On November 13, the documentary film, The 46ers, aired on public television stations throughout New York state.
The film tells the story behind the quest by hundreds of people since 1925 who have ascended the 46 highest peaks in New York state to become 46ers, and why they climb them.
This is Part 2 of an interview I (Gary) had with our friend and filmmaker, Blake Cortright.
Q. The 46ers is not your first documentary. Is this the form of filmmaking you plan on pursuing for a career?
A. My first real production was The First Encampment (2010), a documentary short which aired on a handful of PBS stations in New York while I was still in High School. That project fell into my lap almost by accident and I’m so thankful it did because it opened doors for me to intern at WMHT PBS in Troy, NY and gain real world experience before I even went to film school.
The 46ers represents an entirely different effort. While First Encampment did feature an interview, a narrator, and a handful of voice actors, the overall production was small and simple. The 46ers on the other hand required two years of shooting, over two dozen interviews, countless hours of writing and re-writing followed by countless hours of editing.
I love documentary films, but I am first and foremost a narrative film guy and I hope to direct narrative feature films for the big screen.
Q. The film enjoyed an early limited release in theaters throughout and around the Adirondacks. I saw it at the Capitol Theater in Rome, NY. You appeared and answered questions at a number of those screenings. What was the most intriguing question you recall answering?
A: Some of the most interesting questions were about conservation and stewardship. Making the film greatly expanded my perspective on stewardship and my respect for the wilderness.
Discovering the beauty of the mountains firsthand and hearing the stories of those who love and care for the mountains inspired the crew and me.
It was awesome to see people consistently asking about the stewardship of the mountains as the popularity of the 46 increases, and I think some of the interviewees in the film speak to that issue with a healthy balance of optimism and pragmatism.
Q. There is a great mix of interviews with seasoned hikers and newbies and there were moments in the film when those in the audience laughed right out loud and then solemn moments when you could cut the air with a knife. How did you finally decide who to include in the interview and what stories within The Story to tell?
A. We interviewed nearly two dozen people during the production of The 46ers. It wasn’t until our last interview with (then aspiring) 46er Amanda Travis that the central thread of all the pertinent interviews came into full view.
I knew the approximate runtime I was shooting for and that helped me narrow down my interviews. Some really great interviews had to be cut, but I’m very happy with the finished project as I feel the ones who made the final cut bring a very unique voice and perspective which makes the film feel rich and dynamic.
Q. I would imagine Whiteface Mountain, with its Veterans Memorial Highway, would be easiest to summit with film-making equipment. How did you and members of your ambitious crew get your gear to the top of other mountains such as Cascade and Porter?
A: Whiteface was the easiest peak for our crew since we drove up the highway and took the elevator to the summit with all of our camera gear. However, on every other shoot we had to bring along at least one tripod, camera, batteries and lenses in addition to normal hiking gear.
We used a special camera backpack to transport the main camera and lenses safely through the woods. Sometimes we had two or three cameras and lenses with us, and go-pros were almost always present as a C-camera. Usually, one of us would carry the main camera + lenses, someone else would carry the b-camera, and someone else would carry the tripod.
On one trip to Cascade we carried a portable jib crane and counter weights in addition to our normal gear - that was quite a sight! In short, we carried our gear on our backs everywhere we went except for Whiteface.
Q. Tell us about the score for the film and its composer, Justin Michael Brittain.
A. Justin is a good friend of mine but we met in an unconventional way. A few years before this project started, our moms reconnected on Facebook and connected Justin and I shortly thereafter. We had never met in person until part way through the production of The 46ers, so our friendship was predominately through Skype.
At the outset of this project, I knew I wanted a big musical score to match the visuals I had in my head and I reached out to Justin with the idea — he was ecstatic.
He crafted the track for the announcement trailer back in 2013 and over the course of the next year, we bounced ideas back and forth and I sent him dailies of the footage we were shooting so he could get a sense of the visual language of the film.
In 2014, Justin wrote the main musical theme which would come to define the tone of the soundtrack. While that theme only plays in full statement a handful of times, it’s one of the most iconic scores I’ve ever heard for a documentary film.
We never treated The 46ers like a documentary, and our references for music and visuals always came from the narrative film world. Movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, Dances with Wolves, and The Lord of the Rings inspired both of us in the scope of movie and the music we were creating.
I couldn’t be more proud of the score Justin composed and I’m so excited to work with him on the next project!
Q. The film also features an original song by Dan Berggren. Did Dan write the song for the film or did you discover it from his existing catalogue?
A. We were extremely privileged to have Dan’s support from the outset. I called him up when I was working on the initial promo and Kickstarter video to raise awareness and funds, and he offered a few instrumental songs from his catalogue to help the cause.
As we got further into production, I realized it would be so great to have a folk song during the credits and I reached out to Dan once again to see what he had up his sleeve. For the movie credits, he wrote an entire original song.
I had a blast joining him at his home studio as he re-worked portions of “Climbing” and did an initial recording for me to edit into the timeline. As we spoke about the project more, Dan felt the song should take on a hymn-like reverence, and I’m so thankful for his instincts because I can’t imagine of a better way to conclude the movie.
Q. What’s the next project?
A. In the past week, I’ve read three scripts sent my way for consideration and I’ve started developing a few screenplays of my own. I’m very excited about one narrative project in particular, I started writing it back in 2012 and I recently dug it out and started tearing it apart to build a newer, better story from the high concept I came up with in college.
I can’t give too many details, but it’s a world away from the lush mountainous wildernesses of The 46ers. That said, I’ve also got concepts for some Adirondack projects, but we’ll see what the future holds!
Q. For those who missed the PBS Television broadcasts, where can people still secure a copy of the DVD?
A. DVDs will be available through WCNY. For more information, visit www.wcny.org/46ers
*All photographs are © 2018 Blake Cortright.
This is the office where we do our brainstorming and most of our writing, blogging, posting and filling book orders. We are surrounded by shelves with many of our favorite books for children and young adults. Over my [Gary] shoulder you can see multiple volumes of The Hardy Boys – one of many book series providing inspiration early on for writing our adventure series for young people today.
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