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Just,  Melvin
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Production Notes

by James Ronald Whitney

Running Time 96 min., Color, 35 mm, Dolby Surround, USA

It was late 1997 when my mother, Ann, called to tell me that her mother, Fay Just, was dying. My Grandma Just was drinking herself to death and was down to a skeletal 68 pounds, so, all six of Grandma's children decided to rendezvous at her hospital room in northern California for an intervention of sorts. This rendezvous involved my mom and her three siblings who include the twins (my Aunt Jan and Aunt Jean) and their brother (my Uncle Jim). My mom and her siblings have two half-sisters, as well, from Grandma Just's second marriage to Melvin Just. They are June Just and Jerri Just (my half-aunts), both of whom live in the area, so they also would be attending this little family reunion.

I have always been very close with the twins and with Uncle Jim, but as a child, I was exceptionally close with June and Jerri, because they were closer to my age. I can remember when Grandma Just was married to Grandpa Just (Melvin Just) like it was yesterday. They lived in the junkyard, where he was an amazing mechanic. And Grandma had an incredible mean streak, but I loved her with all my heart. As I got older, however, I discovered that his abuse and her alcoholism and selfishness destroyed my family, and nearly destroyed my mom, who had incredible difficulty overcoming this dysfunctional upbringing and had consequently made numerous suicide attempts. These attempts then affected my life--and so the cycles continue.

I was on the phone with Jim Hart when my mom called. Jim is a writer ("Hook," "Contact") and we were discussing his interest in a musical I had written called "Yesterday's Tear." During the conversation, I kept thinking how lucky he was to have chosen film as his medium rather than stage. I've always been passionate about both, but had stayed away from film because of the cost. I hit the flash button and told Jim I'd call him back.

As Mom continued, I realized that my family's dysfunction was similar to a traditional opera, and that they were a colorful, confused and complex cast of characters. It had been only minutes since my conversation with Jim, so my head was still filled with 24-frame images, and I was quickly transforming this traditional opera into a sort of celluloid tragedy. I began listening to Mom as though she were describing the treatment for a feature film. Again, the cost consideration came to mind, but as vice president at a Wall Street firm, I was in terrific financial shape, and knew I could finance the film myself. Besides, for me there was something incredibly important about telling this story. It wasn't about cost, it was all about closure.

If Grandma were indeed going to die, I wanted to first confront her about the damage she did to my mother, to my family, and to me. After her decades of denial and "enablement" (I've never much cared if my words are actual words), I hoped she'd finally allow some closure-for all of us. This would probably be her last chance to come clean, to be honest, and to apologize. I also felt that the impact of this particular story could help others who have had experiences similar to those of my family.

I told Mom about my movie idea and she thought it was terrific, adding that "Maybe it would finally serve as a wake-up call to society." She had already expressed interest in volunteering some time to Childhelp USA, which is a program designed to help abused and molested children, but the very personal nature of this movie would provide not only an awakening to others, but some closure for herself, as well.

Call waiting signaled again. Now overloaded with images, I told Mom I'd call her back later. I hit the flash button, but it was a wrong number. My head was spinning.

My family's opera was being choreographed into an amazing ballet in my head. I closed my eyes, and began watching this celluloid dance-the movie. The decision was made. Paper and pen in hand, I started up the spiral staircase to my roof deck. Halfway up, I yelled across the loft to my other half, "I'm going to make a movie." Two steps later, I heard an emotionless, "Okay."

There are many twists and turns in the lives of both sides of my family, so it was clear to me that the movement of the central characters would be exciting. But which side of the family should I focus on? My father's side was a mystery because I had not seen him in 23 years when he ran off with my mother's best friend and became a Hell's Angel. On the other hand, my mother's side was filled with dark secrets locked away in closets, and discovering ways to open those doors could prove to be a very cathartic experience.

Cordless phone still in hand, I called my best friend, Julie, who works at abc. I told her about the movie idea. "But you've never made a movie," she said. "No, but I've seen one," I responded. I then explained that Grandma Just was teetering on death and that I needed to begin filming immediately. She told me to speak with Richard Perello at Cataland Films and John and Sarah Taggart at Production 920. I trusted and respected all three of these people incredibly. Finally, she said, "And please go watch at least one more movie before you yell 'action.'" I did.

I wrote my business plan in 43 minutes, then began to storyboard the movie. My family had been "scared silent," but I knew that if they finally spoke, the project would be incredibly rewarding for us all. After completing a rough treatment, I called Mom and asked her if she wanted to get involved. Mom is the poster woman for melodrama, so I was certain she would say "yes." "No," she said, "it will be too difficult to relive those nightmares. But I will tell my story on camera. Once. So get it right the first time." Next, I called Richard Reichgut and asked him to co-finance the film with me. And although I had a battery of ammunition prepared to counter his arguments against the project, he immediately agreed, thus becoming the co-executive producer of "Twist and Shout," the first of many working titles to come. I then called a meeting with John and Sarah and began preparing my presentation. It had been two hours and twelve minutes since I made my spiral climb to the roof. They were due in an hour.

Perello helped me decide on 16mm instead of 35mm, and explained that in post, I could blow the film up to 35mm, thus saving a substantial amount of money. He also said that "The characters sound like colorful people, so go with color, not black and white." I knew that I could handle the project myself, but I desperately needed to find a cinematographer who could do his own lighting, as well as someone for location sound. John Taggart was the perfect D.P. I had seen his work countless times on MTV, and it always felt invisibly exciting -- perfect for the subjects of this movie. But I also needed a location sound engineer, and someone to deal with ordering and processing the film, transferring the sound, and providing me with dailies. Sarah Taggart was brilliant with sound and is an excellent organizer. She and John started their husband and wife team several years ago, and it is already a huge NYC success with a spotless reputation. I knew that down the road, they could also be responsible for the telecini process and the blow up to 35mm.

An hour later, Reichgut, the Taggarts and I had a meeting. The presentation went as I had planned, and they all seemed incredibly excited about the project. In that we all live in the area of Manhattan known as Tribeca, in just 4 hours and 56 minutes TRIPOD BELOW the CAMERA was born.

Many of my relatives are without homes and telephones, so I knew it would take a couple of weeks just to track them down. I was preparing for the trip when I got an unexpected call. Aunt Gerri had passed away. She was my dad's eldest sister who was married to Grandpa Just's brother, and we were pretty close. Between her upcoming funeral service and Grandma Just's near death, I knew it was time to begin shooting. I gave Sarah my credit card number to order the film, then reserved a couple of Super 8 rooms and a Hertz mini-van. Within hours, the Taggarts and I were off for what would be the first of numerous incredible journeys to come. And after decades of dysfunction and denial, my family and I began to finally open those locked closet doors of the past.

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