Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Kristi Jacobson on Her Grandfather and Her Film, "Toots"

Larger-than-life Bernard "Toots" Shor cut his teeth in Prohibition Era New York. He mixed with the toughest elements in loan sharking, gambling, and bootlegging, and no one was tougher, gruffer, or more charming. Toots Shor loved the city of New York and loved running his famous restaurant and club on West 51st, named Toots, of course. Come discover a simpler New York bounding back from the War with booze, celebrities, sports, and an intense optimism embodied in Toots' private club. The Yankees, Jackie Gleason, and Frank Sinatra were all personal friends, and Walter Cronkite, Mike Walace, Lauren Bacall, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford all have good things to say; but Toots had demons, too. In her documentary film, Toots Shor's granddaughter explores and celebrates his life.

Kristi Jacobson has been working in documentaries for over ten years, and has made a number of television documentaries, but “Toots” is the first truly independent film that she has produced and directed.

I really liked the way you told the story of “Toots.” How did you approach the narrative strategy?

I’m especially pleased to hear that because figuring out how to do the narrative was far and away my biggest challenge. Mostly because I didn’t want to start the film in 1903 when Toots was born in Philadelphia because I knew I wanted to engage people in the era, in that heyday. The structure of the film really came to be in the editing process where my editors were instrumental. It was a really collaborative process.

Was there a script?
No, I only had my idea of what I wanted from the film. But we really worked the material and tried to create a narrative arc like in fiction films, with our feeling and instinct for the material. In fact one of our most important breakthroughs was realizing that New York was as much a character in the film as Toots was, and to make sure that we could interweave the two as they were in real life. I learned filmmaking from my mentor, Barbara Kopple, a legend in cinéma vérité, and I tried to bring that ‘Let’s let the material drive us’ ethos to “Toots.”

And it was especially interesting to see New York in your film, for instance when the city went broke.
As a New Yorker I had an incredible experience getting to know my city from the 30s to the 60s. And all that stuff is still a part of the sidewalks and the buildings, part of the water towers and the life of New York City, which, by the way, I think is the greatest city in the world even if it isn’t as great as it was then.

You showed the good and the bad of the city and of your grandfather.
I didn’t want to make a puff piece. Going in, I knew my grandfather had ties to the Mob, but I didn’t know how deep they ran. It was really important for to get to the bottom of that, and to bring it to the audience. Also, I didn’t go in with a preconceived idea of who my grandfather was; I wanted to discover him as I made the film. So I tried to present the good, the bad, and the ugly.

It was really hard. Someone asked me whether I’d been turned down for interviews. In fact the only people who turned me down were those who specifically did not like Toots. For instance, Joe Namath had noted in his biography that he didn’t like Toots and that he had no interest in a restaurant full of old geezers, that there were no chicks there. So I wanted to interview him because he represented an entire group of people who were important in the demise of Toots. I approached him with various important people and he did not want to do the interview. There was also someone who had written bad things about Toots and when I interviewed him he wouldn’t talk about it. All this made me quite determined.

Are you connecting this reticence with organized crime?
No, I think it has more to do with the fact that my grandfather was so beloved in the sports world, that to criticize him publicly isn’t gonna make you any friends. But it was frustrating as a filmmaker to dig through it all to get to that "other side" of Toots, which was really a big part of him.

How did you prepare for “Toots?”
“Toots” was a challenge to me because it was neither issue-based nor cinéma vérité, my milieu for ten years. So I watched a lot of film, and one that really influenced me was “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.” That’s what I love about filmmaking—I’ve made films about the Teamsters union and about women survivors of sexual abuse—there was something fun and new about “Toots.”

What’s next for you?
I’ll be doing a film about reform in the juvenile justice system in Washington, D.C. as a logical follow-up to “Toots.” And so I’m sticking with my cinéma vérité roots and branching out to historical topics as I’ve learned that not only is it important to tell stories of injustice but to engage with history. And if it makes people smile instead of cry, that’s okay.

When does "Toots" hit the theaters?
It's coming out in September of 2007. Neil Friedman at Menemsha Films really gets "Toots" and I’m very excited about that. His distribution model really fits the film.

Where did you get all that great archival footage?
The Oral History Recordings at Columbia University were of tremendous help. They had eight hours of audio footage of my grandfather! Getty worked with us as well, and we had a researcher there who did incredible work to get us footage. He was really determined to get new footage, which was exactly what I was trying to do, to bring the past alive. I had two great researchers on my team, too. And then, when it came time to get permisoon to use footage from people like Mike Wallace, it really helped to be Toots Shor’s granddaughter. There were a lot of people in high places who helped to free up materials for us. The Sinatra family was especially generous in allowing us to use “Come Fly With Me” in the interview with Frank.

You can find out more about "Toots" and filmmaker Kristi Jacobson at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I happened to show up when Toots was playing and all I have to say is what an amazing film. I was one of the youngest members in the audience and I may not have lived through the incredible "golden" years of New York City, but I LOVED THIS FILM. It was great to see the rise and fall of this wonderful city and the rise and fall of such an amazing man. To see all the footage and photos of those amazing people I thought I knew and learn to love a man who gave every last ounce of himself to the city he so deeply loved. FANTASTIC!!!