenge – to be better, to look deeper, to have more empathy and to appreciate what we have and what we are capable of as a people.  He asks us to imagine “a brotherhood of man” – to me, it echoes of Fred Rogers’ philosophies and ideas.  Take the time to look at each person you encounter as an individual and a neighbor – a brother or a sister.  I think it’s about being open to others, and thereby meeting others with “peace, love and persuasion – and expect them to rise to the occasion”… look at me randomly quoting Van Morrison – haha.

KS: What’s your favorite band that you don’t think a lot of people would have heard of?

Paul B. Germain: My sister could answer this well – me, not so much.  I like to dig through the past musically in search of cultural barometers, ways of understanding western musical evolution and just to find sounds and things that have stood the test of time.  To keep this about Mister Rogers, anyone who grew up with the Neighborhood should get their hands on a Johnny Costa record.  For those that don’t know, Costa was a brilliant pianist, handpicked by Fred Rogers, to give the Neighborhood its distinct jazz combo sound.  Along with Carl McVicker and Bobby Rawsthorne, Costa rounded out the Costa Trio and created no doubt the most comforting, warm sound in early TV (and to this day, in my opinion).  The magic of his live performances (every show was recorded live) gave the Neighborhood an extra spark of authenticity.

Alternately, hey kids – go out and listen to Bob Dylan.  Don’t let American Idol fool you.  Dylan proves, that when it comes to musical authenticity, THE VOICE means nothing.

KS: What, if anything, is on any particular wall (your choice) in your domicile?

Paul B. Germain: When Bob Dylan put out his first greatest hits LP, it came with a cool poster designed by graphic artist pioneer Milton Glaser.  The MOMA in NYC has one hanging in their gallery.  Glaser, now a professor at School of Visual Arts in NYC, was doing “photoshop art” well before the computer was commercially available.  Amazingly so, he created the I (Heart) NY logo that has become an unbelievable icon both inside and outside of the big city.  Just recently, I purchased a cheap photograph of John Lennon on the streets of NYC (like many others have) and was given a bag with the I (Heart) NY printed on it.  I figured, I had a Glaser on the wall already (the Dylan insert poster), so I hung up the plastic bag.  It’s a bag, but I felt, also a piece of iconography worth displaying and celebrating.

I’ve also got the grill to my 1999 Volvo S70 – the automotive love of my life.  I bumped the front of the car in high school and had to replace the grill.  The car has moved on to a new home, but I still have the shiny chrome plated plastic grill.

KS: What’s the strangest thing you own?

Paul B. Germain: A glass coke bottle filled with dryer lint.  I promise it’s for artistic reasons.

KS: Of the things you’ve done, what’s your all-time favorite (however you want to interpret that, be it artistic works, actions, whatever)?

Paul B. Germain: I wrote an undergrad thesis on desk/library graffiti.  It changed my life.  Next time you’re in a bathroom, in a school, or anywhere for that matter – look at what people are choosing to write in a public space.  It’s anonymous, an obliteration of time and usually says something of interest about who was there and what was going on in their brain.  We leave all kinds of marks behind – some more intentional than others.

KS: Who’s your favorite visual artist (excluding yourself)?

Paul B. Germain: I love Jean-Michel Basquiat from his early works of graffiti art to his more artistically accepted gallery works of the same genre.  His use of the written word, historical reference and all out rebellion against high art realism are so bad-assed and philosophically/visually inspiring.  His collaborations with mentor Warhol are kick-ass as well.  Google image his works, and if you’re interested, check out the 1996 biopic Basquiat – you’ll get a taste of David Bowie as Warhol in it – which is no less than outstanding.

KS: What are the five most recent films you’ve seen?

Paul B. Germain: My honest answer is that I haven’t been to the movies in quite some time.  I don’t know if Avatar did it, or if the extra categories in this years Academy Awards threw me off, or that Sandra Bullock looks like she’s playing my mother in The Blind Side – but somewhere between Little Miss Sunshine and now, I stopped visiting the theater on a frequent basis.  Life is busy when you’re 28 – and with Netflix and the only remaining Blockbuster in the valley within walking distance, I usually stream or pick up documentaries to expand my lexicon and study what else is out there.  I also have a tendency to watch the same movies hundreds of times.  It’s easy to recognize when you like something, but you don’t always know why you feel that way.  I like to examine the film in pieces – see how the plot is laid out, how the characters are introduced, how the sets are dressed etc.  It’s amazing to think, before film, people sat around and used their imaginations, either through radio, or at the very least a little storytelling.  We see this in temples/churches, classrooms and even bedrooms – a good book or a good story (fiction or non-fiction) can bring so much inspiration to the soul.  I was just home for my 10-year high school reunion and I actually did watch The Blind Side with my parents on blu-ray. (I still have a tube TV with built in VCR in my apt.)  It’s amazing to me that they took a true story and adapted it, wrote a score, directed it and shaped it into something that millions could digest.  This, to me, is a small mainstream example of the potential for film to be used for outright positivity.  The world needs inspiration so badly right now – so much out there is about fear, distraction, marketing and consumer behavior.  Hell, most things we do are about consumption.  I like indie pictures, documentaries and the like, but sometimes a well made mainstream blockbuster can really say a lot about who we are and how we liked to be inspired.  When I was a kid in 1994, I saw Forrest Gump in the theater with my family.  It’s the first time I cried in public and the first time I saw others do the same.  I didn’t know a movie could make you do that, until that moment.  Forrest standing over Jenny’s grave, telling him about how beautiful their son is – I could cry just typing that sentence.  Amazing to think that Forrest is just a character.  I guess we have Winston Groom to thank for that.

KS: What’re your top three movies?

Paul B. Germain: Let’s keep this one short and say the trilogy with the DeLorean.

KS: Do you own any original artwork, and if so, whose?

photo-23

Paul B. Germain: I have an abstract painting done by my sister that I treasure.  It looks like the inside of a black and white lava lamp.  She used sand in the paint on the black part of the painting, giving it this vintage texture that I have to keep from touching as I walk past it.  I love it because she painted it, but I also love it because of the image itself.  She doesn’t like it as much as I do – haha.  It’s funny how an artist feels about his or her own work.

KS: What is your favorite game?

Paul B. Germain: Home Alone on Sega Genesis.  Also, the Full House board game.

KS: What sort of pie do you enjoy?

Paul B. Germain: Home-made pumpkin pie with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

KS: If you could say one thing to David Byrne, what would it be?

Paul B. Germain: I’d probably be speechless.

KS: What are your five most favorite books in the world?

Paul B. Germain: I recently went home to my parents house and took some things back with me.  This made me think of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.  Never have I read a book meant for children with such profound deep meanings for adults.  It’s like he turned “Cat’s in the Cradle” into a story that kids could digest.  We grow, we learn, we teach, we pass on those lessons (and possessions) and we pass on ourselves, and hopefully we are remembered by someone.  When I was 5, my neighbor John-Paul gave me his copy of The Giving Tree.  It’s actually inscribed to him on the inside cover “John, we hope you will enjoy this short story of a boy and a tree that loved him so much.  Merry Christmas!  Signed, The Jacobs, 1976.”

KS: What is the most boring thing you’ve ever experienced?

Paul B. Germain: This is rare for me – but if I’m actually bored, it’s probably in a place/time where the situation is beyond my control.  So, I’d have to say waiting at the DMV – which is probably something close to hell.

KS: If you could name a child anything in the world, what would it be?

Paul B. Germain: Talk about a daunting task.  I am happy with my name because it’s simple.  Four letters, Biblical (ha) and one out of four Beatles.  No mater what you name a child, he or she can be made fun of for that name.  We all get made fun of as children for the most part.  This is why when Biff hits the manure truck in Back To The Future, we all cheer – but, even bullies have feelings.  When I was at sleep away camp, a kid named Jason R. used to call me “palsy,” as in “cerebral palsy.”  Cruelest and most insensitive nickname I can imagine that derives from my name, although I don’t doubt its creativity.  I was so young, I couldn’t even realize how harsh and inappropriate such a nickname was.  He was so young, I bet he didn’t realize either.  Point being, if you raise a child with love and self-respect, it doesn’t much matter what name you dub him or her.  It’s not the name, but how you make a name for yourself.  I also like to think, it’s not what building your name is inscribed on, but who’s brain you make an impression on, and what the value of that impression is.  If immortality exists, it exists in this form.  When I say “Fred Rogers” – what do you think of?  This is what the legacy of Fred is all about – every day is another chance to have a positive impact on another person.

KS: What is your favorite meal?

Paul B. Germain: Hugo’s Tacos on Coldwater Canyon in The Valley.

KS: What is reality?

Paul B. Germain: Briefly, “reality” is a marketing term used to bring false-authenticity to a kind of television that is slowly ruining the human experience for young people.  If we keep blurring the line between documentary and “reality” – will anyone know which way is up?  There are fantastic docu-programs out there, and even a few reality shows that have some pretty positive messages – but many are a glorification of the wrong, unsustainable sources of happiness.  I guess a lot of people do know the difference.  For a skeptic like myself, they can be entertaining and fun, but for a 12-year-old girl in the suburbs, they can have a very different psychological effect.

Part the Second

KS: Why did you decide to doing a documentary about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?

Paul B. Germain: I had made a documentary in college called Superfan about an older gentleman who was the loudest, craziest sports fan in Lafayette College’s history.  My friend Amy and I followed him around for a few days, shot some footage and edited a little film that made some people cry.  I had never had an experience like that – it hooked me in a massively addictive way.  I had learned something about who this person is, what he represents and how an audience reacted to him.  Some didn’t care, others were moved.  He has since passed on, and the film is periodically shown on campus.  I’m so happy to know that because of film, people are able to experience the wonderful Wilmer Bonney.  Documentary is special because it allows you to identify and preserve something worth sharing.  It’s the ultimate “show-and-tell.”

Following this experience, I met David Newell at the Pittsburgh Mills mall, by happenstance, and knew right away that this was a person worth sharing with as many people as I could.  This inspired the film, the experience I had making it, my friendship with David and overall, no doubt changed my life.

KS: What influence do you think the Neighborhood has had on our culture?

Paul B. Germain: It’s immeasurable.  I’d guess the impact it’s had is in the millions (of people).  Who doesn’t remember Mister Rogers on TV when they were a kid?  I guess that’s a good question, because kids today are missing out.  I hope that the Neighborhood continues to find a home online or in other newer technological forms – it needs to be seen.  Like the family tree of music, television certainly has its own legacy and Fred Rogers is highly respected amongst those in children’s television for a reason.  I hope that future generations not only recognize the name Mister Rogers, but know and value what he stands for.

KS: What draws you to film and documentary film in particular?

Paul B. Germain: For me personally, documentary is a wonderful intersection of my natural curiosities and creative passions.  When I was a child of five, I started to borrow my dad’s Sony analog video recorder and make movies about everything from my cat, to the goings on in my neighborhood.  It was attached to a VCR, that I was too small to carry – so I would tow it behind on a skateboard.  Little did I know, I was making all sorts of mini documentaries – preserving the images of things I felt were important or things that had value to me.  As a young person, and a young adult, my curiosity about others and why we do what we do, why we are who we are – these feelings have grown considerably.  I love issues of identity, community, motivation and passion.  I want to know why, how and how come.  The answers are all in front of us; we just have to look deep, ignore our reservations and insecurities and plunge in.  So much about western culture is immediate and anti-intellectual.  The expression “too much time on your hands” is the epitome of this mentality.  I don’t believe that taking the time to explore something your passionate about is ever a waste of time.  You only have one life – why not spend it exploring the things that matter to you.  Documentary allows me this gift of an experience – an excuse to be where I want to be, capturing knowledge about what I feel is important.  The beauty of the medium is that it allows you to creatively and artistically share what you’ve learned with others.  I think I was born to do documentary.

KS: Will Superfan see a DVD release?

Paul B. Germain: I will pop it up on YouTube.

KS: Were you ever able to meet Mr. Rogers?

Paul B. Germain: It’s odd – I feel like I did, but I didn’t.  I know millions feel the same way.  From what I’ve learned about him, Fred never wanted the spotlight, but wanted to use it to have a positive impact on others.  He did just that – and by doing so, gave a large piece of himself to the public.  I know it intersected with his personal life quite a bit.  Imagine going out to dinner in Pittsburgh and seeing Mister Rogers at the next table.  Wouldn’t you want to go up to him?  He was such a familiar, comfortable figure and he attracted a lot of (positive) attention.  The beauty of his reaction was in his acceptance of the residuals of his fame as part of the job, although I know at times it must have been extremely difficult to deal with.  David Newell tells me stories all the time about how Fred would nearly miss airplanes flights because he was signing an autograph, giving a hug or talking with a fan.  David himself also lives his life in this generous manner.  I’d like to think that Fred felt very blessed to have this connection with others.  He addressed the camera in a sacred, respectful and beautiful way.  He wanted the viewer to feel that connection – a link to something and someone who was real, and who genuinely did care about each and every person who needed a good neighbor in their life.  It makes me emotional just to think about it.  How could someone that famous be so good and care so much?  It’s hard to imagine with today’s celebs.  Fame today means something completely different.  People desire it and don’t even know why.  No one wants to be just another body – another number on a census form.  Ultimately, it isn’t fame we want – it’s love.  Fred knew this, which is why Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t just about teaching kids to read, or how to solve problems, but really how to love their neighbor and themselves.  It’s the most beautiful of beautiful messages you can find in media.

KS: Are you interested in children’s programming in general?

Paul B. Germain: Most definitely.  Authentic and valuable children’s programming will always be needed, especially with the number of options that are out there now.  What our children watch says a lot about who we are and who we are going to be as a culture.  Also, to reference the parent company of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood‘s namesake (“Family Communications”) – how we communicate with our children about what they watch is just as important.  Entertainment can be found under any rock, but authenticity has to be crafted with passion and love.

KS: Do you believe there are any heirs to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on air now?

Paul B. Germain: I’ve always been a fan of Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street.  I value anything that respects young viewers.  Unfortunately, I feel a lot of “children’s programming” fails to do this.  Maybe there are just too many options and the authentic shows get lost in the soup.  The heirs are truly the parents and future parents of the world.  How will we raise the next generation of adults and what kind of world will we live in?  Will we teach responsibility about humanity and the environment?  Will we respect the lessons of the past and focus on how to make a better future?  If there’s anything I’ve learned from Fred Rogers (which feels like a TON), it’s that every person is a student and a mentor.  When I come home from work as an adult, what song will I sing to my children?  Will I teach them to be a good neighbor?  Will they understand what it takes to make your own beautiful day in the neighborhood?  We all have a responsibility, not only to our own families, but to the world in general.  Votes do count, recycling does make a difference and treating each person you encounter with respect does have a large-scale impact.  This is easy to forget and frequently overshadowed by a culture essentially driven by consumer behavior, fear and insecure desires to be envied.  Above all, love, sharing love and understanding its value is truly where it’s at.  How can an adult love others if he or she didn’t learn love as a child?  It’s never too late.  Love is the most natural currency we have – and the most essential kind.  Just ask the Beatles – you can’t buy it.

KS: Was it difficult to get David Newell and Family Communications, Inc. to agree to the film?

Paul B. Germain: I was very nervous to approach David about doing a doc on him.  When I finally mustered up the courage, he quickly agreed, but didn’t understand why I wanted to focus on him and not Fred.  I felt that David’s story as a supporting character in Fred’s life was just as important and extremely valuable to share with others.  What I found was that David’s role, like the roles of his coworkers, was essential to Fred’s success.  Maybe someone else could have played it, but that’s not what happened.  David’s life intersected with Fred’s and the rest is history.  He also never quit – to this day.  Aside from the “sidekick” story, David himself is an unbelievable person to admire and examine.  As a public servant, he has achieved a level of interaction and success that I’ve never seen anywhere else in my life.  His dedication is out of this world and the impact he has had is just as immeasurable as the Neighborhood itself.  Being so inspired by David, I had a million questions about where his motivation came from, and what it was like to have a Clark Kent/Superman style existence for 45 years.  The conclusions I made are in the film and the experience I had no doubt changed my perspective on the world and what is truly possible.

KS: Was there any difficulty getting the film made?

Paul B. Germain: Yes – all worth it.  It was my first feature, we only had 4 grand and every day was a learning experience.  3,500 was spent on equipment alone.  I had essential collaborations with friends and professioinals Fritz Myers (sound designer/mixer), Bryan Senti (film composer), Stuart Friedel (co-producer) and Christian Sprenger (color corrector).  Making Speedy Delivery wasn’t like making a film – it was really like trying to solve a puzzle.  My advice to anyone who wants to make a documentary – you can only learn so much in a classroom, or in front of a screen.  Making this film not only taught me a ton about production and how to get things done; I learned  so much about myself and about life in general.  If you’ve ever wanted to make a doc, stop reading right now and start immediately.  Seriously, do it, now.  Don’t worry about finishing, winning awards or gathering a crowd.  If you care enough about the story you’re telling, your work will be authentic and someone will appreciate it.  Above all, you will grow and learn more than you could ever imagine.

KS: Did the film give you any insight on how to make children’s media yourself?

Paul B. Germain: It’s all about respect – for the process, the audience and yourself.  Forget the dollar, forget the prestige or fame – ignore it completely.  Focus on what matters, who you’re serving and how they will remember what it is you produce when they’re 45 and raising their own kids or laying off employees or helping a stranger.  It’s all connected.

KS: Do you have a favorite McFeely story that didn’t make the cut in the film?

Paul B. Germain: I have a million of them – too many to share.  The time he and Fred met Johnny Cash, flew in the owner of McDonald’s private plane, met Andy Kaufman, appeared with Joan Rivers on the Tonight Show – so many good stories.  David tells me a woman once drove cross-country with all of her possessions in belief that she was Fred’s wife.  No joke.  She watched The Neighborhood every day and somehow believed they were married.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you there isn’t a price to fame.

KS: Do you have any projects you’re working on now that you’d like to mention?

Paul B. Germain: Last year I followed the literal birth of the Pfaff family – Destin and Rachel and their new son Sin-Halo.  Experiencing the birth of a child was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life.  Seriously, is there anything  more miraculous than childbirth?  If you’re reading this, it’s because two people came together and made you.  Same is true for the parents of Abraham Lincoln, Lady Gaga and Adolf Hitler.  We all came from somewhere.  The footage I gathered is priceless, and will find its way into a project – they’re a very special and unique family and I know their son will be just as great.  That doc is tentatively titled Raising Hell.

I’m currently documenting a 26-year-old named Mike Oliveri (aka “Mikey Wheels”) for a project called Roll With Me.  Mike is afflicted with Muscular Dystrophy, but doesn’t let it define him or hold him back from his dreams.  He travels the globe, hangs with his favorite band and jumps out of planes – all in a turbo charged tricked-out wheelchair.  The way he approaches life is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Above all, I look for others who inspire me and who have the potential to do the same for others – be it the way they choose to live their lives or the philosophies they adopt.  To be inspired is a choice.  There’s no question.  We all make different decisions, and ultimately, they define us as much as the stuff we’re made of inside.  Do you walk past, or do you stop to look?  Do you think deeply, or do you brush off inspiration?  We only have this one life and in respect of this gift, wherever it came from, how you choose to live it is ultimately up to you.  Doc Brown says “The future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.”  Luckly, we don’t need a DeLorean time machine to figure out the future – we can do this in reality, in any vehicle of our choosing.

 

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