A new documentary by first-time director Franklin Martin follows the East Saint John high school football team of LaPlace, La., through its extraordinary 2005 season. A small Cajun town just outside New Orleans, LaPlace became a refuge for 20,000 displaced evacuees after Hurricane Katrina. Its high school system took in 1,700 displaced students, 500 of whom landed at East St. John. With personal ties to New Orleans, Martin had been following the disaster from his home in Los Angeles, but first heard about the East St. John football team while on a flight to New York for a 9/11 memorial.
From left: Robert Wear, Guillermo de la Barreda, Dain Blair, Franklin Martin and Gerhard Joost
“I bought every magazine with Katrina coverage, and by the time I got on the plane I'd already decided I had to go down there and do something,” Martin recalls. “I read an article about this little high school coming up against its arch rival and how they had to integrate all these displaced players.” Martin himself had been displaced in New Orleans for a brief period as a child, so the story struck a chord with him. He is also a former college basketball player, current NBA and collegiate-level basketball trainer, and lifetime New Orleans Saints fan. His passions for filmmaking, athletics and the Big Easy converged in an instant. East St. John's first game was coming up right after the 9/11 anniversary, so he left New York and flew down right away.
Six months of shooting followed, with only Martin and his camera taking initial footage and the camera's built-in omnidirectional mic capturing audio. “I made the decision to do this guerrilla-style because of the circumstances down there,” Martin explains. “I wanted to become close to my subjects and knew I could do that better alone, plus there was nowhere for me, let alone a crew, to stay.” He settled at a motel in West Baton Rouge and drove the 170 miles round-trip to and from East St. John High every day, sometimes more than once.
The football team took on 20 displaced players from 20 different high schools, and the unique assimilation triggered remarkable results in that '05 season. Martin documented the entire thing, shooting throughout the season — starting out with a Canon XL 1 and moving to a Panasonic DVX-100A — and then returning to shoot the January awards banquet, spring graduation and concluding summer scenes.
“At the beginning, I told these people, ‘Listen, I just want to be part of your lives and record history,’ and I hoped I'd find a story that would be good enough for local cable or something,” Martin shares. “But as I started shooting, I realized the story was an amazing one, and I eventually stepped up production by bringing in another cameraman and equipment.” The addition of lavalier and boom mics dramatically improved the film's audio at this stage, but the proverbial damage was already done: The camera's omni had picked up copious environmental noise, and sound for the first portion of the footage was a serious problem.
“My thought was that the problems facing this little team — lack of equipment, lockers and playing time — would be a microcosm of the problems facing the school: lack of books, classroom space and teachers,” he says. “Of course, that is a microcosm of the problems facing the community: lack of food, water and shelter. This amazing story and important message was all there, but I would say about 30 percent of it was inaudible.”
Post-production for Walking on Dead Fish exposed Martin to the wonders of replacement sound design and the restorative abilities of a good sound mixer. But only after a distressing setback. “I've heard post can be a nightmare and this really almost was,” Martin says. “I did my temp music and initial mix with my first music supervisor, and it was truly near-disaster. I had important scenes with inaudible dialog and an audio editor telling me we couldn't use them.”
Surprisingly, it was through his Pro Development Camp that Martin found help. Dain Blair is the executive creative director at Groove Addicts in Los Angeles and the father of a young basketball player in one of Martin's clinics. “Franklin and I had spoken a few times about what we do here at Groove Addicts, and he'd been telling me about this documentary,” Blair says. “One day, he offered to play us a rough cut to see if we might be interested in getting involved. The moment I looked at that rough cut, I fell in love with the project, and we immediately worked out an arrangement that we would handle all the audio.”
Groove Addicts made its 40,000-track production music catalog, staff composers, sound designer and chief engineer available to Martin. Sound designer Robert Wear and chief engineer Gerhard Joost took on the difficult challenges of “pulling out” or replacing inaudible dialog and sounds, and Guillermo de la Barreda — director of Groove Addicts' production music library division — signed on as music supervisor. All recording and mixing was done in Groove Addicts' two main Pro Tools HD studios, with sound design and production music sourcing happening in the auxiliary production/composition suites, also equipped with Pro Tools HD systems.
After initial spotting sessions, Groove Addicts tag-teamed the project. “At the same time, we were spotting the production sound, we were adding music and sound design,” says Joost. Blair adds, “Robert had his work cut out for him dealing with some of the poor production sound. He recorded a lot of sounds to enhance what Franklin wasn't able to capture that well initially with his one camera and built-in mic.”
As Blair and de la Barreda worked with Martin on the music, and Wear improved production sound, Joost got to work on the mix, where, again, quality inconsistencies posed the biggest challenge. “Not only did Martin add cameras, but he started miking people and even using boom mics part of the way through, so it was a challenge to get the overall dialog sound to be consistent,” Joost notes. “My BNR noise-reduction plug-in became very important on this project.” The mixing process began in some fashion right away, as sound design, music and even Walking voice-over tracked. “I began mixing from the start so that we could develop an emotional map, a picture of how we were going to direct the sound. I'd have to say that the music played an important role in how the film moves, emotionally.”
“This is almost wall-to-wall music,” says Blair, “a big portion of which we were able to score from the production music catalog. Our custom compositions were the Cajun-inspired tunes that set the scene in the beginning of the film.” Groove Addicts composer and guitar master Carl Verheyen, touring guitar player for Supertramp, laid down a lot of the guitar parts on the original music.
Martin also brought composers Scott Gordon and Mark Mancina, who'd written two songs for the film, in to work with Groove Addicts. Scott Gordon's brother is Grey's Anatomy creator Mark Gordon, who also figures into this story. Before Martin even arrived at Groove Addicts, he and Mark Gordon had sold the movie rights to the Walking on Dead Fish story to Universal. Martin and Mark Gordon will be co-producers on the upcoming feature film, tentatively titled Hurricane Season, and have hired writer/director Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass), who's currently writing the screenplay. Meanwhile, Walking on Dead Fish will reach audiences. “I've had a few people approach me about a theatrical release, as well as high-level cable and DVD,” says Martin. “So there's no doubt the documentary's going to have a life now and a major part of that success is the sound.”
For more information about Walking on Dead Fish and a charity Martin has established called the Katrina Wildcat Scholarship Fund, visit www.dutchmenfilms.com.