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Filmmaker Frank Popper on inner journeys and outer space

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 9, 2012 - Space travel probably isn’t in filmmaker Frank Popper’s future. Still, it is in his fantasies.

For Popper, who has two films in the Nov. 8-18 St. Louis International Film Festival, documenting an out-of-this-world journey would be the ultimate filmmaking experience. Growing up with a father in the Air Force and surrounded by conversations about sonic booms and jet engines infused young Popper with a fascination for space flight.

NASA’s colossal cutbacks (and his wife’s resistance to such a dangerous project) make a space film an unlikely prospect.

But a guy can dream.

“I’d love to be able to follow an astronaut, to see behind the scenes,” Popper said. “That’s what I’m always interested in, what’s behind the curtain.”

From Faulkner to film

More comfortable on the other side of the interviewing process, the soft-spoken Popper at first hesitated when he realized his words would be captured on tape.

“I don’t like being on this side of a recording device,” he said, smiling, before relaxing into the conversation.

When asked where he spent his childhood, Popper, 63, offered, “I didn’t grow up anywhere,” switching to, “I grew up everywhere.” His father’s career took the family, including a sister and half-brother, from Key West to Anchorage and Taiwan and Okinawa.

Along the way, action-adventure and boy-meets-girl films never excited him. “They were like pablum,” he said. Then in high school, “The Loved One,” a satiric look at the funeral business, grabbed his attention.

“It was my first introduction to the whole notion that film can be about ideas,” Popper said.

After graduating from Taipei American High School, Popper followed his father to San Antonio and St. Mary’s college, transferring after one year to SLU and then UM-St. Louis to major in English and get his teaching certificate.

After a lifetime of being on the move, Popper sometimes can’t believe he’s never left St. Louis.

“I keep waiting for my dad’s orders to come in,” he joked.

In the 1970s, while teaching English at Parkway West High School, a lightbulb went off in Popper’s head inside the school’s darkroom. As he watched the art teacher develop film, Popper asked, “Will you teach me that? It looks like fun.”

For the rest of his time at Parkway, Popper experimented with photography and filmmaking on the side while completing a master’s degree in communications from Webster. He didn’t have to look further than his Webster Groves home for subjects for his first film.

“It was about my children. I called it ‘Anya and Jack Take a Ride,’” Popper said.

Mr. Pulitzer and Mr. Smith

Popper’s first real production was “Experience St. Louis,” a collaboration of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, St. Louis Symphony, Sheraton Hotels, and the city of St. Louis and then-Mayor Vince Schoemehl. A Post-Dispatch article about the film brought Popper to the attention of the newspaper’s publisher.

“Joseph Pulitzer saw the article and, long story short, his company made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Popper recalled. “[He said] ‘Come work with us, under our roof, and tell stories about the paper.”

After creating a multi-image presentation and numerous award-winning films promoting the newspaper, Popper talked his bosses into letting him produce a feature film, “The Lounge People.” He was able to attract some big names to the project.

“Buck Henry, Amanda Plummer, B.D. Wong, Christine Ebersole ... ,” Popper said. “It aired on Starz and Comedy Central in the ‘80s.” 

 

In 2004, Popper turned his camera on Jeff Smith, a political science instructor running for U.S. Congress. “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?” follows underdog Smith in his race against then-state Rep. Russ Carnahan, who had the advantage of membership in Missouri’s most powerful political family.

“Mr. Smith” garnered numerous accolades, including winning an Audience Award at the 2006 Silverdocs Documentary Festival and being shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination. Mr. Smith did not fare as well.

He lost his U.S. congressional race. Later, he won a state Senate seat. After the film was released, Smith resigned his state post, pled guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice in occurrences during the 2004 U.S. Congressional race and and went to federal prison.

“I admire him greatly despite the one mistake he made,” Popper said.

More ‘cupcakes than broccoli’

If the word “documentary” conjures up thoughts of droning narration relieved by the occasional talking head, you’re likely not familiar with Popper films.

“I’m less interested in educating people than I am in moving them,” Popper said.

Sometimes, viewers aren’t sure what they’re seeing. A high point in his career came when “Mr. Smith” was showing in Paris and a patron arrived late, missing the introduction.

“She leaned over to her friend and said, ‘Are we watching a documentary or a movie?’ That was the ultimate compliment,” Popper said.

“More like eating cupcakes than broccoli” is how Popper views his films. Using a food to describe his work is fitting for a man who’s also creative in the kitchen. Reflecting his international upbringing, Popper enjoys preparing Indian, Thai, Chinese, Bengali and French foods as well as barbecue.  

Dave Gilbert, senior media producer at Thompson Coburn law firm, is quite familiar with Popper’s culinary skills. He’s enjoyed many a Popper meal during their 30-year friendship, along with their numerous professional endeavors.

Gilbert called Popper easy to work with, but he’s no pushover. Gilbert remembered a time when a corporate client hired Popper for a project that was consistently watered down in endless committee meetings.

“He actually stood up in a meeting and said, ‘I guess you just don’t want a Frank Popper presentation,’” Gilbert said. “The rest of us were like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ We couldn’t believe he did it.”

Looking for the motivation

An inside look at the Pulitzer Foundation’s “Staging Reflections of the Buddha” is one Popper selection available to 2012 SLIFF patrons. He started out shooting scenes of former prisoners and veterans performing in conjunction with the Pulitzer’s “Reflections of the Buddha” exhibition for the foundation’s own documentation.

“While I was in the middle of it, I asked permission to make a short film because I thought it was some of the best footage since I did ‘Mr. Smith,’” Popper said.

The result, “Where the Sky Meets the Trees,” will be shown Sunday, Nov. 11 at Plaza Frontenac Cinema with another film, "Inocente." On Saturday, Nov. 17 at Washington University's Brown School, Popper fans can view a director’s cut of the immigration series, “Homeland: Refugees," which aired on PBS this past summer.

Currently, working from the offices of KETC-TV, Popper’s getting ready for his fourth visit to Haiti for a project tentatively called “Shaking the World.” The film follows St. Louisans as they work to improve the lives of Haitians, particularly after the 2010 earthquake.

“Shaking” Producer Lori Dowd noted that Popper has a special knack for being involved in the action without calling attention to himself. She called Popper “tenacious” for his persistence in capturing special moments.

Dowd recalled a time when Popper was rewarded for waiting it out while a group of people outside Port-au-Prince laboriously dragged a piano across some rubble.

“He stayed right with them,” Dowd said. “And when the piano was settled, a man began to play a song for Frank. It’s a haunting scene.”

In another incident, Popper waded into a torrent of people rushing to receive a handout of food.

“He walks out into the crowd and a fight breaks out. And he has the strength to stay right there and get that on camera,” Dowd said.

Popper’s focus is a perfect fit with that of Dowd, who’s busy with the big picture while he concentrates on the subjects and their motivations.

“He thinks about people, really understanding the human spirit and human longing,” Dowd said. “I’m thinking about the action, and he’s going deep -- he always wants to know, ‘But what are these people really after?’”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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