Now that The Last Play at Shea has been released in theaters and is now on DVD, I can talk about some of my experiences while working on the project. It’s been almost three years since I started on the film. I was brought on board in May of 2008, although production on the documentary had already started a few weeks prior to that. The director wanted to bring me onto the film from the beginning but I was already shooting another documentary for him in California. He mysteriously disappeared from that shoot and kept “directing” over the phone. We were a bit perplexed until that shoot ended and he brought me onto the Billy Joel doc. I quickly understood his situation and was grateful to have been invited to shoot the rest of the film. The production continued until June of 2009.
“The Last Play at Shea is a unique documentary concept intended to escape the traditional narrative and current trend of biographical rock documentaries. Through the prism of Billy Joel’s extraordinary career and blue collar perspective, The Last Play at Shea will chronicle the waning days of Shea Stadium through a tapestry of performance, historical documentary and personal journey while at the same time providing audiences with a pop-culture snapshot of a seminal era in New York history.
“The film weaves interviews with players and performers and exclusive concert footage—featuring guests like Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, John Mayer and Roger Daltrey, among others.
“The Last Play at Shea world premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival and is directed by Paul Crowder and produced by Nigel Sinclair and Steve Cohen, in cooperation with Billy Joel’s Maritime Pictures.”
We shot massive amounts of footage—from concerts prior to the big shows at Shea Stadium, to interviews with celebrities, historians, friends of Joel, experts, etc. I don’t know how many interviews we did… just under a hundred? Some of the names I can remember: Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, Steven Tyler, Garth Brooks, Tony Bennett, Mike Piazza, Keith Hernandez, Tom Seaver, Christie Brinkley, John Mayer, Don Henley, Sting, Daryl Strawberry, Ron Darling… I’m disappointed that my memory only gives me just over a dozen names. We shot mostly in the New York/Long Island area but made a few trips to Florida, Las Vegas, LA and even went overseas twice—once to Germany and once to London to interview Sir Paul McCartney (awesome!).
We shot the doc initially with the HVX-200 for the run-and-gun stuff and the talking-heads interviews were shot on the Panasonic Varicam but we quickly began shooting everything with the Varicam because the director was so pleased with the images we were getting with it. The HVX-200 became the secondary camera that he would carry around to nab footage when we were separated. All footage was shot in 24p and without any filtration except for the talking-head interviews which were always shot through a 4×5 Tiffen Black Diffusion FX 1/2 filter.
Our lighting kit was a small Arri lighting package we picked up from B&H Photo Video in New York on my first day of shooting. It was small enough to be portable and big and heavy enough to be a minor pain for a two-man crew to be lugging around the world.
It was a really cool project to work on (understatement!). For a large part of the year we were in production, I spent 1 to 2 weeks per month on the east coast—mostly in the New York area. I would fly out with that heavy lighting kit every time, too. When I got to New York, we would usually head over to Panavision to pickup the camera gear and shoot a couple of interviews per day until we exhausted our resources for that portion of the shoot. We’d run around the city getting B-roll footage of everything. Then we’d return the camera package and I’d lug the light kit back to L.A. Rinse and repeat.
When we started the documentary, we didn’t know exactly what kind of film would emerge from all this footage—not unlike every other documentary ever made. Billy Joel did know that he wanted to make a doc leading up to the Shea concert(s). The director started to discover some some interesting parallels between Billy Joel’s life, Shea Stadium, the Mets, and Queens. I don’t know how he managed to find those parallels, but it was a pretty amazing thing. That is what started the unique narrative of the film. Up until that point, we were shooting anything and everything! I think the original idea was that we would feature the band and the road crew’s family-like relationship with Billy. So we shot A LOT of footage of the band in rehearsals, backstage, on the tour bus and in concert, as well as lots of interviews with the band and road crew. Ultimately, almost none of this footage made it into the film. I always feel bad for those guys because they thought the film was going to be about them, and they were so excited to be a part of it. Oh well, right?
The film went through many different edits. For the majority of the versions, the concert footage made up about 40% of the film, but the final cut of the film increased that percentage to what seems to be 60%. I could be wrong. It would be interesting to see exactly how much. I was a little disappointed to see my work cut away since the actual concert footage was handled by an event production company. Especially since there will be a complete concert DVD released next month. Oh well again.
The DVD is available online for purchase or you can add it to your Netflix queue. Check it out and let me know what you think.
Photo by Jon Moe