Ted Timreck: Filmmaker

Ted Timreck began his film career in the 1970s. He won a Peabody Award in 1977 for A Good Dissonance Like a Man, his docudrama about Charles Ives. Timreck went on to create films about Thomas Eakins, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Frederick Law Olmsted. Alongside these artist portraits, he documented the work of anthropologist Franz Boas and embarked on a number of films exploring the Native American contribution to the archaeological “mysteries” of the Northeast. Timreck is also a pianist and continues to make music with the Flying Fish Dancers of Mars.

Ted Timreck in his studio.

Terry Stoller spoke with Ted Timreck in January 2014 about the early days of his career, in particular his work on Channel Thirteen’s The Great American Dream Machine; his docudramas about artists; his thirty-year exploration of the Northeast’s antiquarian past, including his film The Mystery of the Lost Red Paint People; and his latest work-in-progress about the architect Michael Graves.

Terry Stoller: You studied art as an undergraduate and then went to film school. What made you decide on that path?

Ted Timreck: Toward the end of my curriculum in design school at the University of Illinois, film became what I was most interested in because it filled every niche you could think of. It had music and visuals and poetry, and it had words and technology and photography. Film is more like architecture than any other art form. When you design a building, you guide people to the front and through the building; when you make a film, you structure that experience for the viewer—within a time frame. I’m sure there are all kinds of other ways that people make films, but for me it’s been about design. You’ve got a problem, and you’re going to design the solution.

In the sixties, the graduate film schools were on the East Coast in New York or on the West Coast in Los Angeles. I applied to NYU and Columbia, and Columbia gave me a scholarship. And since I didn’t have money at that time, I decided on Columbia. We had a pretty sorry inventory of equipment there, but we could cobble things together out of it to work.

When you were studying at Columbia, did you work on documentaries?

No, my dreams at Columbia were much more about fantastical movies. I worked with actors, but it was always limited. You had to fund it all yourself, which is still probably the case. But it’s infinitely less expensive now for a student working with an iPhone and an iPad than it was when we were trying to shoot in 16 mm, and we had no money to speak of. But you were asking, Did I work on documentaries? No, I made fantasy movies. I was interested in layers of what today is green screen, where you have characters and you change the backgrounds. Back then it was very difficult to do that.

Green screen?

Today, if I photograph you and I put a green screen behind you, I can drop the green screen out and drop in any kind of background. It’s the weatherman—we do it all the time now. And it was happening in big productions in Hollywood and TV when I was in school.

I had a partner, another student at Columbia, who was much better off than I was, and he had a lot more equipment. We started a company and began working. That built up a little bit of money. We could buy cameras and equipment and aerial printers and things like that. So we got to do a lot of the experimentation that I thought was going to be fun. And I had started doing commercials when I was in graduate school. If you want me to, I’ll tell you the story about how they kicked me out.

You got kicked out of graduate school?

The second year of graduate school in Columbia, I had only half of a scholarship, roughly speaking. Not that it was that much in those days, in 1971, but I needed more money to survive (although my rent was only $25 a month in a rent-stabilized, shared apartment on 108th Street). I began to use their equipment to do commercials, and they warned me that I couldn’t use the equipment—which I was doing to make money so that I could pay the tuition. They slapped me on the wrist, but I couldn’t stop because I was getting the jobs. They had a big animation stand, and I was using that to do these commercials. The second time they caught me, they said, We’re sorry, but we’re going to have to let you go. We can’t have the students using the equipment. And I had been doing it at 2 o’clock in the morning, of course—maybe that’s how they caught me. So I made it through a year and a half of a two-year program.

Now here’s the kicker. When I would go onto a movie set as a production assistant or the second AD, I was far better off having been expelled. The union guys were more comfortable with somebody who had been expelled from film school than with the new graduates who came out thinking they knew everything.

I was glad not to have the burden of tuition. And I thought, If I can get work, that’s what counts. I knew that if you wanted to be an artist, you had to figure it all out for yourself. You had to figure out how to have a problem to solve, how to design that problem, and then how to pay for it. The only way I could see ever having a life in film was doing it all independently.

And you began making films very soon.

With this partner from Columbia, we began to get films. We both had connections to public television. There was a WNET program, The Great American Dream Machine. You would talk to a producer and propose a story, and they would give you a fixed amount of money, and you would go out and make a six-minute segment or a ten-minute segment. They would get independent filmmakers to make these segments, and they’d put them into a larger show on a topic. My partner had the equipment, and I was picking up experience, but I also had an ability to talk to these producers and go in and have meetings. We made a film about the Vietnam Veterans Against the War—and it was with John Kerry.

In 1971, the Vietnam Vets had a reverse Paul Revere march, from Concord Bridge to Lexington. These were vets who were marching against the Vietnam War, some disabled, many with flags and peace signs. We put together six crews, and we filmed this reverse march. We did it all in black-and-white, because that was the cheapest thing we could do. We edited the movie together, which was a little less than ten minutes, and we took it to The Great American Dream Machine, and they said, This is terrific. Then we found out that the program they were going to put it into, which was basically an antiwar pastiche, was squashed by the Nixon Administration. So our program sat in the dustbin for a while, and then it was put on. In 1971, it might have had some meaning. By the time they aired the show, it really didn’t have the same kind of impact. But for us, it was the first time we had come up with our own idea, taken it to the station, organized multiple crews. We had a lot of camaraderie with the crews, and I began to understand how to produce these things—and the documentary was important.

For the same Great American Dream Machine, we got a much bigger prize. We joined up with Stacy Keach. He did a film called The Repeater, which we partially shot and completely edited. It took place in an abandoned prison, where Stacy played a prisoner who talks about being a repeater, about how the problem with prisons is that you keep coming back. He did it sitting in a cell inside this gutted, demolished Alabama prison. It was very evocative. It’s like a documentary, but it was all done as fiction and acted. We produced that, and it went onto The Great American Dream Machine.

In the mid-seventies, you made the Ives movie,
A Good Dissonance Like a Man
. That was produced by the company you formed on your own.

Yes. When I was in college, Ives interested me as a character—insurance man, musician. I’d known about him for years, and I always thought that since there wasn’t a film about the guy, we could make a film about Charles Ives. Now how do you do that? I became aware of Vivian Perlis, who did an oral history about Ives. She talked to his relatives and his business associates and wrote a book called Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History [1974]. I realized, OK, we’ve got this, and we should make use of this as an asset. And I read everything else I could about his life. What I thought to do was to create fictional nonfiction, a period piece with re-enactments. The piece in The Repeater was part of this thinking because in that film we had an actor playing a real person, and we made it look like a documentary. So if we broke the Ives film up and did re-enactments and had oral history excerpts from real people and poetic interpretations of music, we would be putting elements together that shouldn’t have gone together from a design point of view. And there were countless people who assured me that they would never go together when I was making the movie. But all of my earlier experiences led me to believe we could create something like Ives, which was music, which was history, which was acting, which was all fictionalized, all re-created. And it is docudrama, but docudrama wasn’t a term being easily bandied about. I didn’t sell it to anybody as a docudrama. I sold it to them as a documentary on Ives, and then broke what I thought were the rules.

Who did the research for that film?

I did, except for the oral history part. I’ve always tried to re-create the scenes in the same places that they occurred. For this film, I worked with the talented cinematographer Peter Stein. Everything we shot was in the exact historical place. For the scene when Ives is the organist, we shot in the church where he was the organist.

I’ll always be grateful to you for keeping in the scene of me singing “Waiting at the Church,” because it has nothing to do with the movie.

Oh, but it does. It has everything to do with the movie: “Can’t get away to marry you today—my wife won’t let me.” That to me was the quintessential problem. He was married; he wanted children; they adopted a child. He stayed in the insurance business. All of that staying put when he wanted to be a composer. He could have been a bohemian artist. The tension in his life was about that.

Except at one point in the narration, he says it’s important as an artist to be
out in the world.

I think that was important for him. I think he was making the case that a wider experience doesn’t hurt your art. You don’t have to lock yourself away in a garret. But he also could have done a great deal more if he hadn’t had the job, the wife, the house—and made all those millions. That to me is the beauty of Ives. He was caught, and yet he still remained creative until he quit.

As you continued with the artist portraits, you did variations on docudrama, bringing in other elements. Did you then increase your staff and get people to help with the research?

I always did the research myself. However, for each film, I worked with different people, besides a producer. After Ives, there was Franz Boas, which aired in 1980. I started using the same technique. The first thing I said to the producer was, we just need to find Boas’s words. Everything we’ve got to do has to come from his words. So any kind of core to the story will come from what he says.

Unfortunately, I only saw the preview of the Boas film. That appeared to be more of a traditional documentary. You had his words and talking heads and pictures.

In that one, I was working for PBS, for the Odyssey series, and clearly they weren’t going to come up with the budget or the permission to push the envelope on what we were doing to put in their series. They hired me because of Ives, but it was clear that we only had the budget to do a very straightforward documentary.

So you didn’t choose Boas as a subject?

No, they asked me to make a film on Boas.

I’m asking because in the section I saw, I noticed an echo of the humanism and democratic ideals that you emphasize in your artist films.

Boas is the father of American anthropology. This was the first series specifically about anthropology on public television, so they decided on Boas. But Boas didn’t tell stories about himself. He was a theoretician, and we knew things that happened to him, but when he spoke, it was in a theoretical way about humans and humanism. Ives told marvelous stories about what happened to him. And Olmsted began an autobiography, which I used to tell that story. But the Boas film was the beginning of my work in anthropology.

You go on to do a lot of that.

Particularly because that’s when I discovered seagoing Native Americans. That discovery and Boas’s fostering the preservation of the cultures of Northwest Coast sea peoples completely changed my attitude toward what was interesting in anthropology. Through Boas, I saw the potential for understanding Indians and sea people, and then I brought that East. Actually, I had been fascinated by the mysteries of antiquarian archaeology as far back as the Ives film. But it took an entire lifetime to do the research. The anthropological research ran alongside all of the portraits, which we had to do to pay the bills. Because Ives won the Peabody Award and all of that, I could have a business. People called me to make portraits.

In the mid-eighties, you made the films about Thomas Eakins and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Were you asked to do those docudramas?

Yes, I got requests, and I was falling into them. Eakins was an American painter. I could do that. There was all of Philadelphia, and we had Kevin Conway to play Eakins. With Saint-Gaudens, the trustees of the Saint-Gaudens Memorial said, Do you want to make this film about him? The only thing I knew about Saint-Gaudens was that he was on an American stamp in 1940, and I had that picture of him. I came from Chicago, and there was a Saint-Gaudens in Lincoln Park, but I didn’t know enough about him. They showed me the site of his studio and home in Cornish, New Hampshire. When I saw that, I thought, We’ve got the set. All I need is the actors, and we can think up the movie. Given all this and the artwork, we can do it. But it was a close call for me. Right down to the end, there wasn’t quite enough art for me to get my hands on. And I didn’t budget my time well enough to get enough scenery. It was rough, but it was also physically beautiful. We worked to make that film as beautiful as the setting and the costumes, and all of that was.

You had wonderful shots of his monuments in New York and the Shaw memorial in Boston and the Adams Memorial.

I was very happy with that film, very happy with the Ives. Eakins was OK. Then we got to Olmsted. That had come from Howard Weaver, who was at Yale. He wanted to make a film about Olmsted. He said, Do you want to do Olmsted the way you did Ives? And I said, Yes. (Olmsted is another major character—talk about freedom and equality.) But we couldn’t find the money. I needed a lot of money to do that. That’s when I joined with the film people at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I had gotten a commitment from the Mellon Foundation. They said, We’ll put up money, several hundred thousand dollars, but you have to match it. So I went for years with the knowledge that they said they would back it. I worked with Charles Beveridge and Charles McLaughlin, the premier Olmsted scholars in the country. They were editing a multiple-volume set of Olmsted’s papers, which the Mellon Foundation was backing.

We had this big concept that Olmsted had an idea of the subconscious before Freud. Olmsted interpreted this as a question of design—in his case, that was landscape—which makes sense. By the way you design, you can affect people in their consciousness. To me, that was such a radical idea that he had in the 1850s. I didn’t think anyone else gave Olmsted the credit for understanding why landscape design wasn’t just making pretty parks or grounds for royalty, the way they did in Europe. It was about changing people’s insides, through not only fresh air, but through the way the park was laid out. And the two Charlies believed I was on to the right idea. So years later, we finally got together with the Metropolitan, and through them, I went to Boston, WGBH, and said we wanted to make this film on Olmsted, and we would include the Emerald Necklace around Boston, the same way we would include Central Park. Central Park was the key. All of Olmsted’s ideas were in place in Central Park, but the Emerald Necklace was in many ways a defining swan song for him. I needed to emphasize that side of his life to get WGBH to agree to put their money in. Then I went back to the Mellon Foundation. We still didn’t have quite enough money to match, but they said, We’ll give you the money to make the film, and you can try to find more money later—which is what we did.

I had all of Olmsted’s words, and I had done all of the elements of what I thought was important and what should be in there, and then I went to a scriptwriter, James Lawson, and worked with him on the script. But this time, I said, I’m going to shoot this film myself. I had a camera that had once been owned by Jack Paar on TV. It had an old Angenieux lens, which was very sharp. I knew if I just shot it all cleanly with a very sharp lens, I could make a go of it for television. I had plenty of crew, but I decided that when it came to setting it up and shooting the shots, I would do it.

Can you talk about how you began your work exploring Native Americans and the antiquarian past of the Northeast?

I started working at the Smithsonian in 1980 and first went to the Arctic with William Fitzhugh of the Arctic Studies Center.

Were you doing a film for them?

I started making a film for myself. After I’d seen what was going on on the Northwest coast with the Indians, I came back here with my colleague Will Goetzmann, and we began to realize there was a lack of understanding about the history of Eastern Native people. It was monumental how much we didn’t know and how much the academy figured they knew it all—claiming that American Indians got here about 12,000 years ago and crossed over from Siberia, and that was all there was to it. The scientists from the Smithsonian who were working in upper Labrador were finding evidence of this rich civilization called the Red Paint People, and it was much earlier than anything that was being found in the West of the United States. So if all these Indians did come from Siberia, why do we have evidence of the earliest high civilizations and mounds along the East Coast? The Smithsonian scientists said, We’re finding all this stuff. You can come up and shoot. They hosted us, and we got up there on Eskimo boats and had our first summertime shoot on an archaeological dig in upper Labrador. From that moment on, I was hooked. Bill Fitzhugh and I sat on the edge of a cliff looking out at the North Atlantic, and he said, Well, the question is, Did all this start here, or did it come from somewhere else? As a designer and as an artist, I thought this was probably the most difficult problem I could ever try to solve—making a film that tried to research and explain this black hole of knowledge about Eastern Indians.

When I began my research in earnest, I introduced myself to these squirrelly antiquarians, who took me out in the woods and showed me these extraordinary stone ruins that didn’t have any explanation. And like everyone else, I looked at them and couldn’t figure it out because nothing we knew about Eastern Indians said they ever built anything out of stone. And I realized very quickly that the idea the Indians couldn’t do this was a racist stereotype deep within us.

I spent thirty years going in and finding these sites, talking to scientists, going to Europe. We made the Red Paint film out of those first travels. And in that film, we showed all of the bases for saying there’s a mystery here. We called it The Mystery of the Lost Red Paint People [1987]. And I kept working on that. I’ve got thousands and thousands of hours of archival material of places and interviews, going all over Europe and Iceland and Alaska and Russia, trips the Smithsonian sent me on.

And you’ve explored this subject in New England, too.

And all the way through New England and the Middle West. I took advantage of all the resources I could. I got along with the Smithsonian scientists so well that several of them from different departments would ask me along to document different scientific expeditions and research projects. Then with my musician friends, we began to build websites out of the material we were recording for these scientists. At some point, maybe seven years ago, the Arctic Studies Center gave me an actual research position so that I could continue my work—and continue making their websites and movies for them. And by having that Smithsonian connection, I could talk to federal Indian tribes.

In your series of films about the stone ruins in the Northeast, Doug Harris, from the Narragansett Indian Tribe’s Historic Preservation Office, is a major figure.

Yes, he is a major figure. It took a while for the Indian tribes to see that I wasn’t just spouting Eurocentric anthropology, that I was really interested in the Native history and in understanding how rich it was. And they have their oral histories, which are a rare glimmer of the past.

I got the idea from one of the films that you’re a collaborator with Doug Harris and the Narragansett tribe.

They hire me to do things, but every time I want to do something, I can go to Doug Harris, and he’s very willing, and others are willing, to contribute the Native perspective because they know I want the Native perspective.

These films are under the rubric of Hidden Landscapes.

First of all, I wouldn’t have had these films if it weren’t for my wife, Sandra Kingsbury. She connected me to her cousin, Peter Frechette, who picked up on the idea and helped us raise the money to make four of these movies. He was a wonderful producer to work with.

Do you have an efficacious goal for the films?

The Narragansett, with Doug Harris, are working with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, trying to figure out how all of them can work together to start doing archaeology off the coast. Our goal was to make sure that in terms of offshore research along the continental shelf, the Indians were collaborating with the scientists and the government environmental regulators. And that’s happening. Working with the Narragansett Tribe and the University of Rhode Island, we got a two million dollar grant from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to put together the protocols with which all future developers will operate when they start putting in wind turbines or looking for oil or whatever it is they’re going to do. Whenever they dig into the bottom of the ocean, they’ve got to look first and see what’s there that may be of cultural importance. All of this work is coming out of the Hidden Landscapes project. The new awareness by the Indians themselves comes out of the breakthrough we had. Because of that first Hidden Landscapes movie, The Great Falls, the first ceremonial stone ruin site east of the Mississippi was determined to be eligible to be included on the national register. It was a big deal. We took the movie to Washington and showed it to teams of archaeologists, who decided, based on the film and their own research, that, yes, we’re going to take an Indian ceremonial site and make it eligible for the national register.

You just made a pilot for a new film about the architect Michael Graves. Are you going to go ahead with the film?

Yes, we got another round of funding, and I’m working on that as we speak.

The subtitle for the pilot is Humanism and Design. So you’ve come full circle to filming a biography about a person you consider a humanist. What challenges do you anticipate in creating a film with a living subject?

It’s the same challenge that you see in your oral history work. Mainly, how do you maintain the relationship to your subject that’s completely encouraging and trustworthy and still get them to bare their souls?

Graves speaks wonderfully about himself, and he’s frank about how he became paralyzed. I love the scene in his home where he moves through the space.

In his wheelchair? The trick with that is, when to tell the audience that he’s in a chair and why. That leads you to the fact that he’s interested in all of medical design, and in the next version, you’re going to find out that the government has asked him to design homes for the wounded warriors. We’ve devoted a lot of energy to showing how he designed homes for people who are disabled.

Is this project for TV?

Yes, I think we’ll aim for fifty-six minutes for TV length. Since I’m no longer producing my stuff, it’s really up to Bill Bonnell, who’s the producer. These days, you don’t know. It could be on the Web. There’s a whole world of distribution that’s way beyond what we had when I got out of school.

(For more about the Hidden Landscapes series, go to hiddenlandscape.com.)

Photograph by Sandra Kingsbury. Courtesy of Ted Timreck.

Profiles in Art, Copyright 2013-14 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council

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