Q&A: Al Roker and Deborah Roberts help “Families Stand Together”

A new PBS primetime special, Families Stand Together: Feeling Secure in Tough Times, hosted by Al Roker, Deborah Roberts and Elmo, aims to help families with children, ages two to eight, experiencing difficult economic circumstances by offering strategies and tips that can lead to positive outcomes for their children’s physical and emotional well-being during this tough economic climate. Roker and Roberts, who are married and have children of their own, spoke to me about the program.

Q: Why did you do this special, “Families Stand Together,” with Sesame Street?

Roberts: I have been such a fan of Sesame Street and I have always looked enviously upon any celebrity that gets to interact with the Muppets. I thought the special was infinitely responsible and wise. I thought ‘Wow, this is a combo of great things, a primetime special that’s important at this moment, and a television show like Sesame Street that has such an impact.’ I thought there’s no way to not do this.

Roker: It’s Sesame Street. Who doesn’t love Sesame Street? It’s a chance to hang out with Elmo! It’s a great topic, lots of people are dealing with this, and if Deborah and I can help, we’re happy to do that.

Q. There are a lot of programs that offer strategies for adults who are trying to deal with the recession … what makes this show different?

Roberts: What makes it different is that it offers advice on a couple of levels, to children and parents. Children are dealing with this recession through their families; children are experiencing and worrying about it, and there’s great advice to help children weather the storm. There’s also advice to help parents to be there for their children. It’s not just geared to children, but also to families, to embrace these tough times and what they call for. There’s one family in the program who had to cut back; the father lost his job and his daughter loves to read. She had a great idea with her mother to sell her old books to buy new ones. Families can walk away from this program with a good image and good advice.

Q. What is the best advice you would give a parent who’s lost a job, or struggling with the recession?

Roker: Look for whatever help your community offers. Whether it’s church, financial assistance, therapy … you have to look for something. And you have to include your kids; you can’t do this without making sure the family’s involved. You also have to make sure that what you tell your kids is age-appropriate – don’t show them a budget, for example. But you can help them understand what’s going on. Hiding it is not the way to go.

Roberts: Number one, don’t underestimate what the children might think about it, and number two, to be creative — whether that means financially, or finding way to make the money go further and still have a good time. One military family has come up with movie night at their own home; they have popcorn, and the kids enjoy it. It’s not like they’re missing out on the experience of going to the movies — parents are finding ways to be creative, in a way that comes up positive for their children.

Q. You have children of your own — what did you take away from working on the show?

Roberts: Fortunately, we are not struggling yet in this economy, but there are ways that our children can enjoy what we have, and ways that we can incorporate what these families do on the special into our own family. There are ways that we can do things to be creative with what we have, and it’s fun to work on a project and activity. My husband and I thought that we can do that with our kids. We can have that atmosphere at home, and we’ve employed these ideas from the program in our home. The silver lining is that we get closer as a family, and we pull together.

Q&A: “Craft in America” creator and executive producer Carol Sauvion

The second season of the Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning series Craft in America , a filmed journey of the history, artists and techniques of the nation’s rich craft culture, continues the excursion into the diverse and ever-evolving world of American craft.  I spoke with Carol Sauvion, the creator and co-executive producer of Craft in America, and a potter in her own right.

Q. Many of the crafts that you explore – pottery, beadworking, blacksmithing – are rooted in hundreds of years of American history. What are some ways that these craft traditions are passed down from generation to generation?

As potter Mark Hewitt says in the “Origins” episode of the new Craft in America series, the best way to pass craft traditions down is through family. He is referring to Jugtown Pottery on Seagrove, North Carolina, where Travis Owens, a fourth generation potter receives information from his father. Through working with his parents and being surrounded with early North Carolina pots, Travis will learn methods of making pots and firing the kiln that are the product of generations of experimentation and knowledge.

This method of passing down information exists in many craft practices, from bead working to quilt making to woodworking.

Q. You do you own craft, in a way, by creating the “Craft in America” series; but is there a craft you’ve come across during your production work that you wished you could do?

After producing two seasons of Craft in America, I know that filmmaking is definitely a craft and I have enjoyed learning it. Filmmaking reminds me of craft production because several people – the producer, director, director of photography, assistant cameraman, sound recordist, gaffer, grip, and editor – collaborate on a film, each bringing skills and artistry to the project. The collaboration and dedication to the final product are reminiscent of the processes craft workshops have used for thousands of years.

I have made pottery since 1969, when I learned to throw on the wheel and fell in love with clay. However, producing the Craft in America series has brought me into the studios of many artists working in the other craft mediums of wood, glass, metal and fiber. I have felt a strong attraction to weaving after visiting the studio of Jim Bassler, who is featured in the “Origins” episode. Jim pares weaving down to its most simple form. I would love to learn discontinuous weave, the technique he is now using, which, as he says, only requires two sticks and thread. It is quite different from the complicated, and I think, difficult process of setting up a loom. If I could learn to weave, I would also want to learn wedge weave, anther technique Jim uses that allows for diagonal weaving. Jim learned this technique from studying Navajo rugs.

Q. We live in an age where most of the everyday objects around us are produced quickly and cheaply. Do you think that the traditional ways of handmade crafting are in danger of dying out?

Rather than dying out, I think there are several reasons why traditional crafting techniques are experiencing a rebirth now, at the beginning of the 21st century.

The first and most important reason is the universal urge to create that seems stronger than ever in this time of political and financial uncertainty. People, and especially young people, are turning to handwork for emotional and economic reasons.

Making something by hand gives one a sense of accomplishment and individuality that buying something does not. As Scott, the violin maker in the “Process” episode says, it is amazing to start with a piece of wood and end up with a violin.

In this time of disconnection with the sources of the objects we use, it is wonderful to make something by hand and incorporate that personal expression into our lives.

Q. So what inspires people in this day and age to pursue a career in craft? Is there a particularly inspiring story from your series that comes to mind?

There are several factors that inspire people to pursue a career in the crafts. A person who decides to work with their hands has the satisfaction of being able to express their creativity in a life that offers independence. In the “Process” episode of the new Craft in America series, Miguel Gomez Ibanez at the North Bennet Street School says it is quite different to finish a workday having made something as opposed to finishing the day having returned any number of phone calls.

Craft objects, the physical manifestations of the artist’s creativity, stand as a positive force that enriches the lives of the people who acquire them. If the objects are functional, the owners interact with them in a way that changes and humanizes their lives. The sense of touch is important to both the maker and the user of these objects. Touch is the one of our seven senses that is all but missing from contemporary experience.

Additionally, artists making craft objects are a part of the continuum that started with the first humans who learned to use tools to make things to improve their daily lives. This continuum, which is present in the pots, quilts, glass vessels, jewelry, ironwork, furniture, books and clothing being produced by craft artists today, is a vital part of who we are as a culture. In addition, the traditions of ornamentation and embellishment that accompanied the earliest crafts also exist today in objects that may not have a functional purpose but are created to inspire or satisfy emotional needs.

Eudorah Moore, who was instrumental in presenting the crafts in California in the last decades of the 20th century, commissioned a book entitled Craftsman’s Lifestyle: The Gentle Revolution. The last thing I’d like to mention is the importance of the lifestyle that accompanies a career in the crafts. Independence and an environment filled with beauty are essential elements of the craft artist’s world. The relationships a craft artist has with friends and family are the cornerstones of a community that thrives on creativity and independence. That means a lot nowadays.

Q&A: “No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos” director James Chressanthis

No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos tells the story of two Hungarian film students who escaped communist Hungary in 1956, with little more than a camera and a shopping bag full of film. Over the next 50 years, Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond would reinvent Hollywood movies for an entire generation, shooting some of the most notable films in American cinematic history: The Deer HunterClose Encounters of the Third KindDeliverancePaper MoonFive Easy Pieces;What’s Up, DocNew York, New YorkHeaven’s GateFrances; and dozens more. The two also maintained an iron-clad friendship along the way. I spoke with the film’s director, James Chressanthis.

Q. Was it intimidating for you to film two men who practically defined a genre of American cinema?

A. Though I am an experienced cinematographer (2 Emmy® Nominations, Additional Photography on the Oscar-winning Chicago) it was a daunting task. I felt a great responsibility to get their story right while doing justice to their amazing canon of work.

Q. So why profile Laszlo and Vilmos? Why now?

A. I met Laszlo first as a student then apprenticed to Vilmos early in my career as a cinematographer. I saw them together during the filming of The Witches of Eastwick(1987) commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution and said to myself: “What an amazing story, someone should do that.” However, the stars and circumstances did not align until twenty years later when I decided to do the film in 2006. I believe their fiercely independent artistic approach, coupled with an optimistic faith in themselves, was the reason they had such an impact on American cinema. In their story, I believe young people can see a path to their own future in these uncertain times which is ripe for new innovative ways of making films.

Q. Laszlo and Vilmos worked on classics like Easy Rider, Deliverance, Paper Moon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to name a few … which of their films inspire you the most, and why?

A. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Paper Moon, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Frances, The Deer Hunter are some of my favorites. All share the trait of portraying unique individual stories without romanticizing their characters and without sentimentality. At their best, the films of both cinematographers achieve what Vilmos Zsigmond calls Poetic Realism.

Q. What challenges did you face making the film?

A. Dealing with the staggering number of masterpieces or notable films they each shot; structuring the film which has several layers/storylines: The Hungarian Revolution; the struggle of two outsider immigrants trying to achieve the American dream; the change in American cinema and how Laszlo & Vilmos were critical to the “American New Wave”; and most importantly the evolution of a deep friendship that spanned more than fifty years.

Q. How did you get access not only to Laszlo and Vilmos, but all the other big names featured in the film – Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, Peter Fonda, Jon Voight, and others?

A. All these film artists have a great love of their craft and for their two colleagues and they were very generous with their time. All participants wished to correct the record, so that history will recognize the terrific contribution Laszlo & Vilmos made to our movies.

I wish to thank not only the those mentioned but also give a shout out to Sandra Bullock, John Williams, Richard Donner, Graeme Clifford, Allen Daviau, Owen Roizman, Haskell Wexler, Sharon Stone and the late “Grindhouse King” Ray Dennis Steckler. For me the unanticipated pleasure was having so many wonderful conversations with filmmakers I have been influenced by and admire.