2014-12-04 / Front Page

Ferry students share stories

By Ken Shane


The cover of the “We Took the Ferry” DVD, which premieres Wednesday at the library, shows students in the 1950s board the Wildwood. 
Courtesy of the Jamestown Historical Society The cover of the “We Took the Ferry” DVD, which premieres Wednesday at the library, shows students in the 1950s board the Wildwood. Courtesy of the Jamestown Historical Society Bob Sutton never thought of himself as a filmmaker, but he can now add the title to his resume after completing a documentary that chronicles a unique era in the history of Jamestown.

“We Took the Ferry” focuses on the 31 years between 1938 and 1969, a period of time when students who attended Newport high schools had only one transportation option: the ferry. The film premieres at the library on Wednesday, Dec 10, at 7 p.m.

According to Sutton, when he was town administrator in the 1970s and ’80s, he would hear people reminiscing about taking the ferry to school. He found it interesting, and the idea stayed with him over the years.

The idea for a film began a couple of years ago when Sutton was driving behind a local school bus. He observed the bus as it stopped on East Shore Road, and watched the monitor get out to detect traffic. He then saw a student emerge from the bus and cross the street. The youngster hopped into a waiting car, which drove up a nearby driveway to home.

“This was a whole lot different than how kids used to go to school,” Sutton thought to himself.

That’s when Sutton began recording stories of local residents who had taken the ferry to high school. He wanted to preserve the unique stories. He amassed approximately 40 audio interviews. By the time they were completed, Sutton realized the interviews could be the basis for a film, despite his lack of filmmaking experience.

His first stop was Kettlebottom Productions where he spoke to Nick and Robb Roach. Sutton’s lack of experience and funding caused skepticism in the Roaches. Fortunately, the Kettlebottom team decided to create a short promotional film that could help raise money. The experience went well enough for Kettlebottom to continue its involvement, and Sutton was able to find some private funding.

Sutton then went back to most of the people he had interviewed and asked them to sit for videoed conversations. In the film, 31 people are interviewed, and even though Sutton didn’t use all 40 original interviewees, all of them helped shape the eventual narrative of the film, he said.

Although most of the film is unscripted, Sutton wanted a beginning and end. He decided to use Linda Warner for the opening scene based on her voice and comfort level in front of the camera. Sutton put together a script and asked her to read it in her own words. Together they shaped a foreword in which Warner introduces Jamestown.

“She did it beautifully, all in one take,” he said.

Sutton also had some help from his son, Larson, a California-based writer who helped the narrative flow more smoothly. Most of the interviews were shot with two cameras for editing purposes by George Manchester of Kettlebottom, who also worked with Sutton on editing. According to Manchester, he knew nothing about the subject, which made it interesting for him.

“I got to learn about that time period and to meet some fascinating people who had gone through a lot experiences that a lot of kids today wouldn’t be able to fathom,” he said. “Like being on the ferry in the 1938 hurricane.”

Manchester said Sutton had a specific vision of what he wanted, and that made Manchester’s job easier. He was there primarily to provide technical expertise, including the decision to use two cameras. This process helps to give the film a seamless look. Manchester also had to go through approximately 80 hours of film with Sutton in an editing process that resulted in the 39-minute film.

At the beginning of the process, Sutton didn’t think that his film would include any music. Eventually he realized that melody is everywhere these days, and that he should include some in the film. The cost of licensing prerecorded music can be prohibitive, so Sutton approached local musicians Janet Grant and Matt Bolles and asked them to create some improvised music for the film.

Sutton was then approached by resident Barry Cook, a veteran of the entertainment industry who has a recording studio in his home. Several years ago Cook had purchased a library of recorded music that didn’t require licensing. They began to listen to the music and inserted portions of it into the film.

Sutton then went back to Grant and Bolles with more specific requests. Grant transcribed some of the guitar music from Cook’s collection and based some piano improvisations on it. Bolles plays the “Navy Hymn” on guitar under a moving scene in which Bucky Caswell speaks about seeing a badly damaged Navy destroyer being towed in the bay during World War II.

“I wanted that piece of music from the time I heard Bucky Caswell’s interview,” Sutton said.

Although the film chronicles a bygone era, Sutton used state-ofthe art technology, including an aerial drone equipped with a video camera. The footage is used in the film’s opening to set the scene. Another example is Sutton’s use of the “Ken Burns effect” in which still photographs are panned for maximum effectiveness. The film has no narrator.

“I wanted it to be these people telling their story, and putting it together in a loose fashion,” Sutton said.

Of all the stories Sutton heard, he credits Art Washburn’s with getting things off the ground. When he was in high school, Washburn was building a hot rod and wanted to take it to school. He had to make arrangements with the ferry company to get the car on board, and then had some friends help him to get the car, which didn’t run, from the ferry up to Broadway where the high school was located.

“It was all initiative, and if you look at it carefully, and listen to what the people are saying, it is all their initiative,” Sutton said. “Getting to school was their responsibility.”

According to Sutton, the local government at the time provided students with the opportunity to attend high school, but getting there and back was up to them. If a student played on the basketball team, for example, and the game was over after the last ferry left, the player might find himself sleeping in the Newport jail, as one person recounts in the film.

Initially, Sutton only planned to make one copy of the film and donate it to the Jamestown Historical Society. People who participated in the film, however, began asking how they were going to be able to see it. The society decided to order DVD copies to sell to the public. There has been some discussion of having Rhode Island PBS broadcast the film, but Sutton said his involvement with the project is now complete. That decision rests with the historical society.

Following the screening, filmmakers and interview subjects who appear in the film will answer questions from the crowd. The screening is free and open to the public.

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