Filmmaker from Woodville makes splash in Big Apple

Woodville filmmaker Scott Willis. Staff photo/Roger Piantadosi.

Funny thing: The documentary feature chosen at this spring’s Tribeca Film Festival as “Best New York Documentary,” a critic’s pick at both the Village Voice and New York magazine, was pretty much made in Woodville.

And (though the Tribeca folks didn’t know about that) had its “world premiere” in Amissville.

Of course “The Woodmans” wasn’t shot here in Rappahannock County — its subject being a young New York-by-way-of-Colorado photographer and the family and friends who struggle to make sense of her suicide at age 22 in 1981, and the fame that has come to her work since.

But it was conceived and written — and don’t for a moment think an unnarrated documentary requires no writing — and then assembled, edited and finished by not-yet-fulltime Woodville resident C. Scott Willis and a crew of eight to 10 editors, graphic artists and others who came to stay at Willis’ home and post-production studios for weeks at a time.

In Woodville.

The big-time movie production house is right there at the end of Little Eldon Lane — though it looks mostly like a big red brick Victorian, which Willis shares with his wife, poet and George Washington University professor Mary Sherman, who are there “as many days of the week as possible” (currently three to four, the rest spent in D.C.), and which belonged to the widow of Eldon Farms owner William D. Lane II, Andy Lane, who restored it in the early 1980s.

“Most films of this type are made in small dark rooms either in New York or L.A.,” says Willis, 58, relaxed amid the bookshelves, antiques, Oriental carpets and a well-used fireplace in the living room, which looks out past tall oaks onto some of the 7,700 rolling acres of Eldon Farms. “So what you do,” he says, speaking of what he does, “you bring out all these really talented people, editors and art directors and so on, and they can bring their spouses or kids or dogs, and it changes the paradigm of how they work.

“Instead of a small dark room in an urban setting, you have your small dark room here [there are actually two editing rooms at the Willis place] but it is surrounded by an 8,000-acre farm with a giant front yard . . . thanks to [Eldon Farms owners] Lane Industries. So we’re here working on a film, but we’re also cooking together, and eating together.

“It just . . . invites full participation,” says Willis, who relies on the collaborative process — without which the task of making a film (unlike the task of writing poetry, as Sherman does) would never get done.

“What I really want to do at this point in life,” Willis says, “is to do things in a way that only enhances collaboration. And Rappahannock kinda just plays right into that.”

The intimate documentary, “The Woodmans,” is the first self-produced feature documentary for director Willis, who spent two decades (and collected 11 Emmys) as a front-line producer for “Nightline,” and has since made primarily investigative documentaries for “Nova,” The New York Times, PBS, and others.

The Victorian house surrounded by Eldon Farms' acreage where Willis and wife Mary Sherman live and work.

It’s been three years since Willis, after a chance encounter and conversation with her parents, began work on the story of Francesca Woodman. To a spare and evocatively primal score by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lang, it is told through Francesca’s photos — many of them nude portraits, often of her — and her breezy and increasingly troubled journal entries, and through interviews with friends, peers and family — her parents George and Betty Woodman and brother Charles, all of them artists themselves.

“The Woodmans” marks a number of major changes for Willis, who promised to “challenge myself” after he and Sherman got their place in Rappahannock about six years ago. It is the first time he’s made a film where there was no one pushing deadlines on him — except himself. It’s a complete change of subject matter — “I’m used to covering armed conflict — and with armed conflict, it’s fine — you look at a map, see where the lines are, and there’s usually a concrete wall you can hide behind. But this was a story about emotional conflict — emotional conflict is like quicksand for me.”

Thus Willis says it meant a lot to him, having lived with the film for three years, to be able to “bring out this new baby and show it to the artistic community here in Rappahannock first — and have them say they thought it was as beautiful as you think it is.
“It was a big deal for us,” he says, “because Mary Sherman and I really feel connected to this community.”

Willis’ screened “The Woodmans,” and answered nearly an hour’s worth of questions by the assembled 50 or so Rappahannockers in attendance, at February’s “Soup and Soul” gathering at Amissville’s Narmada Winery.

Sallie Morgan, who organizes the monthly wintertime programs for the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community (RAAC), said the program at Amissville was also a departure — usually spotlighting an artist who talks about a work in progress.
“But because he had just finished it — and had such a sense of it as a whole — we took a chance and made the evening longer and he showed the film,” Morgan says. “It was really an enthusiastic reception for it.”

To see a trailer and find out more about the film, see www.thewoodmansmovie.com. The film will also be screened Thursday, June 24 and Saturday, June 26 as part of the AFI/Discovery Channel’s Silver Docs documentary festival in Silver Spring, for which it was chosen as a feature from among more than 2,000 films from around the world.

For more information about RAAC’s “Soup and Soul” and other programs: 540-675-3193 or www.raac.org.

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Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 538 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.