8 Questions for John Korty

It seems fitting to shine the light on West Marin filmmaker John Korty this month, as he was an honoree at the very first Mill Valley Film Festival back in 1978. An award-winning director and documentary filmmaker, the 78-year-old Korty has enjoyed an impressive 60-year career creating everything from live-action animation films to features and made-for-TV movies. He is also credited with inspiring the young directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas to make films here in the Bay Area. When he’s not working on film projects from his home in Point Reyes Station, Korty can be found on Tomales Bay in his recently refinished 14-foot classic Whitehall rowboat.

1. Why a Whitehall? The Whitehalls were used as water taxis in New York Harbor in the olden days when passenger ships would come in and they’d take people to shore. I saw this beautiful boat at a boat show in Sausalito and asked the builder, Ray Speck, if he’d build one for me too.

2. How was that first festival? I thought it was great, especially because we lived in Homestead Valley and could walk to all the programs. It was an honor to have three or four films featured. Little did I know what Mark Fishkin was planning and what he would make it into.

3. Can you share a few specific memories from your 1977 Oscar win for directing Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids? The moment when I won the Oscar, I was in a New York hotel room, folding my underwear. I was directing a film for Paramount and we were in the middle of shooting. A day of shooting back then was $50,000, so even for the Academy Awards we couldn’t afford to shut down just so I could fly to Los Angeles for a day.

4. What was special about The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman? Miss Jane Pittman was a two-hour TV movie (three years before Roots) based on a book about a black woman born into slavery. I think the mid-’70s were the best time to make these types of movies; it seemed the audience and sponsors were interested in quality. We had 50 million people watch the first night on air and Xerox, our sponsor, gave up two of its commercial spots to let us have enough time.

5. When did you come to Marin? I came out from Brooklyn Heights, New York, in the winter of 1963, and landed in Stinson Beach. So I’ve been in Marin since the beginning. I worked out of the house for a while, then rented a studio space in the center of Stinson Beach that’s now that surf shop that sells clothes and so forth.

6. How did you make films here in Marin early on? We did everything in that studio. We put up plywood walls to make offices and that’s what Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas saw when they came out to look at my setup in 1969. Coppola saw all the equipment we had going and said, “If you can do it, we can do it.” And the next week we were looking for a place for American Zoetrope.

7. In retrospect, what are your favorite projects? You’re asking me to choose my favorite children. But if I have to, The DeBolts was a special project. I thought it would be a home run right away, but every network turned it down, saying that people didn’t want to watch a story about handicapped kids. But Charlie Haid from Hill Street Blues saw it and said I should show it to Henry Winkler. He loved it, called the president of ABC at home and said, “You have to put this film on the air.” And that did it. Then a film nobody knows much about is one I did for the American Short Story Series, based on John Updike’s The Music School. Strange story — I only had one line of dialogue in eight pages. It was a very special cinematic challenge. And Crazy Quilt still works very well — I’m still selling copies of the movie after 48 years.

8. Are you still pursuing projects? Oh, yes! Like everybody in the business, I’ve got a drawer full of scripts and ideas. I think my next project is going to be called Older, Wiser, Alive and Kicking. It’s a documentary about active seniors. So much stuff that’s being made about seniors is all about death, and disease, and medical histories, and insurance. There’s just an awful lot more to being a senior citizen.