Forget reality TV. You want to see real Americans living real lives? Then head for the theaters on July 2 and check out America's Heart and Soul, an uplifting new Disney film depicting, for the most part, ordinary Americans who are extraordinary in their everyday lives. Veteran filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg piled a small crew into a van and hit the road, traveling across the country, meeting and filming people along the way. Twenty-four of those stories—brief but poignant vignettes into the lives of some of the most fascinating people you could ever meet—make up this soul-stirring, heartwarming film. We wanted to get to know the man behind it. Schwartzberg, 54, has collected human interest stories for years, not knowing exactly what he'd do with them. Then it hit him: He'd tell their stories in a feature-length movie. The result is a wonderful film that the whole family will enjoy.
What did you think of the film?
Louis Schwartzberg: I like to do films that celebrate life. In this particular film, I'm sort of looking at both landscape and people and the relationship between the two—and I think they both celebrate life. I also love stories where people have overcome adversity and yet have a lot of hope and inspiration. My parents were Holocaust survivors, and that drives me a little bit, because even though they went through that, they still had a lot of passion and love.
The ultimate goal in this film was to see if I could get people to open up their hearts and talk about their passions and wisdom at the same time. And that's a real tough thing to do. To get people to open up is like a miracle, but to have them open up and have your lighting and cameras ready to roll is an equally difficult task.
Would you call this movie a documentary?
Schwartzberg: I wouldn't. I would call it a real life movie experience. It's sort of a hybrid, because I have a lot of experience in shooting commercials and visual effects and features, so I was able to bring the highest quality production tools to the table. But at the same time, I was just making a movie. I was casting real people to play themselves, as opposed to, let's say, getting an actor to be a cowboy. The people are real, but I basically shot it the way I would shoot a feature film.
When did you film it?
Schwartzberg: I did all the filming prior to 9/11. So I wasn't trying to capitalize on any kind of patriotic fervor that occurred right after that. If there's an American flag in a scene—whether it's on a barn or an inner-city ghetto—it's real, just part of the heart of America. But I want people to know that I'm not being opportunistic [in the wake of 9/11].
Still, Disney is obviously capitalizing on patriotism by releasing it on 4th of July weekend.
Schwartzberg: Yes, and that's appropriate because it's a good time to celebrate a positive feeling about this country. It's going to be up against Spiderman 2, so there will be people wanting to see the rollercoaster, popcorn movie, and then there will be people who will want to see something with a little bit more heart and soul.
Before we get into the movie, tell me more about your parents.
Schwartzberg: They both survived Auschwitz. They were young teens at the time. They didn't know each other at Auschwitz, but met after the war in the relocation camps. They immigrated to America in 1949. They came to New York without a penny, and worked their way up. That's why I think I have a certain affection for this country, because it is the land of opportunity.
Did your parents tell you much about their Holocaust experience?
Schwartzberg: Yes. They talked about it. My dad is reluctant to talk about it to outsiders, but my mom was more open. Unfortunately—and it's really ironic—my mom was supposed to tell her story to the Shoah Foundation on the day she passed away, which is really, really sad. But she was proud to be a survivor, and that's what gave me the strength to persevere as I've made this film. I had this impossible dream—a 35-millimeter documentary film that's going to be seen on the big screen. That's like trying to do the impossible. I've had a lot of rejections and uphill struggles. But every time I'd get depressed, I'd think about what they went through, and I'd go, "This is nothing."
Back to the movie. How many stories did you shoot in all?
Schwartzberg: Almost a hundred. So, not all of them are in the movie, and not because they weren't great. A lot of them just were similar thematically: I had more than one story of someone mentoring a younger person who's underprivileged. I had more than one story of someone who was physically challenged. I had to make choices on which story was the best story for the movie, fitting the thematic threads that tied these stories together. It wasn't just random stories. There would be a bunch of stories about work ethic, or stories about eccentricity, or stories about dreams.
Do you have a favorite story in the film?
Schwartzberg: That's a hard question. But I have to say the dairy farmer (Vermont's George Woodard). I also love Minnie Yancey, the Appalachian rug weaver, because of her incredible, deep, spiritual soulfulness.
Yes, Minnie was incredible. It was like she was speaking in poetry. Was any of that scripted?
Schwartzberg: Nothing was scripted. That's the way she talks. She's just one of these incredible, magical people. You know how I met her? We were gassing up the van in the hills of Appalachia when she came up to me and said, "You don't look like you're from these parts. You look a little lost." We had a short conversation, and I found out she makes rugs, and we planned to come back and film her later. Now, did I find Minnie? Or did she find me? I have a deep feeling about destiny and fate. I think sometimes things are meant to be, and now she's one of my favorite stories in the film.
How did you get these people to warm up to the camera?
Schwartzberg: I would first of all get to the location and start to figure out the plan for the day—where the sun would rise and set, where the lighting would be the most beautiful, and so forth. I would give directions to the crew saying, "We're going to be here in the morning. We're going to go inside during lunch." Then as they were like unloading the truck, I would start to make that person feel comfortable. We'd talk without the cameras rolling, letting them know, "Look, we're only going to talk about stuff you're interested in—your passion, your craft. We're not going to talk about something out of left field. We're not going to talk about politics or something that might embarrass you. I'm here to make you look good. I'm here to honor you, your land, and your work." And everybody loves to talk about their own stuff. Right? That's how I got them to relax.
Which of the stories were the most fun?
Schwartzberg: I'd say the art car festival where people were so wild and eccentric—just doing their own thing and feeling so free about that. It brings a smile to your face watching all those funny-looking cars that people create as art, but aren't pretentious about it. And then there's Paul Stone, the guy who blows stuff up in Colorado …
He reminded me of the Rick Moranis character in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!
Schwartzberg: Exactly! He looks just like him. But in all of the stories, I try to get down to the core—the meaning of life. Whether it's Minnie or the dairy farmer talking about the love for his son or the blind climber talking about his philosophy of life, I push people to give me their insight.
What was the most difficult story to do emotionally?
Schwartzberg: I'd say the ex-con boxer story was a hard one, because you're kind of probing into a very difficult environment in the inner city, where young kids are getting trapped with drugs and gangs and stuff. And you want to talk about that stuff without being exploitive; I never want to go in that space just for the visceral impact value. But, at the same time, I wanted to be true to the story.
A number of the stories include religious faith as a key part of the story. Why was it important to you to include faith stories in this film?
Schwartzberg: I don't think I went out to seek faith stories necessarily. For example, let's take Reverend Williams [of San Francisco's Glide Memorial United Methodist Church]. What intrigued me about what he was doing was how he was reaching out to the most marginalized of people—by feeding them, by giving them housing, by giving them healthcare, education. That's the hook for me. The fact that he does it under the umbrella of his congregation and his ministry is fantastic, but the core story for me is like man helping fellow man.
Mosie, the gospel singer, her whole thing was the music. And of course she discovered music and her passion for music by singing gospel in the church. And what's interesting about her is she kind of felt that the Lord has sent me as a messenger to her to help tell her story to spread the Word. And of course I'm looking at it differently. I'm thinking, Hey, fortune provided me this incredibly energetic woman who is helping me tell the story not just about her love of gospel music, but also gives me a glimpse of the historical significance of where that music came from and the history of the region—in other words slavery and people overcoming adversity. And you hear that and you see that and you feel that without getting heavy handed about it.
In the production notes for this film, you wrote, "We don't need pat answers, but we do need that spiritual core." What do you mean by a spiritual core?
Schwartzberg: I think we need to do some deep soul searching about what's important in our lives and renew our spirit and our spiritual thinking, whether it's through faith-based religion or just through loving nature or helping your fellow man. If anything, the film celebrates kind of a sustainability of the soul and those values, and based on that, you make the decisions that can maybe change your life or change your community.
How would you describe your own spiritual core?
Schwartzberg: I'm Jewish and respect the traditions of Judaism, but through all the time I've spent photographing nature, I also have a deep appreciation for the power of the universe. No, not the power of the universe, but just celebrating life. When you look at a flower or you look at a mountain range, you're seeing something that's so majestic, so incredibly perfect. I think beauty [in nature] is maybe God's way of getting you to protect things, getting you to fall in love with things on an unconditional level so that you'll do the right thing.
Tell me about your decision to end the movie with the Hoyts.
Schwartzberg: I think it's a great culmination of the human spirit. Here is the most amazing story of unconditional love, of a father giving to his son the ultimate experience of mobility and freedom—a son who's unfortunately locked into this world where he's got cerebral palsy and lives in a wheelchair and can't communicate. To me, it's a triumph of the spirit. And I want people to leave the theater feeling up. The Hoyts are just one example of a guy doing something that's so extraordinary, one of many amazing people across this country, whether they're coaching little league or teaching Sunday school or doing something where they're giving back to their community. There are a hundred thousand people like that all across this country who are giving back and doing something really incredibly good. And I want everyone to walk out of the theater feeling good about themselves.
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