Not long after Tony Shaff decided he was going to make a film about the enduring nature of the children’s magazine Highlights, he was excited to learn that his timeline for making the film aligned with the 70th anniversary of the publication. But when he excitedly mentioned this in his pitch to Highlights editors in a bid to embed with them during the process of creating their birthday issue – June 2016 – they had a bucket of cold water awaiting him.
“Flat out they said, “Well, we won’t do anything special for our 70th,” Shaff laughs now, shortly after the resulting film “44 Pages” premiered at SXSW.
Perhaps Shaff should’ve known, considering that the magazine has rarely deviated from the winning formula originally concocted by founders Gary and Caroline Myers to fire up the neurons of those in the six to 12-year-old age range in exciting and educational ways — in fact, the film’s title alludes to the same page count Highlights has had for the past seven decades. But then again, as “44 Pages” illustrates, that consistency is what has made Highlights so special with generations of parents and children able to bond over scrambling to solve the magazine’s Hidden Pictures puzzle or deciding whether they’re more of a Goofus or Gallant, based on the long-running cartoon about polar opposites.
While the magazine has grown into quite the institution, “44 Pages” charms by showing what a humble operation it is, with its distribution headquarters based in Columbus, Ohio, but its editorial offices housed in a modest house in the small town of Honsdale, Pennsylvania. Inside, there is a staff as playful as the younger readers they cater to and Shaff sits in as they conceive and produce an issue over the course of a month. Shortly before the film hits the Dallas Film Festival this weekend en route to Cleveland and North Carolina’s River Run, Shaff spoke about how he first got interesting making a film about Highlights and how “44 Pages” fits into a long-held fascination with people forging a connection with one another, as well as making the film with a broad audience in mind but warning why perhaps current readers of the magazine shouldn’t see it just yet.
How did this come about?
It’s very interesting because I had not seen the magazine in probably 30 years and then I started seeing kids in my life getting it in their mailboxes. When it would come, they would drop whatever they were doing, pick up the magazine and devour it, which really made me wonder what it is about this magazine that is still resonating with kids. I picked up the magazine myself and started thumbing through it and it all felt very familiar to me still and when I’m talking to people about the film, something happens in their eyes and I would say 95 percent of the people I talk to have a very strong connection to Highlights, so that curiosity about how the magazine still exists and how it still could possibly be relevant the way that it was for me 30 years ago, or even 70 years ago when the magazine started really got me started on this journey.
Based on what I read about your theater project “Blog 2.0” and your later film “Hotline,” it seems like there’s a common thread in your work of how people relate to one another, as you see the staff of Highlights puzzle over the best way to impart information to children and connecting with their audience. Is it a subject of continuing interest to you?
Yeah, absolutely – it’s this idea of these analog technologies. With my last film, “Hotline,” I was dealing with the idea that [with] digital communication, the art of conversation might be dying but that people still had this urge to connect with people voice-to-voice. Seeing those 900 numbers that you would see all the time in the ‘90s die out in “Hotline,” it’s similar to that nostalgic piece of Highlights magazine – we think of print as being an antiquated form of communication, but seeing a magazine like Highlights thrive in a very digitally aggressive environment now, it really makes you think that there is still a place in it, so that’s a very strong connection [in my work] and I am interested in those American cultural phenomena and why we still need them as a society.
The idea that Highlights is an anomaly in this day and age gives the film a narrative thrust, but was this film tricky to structure in a compelling way? In other interviews, you’ve mentioned that there’s no “villain,” so it may not have come naturally.
When I was setting out to structure the film, I knew that the creation of the [June issue of the] magazine would be a strong throughline to keep the film moving, but then along the way different stops would be dealing with different thematic issues such as the history or the people [on staff] or the way in which they deal with diversity or looking at even more controversial subjects they’ve had to deal with in making the magazine and contextualizing those issues for the kids of today, whatever day that might be, whether that’s 1960 or 1980. So there might not be a very specific villain in the film – even the idea that print is dead isn’t in this situation because they talk about how kids really still gravitate towards having this tactile object in their hands, but a lot of the things that I went into [the project], thinking, like “Oh, this is going to be the driving force against a children’s publication,” I was pleasantly surprised they had the antidote to those things.
Was there a moment where you had a pretty firm idea of what this movie might be and it changed direction on you?
Going into the film, I had a very set idea of what it would be and those are just those preconceived ideas that you know as a filmmaker to throw away right away. The big surprise for me [came right away] when I first reached out and found out Highlights for children was not in a skyscraper, but this old converted mansion in a small town in Pennsylvania. That changed my perception right away, but that was something I adapted to pretty quickly.
One of the magazine’s staffers Ryan Justice describes Honsdale where Highlights is based as being inside a bubble. What was it like for you to step into that?
I live in New York City and it’s about a two-and-a-half-hour drive that I probably 20 times during production and it was always a nice decompression that happened. I left the hustle-bustle of the city and then arrived into this pretty quaint Northeastern Pennsylvania town and I’d walk into the office and everyone was just very pleasant, so it was actually something I looked forward to quite a bit. Obviously, I like my hustle-bustle lifestyle in New York, but Honsdale has a lot of really great characteristics that I think a lot of people could identify with. I was just talking with a friend about the idea that “Sesame Street” was created here in New York and it has a very interesting setting of the Lower East Side [where Oscar the Grouch] lives in a trash can, so that’s the idea that hit the kids by presenting a very urban setting, and I think there’s something to be said for having Highlights in a more rural setting where a lot of the country lives. That’s a way for them to connect in a way that some of these publishers that are in skyscrapers in New York aren’t able to do.
You take great care to show the knickknacks at people’s desks and around the office as a way of showing the vibe and history of the magazine. How did that idea come into the mix?
Working with my director of photography John Campbell, we started noticing those little details as soon as we got there. We thought that all of these little knickknacks and old craft projects that were around the office were really reflective of the personality of the people that were inhabiting the space, so it was always fun to see whatever it might be [such as] a porcupine made out of a tennis ball – the little quirky aspects of the office.
There’s also a nice sequence where you go through reader mail that’s been sent over the years, read aloud by kids – how did that come in?
I liked having a little film within the film moment where there [because the staff] responds to every single kid’s letter and I wanted to try to find a way to do something visual that showed how one letter could go through the office [from] the mailman straight back out to the mailman. So I asked the editors to bring to me some of their favorite letters that they’ve received over the years and then I had them read the responses and then I had kids – not the actual kids that sent the letters – read them [because] I thought it would be a good way to bring kids back into a film for adults. It’s a film about a magazine for kids and childhood, so I wanted to infuse it with as much of that childlike imagery as possible.
Was making a film that could appeal to both adults and kids a big consideration?
It was like “The Wizard of Oz” [in that] you don’t want to pull the curtain back on the Wizard for the kids who enjoy the magazine right now, so I didn’t want to make this film for kids who were the Highlights age. I think it ruins their favorite thing a little bit, so the audience most definitely were the previous readers of Highlights and people who haven’t heard about it in a very long time to appreciate the creation of the magazine. I also think asking [young] kids to sit down for a 90-minute documentary might be a little challenging. [laughs] But I think there’s potential for certain parts of it to still resonate with them.
What was it like to premiere at SXSW?
SXSW was great. Before the festival started, we were invited to screen at SXSWEdu, which is the educational [sidebar] of SXSW and the audience there was very interesting because they’re educators. They’re not necessarily that filmmaker crowd, so it was a great way of engaging a different type of audience. And SXSW has a very diverse lineup of programming, so a film like “44 Pages” stands out in a different way. I’m really looking forward to some of these regional festivals that are coming up where we really get a chance to engage with the audiences that I’ve been making the movie for. It’s pretty amazing to bring it to audiences finally because I think there’s a lot of knowledge to be gleaned from a company like Highlights.