“The Spirit of America” is the first fruit of the post-Sept. 11 collaboration between Washington and Hollywood to appear in American theaters.
LOS ANGELES, Dec. 19 Chuck Workman buzzed from room to room in his second floor office suite in the flats south of Beverly Hills, putting the finishing touches on his latest film, “The Spirit of America,” a short montage of moments from classic Hollywood films that will be on one-fourth of the nation’s movie screens by Christmas Day, some as early as Friday.
“The Spirit of America” all 3 minutes 5 seconds of it, drawn from bits of 110 American movies will be the first fruit of the post-Sept. 11 collaboration between Washington and Hollywood to appear in American theaters.
At a gathering in Beverly Hills on Nov. 2 and at a follow-up session in Washington this month top entertainment executives met with a White House delegation led by Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief political adviser, to discuss how Hollywood could contribute to the war effort. Several studios began sending free videos to troops abroad, and there have been some U.S.O.-style shows at bases in Germany and Turkey with stars like Jennifer Lopez and the cast of “Ocean’s Eleven.”
Studios officials say they also plan to make a series of public service announcements for movie theaters and television in the United States and abroad to touch on patriotic and educational themes. But Mr. Workman and the producer of the short film, Michael R. Rhodes, were already at work on their own Sept. 11-related project. And when they discussed the project with Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association, and other leaders of the Hollywood morale effort, their project was quickly embraced.
“It really happened so fast,” Mr. Rhodes said. “All I did was raise the flag and look around, and everyone was saluting it.”
Mr. Rhodes, an Emmy-winning television and film producer, had long been working on a pet project of showing videos of scenes from classic American films in classrooms where teachers could use them to stimulate discussion about issues of history and morality. When someone suggested that he work up something quickly on patriotic themes to help students deal with the crisis, he was referred to Mr. Workman, whose specialty is creating rapid-fire montages of Hollywood clips, including “Precious Images,” his 1986 Oscar- winning short.
“I explained all this to him,” Mr. Rhodes said. “And Chuck says, `Hey, this is something that should be in movie theaters,’ and right on the spot he picks up the phone and calls the National Association of Theater Owners, and I can hear him explaining it over the phone to them, and then he hangs up and says, `We’re good to go.’ ”
John Fithian, president of the association, said that seven years ago Mr. Workman made a short history of American film that was shown before the main feature in several thousand theaters. “He’s an absolute expert in taking film clips and turning them into short works of art,” Mr. Fithian said.
Everything about the project was donated, Mr. Rhodes said, from seed money to production services. Kodak provided the film stock, Technicolor paid for the processing, and owners of 9,000 of North America’s 35,000 movie screens agreed to provide the time and labor to get the film shown before Christmas. Mr. Workman said the project would have cost more than $1 million otherwise.
His first move was to draw up a list of movies that had something to say about being an American. He studied his long list and categorized the movies by theme. His first thought was to intersperse the film with snippets from patriotic and historic documents. Then he decided it was more appropriate to use simpler, one-word themes like heroism, courage and diversity.
One surprise, he said, was how many films involved a reluctant hero, an American individualist who is slowly stirred to action. It seemed to mirror the way the country had been stirred to action by Sept. 11, he said. He also noticed that many films involved what he called defiance: ordinary Americans standing up to foreign tyranny or more often domestic bullies.
As he assembled the clips, the themes began to change slightly. A section he first called “the land” gradually became “home,” and what was initially “individuality” turned into “style” to accommodate figures like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. In previous compilations, Mr. Workman said, there were one or two films on his wish list for which he was unable to secure the rights. In this case, he said, he got every clip he wanted, rapidly approved by every studio and every performer.
Mr. Workman said he set no quotas but tried to draw from as broad a range of films as possible in terms of style and vintage. The 110 movies that made the final cut stretch from “Birth of a Nation” (1915) to this year’s “Pearl Harbor.” He also tried to mix in expected images, like John Wayne framed in a frontier doorway from “The Searchers,” with more unexpected ones, like a blustery Burl Ives as Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” for the family section.
His initial cut was five minutes long, but Mr. Workman was persuaded to trim it. He said he felt that the shorter version was stronger. The short was shown to officials in Washington last week, and it has been screened for donors and studio sponsors. Mr. Workman said he had the impression that not everyone agreed with some of his choices, like Spike Lee smashing a storefront window in “Do the Right Thing” or Sally Field holding up a pro-union sign in “Norma Rae.” But at no point did anyone ask him to change anything.
“Ever since Sept. 11 I had been thinking it would be very interesting to do something about the American character as exemplified in American films,” Mr. Workman said. “I can remember, as a kid, thinking that I was so lucky to be an American, and somehow that feeling drifted away over the years. But Sept. 11 brought it all back to me.”