Director tells whole truth, nothing but truth
AT a recent screening of A.K.A. Doc Pomus at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., Will Hechter, the film’s co-director, looked around and noticed that the majority of his fellow filmmakers tended to be in their early 20s.
Indeed, Hechter noticed he was often the oldest guy in the room.
A.K.A. Doc Pomus is his first directing credit. Hechter is 66.
The Winnipeg-born Hechter is best known as a lawyer. He graduated from Harvard with a master of law in 1974 and has worked in criminal law as both a prosecutor and defence counsel. Along the way, he also founded and published a magazine — Canadian Lawyer — and more recently took on managing a Toronto investment firm, Excalibur Capital Management.
But he has also long nurtured the film bug, dating back to the late ’60s and early ’70s in Winnipeg, when he used to program foreign art films for the city’s first art-house cinema, Cinema 3, at the corner of Sherbrook and Ellice.
“I always wanted to, before I pass on, make a few films,” Hechter says on the phone from Toronto.
He began that phase of his career in earnest, producing the 2010 documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, a Dustin Hoffmannarrated film directed by Peter Miller.
“We got very lucky with that,” Hechter says. “It played everywhere and PBS picked it up, so it’s still playing on PBS.”
(Look at the film’s IMDb profile and you can spot another clue to Hechter’s Manitoba heritage. His production company is called Clear Lake Historical Productions.)
Hechter teamed with Miller in a more active capacity on A.K.A. Doc Pomus, a movie examining the career of polio-afflicted songwriter Jerome Felder, who contributed to some of the most popular tunes of the ’50s and ’60s, including Save the Last Dance For Me, This Magic Moment, Turn Me Loose and Suspicion.
“That’s what kind of music we listened to all the time, that Brill Building music,” Hechter says, referring to the New York institution that housed famed songwriting teams including Leiber and Stoller, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
“First I wanted to do a film on all the Brill Building writers, but I realized that was much too massive,” Hechter says.
“So I then came across a book written on Doc Pomus’s life by Alex Halberstadt, a biography that I just loved. What an incredible character and story! Inspirational! Everything was there.”
In a more hands-on capacity, Hechter found his experience cross-examining witnesses served him well doing interviews with the film’s sub- jects, including Felder’s family and a multitude of musicians.
“Perhaps it gives you more of an ease in talking to people for the first time, much like you’re talking to a witness from the other side,” Hechter says. “It’s very important to put people at ease.”
Finding the funding for the film was not as arduous a process as it could have been. Hechter discovered that since it had educational merit, it could be registered as a non-profit charity.
“I never wanted to go to friends of mine and say, ‘I want you to invest in a film.’ That’s silly, because most films don’t make any money. You would just have some angry friends,” he says.
“So what we were able to do was convince the Canadian government that these films were educational, on the accomplishments of Jews in society, whether they were in music, science, sports, and everyone said OK.
“So they gave us a charitable licence, and I really wanted that licence, so persons I would approach would know exactly what they’re getting into and they could get a tax receipt.
“I have no investors in the film; I have donors,” he says.
“The idea was to get the film shown as widely as possible and then after the film has had its initial run at festivals or on television, we take it upon ourselves to distribute these films throughout libraries in Canada and the U.S., and throughout schools, so it becomes part of a library collection by way of a DVD.
“The film works as a travelling museum. It’s always there. And that is the idea.”
Hechter isn’t stopping with the Doc Pomus doc, but for now, he is keeping his own counsel about his next project. He only says he’s not done being a filmmaker yet.
“It’s one way of keeping going. You want to be involved,” he says. “It’s something I was driven to doing.”
Above left, lawyer-turned-filmmaker Will Hechter; above, Mort Shuman, left, and Doc Pomus.