HOW DO I MAKE A DOCUMENTARY WITHOUT MONEY?!

After receiving my Cinema degree, it quickly became apparent that I needed to work to survive.  No time was allowed to work on the projects I wanted to work on.  There was laundry to do, errands to run, jobs to work… absolutely no time to even begin the beginnings of research to make a documentary.

Then tragic fate happened and I was given the gift of time.  Years ago, I underwent emergency knee surgery and never fully recovered as I was diagnosed with a couple of rare degenerative joint disorders.  When I was unable to work at my job because I could not walk, it was difficult not to fall into a deep depression being young, disabled, and without insurance.  I needed to occupy my mind with something positive to make light of my situation while I desperately tried to find a surgeon who could and would perform an experimental, speciality knee surgery.  I was finally able to work on the passion project I so needed to be working on as time was running out for the abandoned buildings on the grounds of the asylum.  My downtime was meant to be even though I wish deteriorating health upon no one just to be given the time to work on your passion project!

Time is all that research needs.  And my time went straight to scouring the internet.  I found archive databases, which provided me access to use important historical photos.  Various websites gave me all kinds of different information on the facts and myths surrounding the asylum.  Repeat names of the living found themselves on my potential interviewee lists.  But the internet only could take me so far.  I needed to go to the Village of Bartonville and research further and I needed to find people who were knowledgeable of what was truth and what was myth.

Donations from believers made the production possible.  My mother flew me from Los Angeles to Chicago so I could go down to Bartonville, Illinois to do extensive research on the Peoria State Hospital.  I spent hours going through files and annoying the library personnel.  But my time was very limited and the stacks of boxes and binders weren’t shrinking.  I combed through the files and photos like a mad woman, looking for anything that went along with the internet research I had already been conducting.  Those files were then marked with post-its and put back in its proper file.  Once I realized I only had about an hour left, I needed to get over to the copy machine.  There was no time for coins; I needed the key.  In a mad dash, I threw papers around in an organized fashion, making plenty of noise, as the machine was anything but subtle.  I hadn’t gotten through all the files and after getting back to Los Angeles, I felt an itch to get back to Bartonville to see what I had completely missed out on.  It took months to go through all the scans and they left me with even more questions and more to research to do.

I had to figure out how production was going to go down.  That’s when budgeting began and necessities mapped out.  I needed a camera and a crew.  If I shot most of the interviews outside, I could eliminate the need for production lights, thus, cutting costs drastically.  Knowledgeable interviewees and friends and family who would be willing to work for free needed to be sought out.  Craft services needed to be home prepared and all the production chairs definitely weren’t going to match.  It was determined then that the camera and sound equipment would be the biggest cost for the production.  I knew if I could get the camera donated for one week, I could make the film happen financially.  That’s when I believe my good karma came into play.  I was able to write to many people and found someone who believed in the project and donated equipment on the grounds that the film would come to a completion.

When I returned to Bartonville for the week of production, I had to set aside some time to get my hands on those files I had missed the year before.  To my surprise, someone had donated their time to reorganizing all of the Peoria State Hospital archives on file at the Alpha Park Library.  Everything was labeled and any additional information known was attached to the document or photo.  Unfortunately, I found many files that I had scanned the previous year were now missing, specifically older documents; documents so delicate, they were literally falling to pieces.  One of my favorites was an old receipt with Dr. George Zeller’s original signature.  To think that the legendary Dr. George Zeller held that piece of paper was surreal as it was so casually filed away between two pieces of white computer paper.

The donation of time from my crew helped tremendously.  They helped me set up, tear down, ask questions, comb through files, pick up, hold, push, pull things… they were incredible!  But I was running the show, and it wasn’t always the picnic it sounds like it can be.  All the decisions had to be made by me and at times, it was very overwhelming.  It was in these moments, I realized why some filmmakers chose to work in pairs.  However, lone decision-making would give me my own film and I was determined to make it work and power through to the end.

 

This entire blog describes how I have gone about making this documentary that has grown so dear to my heart.  You too can make a documentary if you just put the time and passion into it!  In turn, it could perhaps change the world.

Narration Sessions

The narration sessions for the film proved to be much more work than expected.  Of course, I put way more on my plate than I should have… but I knew I wanted to get as much material as possible to work with.  We were on a tight schedule and had a lot of sessions to hold.  Hans and I were able to gather 15 narrators total who followed through with their commitment; which most of them read multiple readings to pick up the slack of the flakes.  It was difficult for me to determine which incredible stories should be read.  I knew it wouldn’t be possible to include everything… but I also knew the project was evolving as the months went by and I didn’t know exactly what it would be a year later.  The basic idea of what the final product would be was there but I had no concrete specifics beyond the big player stories of Rhoda Derry and Bookbinder & big player issues like the rise and fall of treatment.  My research binders were overflowing with stories and story ideas yet, I had to filter.  Which stories had the most impact?  Were the most touching?  The most gut-wrenching?  The interview questions for the interviewees were, you could say, obnoxious.  I had so many questions dealing with the facts and myths surrounding the Peoria State Hospital; and didn’t want to leave anything behind or any rock unturned.  If I was going to make this documentary, I wanted the truth out there.  But, there were simply too many stories for one feature-length film.  I decided I’d have the narrators read all my favorites and choose later which flowed better with the interviews.

In post-production, I was faced with my known fate to make the decision of which narration sessions needed to be cut completely.  Nearly all of them were chopped in half but still, more needed to go.  The film was obviously way too long and there was no way everything could stay.  Cutting three narrators completely along with their great sessions made me feel what perhaps Hollywood actors feel when their one scene is cut from the movie entirely.  It didn’t feel good and I wasn’t even the one being cut.  I knew the most challenging part of the film process would be cutting it down to an appropriate length.  It was obvious when I began the project that, in the end, it would be too long.  With 14 interviewees and 15 narrators, my head was spinning.  All I could do was ask myself, which stories HAVE to stay and which lessons are most important?  That helped most with the cutting.

Rhoda’s Nurses -feat. Ted Wulfers

Featured here is Ted Wulfers as Dr. George Zeller.  The attached video link is the narration conclusion to one of the most incredible stories in American mental health history.  Rhoda Derry’s tragic story goes unparalleled and will certainly stick with you for the rest of your life.

I’M NOT CRAZY

Have you ever noticed that?  When one claims they are not crazy, society automatically assumes that person must be a raging lunatic.  Sometimes it seems as if one has to defend their sanity instead of prove their point.  In the courts, it’s as if one tries to defend their “insanity” to justify their poor judgment.

The portrayal of mental illness in the media can really be appalling.  To educate the public about mental illness and its treatment, along with that comes the education of the stigma.  Used for fear or comedic relief, the people are uneducated to the truths of mental illnesses.

 

Due to the length of my documentary (2 hours), I unfortunately had no room for this incredible story…

In my research, I came across this book a few times; and learned how it’s one of those books that’s extremely difficult to get your hands on.  The author died and supposedly, his widow wasn’t interested in keeping the book on the market.

In the 80s, an Illinois journalist wrote a manuscript of an account he had when he was assigned to write a simple obituary for an old woman who had died in a nursing home.  What should have only taken a day or two to write, this death wasn’t exactly average.  The deceased was unclaimed, unnamed, and obviously had no family.  The journalist gruelingly traced her back to Ohio where she once worked as a schoolteacher and ended up at the Peoria State Hospital until it’s closure in 1973.

This mysterious and captivating story follows this woman who was renamed, “Mary Doefour” after failing to provide her real name.  Around the early 1920s, she had suffered sexual and emotional trauma and a botched abortion by a quack doctor.  Mysteriously, she was last seen taking a train out of town for the weekend.  Even more mysteriously, a police officer claimed to have seen a woman who looked like her, walking along the Lincoln Highway delirious and confused.  She ended up at a Chicago police station where she was reported to be an obviously intelligent, well-dressed woman who was experiencing some type of memory loss.  They believed surely, someone would be looking for this poor girl.  Unfortunately, neither the police thought to look as west as Ohio or her family to think to look as far east as Chicago.  As the jail was no place for such a lady, she was transferred “temporarily” to the state insane asylum.  There she stayed.

“I’m not crazy.  I just can’t remember who I am.  I’ve got to get out of here.  If I don’t get out of here soon, I will be crazy.”  The nurses and staff would console her while saying, “There, there, dear.”  It is said that Mary Doefour, formally known as Anna Mary Sizer, became a “back-warder” to prevent her from escaping.

The strangest thing of all the things that are strange in the story is how it reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s last hours.  He was found wandering the streets at night; delirious and confused.  Only hours later, he died in a hospital.

 

Was a sudden traumatic life experience to blame for their delirium?  Or a mounting collection of trauma from years of pain to blame?  The mind can handle a certain amount of trauma… but when it too much?  What drives people over the edge?  What drives people to madness?  Institutionalization?  Deinstitutionalization?  The world?  Ourselves?

Old Book

Perhaps the most notorious story to come out of the Peoria State Hospital is the story of a man known as, Manual Bookbinder, who was later nicknamed, “Old Book”.  When Book first came to the asylum in 1902, he was a mute and was said to have worked in a printing house as a manual bookbinder.  One day, he was no longer able to speak coherently and was deemed insane; as the experts at the asylum diagnosed him with “mental aberrations”.  The story of Old Book is unlike any you have ever heard.  In some unexplainable way, Old Book possessed a great plague of sorrow… a sadness no one could ever figure out.

He was a big man who could handle manual labor, so Dr. Zeller put him on the burial detail.  Patients who were unclaimed by their loved ones when they passed were buried in the asylum cemeteries.  In the early days of Peoria State Hospital, the poor health of the almshouse rescues kept the burial detail busy.  When the ceremony would begin, Old Book would retreat back to the “Graveyard Elm” which became known as Old Book’s tree.  He would lean against the elm, remove his hat, and begin to sob uncontrollably.  Even in Old Book’s last days, when he would see a funeral procession working their way down to the cemeteries, his eyes would begin to swell as his nurses would quickly have to calm him before his inevitable common wail of sadness.

Upon Old Book’s passing in 1910, hundreds were in attendance for his funeral because Book was very well-liked.  As Dr. Zeller was giving the eulogy, the attention in the crowd was being drawn elsewhere.  People began to hear a cry, a sob back by the Graveyard Elm.  As eyes and heads were turned, the people are said to have seen the apparition of Old Book leaning against the Graveyard Elm, crying.  A cold silence came over the ceremony as Dr. Zeller yelled, “Open the casket!”  Back in 1910, the coffins were made of wood and nailed shut.  The burial detail opened the lid, the people saw Book’s corpse, looked back at the elm as his apparition had already disappeared.

A short time after Book’s death, the Graveyard Elm began to rot.  The hospital staff tried many approaches to rid of the dying tree.  First they tried to chop it down.  The man came back to Dr. Zeller and said that he couldn’t do it because every time he hit the tree, he heard a man wailing.  Dr. Zeller sent the fire department to burn it down.  They came back to Zeller and said they couldn’t do it.  They had started the fire but had to put it out because they had seen someone in the smoke standing there, crying.  Dr. Zeller decided to leave it alone after their failed attempts and the elm eventually fell down on its own.

The legend proves to be just that still to this day.  Since 1910, there’s been many reports of people hearing a man crying in Cemetery II at the old Peoria State Hospital, but there has been no reports within the last few decades.

Patient #713

Is it possible that Old Book had suffered from a trauma so great that it would cause him to quit talking for the rest of his days?

And what was he trying to say with making an appearance at his own funeral?  Perhaps Book was overwhelmed with sadness as well as happiness in his passing.  The sadness of his death, of leaving this world; the happiness of his death, of leaving his suffering.  Being able to see all those he didn’t know who had loved him in this life… that has to be happiness.

Cemetery III

The cemeteries are the ones similar to the movies… but these are not as they seem and even more original than one could ever imagine.  Endless rows of stone, listing a faded number assigned to that of the forgotten and unloved.   The stones change from era to vanishing era.  Some stones stronger than others, some unluckily struck over by trees or vandals.  Some now down in the gully that borders three of the four cemeteries on the grounds. Most are legible, some are not.  Some have names; most do not.

 

When filming in a cemetery, it is important to be respectful in the greatest sense.  When filming in the Peoria State Hospital cemeteries, I had the utmost consciousness of being constantly watched.  That sensation was so prominent I honestly cannot express it enough with words on a screen.  And I cannot expect anyone to actually believe when most cannot believe anything that isn’t “real”.  With all these eyes on me while I set up my shots, I felt the urge to explain myself.  [I’ve never seen an apparition with my own eyes, only with my lens… and hope it remains that way.]  I explained that I was there to tell their stories and that I was sincerely heartbroken that I couldn’t know or tell all of their stories.  In the numerous occasions I have spent doing work in these cemeteries and the grounds of the Peoria State Hospital, I’m candidly telling you that I’ve mostly felt sadness and confusion.  When opening oneself up to anything possible, the energy on the grounds portrays such a painful existence.  When filming, I tried to ignore it, tried to work and concentrate on why I was there at that very moment.  Yes, I’m here to tell their stories but I’m actually here to film a cemetery, so it’d be best to keep doing that.  My head kept being pulled in different directions, too much wondering for one day.  The worst part about all the wondering is, forever, I will always wonder about those who truly were unloved.

 

Cemetery III

The Bowen

Out of the dozens of reasons I decided to make this film, the Bowen building is one of them.  The City of Bartonville has fought owner, Richard Weiss, from saving the building for years.  Abandoned, there it has sat decaying for over 40 years; numerous individuals interested in restoring and falling financially short of their dreams.  Richard Weiss has that same dream and shares that same problem.  Despite his shortcomings in his lone battle against the town, his vision and love for this exquisite building lives on strong.  And he has found that those who share that same love support him in his efforts.  Constructed of magnificent limestone, the Bowen was a beauty built to last.  Opening in 1902, it has been used for an array of services from administration and the nurses’ dormitory to housing criminally insane women and the morgue in the basement.

The opening of the Illinois Asylum for the Incurable Insane was intended to stay open for lifetimes to come.  The jobs it provided sustained the community and brought in recognition and respect.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, communities desired the opening of mental institutions.  Postcards for the town would advertise their pride in their institution.  In this like, Bartonville displayed the Bowen building on the city’s emblems and attended the asylum’s public events.  The history’s discrepancy tells of a moving and tragic story of a lifetime that has passed.

Beginning the Beginning

A simple notion easier said than done.  Production is impossible without Pre-Production.  Naturally, beginning this documentary, I found difficulty in settling on a solid starting point.  “There’s so much to research, so much to say,” I would tell myself.
Many wonder why one would come to the decision to make such a film about an old abandoned insane asylum’s history.  My interest in the Peoria State Hospital happened accidently; stumbling upon its incredibly dwarfing architecture almost ten years ago.  Upon receiving my Bachelor’s in Cinema, a short documentary senior thesis was required with a strict 20-minute limit in a brief turn-around time.  Where my thesis could attempt and fail at appropriately shining full light on this unbelievable story, I decided to research it to its full extent with my own deadlines to share it with the world.  But the reason “why” still goes unanswered.
This documentary will help YOU understand exactly that.

The stories grow on you.  Their stories will grow on you.

Once an idea is in place, prioritizing the pre-production phase is next.
What must be said?  What will make the public care about what I care about?

When learning about the asylum more in depth, each passing tale made my intrigue boil over.  Pulling all nighters, buried up to my neck in open tabs, post-its, sheets upon sheets of research and notes, photos and production ideas and theories… oh my!  Will I ever come to a stopping point?  The research would suck me in and sometimes leave me even more baffled than beforehand.

Filtering, deciding… Always asking, what needs to be said?  What needs to be felt?  What needs to be retained?  What is the message here?

No question, family members of former patients would be the most difficult interviewees to find.  How could they agree to share such a personal story with me, let alone, the world?  Out of everyone who would be a part of this film, the real stories of the real people who once lived here took the cake when crowned top priority of the film.  The project craved personal, unknown stories, as was the case of so many of the asylum’s residents.  The true broken hearts.
They were the unknown.  They were the forgotten.

Among the many brilliant interviewees, the project was most blessed to find, Ms. Christy Lockstein, who traveled from Wisconsin to central Illinois to interview with me.  Her emotional story of her great-great grandmother and great-great aunt’s admission into the asylum broke our hearts.

Christy concluded with, “Thank you for letting me give her a voice.”
Thank you, Christy, for sharing such a significant and awful lesson of humanity.
Hopefully the world’s heart will break with ours for the love of Great-Great Aunt Ruth and Great-Great Grandma Anna Dupuy.

The Start of Production

When making any film, you’re bound to Murphy’s Law.  What can go wrong, will go wrong.  This applies even more so when making a documentary during late autumn in central Illinois.  Most likely, the weather would be horrid.  Shooting completely on location, one must gear up for the worst.  When seeking to outsmart Murphy, one must anticipate.  Will the battery mysteriously deplete?  Yes.  Will the wind blow so hard two people can’t even have a conversation let alone an interview?  Yes.  Will some bitter old hag drive up and ruin the best interview location ever?  Yup.  For no reason at all, before getting the best possible shot or no shot at all, you leave in a fright!?  Yessss.. *sigh.

Scouting interview locations, anticipation figured it would be keen to give each interviewee a back-up rain shoot location.  It would be naive to think the weather could be pleasant for seven consecutive days.
Day One brought cold, dark rains.  The conditions were terribly unpleasant but the weather gave Cemeteries I and III some beautiful, mysterious fog deep in the woods.
Soaked to the bone, production had to wrap early as the light was nearly gone by 3p.  The rest of the day’s schedule would have to wait for another day.  All I had left to do was to make sure Murphy didn’t ruin shots with raindrops on the lens and the covering of the camera didn’t have an accidentally poked hole from conditions and terrain.  … All right, Mr. Murphy, we’re all good!  Hot shower please!

J taking a break for a photo in Cemetery I at the Peoria State Hospital formally known as The Illinois Asylum for the Incurable Insane