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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

Monday, August 15, 2011

Comfort Zone

Production assistant Toby Hershkowitz writhed on the floor while a frail 7-year-old boy twisted his arm and stomped on his chest.
E: 60 meets WWE? Not exactly.
The vignette occurred July 7 at the E:60 roundtable shoot in midtown Manhattan, as producers, talent and film crew relaxed between segments.
By way of explanation, later, Hershkowitz, 26, said, “I still consider myself a kid.”
But that’s only part of it.
Rewind to last fall when E:60 ran a story about the little boy fastened onto Hershkowitz.
Josiah Viera suffers from Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria syndrome, which causes accelerated aging in children, and has a life expectancy of eight to 13 years.
Baseball, a sport without a clock, is Josiah’s passion. The story, “Josiah’s Time”, with footage of his first Little League game in Hegins, Pa., touched viewers near and far, and garnered an Emmy nomination.
For E:60’s summer lineup 2011, executive producer Andy Tennant proposed a show of Emmy-nominated features. Feature Producer Ben Houser, who produced “Josiah’s Time”, suggested that the boy and his mother sit in on the roundtable - a simulation of a news meeting in which producers and reporters discuss the news value, characters and themes of stories. The idea was to use the roundtable to update Josiah’s story.
That’s where Hershkowitz, who produces the roundtable, came in.
When Houser arrived with Josiah, and his mother, Jennifer, Hershkowitz called for a break.
Houser introduced Josiah to Hershkowitz. They shook hands - and Hershkowitz took note.
“An incredibly firm handshake for a 25-pound kid,” Hershkowitz recalled. “A lot of kids are shy whether they have issues of not. He was not shy.”
Josiah took a shine to Hershkowitz. He told the producer that he planned to go to a park to play baseball after the roundtable.
“You can come and be on my team.”
Soon enough, Josiah and Hershkowitz were on the floor in their best WWE imitation. Hershkowitz was not entirely surprised - though not a father he has young cousins and he babysat in his younger days.
“I love being around kids and I usually have a pretty good rapport with kids,” Hershkowitz said, later. “I still consider myself a kid. Anytime I refer to myself in conversation I probably use the word ‘kid’ more than I use the word ‘man’ because that’s just how I feel. I don’t mind rolling around on the floor and pretending to play dead when he punches me in the chest. It’s as much fun for me as for him.”
But behind Hershkowitz’s playfulness was a professional calculation. In a few minutes Josiah would be on camera.
“We’ve had guests at the roundtable before - it’s always important to let them know what we’re trying to accomplish and to make them feel comfortable,” Hershkowitz said.
“He was in a room full of adults and I could tell he wanted to play - little kids just want to run around and play all the time. And I’m probably among the goofiest most childish people on this show so I was a good candidate to play and make him feel comfortable.”
Indeed, Josiah and his mother appeared relaxed when the cameras rolled. At the table - actually a rectangle - were Tennant, Houser, coordinating producer Michael Baltierra, and reporters Rachel Nichols, Chris Connolly, and Jeremy Schaap.
Jennifer told about wondrous events, about gifts from Terrell Owens, a trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke, the 15-games Josiah played in little league, the Harlem Globetrotters’ show at his elementary school, and about countless requests for autographs. Josiah, in his squeak of a voice, talked of the batting glove and bat he received from Ryan Howard.
Neither mentioned the several strokes he has suffered in the past year, or the increased fragility of his health. Those demons will return soon enough. But not now - not with Josiah feeling chipper and surrounded by a roomful of adults and cameras who adored him.
The group arose from the table. Tennant tossed a plastic ball and Josiah swung a thin wooden bat. The ball soared over Tennant’s head and caromed off a wall. Another pitch came back on a line at Tennant’s face. Then Josiah ran around the table. The cameras got all of it.
Later, after Josiah, his mother, and Houser departed, to eventually visit Diane Sawyer at the set of ‘World News Tonight’, Hershkowitz pondered the edit.
“This is a situation where they will let the roundtable go a little longer - maybe two to 2 ½ minutes,” he said. “Because it’s easy to feel for this kid - but maybe tough to connect to him on a personal level because of the unique situation facing him. That’s what the roundtable does. It lets us connect with him just as a person and forget for a minute that he’s a little kid with this terrible disease. It lets us see him just as a little kid who loves to have fun and play baseball and interact with adults the same way other kids do. I hope we can get that across.”

Posted by Steve Marantz on August 15, 2011