A ‘deeply involved’ director

In his documentary “The Stone Carvers,” filmmaker Paul Wagner followed the men who carved the statues and gargoyles of the Washington National Cathedral.
In his documentary “The Stone Carvers,” filmmaker Paul Wagner followed the men who carved the statues and gargoyles of the Washington National Cathedral.

Emmy Award winner Paul Wagner will be a special guest at April’s RAAC film festival

w-wagner-logo-18Academy Award-winning independent filmmaker Paul Wagner, who has produced and directed more than 40 documentary and dramatic films, will be one of the special guests at the Rappahannock Association for Arts and Community’s Film Festival of Little Washington being held April 8-10.

Wagner, joined by wife and business partner Ellen Casey Wagner, will be the guest of honor at the festival’s Sponsor Appreciation Dinner tentatively set for April 7, where he will greet guests and discuss the independent filmmaking industry.   

“I’ve been in filmmaking over 40 years now,” Wagner said, adding with a chuckle, “Guess you could finally call me a ‘veteran filmmaker’!” A University of Pennsylvania student with dreams of a communications doctorate, he begrudgingly signed up for a documentary class because “no other class was available.” He soon discovered it was “interesting, challenging — but also fun!”

Leaving the doctorate in the dust, Wagner immediately started filming with friends who were fond of folk lore — and out of it came the Oscar for Best Short Documentary for “The Stone Carvers,” which also landed him an Emmy Award for Best Director. Soon after, he noticed a repeating theme of “collaboration with academics,” he said, which are “popularly appealing films.”

Fast forward four decades and Wagner is now collaborating with the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in the area of business ethics. While this topic appeals to a broad audience, he said, its “important scholarly content” makes raising funds for the documentary a little easier.

“I have to get deeply involved” in filmmaking, Wagner said. Whereas commercial video is mostly straight filming, “documentaries are in the minds of filmmakers, and people who watch them are [experiencing] personal expression.”

Wagner prefers his work be “rooted in excitement.” He explained that it “makes the film a lot better” if a filmmaker goes into deep “subject matter” research, which can take months — if not years — to carry out.

For instance, in “The Stone Carvers,” Wagner follows the men who carved the statues and gargoyles of the Washington National Cathedral. And even if an audience had seen prior news clips of the stone masonry work, he said, the viewers “didn’t get to know the actual carvers — who are real people.”

Many filmmakers have past roots in music, Wagner discovered, and indeed, “a lot of film editing is like music…[using] rhythm, tone.” As a co-ed, he dabbled in the music genre which he grew up listening to in Kentucky. “I was the leading country singer in Philly because I was the only country singer in Philly,” he quipped. But soon he caught the filmmaking bug and “that [became] my creative thing.”

Married almost 30 years and parents of four children, the Wagners are also partners in Paul Wagner Films. “We’re like family farmers, with ebb and flow between family and professional life,” he mused contentedly. “It’s more than a career — it’s a lifestyle”.

In 1980 after college, Wagner moved to Washington, D.C., largely due to his involvement in the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. After they wed and started a family, the Wagners decided it was time to “get out of downtown D.C.”

Eventually they moved to the countryside, which was “a little scary because we were going to cut ourselves off” from the big city. But technology arrived just in time — in the form of “the fax machine,” he jested. “We could stay in touch with people,” which was “only partially true,” he explained, until the arrival of the internet. So they have joined others to “live local, work nationally.”

Does Wagner love one of his films over another? “‘The Stone Carvers’ won the Academy Award,” he said, “but in fact I love all my films, like you love all your children…not just the one that achieved the most.”

Even so, one of Wagner’s films almost landed him in jail.

“Windhorse” was “secretly taped in Tibet and Nepal” after, in 1993, he serendipitously “picked up a New York Times and read a front page article about a young American woman arrested in Lhasa,” Tibet — which was under Communist regime — for taking a photograph.

Could niece Julia, then living in Kathmandu, Nepal, perhaps know her, he thought? She did indeed: It was his niece.

“The Chinese released her in a day or two,” Wagner said, but “took her film and visa and…kicked her out of the country.”

Soon after, while visa-less Julia aided from Kathmandu, Wagner and Julia’s boyfriend soon produced “Windhorse” in Tibet about “what it’s like to be a young person in that area.”

Filmmakers Martin Scorcese and Brad Pitt had been unable to film in that area, Wagner explained, instead forced to work elsewhere while only portraying stories set in Nepal and Tibet. “But we were actually there — and with a new film team” working undercover, he said proudly.

“We had some close calls,” Wagner confided, but “Windhorse” was worth it, as it went on to win Best U.S Feature and Best Director at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Notably, the film was the world’s first digitally shot theatrical release.

Wagner said he is “very excited about the Virginia filmmaking focus” of Rappahannock County’s festival. “It’s a concept whose time has come.” A festival is “better when there’s a focus…Little Washington is good about local support and enthusiasm” which is “what makes a festival successful.”

“A lot of localities have film festivals now,” Wagner said. “They are tremendous cultural events.” He explained they are “opportunities to pull together [an entire] community” around one thing.

“If you only see the ones” that are Oscar winners, “you’ve only seen a sliver,” Wagner stressed. “Festivals are the reason you see the other smaller ones…there are a lot of good films out there.” It is a chance to “have a drink and talk about it,” he said, adding, “filmmaking is a terrific viewing experience.”

More info can be found at www.thefilmfestivalatlittlewashington.com and www.paulwagnerfilms.com.