Thursday, October 25, 2012

Shooting Ben Petrick

          The story of former major league catcher Ben Petrick’s struggle with Parkinson’s disease is emotional, at its essence.  Producers Vin Cannamela and John Minton wanted to tap the emotion.
          Petrick was a baseball and football standout at Glencoe (Oregon) High School, where his father Vern was athletic director. A five-tool natural when he was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in 1995, Petrick had All-Star and even Hall of Fame potential.  He reached the majors in 1999 and was on his way to stardom. 
          But in 2000 he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s, at age 23.  Petrick was forced to retire in the spring of 2004.  By 2007, when his first daughter was born, Petrick’s disease had stolen his motor skills, and reduced him to a shell of the great athlete he was.
          Brain surgery in 2009, with a new technology, resulted in infection, and almost killed Petrick.  A second surgery, in 2010, succeeded.  Petrick regained some motor skills and resumed his life as husband, father, and high school baseball coach.  His second daughter was born last January.  He wrote a book called “40,000 to One”, and became an inspirational spokesman in the fight against Parkinson’s.
          Cannamela first contacted Petrick last December.  Petrick was open to the story, but wanted to put it off until spring.
          Said Cannamela: “It was a long process of keeping him in the loop and building trust and being honest about what we would ask from him and his family.”
          Before the producers set foot in Oregon they sent cameras to shoot Petrick while he coached high school baseball.
          When they finally met Petrick, they took the time to build a rapport.
          “The more you can get to know your subject on the front end the more it becomes reciprocated and they let you know how they feel about you,” recalled Minton.  “What Vin and I both try to do is show who we are, what our show means, the types of stories we’ve done in the past, and how we could tell his type of story with as much genuine feeling as we could.
          “Ben and his family bought into that we were going to treat this with sensitive hands.  You could tell by the way they opened their homes to us and the time Ben gave us, and the video and stories he shared.
          “When you’re able to not rush into something, and to work on the subject’s schedule, you’re investing in the relationship.  The whole time it was an open dialogue.  ‘What works for you?’ ‘This is what we’re looking to do - when do you think you could do it?’”
          Once Petrick felt comfortable, they made a few key decisions.
          The first was to have Petrick read from his book, a memoir.
          “He has slurred speech and we wanted him to read those passages because we thought it would connect to the audience,” said Cannamela.  “The short sentences he read in his own words would be clearer than a face-to-face interview.”
          Another decision was to have Petrick speak - when he wasn’t reading from his book - directly toward the camera, rather than toward reporter Buster Olney.  They shot Petrick’s face in a tight frame.
          “It created intimacy with the audience,” Cannamela said. “It brought out how authentic a person he is.
          “We wanted Ben to talk to us, and the other interviews to talk about Ben.  If Ben could find a way to lock into the camera and talk to people about what he was going through then you would connect more immediately to him, while everyone else was speaking off-camera.  You would hear them like a confessional interview, but you were listening to Ben.  You were the one with Ben and you were gaining information from your secondary interviews.”
          Another decision was structural.  Petrick’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s seven months before he was.  The producers chose to hold back that information until the narrative reaches the point of Petrick’s retirement from baseball. 
          “Being that it was Ben’s story we opted for revealing Vern’s Parkinson’s in a way that helped our audience connect to Ben in the sense that he was going through something difficult and that he wasn’t going to be alone when he went through it,” Minton recalled.  “Holding on to that bit of information, while it took us out of the chronology, we felt it helped build to a bigger climax.”
          Two moments stood out as emotional peaks.
          One was Petrick’s wife, Kellie's account of her decision to marry Petrick, despite his concern that his illness would make her unhappy:
          “I told him ‘you don’t know who you’re going to fall in love with - I’m in love with you no matter what’.”
          Another was Petrick's account of his first surgery that failed, and how he had lost the will to go on, until his father urged him to persevere for the sake of his daughter.
          “Ben, there’s a little girl at home,” Vern Petrick said.  “Don’t you ever give in - you owe it to your little girl - don’t ever give in.”
           The camera was tight on Petrick as he recalled his father’s words:
          “He told me to suck it up. He was right - I had a job to do more important than me.  I was so self-consumed with what I was going through.  He was just being a good dad once again.  That’s what I told myself.  Get back to my job being a dad and husband.”
          Said Minton:  “The most enjoyable moments of a person’s life were filled with insecurity for Ben.  His ability to talk about that brought out his inner emotions and made him genuine on camera.”

(posted by Steve Marantz, October 25, 2012)

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