Section: LIFE & LEISURE
Sunday, September 14, 1997
DIRECTOR TRIES FOR A BETTER VIEW OF `THE WRITER'
PAUL GRONDAHL Staff writer
Hugo Perez cautiously approached the king of gonzo journalists, whose tumbler of Chivas Regal never went dry on the terrace of a suite at The Four Seasons in New York City.
``Hunter was practically gargling with the Chivas,'' Perez said.
Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone guru, was there, and Hunter S. Thompson was quite proud of himself for stiffing the magazine with a bar tab in the neighborhood of $5,000 during a week in the posh suite.
Perez extended the palm of his right hand to Thompson, revealing a mehndi -- a temporary henna tattoo -- of Thompson's trademark gonzo journalism symbol, a double-thumbed fist with peyote button and dagger.
Thompson eyed the henna palm of Perez through a Chivas haze and snarled, ``Come back when you get a real tattoo, kid.''
Perez took the remark as a kind of compliment, set up a video camera and rolled tape as Thompson had a conversation with longtime friend William Kennedy, who wrote the introduction to a new collection of Thompson's letters, ``The Proud Highway.''
Thompson and Kennedy have been pals for three decades, from Kennedy's days as a former Times Union reporter disillusioned with newspaper writing and a young novelist in search of a voice in Puerto Rico. Several of Thompson's letters to Kennedy are included in the volume.
Perez was brought along to get footage for an eventual half-hour documentary on Thompson to air on ``The Writer,'' a new public television series of documentaries produced by the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany.
Kennedy, founding director of the Writers Institute, conducts some of the interviews, as does associate director Donald Faulkner. The point of view of ``The Writer,'' however, is one of immediacy and spontaneity. A world away from the ``talking head'' format of C-SPAN's ``Book Notes'' or the interviewer-as-star style of ``The Charlie Rose Show,'' the Writers Institute program's interviewers never appear on camera.
riffs Shot by producer-director Perez at public readings, at informal seminars and private interviews and later edited by Perez into a seamless conversation, ``The Writer'' unfolds like an author riffing on craft and the writer's life.
There's the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine reflecting on his working-class roots, describing his job at a Ford factory in Detroit, and telling a story about showing an early published poem to his old-fashioned Yiddish grandfather. The grandfather's reply: ``For this you went to college?''
The story of how ``The Writer'' came to be is a serendipitous one. Perez, 26, grew up in Miami after his father, Hugo Perez Sr., fled Cuba with his family. Perez Sr. supported his three sons as a bartender and bar manager; he died two years ago. His mother, Liliana Perez, lives in Miami.
Perez attended Yale University and took a fiction-writing workshop five years ago with Faulkner, who was teaching and running the summer writing program at Yale at the time. ``Don (Faulkner) became my mentor and continues to be,'' Perez said.
When Faulkner came to Albany in 1995, Perez was living in the Berkshires and working as director of activities at Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Mass. Video on writing Faulkner sought someone with videography experience who could tape readings and writers' seminars, to add to an already vast audio tape archive from the Writers Institute's first decade of operation. The choice was obvious.
``Hugo did good work in my class and he also displayed quirkiness and imagination in a student film project done on a shoestring,'' Faulkner recalled. At Yale, Perez wrote, shot, edited and produced an eight-episode soap opera, ``Bedsprings.'' Said Perez, ``It was kind of `Twin Peaks' meets `The Brady Bunch' on acid.''
Perez accepted Faulkner's offer and joined the Writers Institute staff. With a small stipend and his own High-8 video gear, Perez began documenting the visits of internationally acclaimed writers who passed through Albany. Those early tapes were meant as nothing more than archival documents.
Gradually, an idea evolved. Faulkner had in mind a program akin to a series he had done on Connecticut writers for Connecticut public TV some years ago in New Haven.
Perez became a fixture at the Writers Institute events, a quiet presence behind a camera in wire-rimmed spectacles and a trademark vest that gave him an almost 19th-century look. He honed his camera work and developed the concept for ``The Writer'' with Kennedy, Faulkner and Donn Rogosin, general manager at WMHT-TV, who provides technical assistance.
``Hugo is a genuine auteur,'' Rogosin said. ``It's not a book review process or a talking head show. It's an auteur's interpretation of a writer.'' On the air Over the summer, ``The Writer'' quietly debuted on a trial basis, with shows featuring Levine, the Civil War historian Shelby Foote and the novelist Robert Stone among others. It airs Sunday nights on WMHT (Ch. 17).
Faulkner said the Writers Institute is negotiating with underwriters in the publishing and bookselling industry. Also, they are seeking national distribution and have received strong initial interest from more than one national cable station as well as PBS.
``We're very hopeful that the show will be picked up nationally,'' Faulkner said.
Rogosin said a tape of a show on Frank McCourt, author of the best-selling ``Angela's Ashes,'' a memoir of his grim childhood in Ireland, has been sent to several stations around the country and interest has been keen.
``The Writers Institute clearly has national appeal,'' Rogosin said. ``If you look at things in our area that are truly outstanding, this is one of them.''
Perez already has a dozen segments of ``The Writer'' finished and counts Levine and McCourt (shot in various locales in New York City) among his favorite shows. ``They're both just real regular guys, with blue-collar roots to go with incredible literary minds and a magical ability to craft words,'' Perez said.
McCourt's book in particular touched Perez. ``I feel Cuban and American and yet really neither,'' Perez said, mirroring McCourt's split identity as Irish and American. Family feeling Perez said the hours in the editing room at WMHT can be long and the travel back and forth from the Berkshires to Albany and New York can be tedious, but he's having the experience of a lifetime.
``I get to work with my mentor (Faulkner) and Bill Kennedy and I have a feeling of family in an Old World sense, that warmth and friendship and mutual purpose,'' Perez said.
As Perez rolls tape, there is literary talk, anecdotes of encounters with other writers, laughter and wisdom. And after the formal interview is wrapped up, the conversation invariably goes on late into the night, fueled by good bread and red wine, and friends old and new.
``The Writer'' airs each Sunday at 7 p.m. on WMHT-TV (Ch. 17). All shows are repeated the following Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on WMHQ-TV (Channel 45).
Here is the fall lineup:
Sept. 14: Philip Levine, poet
Sept. 21: Frank McCourt, memoirist
Sept. 28: Edna O'Brien, Irish novelist
Oct. 5: Robert Stone, fiction writer
Oct. 12: Wole Soyinka, playwright and Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian writer in exile
Oct. 19: Joyce Carol Oates, novelist
Oct. 26: Nicholas Delbanco, fiction writer
Nov. 2: Jamaica Kincaid, fiction writer
Nov. 9: Ed Sanders, Beat poet
Nov. 16: Lee K. Abbott, short story writer
Nov. 23: Carolyn Force, poet
Copyright 1997, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.