After 50 years in film, John Korty is still true

David Briggs
John Korty’s films will be featured at the Smith Rafael Film Center.
10/27/2011

With his mussed white hair, nondescript jeans and worn New Balance sneakers, John Korty manages to belie the ostentation one would associate with a critically acclaimed filmmaker who has Oscar and Emmy wins to his name. Over his 50-year independent film career, which has spanned work in animation, documentary, drama and comedy, Korty has stuck to his every-guy persona and refused to abandon his creative vision in favor of commercial success or Hollywood approval.

“I wouldn’t trade places with anyone,” Korty said on a recent Monday as he sat near the windows in a downtown Point Reyes Station café. “I have no envy of people who have made a lot of money because I know what comes with it. There are very few people that can make millions and millions of dollars and not lose a little bit of their humanity and their own values.”

Korty, who is 75, sipped a cup of decaf coffee on a brief break from furious post-production work on John Allair Digs In!. The short documentary about the rock pianist will premiere alongside Miracle in a Box, his 2009 film about the restoration of a Steinway piano at Oakland’s Callahan Piano Service, on the opening night of a directorial retrospective at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center on November 10.

Korty’s passion for film was sparked in high school, in Kirkwood, Missouri, when an art teacher projected one of animation pioneer Norman McLaren’s films. Korty, who had been enamored of drawing since he was a young child, had an epiphany. “I just thought, ‘My God, that’s it!’” he said. “Film is the one place where you can use all these elements of visuals and music and language and everything else.”

After some modest success creating animated commercials and landing a freelance animation gig at NBC in New York, Korty left his cramped apartment in Brooklyn Heights to move to the West Coast. He rented a house in Stinson Beach, continued to freelance, and soon met Sausalito-based sound artist Henry Jacobs, who was looking for someone to animate a short about cigarettes for the American Cancer Society.

Korty listened to the soundtrack, designed the characters and completed a frame-by-frame animation of Breaking the Habit in his home studio. The six-minute short was nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject at the 1964 Academy Awards.

“He definitely appeared to be a master of animation with his own special way of doing it that had nothing to do with Disney,” Jacobs, who lives in Inverness, said. “It was made with a [a small amount of money] and it was competing in Hollywood with short films that hundreds of thousands of dollars were invested in. The fact that we got an Academy nomination was kind of miraculous.”   

Korty made his first foray into feature-length, live-action film in 1966 when he adapted Allen Wheelis’s short story “The Illusionless Man and the Visionary Maid” into the locally shot black-and-white fable film The Crazy Quilt. With heavy narration, sparse and comic dialogue, and bold contrast and lighting, the film follows the marital troubles and triumphs of pessimistic termite exterminator Henry and his incurably optimistic wife Lorabelle.

The movie debuted to rave reviews from publications across the country.

“It’s not only a happy achievement in its own right, but as an example of the vitality of some of our independent film-makers who spin dreams from shoestrings outside the Hollywood Establishment,” wrote The New York Times.  “If The Crazy Quilt is not a complete illusion, we should be seeing a lot more of Mr. Korty.”

The week after the film was released in New York, Hollywood agents were courting Korty at lunches in his small beachside village. But he was already pursuing his second independent feature. “I knew that if I signed with the agents and they got me a job at Warner Brothers, I would be back to square one in the sense of power,” he said.  “I would be getting paid a lot of money, but I would not have control over my film. I would say, ‘You know, I’m afraid if I move to L.A. and I work for a major studio, I would become the kind of person I don’t like. I’m very happy here, I like the Bay Area and no matter what happens, I’m gonna stay here.’” In his unheated barn studio, which featured cracked concrete floors, holes in the walls and a $105-a-month bill, Korty produced two more films, Funnyman and Riverrun.

In the early 70s, at a panel discussion at the Hilton Hotel, in San Francisco, Korty sat down beside a chair bearing the nametag for

Francis Ford Coppola. He was disappointed when the event began with no sign of the legendary director. “About ten minutes later, this skinny kid comes running wearing tennis shoes and blue jeans and sits down and he whispers and says, ‘Francis couldn’t come. He sent me. Hi, my name’s George Lucas,’” Korty recalled.     

The two hit it off, and when the event ended Lucas called Coppola to introduce his new friend. “And the first thing George said was, ‘You gotta meet this Korty guy! He’s doing exactly what you said you wanted to do!’, which was to make films outside of Hollywood,” Korty said.

Coppolla, Lucas and Korty hatched plans to share studio space somewhere in the Bay Area. “Francis of course is a little bit of a wild man,” Korty said. “He said, ‘Let’s go up and look at property in Bodega Bay.’ And being Francis, he said, ‘We’ll have a fleet of helicopters and when we’re shooting the helicopters can pick us up and take us.’”

The trio settled on a brick building, at 827 Folsom Street in San Francisco, with a projection room in the middle and corner offices for each director. Korty had landed a deal with Columbia to direct what was supposed to be Michael Douglas’ first big picture, but he soon realized that Kirk Douglas was hijacking creative control as the head of the production company. Despite the credence the movie would lend his name, Korty pulled out of the project.  

Meanwhile, Coppola, facing massive debt, raised the rent prices on his office space. Korty departed amicably and found a studio in Mill Valley; he would remain there for almost two decades.

During the mid-1970s, Korty completed two wildly successful television dramas, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” in 1974 and “Farewell to Manzanar” in 1976. The former, which told the story of a black slave in the South who lived to see the civil rights movement, won him an Emmy for Best Directing in Drama. The latter, which focused on a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II, clinched the Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Special Program.

But instead of replicating his success with television drama, Korty set out to explore a wide array of other genres. “That’s what Hollywood likes,” he said. “Somebody makes a great comedy and they just say, ‘Do that again.’ They don’t know how to deal with you if you start changing around. I really like variety. If I had three lives to lead, one of them would be an animator, one would be a documentary…I’d be very busy.”

Sometime in the 1970s, Korty took notice of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen’s poignant material about the Debolts, a family who was raising six children of their own along with 13 black, Korean and Vietnamese adoptees—many of whom had physical handicaps. Korty began filming Who Are the Debolts? at a Fourth of July get-together at the family’s home in Piedmont. The fly-on-the-wall shooting continued intermittently for another three years.  

Producer Warren Lockhart, who helped finance the film, said that getting it to air on television—with its multiracial scenes and close-ups of debilitating handicaps—was an almost impossible task, but one that Korty had the wherewithal to achieve. “John has an extraordinary capability to identify complex and important production opportunities,” Lockhart said. “He seeks out what other people wouldn’t take the risk on.”  

The 1977 film explores the everyday lives of the Debolt children as they complete chores, go to school and roughhouse, all without hesitation or self-pity. Viewers watch JR, a blind paraplegic, as he climbs to the top of the family staircase, and Karen, a girl born without arms or legs, as she attaches her arm braces and lifts herself into prosthetic legs. The normalcy and enthusiasm with which the children conduct themselves is enough to convince anyone of the limitless possibilities of human life.  

Cinematographer and documentary filmmaker John Else, who got his start in film on Who Are the Debolts?, characterized Korty as the most generous director that he has worked with. “At the time he hired me, I was a kid out of film school. I cold-called him and he actually answered the phone and he actually talked to me,” he said. “He was really fun to work with because he did not micromanage us. John would never be whispering in your ear, you know, pan left. He was not that kind of director.”

When Who Are the Debolts? won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1977, Korty watched the ceremony from a cheap hotel room in New York, where he was shooting Oliver’s Story. “My laundry had come back and I was sitting there folding my laundry, watching the television,” he said. “When I won, the phone in the room just started ringing. Everybody’s calling, you know. It was great. I was still folding my laundry.”

Korty’s work with casts and crews has died down since the late 90s, and he has edited his recent projects by himself in his Point Reyes Station studio. He admits that he misses the camaraderie of the set. “I miss the affection,” he said. “I miss going to work at 6:30 in the morning and getting a walking breakfast and saying hi to a bunch of nice people. You have this great closeness. It’s why actors and actresses often have love affairs during the shoot: because something about the experience pulls everybody together.”  

Despite the unwavering plea from Hollywood to abide by its rules and conventions, Korty has not relented. And although his directorial career has been nothing short of prolific, he has not let his age interfere with his vision, either. “I have no intention of retiring,” he said. “In fact, my ace in the hole is if I end up in a wheelchair, it will be great for animation! I can sit there in that wheelchair and make animated films until I drop dead. In the best of all worlds, my ambition is to make my very best film the year before I die. It would be great to go out with the knowledge that you have finally made the ultimate film.”
 
John Korty’s work will be celebrated at an upcoming director’s retrospective at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, in San Rafael, from November 10 to December 4. For more information and for a schedule of films, visit www.cafilm.org/rfc/films/1614.html.