Jason Charnick considers himself a consummate New Yorker, even if he’s lived in Los Angeles for the past two decades, yet in returning back to the five boroughs to make “Getting Over,” retracing the footsteps of his father as he was in the throes of a heroin addiction and his subsequent incarceration, he was seeing the city with new eyes.
“I read the Daily News, I’m a Yankee fan — I try to stay mentally as much in New York as possible,” said Charnick. “So going back to the Bronx was multilayered, it was like I’m back home and this is great, but at the same time, I had never been to that little park where my father started using heroin or to [his] childhood home, so seeing new places within my own home was really a fun trip.”
Despite the harrowing subject matter, Charnick makes it one for audiences as well in “Getting Over,” which began life as a box of tapes handed down by his uncle Arnie shortly after his father Ray passed away in 1997. Charnick knew his father died of AIDS because of IV use, with his heroin addiction landing him in prison for long stretches of his youth, but as the filmmaker confesses at the start of “Getting Over,” “As far as I knew, I had a pretty good childhood,” growing up in the care of his mother. While memories of that experience can’t be taken away from him, Charnick is allowed to view them through an entirely differently lens upon watching the emotionally raw interviews Arnie conducted with Ray towards the end of his life, in part so his son might know who he was, not defined exclusively by his addiction or his criminal record.
In learning about his father, Charnick offers a fully fleshed out portrait of someone so often left behind by society, exposing the complexities of how a former military man finds himself going so far astray as well as revealing a wicked sense of humor, but “Getting Over” becomes as much about the filmmaker as his subject, slowly discovering what character traits he may have unconsciously taken from his father and how events that he interpreted in a certain light without either Ray’s perspective or in many cases, an adult outlook in general, had a completely different meaning than he thought. Other revelations await in a story that takes some pretty surreal twists, including the fact that Ray was once incarcerated in a Talledaga penitentiary with none other than Detroit Tigers pitching ace Denny McLain. It’s a fascinating and loving portrait that carries the spark of seeing Charnick meet his father in the moment it happens and during the SXSW Film Festival where “Getting Over” recently premiered, the filmmaker spoke about translating such an intimate personal experience to the screen, making sense of the interviews that were dropped at his doorstep, and how Ray having a famous cellmate led to Charnick learning more about his father.
How did this become a feature?
I knew what my uncle was doing and before I moved out to L.A. in 1999, he gave me these tapes. There were 17 of them total and I just put them in a box. I always knew they were there, but I never watched them and about six years ago, I hated my job at the time and I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore,” and “Hollywood?!?” Everything was starting to become a drag, so [I just thought], “Let me look at these things. Let me see what this is all about.” And I popped one of [the tapes] in and I just set up an old video recorder in the corner of my office and I sat there and transcribed everything. I didn’t even have money to send the tapes out for 17 hours of transcription. The best part that I love to tell people is today, the phones are so great at voice recognition that you can dictate, but six years ago, my computer couldn’t recognize my father’s voice, so I had to hook up a microphone into the computer and dictate and it really helped me not only getting through all of the tapes, but to absorb the material.
There’s actually a scene in the movie where I’m in a white T-shirt, holding the microphone in my hand because right after the story where [it’s revealed] my mom had her overdose in the bathroom, for my entire life my father had told me that she had slipped and just fell, so I’m in the middle of transcribing the tapes and talking into my computer [when] I had never heard [this] before, so I turned around and turned the camera on and just start going. So as I was learning these things I had never known before, I finally felt motivated to see what were on these tapes and know more about this somehow. [I felt I] need to talk to my uncle and see what he knows, what his perspective is and go from there and then we had a Kickstarter [where] we raised $6000 and it was enough to fly back to New York and buy a camera package and interview my uncle. Everything just fell into place from there.
Since these tapes are shot at various times with no specific guidelines, what was it like to recognize a narrative within them?
That was the huge challenge [because] after I watched all these tapes, we could’ve gone down a lot of different roads. My editor Sharon Rutter, [who] edited “The Rules of Attraction” for Roger Avary, lives in Long Beach and I live in Long Beach and it was just kismet that we found each other. Having been a working editor for the last 20 years and a documentarian in her own right, she had a real eye for seeing what the storylines were. I had given her all the footage and the transcripts when we brought her onboard and I didn’t a mandate like, “This needs to be in or that doesn’t.” I said, “Go to town, I’ll talk to you in two months. We’ll see what happens.” When she finally had a cut ready to show me, we went into her editing bay in her garage and she had poured through all 17 hours of the footage, watched them, read the transcripts and had note cards all over the wall like a screenwriter would, moving around stuff. I walked into her editing bay, and the first thing that hit me was like “Oh shit, this is my life. This is my childhood that she’s notecarding,” To see the attention to detail and how much care and trust she had with the material, I felt like I was in good hands.
There were a couple times where we had some rough cuts where we were going down some roads that didn’t quite work. My co-producer came in at the very end and said, “What if we put that Hart Island scene [at the end]?” because we went to Hart Island first when we went to New York shooting, so we were going to put it in first, but then we’re like, “Why don’t we build to that?” Let’s put that scene a little bit at the end and then everything clicked into place.” Once we came in with that last pass, I was like, “This is the story I want to tell. This is great.” But it was real interesting figuring out the act breaks in my own life.
Was there anything that unlocked what this could be?
One of the clashes that my co-producer and I had was I didn’t really want to make a drug movie. Obviously, addiction is really big in the news, but whenever anybody sees something on CNN, they’ll show junkies who are sick, looking like my dad, and it’s easy to keep that at arm’s length. So I really wanted to tell a more personal story, from my point of view as the son of an addict, like how that affects me. How I explain it to people is everyone knows somebody who has cancer, whether it be a friend, a relative or a co-worker and it’s the same with addiction. But we think about it in a totally different way because addiction’s so secretive. As in any filmmaking process, my co-producer and the editor had their points of view that they wanted to focus on, and my co-producer and I clashed because my co-producer kind of wanted me to change my mind about how I view drug addicts as a choice versus a disease, but at the end of the day, all I wanted to do was really just tell this story of someone who’s been affected by addiction.
We had the expert in there because I did want someone in there who could talk to that [idea of choice versus disease], but I didn’t want to hammer away at that point too much, and I just hoped the [film will] resonate [where] people to walk out when the movie’s done and be like, “Who do I know that maybe I should just talk to a little bit?” “Oh, I have a co-worker that pops pills at work just to get through the day. Maybe I should talk to them and just see what’s going on” or “Oh, that friend of mine, they might have a problem. I should just talk to them or do something,” so they don’t turn into my father. It’s a cautionary tale and hopefully people can walk out thinking, “What can I do to help out somebody I know?” Because this affects me too and it affects everybody and we’re all in this together, especially as fragmented as the country is now. If this brings people together in some way to talk about this stuff, it would make me ecstatic.
There are a few remarkable twists in this, including the fact that your father spent time in prison with the former Detroit Tigers star pitcher Denny McLain, who appears in the film. How did you even know the two had crossed paths, let alone track him down now?
I still remember my dad telling me about it when I was a kid, so that wasn’t actually a revelation to me, but he is really tough to get a hold of. Not a lot of people know who he is. He’ll probably be the last 30-game winner, but if you’re not a baseball fan, you won’t know who he is and for a long time, it wasn’t another clash with my producer, like “Do we really need this scene in here?” But first of all, he knew my father and it’s really hard to find folks who knew him because he’s been gone for 20 years, and I’m also a huge baseball fan, so when you were watching it, [I liked] having that moment for someone [who was familiar with him] watching it, like, “Oh, okay, I remember him.”
When I finally got to see my father on the tapes tell the whole story [of his time with Denny McLain], it was just [a matter of] hunting him down for a year-and-a-half or two, finding him and convincing him to talk and he did. He’s like 75 now, lives in Michigan, and does the autograph circuit, and initially, he didn’t remember my father. But as you can see in the movie, that was like me showing him [the clip of my father] for the first time, and I had never sent him the clip [before arranging an on-camera interview]. I finally had a chance to show him the clip and he was like, “Oh yeah, I totally remember this guy.” And I [thought], “Thank you because you’ve been driving me crazy saying that you don’t remember him because I really want you in the movie.” [laughs] So I’m glad that he remembered my dad because I want my dad to be remembered.