‘Saving Brinton’ filmmakers reflect on journey, Iowa connections

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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

W. Frank Brinton and his wife, Indiana, dazzled audiences from Minnesota to Texas at the turn of the 20th century with the miracle of moving pictures.

More than a hundred years later, the Brintons have again captivated audiences around the world, this time through a documentary featuring items left over from their once-thriving film business—and the man who saved them from being lost forever.

Iowa encore screenings for Saving Brinton

Oct. 26–31:
Pleasant Valley, Indianola, Marshalltown, Algona, Carroll, Sioux Center, Spencer, Muscatine

Nov. 1: Cedar Rapids

Nov. 1–3: Iowa City

Nov. 4: Dubuque, Washington

More information

“We heard about this amazing collection of films in Washington, Iowa. Some of the first movies in the world, films from George Méliès and Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers,” Iowa City filmmaker Andrew Sherburne says. “We went to check them out because we heard about a treasure trove of films, and we found Mike Zahs. He was the real treasure.”

Sherburne, along with University of Iowa graduates Tommy Haines (BA cinema and comparative literature, ’05) and John Richard (BS environmental science, ’04), have spent the past 18 months screening their documentary, Saving Brinton, at film festivals and theaters across Iowa and around the world.

As the theatrical tour winds down and the film moves to streaming, DVD, and Blu-ray, the team is gearing up for a run at the Academy Awards. While smaller than some of the competition, Saving Brinton isn’t going unnoticed, being named a Best Documentary Feature Oscar contender by The Hollywood Reporter.

“It’s been an amazing run for us,” Haines says. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the audience reception and critics’ reception. It just keeps building and building.”

Saving Brinton, a documentary by Andrew Sherburne and University of Iowa alumni Tommy Haines and John Richard, has built a passionate audience over the past year and is now making a run at an Oscar nomination. While smaller than some of the competition, Saving Brinton isn’t going unnoticed, being named a Best Documentary Feature Oscar contender by The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s been an amazing run for us,” Haines says. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the audience reception and critics’ reception. It just keeps building and building.”

Saving Brinton certainly tells an Oscar-worthy story. Michael Zahs, a retired junior high history teacher, went to an estate sale in 1981 and brought home three truckloads of items. Included in the 10,000 artifacts that originally belonged to the Brintons were silent films, early film projectors, magic lantern slides (precursors to movies), posters, ticket stubs, and business documents. Zahs stored the items in a room in his home and in a shed.

He spent years traveling to local communities showing the films—much like the Brintons themselves had done—while trying to convince film historians and museums that the collection was as special as he knew it was. Finally, he did. The films, many of which were decayed to the point of being unviewable on most equipment, were restored with the help of Humanities Iowa and the UI Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives, where the Brinton Collection is now housed.

Rick Altman, UI professor emeritus of film studies and an expert in early film history featured in Saving Brinton, said at the time Zahs donated the collection to UI that it provides a rare insight into how Americans were entertained a century ago, and the transition from vaudeville to movies.

“This is not just a collection of films, but a window into the ways the Brintons ran their business and the earliest days of the film industry,” Altman said. “As a group, the collection offers special insight into how entertainment was handled at the turn of the 20th century.”

It was about this time that Haines, Richard, and Sherburne heard about Zahs and his rare cinematic treasure. They spent nearly four years following Zahs as interest in the collection built, including when historians discovered footage by Méliès, a pioneer of cinema, that had been lost to history.

Zahs has attended nearly 100 screenings, usually with some combination of Haines, Richard, and Sherburne. After each screening, the group hosts a Q&A and Zahs sometimes shows additional footage from the Brinton collection or put on a magic lantern show. They say Zahs’ fan base is wide.

“It’s been cool to travel with Mike and see his former students come up and say hi to him,” Richard says. “People recognize him on the street in New York City and Washington, D.C. It shows how impactful a teacher can be—that 20 or 30 years on, people remember and are changed by the experience of having a good teacher like Mike.”

Haines and Richard say they were grateful to have had similar experiences with faculty while at the UI. Haines says while many great professors were key in shaping the filmmaker he is today, Altman immediately comes to mind.

“My first class at Iowa was with Rick Altman,” Haines says. “Rick is the perfect person to teach an introduction to film class because he brings everyone into the wonder and history of cinema. It was a huge honor for me to have Rick be part of this film and be a key supporting character for Mike. He makes everything so fun with film.”

Richard says working as a photographer at the student newspaper The Daily Iowan helped prepare him for what he’s doing today. Danny Wilcox Frasier, a UI alum who mentored Daily Iowan photographers, was particularly instrumental in developing his skills and his attitude toward storytelling—whether through photos or film.

Watch Saving Brinton at home

The documentary will be available on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming Nov. 27, 2018.
It will also be broadcast on PBS as part of the America Reframed series in January 2019.

“Even though I’ve gotten away from photojournalism and more into film, the same things hold true,” Richard says. “You have to keep after a subject, get out of your comfort zone, talk to people, and put yourself in situations that are difficult because otherwise, the truths—or the interesting truths—won’t reveal themselves.”

Sherburne, who went to Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, says that while he didn’t attend the UI, he still credits it with much of his film education.

“When I moved to Iowa City, one of the first things I did was figure out where I could see good movies,” says Sherburne, who also is an adjunct instructor at Iowa. “This was when the Bijou was pretty much the only place you could see the art house independent documentary films. I spent so many nights there in the IMU. It was informative and influential to be able to see those films when they came to town. That was in some ways like film school for me.”

Haines, Richard, and Sherburne say they’re proud to be a part of what has turned into a banner year for filmmakers with connections to the UI. Joe Russo (BA English, ’92) broke box office records with Avengers: Infinity War. One of the greatest Hollywood success stories of the year, A Quiet Place, was written by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (both BA communication studies, ’07). D.B. Weiss (MFA Iowa Writers’ Workshop, ’98) won an Emmy for Best Drama for his work on Game of Thrones. The list goes on.

Read more: Hollywood U: How Iowa became the training ground for many of TV and film’s greatest storytellers

“It’s been a really amazing year for Iowa film, or films that have a connection to Iowa,” Sherburne says. “And we’ve been really lucky to have some of these folks come back and screen their films here. That they want to come back to Iowa City I think speaks to the importance of this place in their journey and their evolution as storytellers.”

The trio says Saving Brinton has benefited from their UI connections in Hollywood.

“We had a screening in L.A. and all these alumni from the university were there: Joe Russo, Nicholas Meyer, Scott Beck, and Bryan Woods—the list goes on,” Haines says. “It was amazing to see them all together at one party. It was the first time we really realized how many great Iowa alumni there are in the film industry. The support we’ve received from these other filmmakers and those in the industry has been amazing.”

saving brinton team looks through materials
The team perusing the materials. Before all the glitz and glamour, there was a lot of hard work.

They hope to continue to put those connections to work as they stump for Saving Brinton during an Academy Award campaign.

“We’ve got some good mentors, thankfully, to guide us through the process since it’s new for us to have a film rise to this level,” Sherburne says. “I think this film is something that’s unique in the documentary landscape this year, so we want people who ultimately will cast the votes for those films at the end of the year to see it. More than anything, it’s an awareness campaign.”

They’ll host additional screenings in Los Angeles and New York City and send links and DVDs to Academy Award voters and guild members.

“Our strategy is a little different from most films, which have a coastal company and a big distributor pushing them,” Haines says. “We’re kind of building from Iowa and then out. It’s a grassroots movement, and we fully recognize that with the support of Iowa that this film really has a chance.”

Along with releasing the film on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming sites before the end of the year, the group also is working toward a PBS broadcast as part of the America Reframed series in January 2019.

As their work with Saving Brinton winds down, the filmmakers are starting to think about their next projects.

“Making a feature-length documentary film is a long process,” Sherburne says. “To find a story you want to spend three, four, five years with, it’s got to be the right one. We need to find one that speaks to us.”

Meanwhile, they plan to maintain their connections to the UI. Sherburne has taught at Iowa as an adjunct instructor and is the co-founder and associate director/marketing of FilmScene, a nonprofit cinema in Iowa City that operates in partnership with the Bijou Film Board, a UI student organization. Richard was director of photography for the 2012 documentary City of Literature, produced by the UI.

Haines, Richard, and Sherburne also want to continue to pay forward the mentoring they have received.

“Tommy and I have completed three feature films in the last decade, and on every one we’ve had an intern from the university,” Sherburne says. “It helps us and keeps us energized to have young people working with us, and hopefully it gives them some rare real-world experience they can then take on to the next thing.”