Spring Cleaning — & Documentary Production

Yesterday the local newspaper carried a special section on spring cleaning.
This distressed me because I’m in no mood for cleaning anything.
I’m in the last throes of the production of “Rebels on Lake Erie” – and my husband is trying to finish his documentary, “Soljer Boy,” about Portage County in the Civil War.
Two documentaries being produced at the same time in the same household.
No wonder our Christmas tree is still up, and presents are still piled in the living room.
Time stands still and domestic chores are ignored when a producer is working on a documentary.
There are just too many things to do — the last minute corrections that Western Reserve Public Media wants before the Rebels documentary is broadcast on April 23 at 10 p.m., organizing a public preview (Thursday, April 19, at the Quaker in Akron), getting up a Facebook page, and working on this blog…. You get the idea.
The work of a producer never seems to be done.
It’s not that I don’t have help.
My cats – all five of them (Si, Mongo, Joe, Bailey, Karen) – are trying. Everyday I come home to a freshly smashed glass Christmas tree bulb. It’s only a matter of time before the whole Christmas tree is bare.
My dog – a German Shepherd named Sadie – is always at my feet, encouraging me to fix that moire pattern or work on my music cue sheet. She’s also pro-active, pulling down the last of the Christmas lights that still cling to bushes outside.
My daughter suggests that I might need to hire someone to help me clean – or, at least, take down that embarrassing Christmas tree. Impossible, I respond. I’d have too much cleaning to get the house ready to be cleaned.
Everything is just going to have to wait until after April 23. Wish me luck.
–Kathleen Endres

“Rebels” Team

One of the reasons I like working on documentaries is the collaboration – the sense of team.
Of course, there are times when documentary preparation can be a solitary activity.
In the beginning stages, when you’re wrestling with the idea, you usually work by yourself – and are grumpy to your family.
In the research stage, most of the work is done alone at archives, at libraries, in homes where letters are still held.
If you’re lucky, you meet some nice people along the way – a helpful archivist, a friendly librarian, or a person with a good sense of humor.
Eventually, the solitude is over and you start to put a team together.
Working on a documentary in a university environment is very different from working on one in a professional production house.
Ken Burns at Florentine Films works with most of the same individuals in each of his documentaries. He even has a reasonable budget.
It’s different working on a documentary at a university.
First, there’s that pesky issue of budget, or lack thereof. Unless you have a grant (and even if you do), you’re borrowing equipment, pleading for a lower shooting fee, or searching for copyright-free images.
Second, you are working with students, who are still honing their craft. That means they make mistakes – and every mistake has to become an “educational moment.”
Third, students graduate. An undergraduate or graduate student starts the project, understands where the film is going – and then they’re gone.
But enough whining.
Let me introduce you to some of the behind-the-scenes team that is “Rebels on Lake Erie.”
Phase 1 – Fall 2010: Graduate student Keith Aukeman and UA Communication alum Mike Wendt shot all the interviews – up at Johnson’s Island and the audio studio. In September 2010, we got to Johnson’s Island before dawn so they could shoot in the “sweet spot” of the day. The beautiful fall shots are all their’s!
Phase 2 – Winter 2010/2011: If you’ve been following the blog, you already know graduate student Keith Aukeman and UA Communication alum Georges Yazbek were weaving their magic with the camera — Keith after a blizzard on Johnson’s Island and Georges on St. Patrick’s Day on Governors Island.
Phase 3 – Spring 2011: Graduate student Gabor Smith joins the fun – he’s the behind-the-scenes guy working with the narrator in the audio studio and doing the “lion’s share” of the scheduling.
Phase 4 – Summer 2011: We’re back at Johnson’s Island with a new team. Gabor is back and he’s brought Communication major/videographer Ryan Keeper, who is fearless on land and sea (you’ll read about that later). Chris Collins, an experienced Akron videographer, joins in the adventure.
Phase 4 – Fall 2011 and Winter 2011/2012: Our editor, the Emmy-award-winning Matt Rafferty, joins the party. We – Matt, Gabor and me – spend every Saturday in the Avid-editing lab in Kolbe Hall. Two things about working on Saturdays at the University of Akron – the parking lots near Kolbe Hall are almost always closed for some game (that means we need to drag our equipment and supplies across campus) and, in the winter, it always seems to snow. Gabor really is the assistant editor – and quite the audio expert. No more clunks in our documentary! Gabor also brings another Communication undergraduate into our mix – Katrina DeFord, a former music major. You’ll be reading a lot more about her later.

Johnson’s Island, after a blizzard

It’s days like today that make me realize how lucky I am to live and work in Ohio.
Temperatures are in the 70s, and not even the threat of rain can dampen my spirits. I’ve been revitalized by spring break, a semester winding to a close and the documentary “Rebels on Lake Erie,” nearing completion.
As I reflect on the long documentary journey, I’m reminded of one particular day – Feb. 4, 2011.

It had been a hard winter, one of the worst in recent Ohio history.
We had just emerged from the “blizzaster,” a language abomination that seemed to perfectly describe the rain, ice, snow and sleet of Groundhog Day 2011 and the day after.
That storm had not just paralyzed the state but much of Midwest and the eastern seaboard. Boston, New York, Chicago, Cleveland – and Sandusky, Ohio, had all been battered by the storm.
Could there be any better reason to trudge – slowly – across the state of Ohio and get the ideal winter shot on Johnson’s Island?

February 4, 2011: With the turnpike open and much of the storm damage cleared away (or so we thought), my videographer (University of Akron graduate student Keith Aukeman) and I packed up the HD camera, the tripod, and the mike into my little Prius and headed out to Johnson’s Island, on Sandusky Bay.
I’d read enough about the Confederate officers imprisoned on Johnson’s Island during the Civil War complaining about the winter weather. I was going to see it for myself – and that meant videographer Aukeman had to see it too.
The trip across the state was long, cold and desolate. The sun reflected off the sparkling snow.
Keith and I talked about the shot, the weather, and the seemingly endless semester.
Two hours later, we left the turnpike, found Ohio 2, and headed for Bayshore Drive. For the first time ever, I didn’t miss Gaydos Drive.
We reached the causeway – but the code wouldn’t work so I loaded the machine with quarters and took the long road across Sandusky Bay to Johnson’s Island.
As I slowly drove on the narrow two-lane causeway, I started to think maybe this hadn’t been one of my best ideas. I suspected that if anything happened to us – getting lost, sliding off the road, running out of gas, we might not be found until spring.
On Johnson’s Island, the road was plowed — to the cemetery at least. We parked on the road. We didn’t have to worry about traffic because there was NO ONE on the island.
We unloaded the car. I took the lightest equipment. I’m tenured and old. Keith, who is much younger, handled the heavier gear.
We weren’t quite ready for the depth of the snow. It was over my knees. Although I was wearing my unfashionable big heavy winter boots, the snow got in, soaking my socks and freezing my toes.
I wasn’t ready for the wind either. I was wearing a heavy coat, a sweatshirt and thermals – but I was still cold, cold to my very bones.
After I fell – it’s tough to walk in knee-high snow, Keith asked if I was okay. Sure, I responded. Only my pride was injured.
Once we got near the bay, Keith got the shots of the cemetery and the statue first. Then I reminded him, we were up there for other shots – of the frozen bay, of the snow whipping around, of the desolation.
I wish we could have captured the feel of the cold, the bone-chilling cold, on film.
If you haven’t been up on Johnson’s Island in the winter, you just can’t appreciate it.
I wondered how the Confederate soldiers endured these temperatures – and the wind – in barracks that were heated only by a stove.

After an hour or two (in the cold, it’s hard to figure out time), we eagerly went back to the car, loaded up the gear and headed out. The first thing I did was turn up the car’s heater.
As we tried to warm up, I thought about those prisoners and how to work that bone-chilling sense of cold into the documentary. I’m not sure if we succeeded – or if anyone could convey it. I still get chills thinking about it.
We drove back over the causeway and headed into Sandusky.

We were cold, tired and hungry – and not much was opened in the city.
We stopped at one diner.
“Sorry,” the owner said, “we’re closed.”
We wandered down the street and stopped at another restaurant.
This one was closed permanently — or so the official notice said.
We finally found a bar and drank lots of coffee and ate our lunch at about 3 p.m. Such is the life of a documentarian.

Reasonably warm and no longer hungry, we wandered back to the car and planned what to do next – get a couple more shots of the bay.
That sounded easy enough.
We headed for the waterfront. But nobody wanted us down there. The plows were still trying to clear away about a foot of snow.
We weren’t going to be stopped, however. We eventually found a reasonably cleared parking lot – and a park right on the bay. We got to work.
Keith captured the lonely seagulls and the frozen bay. They are beautiful shots.
The wind blew off the bay, freezing everything – including my face. I had gloves on but my hands were still cold. After about half an hour, I retreated to the car. About 45 minutes later, Keith joined me.
We were ready to head back to Akron.

It had been a good day and we accomplished a lot.
The next day, another storm barreled across Ohio. Akron was snowed in yet again.

On Groundhog Day 2011, Punxsutawney Phil, my favorite forecaster, didn’t see his shadow, predicting an early spring. That February, snow storm after snow storm battered Ohio.
I’ll never trust a rodent again.

A great idea — and a great student

Every time I talk about this “Rebels on Lake Erie” documentary, I’m asked – where did you get the idea?
I always credit a very good student in my magazine article writing class in Spring 2007.
That semester, I asked the students to go to a newsstand and find an unusual magazine. That student found Pirates magazine.
When she brought her treasure back to class, the students talked about possible story ideas for the magazine. I playfully inquired if there had been any pirates on Lake Erie.
Anticipating my question, she responded, yes, there had been – during the Civil War.
I don’t recall if she did a story on John Yates Beall or if she submitted any story to the magazine. And, quite frankly, after bragging to my husband about my tremendously talented student (he teaches at Kent State and I teach at University of Akron, so you get an idea what dinner conversation is like), I forgot all about it.
Two years later, I was at a conference where scholars were talking about the forthcoming sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
I guarantee you the words – pirate and documentary – weren’t uttered, but the conference got me thinking again about that pirate on Lake Erie.
And the rest, I might add is history.
When I got home from the conference in 2009, I started the research process – reading everything I could about the prison on Johnson’s Island and Lake Erie pirate.
It certainly was a compelling tale – one that begged for a documentary, instead of the traditional scholarly journal article.
And, so to the talented student who found Pirates magazine and introduced me to John Yates Beall, I thank you now – and in the credits of the documentary, which will be premiering in April in Ohio.

Rebels on Lake Erie — The Blog

Welcome to Rebels on Lake Erie – the Blog.
This blog is designed to give you the inside story of the documentary, “Rebels on Lake Erie,” which will be premiering in Ohio in April. But it also will deal with broader questions of the Civil War from an Ohioan’s perspective.
The documentary itself deals with the Confederate prisoner-of-war depot on Johnson’s Island in Sandusky Bay and the abortive attempt to liberate it. You’ll find out about the Northwest Conspiracy, a college-educated Virginia pirate and plots and schemes hatched by the Confederates in Canada.
Ah, it’s just the right blend of adventure, intrigue and history to make a riveting hour of television.
This blog is written by me, Kathleen Endres, producer, director, writer, researcher, publicist, caterer and go-fer for the documentary.
As if those aren’t enough hats to wear, I also teach in the School of Communication at The University of Akron. My specialty is journalism and historical research.
Stay tuned to the blog for some strange, inside stories of the Rebels on Lake Erie, some great Civil War music, and some fun.
Kathleen L. Endres