Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Finding Emotion

          By the time producer Hillary Horgan caught up with the 18-year-old Coppola triplets in December 2010 their unusual story was well along.  Brandon Coppola had fractured a cervical vertebra in a 2008 scrimmage that ended his football career.  Jared Coppola had suffered the same injury in a 2009 practice, and was in a wheelchair. 
          The third brother, Tyler, was the star running back of St. John’s Prep of Danvers, Ma.   He was “Running for Three”, as St. John’s went into the state championship Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium.
          Horgan had two challenges.    Her story had three main characters, and two (Tyler and Brandon) are identical.  She had to minimize confusion to viewers.
          “Typically in a feature we only put name fonts to identify a person one time - the first time they show up on the screen,” Horgan said. “But in this case, to alleviate any confusion, we put name fonts up each time a triplet was on the screen.”
          Problem solved.
          The second challenge was more difficult.  In their interviews with E:60, the triplets and their parents had a flat affect.   This may have been because they had ample time - and local media coverage - to move beyond the initial trauma.  Or it may simply have reflected their personalities and priorities.
          “The parents, Dawn and Skip, never really got emotional in order to stay strong for the family,” Horgan said.  “They never felt sorry for themselves or their situation.  They always stayed positive.  The children saw this and did the same.
          “I give them a lot of credit, because I think the positive attitude helped Jared to continue to work as hard as he has in order to one day walk again.”
          A flat affect is okay for people, but not for stories.  Horgan had to find a way to tell what in essence was a dramatic story - of three brothers tied to a cruel fate - without emotion from the main characters.
          She took two approaches.  First, to put viewers ‘in the moment’ as the triplets and parents experienced the injuries and aftermath.  Second, to emphasize the close bond of the triplets, with photos and video from their infancy and youth.  
          Especially powerful were images of Tyler and Brandon helping Jared with his rehab.  The defining image came as Tyler carried Jared up a flight of stairs, to the second-floor trophy room at St. John’s Prep, where Horgan shot their interviews.
          “The shot happened by chance,” Horgan said. “There was no elevator and no way to get Jared up the stairs without someone carrying him up.  Without even giving it a thought, the boys said ‘no problem, we can carry him up, we do it all the time’. So when we were ready for Jared, I asked one of my camera men to get in position and shoot them going up the stairs.”
          The special brotherhood of triplets takes over the story.  There is Jared, on a walker, making his way to the center of a football field, with Brandon and Tyler at his side.
          At Tyler’s final high school game, Horgan has her cameras on Brandon and Jared, riding the team bus, watching from the sidelines.
          Horgan wraps it with a specialty shot, with Jared between his two brothers, arms entwined, standing tall, about to head off to three different colleges.
          By that time it’s hard not to cheer - and feel a lump in the throat - for the Coppola triplets.

Posted by Steve Marantz on August 17, 2011

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