Dockumentary Filmmaking: Catching Up With That Dock Ellis Doc

A talk with Chris Cortez, producer of "No No: A Dockumentary."
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Drugs, but also more than drugs.

Image courtesy of No No: A Dockumentary.

Back in March, we wrote about No No: A Dockumentary, a documentary film about Dock Ellis—about not merely the guy who threw a no-hitter while tripping balls, but the interesting, free-thinking and troubled person he was around that enduringly weird landmark achievement. The production is continuing—I'll be meeting producer Chris Cortez, who was in town to film an interview with Ron Howard, who worked with Ellis on the 1986 Michael Keaton vehicle/race-classic Gung Ho, later this afternoon—but has entered the home stretch. That's where No No: A Dockumentary's Kickstarter campaign comes in—the producers are trying to raise $35,000 to bring the film home, and fund things like last-minute Ron Howard-related jaunts to New York City. Over email, I talked to Cortez about the film he and his Dockumentary partners—a group that includes former Ellis teammate Scipio Spinks, South By Southwest co-founder Louis Black, and legendary skateboard/Ice T photographer Glen E. Friedman, who talks about his relationship with Ellis in a fascinating interview on the film's Kickstarter page—are trying to make, and why they're trying to make it.

So, things are coming together, clearly. You'd done a good deal when we last spoke, and the list of interviewees keeps growing—just as Dock Ellis was probably the only person who could even ever have met both people, this is probably the only movie I can think of that will feature interview footage with both Manny Sanguillen and Ron Howard. What is the last Kickstarter push going to fund?

People tell us they want to see this movie. We are encouraged by the nearly 2,500,000 views on YouTube for James Blagden's animated short. The interest of poets, musicians, journalists and artists all further demonstrates the potential audience for a feature film about Dock. Kickstarter offers us a way to get the grassroots support an independent production like ours requires.

A Kickstarter campaign is all or nothing. Either you meet your goal and collect your contributions, or you get bupkis. So we set a fairly conservative goal of $35,000. If we meet that goal, it puts us on even ground but still a long way from a finished film. Most campaigns on Kickstarter fail, but there are exceptions that greatly over-achieve their targets. Documentary films tend to achieve better results with crowdfunding than many other artistic endeavors. We also continue to seek qualified equity investors and an executive producer for the film. Taking the project to Kickstarter might just attract the attention of such a stakeholder

We are a fully independent production. The Texas Filmmakers Production Fund provided a grant of $2000 in 2010. The rest of the production costs have been begged, borrowed and negotiated. [director] Jeffrey [Radice] turned his back on an IT career and has lived in poverty for years without pay. The producers have all contributed considerable sweat equity and money to ensure the right opportunity, such as an interview with Manny Sanguillen or Ron Howard, is not squandered.

The content we have assembled came at a cost. Flying a small professional crew across the country to interview people—Director of Photography John Fiege and Sound Engineer Gopal Bidari have been with us for every shoot to ensure a consistent look and quality—cost us real money. Fashioning our accumulated content into a feature film comes at an additional cost.

Having said all that, we are in a great place at the moment. Working with Arts and Labor on the trailer was a fruitful collaboration. They are offering a path to help us complete the post-production of the movie within the next year. We can pursue some cool stylistic angles using the art of Kevin-John as a basis for animation.

We have built a number of connections among film festival programmers and would receive a welcome reception at festivals. The ultimate endgame would be a theatrical or television run.

Dock was serious about what he was serious about, but he was also probably the most extravagantly swagged out baseball player in history, at least as far as collar-girth and curler-usage is concerned. Obviously the aesthetic stuff is important when making a film (I believe Truffaut first said that), and clearly the Kevin-John illustrations are a part of delivering on that. But how have you tried to balance the serious aspects of Dock's life with the more colorful aspects of his essential Dock-ness? Is there even a distinction to be made between the two?

The trailer was designed to reflect exactly the balance you mention. Dock’s outlandish dress and behavior were fueled by his unstoppable personality, his upbringing, by the times… but also by drug and alcohol abuse, and a culture of womanizing. The lifestyle he led as a professional ballplayer took a toll on Dock's relationships, his career, his health. Dock said near the end of his life that he wouldn't do it any differently, because he was the man he was through the totality of his experiences. We are striving to tease the audience with this larger-than-life hero who was in fact a larger-than-life hero, however flawed.

And Kevin-John is amazing. We were in Pittsburgh for the 40th anniversary of the Pirates 1971 World Championship, where we interviewed Steve Blass, Bruce Kison, Dave Cash, Gene Clines, Vera Clemente, Roberto Jr., Al Oliver…. The Willie Stargell Foundation was having their annual fundraiser at the Roberto Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh during that reunion. Kevin-John had set up at the front of a large room in front of a blank canvas. As the party progressed, his painting of Willie Stargell "in action" progressed. K-J has done this “in studio” during the Super Bowl many times. We talked with him over the course of the evening, and he loved the Dockumentary. We thought his style and skill would be an amazing add for us, and he has committed to join the team as an illustrator for the film.

Dock Ellis is firmly grounded in the culture of 1970s America. Dan Epstein, who wrote Big Hair and Plastic Grass, says that Dock is one of the most symbolic athletes of the era. Superfly Dock Ellis could only have existed in the '70s. He was, as Bruce Kison said, “a chapter ahead”—not just in fashion, but in all expressions of Black Is Beautiful that fused fashion and social awareness. There is a clear demand for images of the collars, the curlers, Pops and Mudcat in some Soul Train outfit, Dave Parker looking like a badass—people like that. We do. There will be no shortage of '70s flavor, on screen and in the soundtrack.

One basic issue for us was that Dock’s career took place in a different era of television sports coverage. There were no TV crews at Dock's infamous no-hitter. Games that were broadcast, as a game of the week or in local markets, were not preserved. Film reels and tapes from the 1970s have been destroyed as a matter of course. An illustrator like Kevin-John offers us a way to recreate events from Dock's story as animated sequences. We're instinctively drawn to animation styles from that era, such as Bill Cosby's Fat Albert.

We should also remind people that Dock wasn’t all facial hair or curlers when he pitched his no-hitter in 1970. People enjoy the open narrative, dreamy approach of the No Mas video—we love that thing as much as everybody does—but Dock didn’t look anything like that in 1970. He came up in 1968. Teams required ballplayers to be clean cut up into the early 1970s. Dock was on the vanguard of personal style in baseball, yet he played minor league ball in a still largely segregated south. We talked to his fellow ballplayers and family about how those experiences affected him and reinforced his determination. Dock was a deadly serious individual who worked for social justice in tangible ways during his life.

One of the things that's kind of a bummer for people of my generation where Dock is concerned is that we mostly know him as a sort of awesome punchline—the LSD no-hitter guy, or the dude with the curlers who also pitched a no-hitter while on LSD. You've interviewed over a dozen of his contemporaries for the film, which I imagine grounded things somewhat in terms of bringing him into focus as a pitcher and a person. What, among the things you learned from those interviews, surprised you most?

The LSD no-hitter is such a compelling and unbelievable story that it threatens to overwhelm Dock's much richer legacy. As a storytelling device, it serves as this awesome hook to grab audiences and then deliver total Dockness. He once said, "If it happens in sports, it happens in life and sports," so the LSD hook also opens Dock up as a reflection of the culture around him and allows us to explore greater historical and cultural issues like civil rights, drug policy, addiction and recovery.

One thing about Dock that became clear over the course of our many interviews is that there were many sides of the man. He had a fractal personality and everyone who knew him saw a different set of sides. Tom Reich, his agent—one of the earliest superagents, with Dock as his first client—has said Dock was one of the most intelligent and perceptive people he ever met. Dock hid aspects of his life from even his closest friends. His lifelong best friend, Floyd “Big Daddy” Hoffman, a retired fire chief in Los Angeles County, said Dock deliberately kept the drugs and the women away from him as a form of protection.

A few constants have emerged. To a person, everyone said Dock was honest, not a liar. He was generous, especially with regard to his community and his friends. He went back [to Los Angeles] and gave back, even eventually moved back. He was kindhearted and emotional—he loved people and was beloved. His clubhouse role on those early '70s Bucs teams—the brotherly camaraderie of that team in general—was a major theme when we talked to his teammates in Pittsburgh.

Former Pirates ace Steve Blass said Dock could pound the ball down low; never make mistakes up high. Dock was intimidating, but he was not a power pitcher. He had an unusually violent and unpredictable sinker and his fastball had good movement and weight. Dock came up under Chet Brewer, a legendary Negro League pitcher. He was a student of the game. Mudcat Grant and Dock roomed together on the road as Pirates, and Mudcat said he was like an inquisitive nephew who sought knowledge about the art and mechanics of pitching. Younger pitchers Bruce Kison and Larry Demery told us stories about Dock teaching them how to read a hitter like Bobby Bonds, or what to learn from a pitcher like Tom Seaver. Dock even pestered Bob Gibson about hitters.

When we first embarked on production of this film, a German journalist contacted us and wrote an article that referred to Dock as the Muhammad Ali of baseball. We were surprised to find out the relationship between Dock and Ali was actually much deeper than shadowboxing in the clubhouse. They were in fact friends.

The Dockupedia —this massive trove of Ellis-related information that you all have compiled during the production process —seems pretty amazing. What's the plan with that, once the film is done? Is there someplace you could donate all that?

Before it was a film, it was a body of research. Donald Hall's biography, both editions, is core reading to understand Dock, but it's insufficient for a film unless you adapt it to a screenplay. The Dockumentary was seeded through deeper investigations into source material, but the film truly germinated as a memorabilia collection. We even developed a term for it, eBay Filmmaking.

We have long approached the story as a work of investigative journalism. With Dock, the truth is almost stranger than fiction, so we've looked at this film akin to Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line. One of the core questions of the LSD no-hitter, still, is “did he or didn't he.” We also drilled into other stories, such as the one surrounding Dock's relationship with Reggie Jackson. Reggie's towering homerun in 1971 at the All-Star Game led to a Congressional inquiry into "Beanball Wars" in 1976 and Dock's short tenure along with Jackson on the 1977 Yankees. (Not all of Donald Hall's references check out either. He misattributed the first image of Dock with braids to Ebony when it actually appeared in Jet.)

As he researched Dock, Jeffrey became an avid collector of Dock Ellis memorabilia, especially baseball cards, wire photos, game programs, ticket stubs, and signed articles. Memorabilia means a lot to sports fans, obviously, and it is so visually stimulating. Our technique for finding and collecting such material, largely on eBay, has been refined over the years. Along the way, we've gathered dozens of photographic negatives, 16mm and 8mm film, original photographs, and a wide variety of rights to use images and material. We have also connected with collectors and additional sources of third-party material, including a vast library of digital images shared by members of Dock's family.

Over the past decade, documentary filmmaking has experienced a wide array of innovative treatments and photo manipulation styles. Jeffrey, with a friend Scott Calonico, produced some popular short films that showed at Sundance and made the festival rounds several years ago. Scott took free and found footage and still images—for The King and Dick, he used public domain images in the National Archives shot by the White House Photographer—and composited them in After Effects to create inexpensive, short, comedic documentary films. Those experiences offered us insight into the realm of possibility for documentaries.

And the Dockupedia: Vast, authoritative, nearly exhaustive, but with all we have, we continue to talk about a few things we’d love to see. Film or video of Dock pitching with the Mets in 1979 is rare. Even rarer is evidence of Dock on the Pirates in '79; he pitched in seven innings over three games: photographic needle, meet Internet haystack. We’re running a contest on our website to try and crowdsource even more material like that.

Can we donate it all? Maybe so. Anything we don’t sell to fund the completion of the film, we’ll probably donate. Some of it is up on Kickstarter as perks. We are exploring the possibility of turning eBay into a social media forum to drive traffic back to our campaign on Kickstarter, by auctioning off some of the higher value items, such as a pair of game-used pants worn by Dock as a Yankee.

A final aspect of the Dockupedia is informational. We have compiled a vast array of text, links, stories and statistics about Dock and other people we interviewed to make this film. We hope to take this information and share it in the form of a wiki to allow our research to be more widely available. The timing of an effort like that is somewhat up in the air. We'd hate to turn our hard-earned research over freely to a Hollywood producer so he can make a top-grossing biopic about Dock.

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