Commentary: 'Runway' winner's shot at runaway success

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Fashion fascination: You get a sense of just how important fashion is today when the public seems more interested in "Who are you wearing?" on the red carpet than "Who's going to win?" Oscar night.

At the same time, our fascination with fashion designers explains the battle over which cable network will air the sixth season of the Weinstein Co.'s hit reality series "Project Runway," which spent its first five seasons on Bravo. When TWC put together a $200 million deal with Lifetime for the show's next five seasons, the result was tons of billable hours for lawyers on both sides. Approximately 4 million viewers watched each fifth season "Runway" episode, a huge increase from roughly 1 million when the series with its dueling designers premiered in 2004.

That first season's face-off was won by Jay McCarroll, who was instantly crowned "the next great American designer." McCarroll had studied fashion at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science and the London College of Fashion, after which he started selling his early designs in London and Amsterdam. He returned to the U.S. and auditioned for the first season of "Runway." Since winning, he's worked tirelessly to create and show his first line of clothing and hopefully go from "Runway" hit to runaway success.

McCarroll's yearlong journey to show his designs during Fashion Week in New York's Bryant Park is the subject of the very engaging new feature documentary "Eleven Minutes." Directed and produced by Michael Selditch & Rob Tate, it opens Friday via Regent Releasing in theaters in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Tempe, Ariz., and opens March 6 in Philadelphia. The film also premieres Feb. 20 on the Here! on-demand cable network.

McCarroll comes across favorably in "Eleven" despite his artistic mood swings and sometimes quirky behavior. In focusing on his efforts to launch a new clothing line the camera's there as he interacts with the teams of people it takes to make such things happen. There's his JMC Collection team with publicist Nancy Kane, project manager Lee Deekle, hair/wig designer Jason Low, shoemaker Anthony Cady and jewelry designer Lola Brooks.

And there's his People's Revolution promotion team with owner/publicist Kelly Cutrone, sales rep Andrews Spitaleri and fashion show consultants Thomas Onorato and Max Wixom. Also onscreen are Humane Society executive vice president Michael Markarian, various fashion specialists, accessory experts and, of course, the models who ultimately wear McCarroll's designs on the runway.

After enjoying an early look at "Eleven," I was happy to be able to focus with Selditch on the making of the film. "I was asked by Bravo a while back to make a documentary on Jay that was called 'Project Jay,'" he told me. "I brought in Rob Tate, who worked on it with me, and he edited the piece. We made that together and became friends with Jay and loved working with Jay. When we were done with that he told us that he was about to do his first independent fashion show in Bryant Park and he was going to try to sell his first line of clothing to stores and he said, 'Why don't we film it? Why don't we make a documentary?' So it really came from Jay."

Selditch made his feature film directorial debut with the 2002 drama "Fixing Frank." Prior to making "Project Jay" for Bravo in 2005, he had directed episodes of the cable network's hit series "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

"We started shooting ('Eleven') at the beginning of 2006 for his fashion show in September of 2006," Selditch recalled. "We shot it basically for over a year. We would talk every week and say, 'Well, what are you up to now? What's going on?' and he'd say, 'Well, you know, I have this meeting' or 'I have this thing (to do)' or 'I'm going to visit my shoe designer' or whatever and we would shoot him. As it got closer to the Bryant Park show, of course, we were there much more. And there was a period when we were there all the time for over a month. We had about 250 hours of footage in the end before we stopped and started to put it together."

With so much footage to work from there clearly were big editing challenges. "It was daunting," he observed. "On the one hand, we felt like we had a lot of great stuff because Jay is just great to shoot. And then, on the other hand, you want to tell a story and it has to be concise and it shouldn't really be very much longer than an hour and a half ('Eleven' runs 103 minutes). But there were definite story lines that were very clear to us as we were doing it. (There were) story arcs that we knew we were going to tell. So you dive right in and you edit for a really long time and you watch it and you re-cut it and re-cut it and re-cut it until you feel like you've got something."

Shooting was done, Selditch explained, "primarily (with) one camera. For the fashion show, we had about five cameras because we wanted you to feel like you were everywhere. We had an idea in our minds of how we wanted to see it -- like you were backstage, you were in the front, you were in the audience. There was only one other time (with multiple cameras) I can really think of. When we did (a hot air) balloon fantasy sequence we had two cameras. I was shooting up in the balloon with Jay and Rob was shooting from the ground. But other than that it was primarily a single camera (digital) shoot. It's a (Panasonic) DVX100 that we used in 24p (24 progressive-scanned frames per second). The 24p really helps make something feel more film-like, especially if you're projecting it big."

Asked how he approached capturing McCarroll's larger than life personality on screen, Selditch replied, "One of the things that Rob and Jay and I were all completely on the same page about from day one was that we wanted to make a film that shows the process of what he was doing. You know, a lot of people can look at a finished piece of art, a finished painting, a finished fashion show or a building or whatever it is that somebody's designing or making or creating and it's easy to see it for what it is and you either like it or you don't like it and you respond to it and you appreciate it or you don't appreciate it."

What people never really get to see is the process, he added, "that happens to get to that end result. We think the process is really interesting and it reminded us a lot about what Rob and I do as filmmakers. So that was part of our goal and it really started to dictate how we were making it and how we were shooting and even the decision to include our making of the documentary in the documentary because we did feel like their were parallels. That idea of what we wanted to do kind of gave us a lot of guidance. As far as Jay, he's just not very conscious of the cameras. He doesn't really think about it. He just does his thing and says what he wants to say and doesn't really care. So that makes it a little easier also in terms of not worrying about things feeling unnatural in any way."

Were the people surrounding McCarroll conscious about having cameras following them around for all those months? "I don't really think anybody did anything differently," Selditch answered. "Everyone was pretty relaxed about it. I've worked on a lot of documentaries and a lot of reality television and depending on the cameras you use -- I mean, this camera happens to be pretty small and we never really light anything -- you'd be surprised at how quickly and how easy it is to forget that there's a person standing there with a camera, especially if you're doing it for a long period of time like in this case a year. You just kind of forget about it."

The big difference between reality television and documentary, he pointed out, is that, "Reality television is somewhat manufactured. I don't mean like manipulated in the edit room, which happens also, but I mean the situations are set up and that's acknowledged by the producers. You know -- 'We're going to put a bunch of people together in a house and call it 'Real World' and see what happens when they live together.' No one thinks that's happening on its own. Everyone acknowledges that that was set up to see what happens.

"A documentary is happening regardless of what's going on. He would have been doing what he was doing regardless of whether I was shooting it or not so everything that happened would have happened anyway. We didn't set up anything. We didn't cause anything to happen or create any fake situation. We were just documenting what he was doing. When you're doing that and you're just calling him up and saying, 'What are you doing next week?' and he says, 'I'm doing this, this and this' and you say, 'Well, I'll be there for this' you just get what happens."

A filmmaker ultimately needs to make choices during the editing process: "Certainly, you can't make a 250 hour movie. So you have to make choices about, 'Well, what's the most interesting? What tells this particular story? How am I going to arc this story?' That's really where you start to play with that stuff. But the stuff that you're playing with is all real stuff."

When I asked about the biggest challenges Selditch and Tate faced during their year of shooting "Eleven," he told me, "There's always challenges in shooting stuff (like) making sure that everybody's on board with what you're doing. Not everybody is as comfortable as Jay is in front of the camera. So there's people who are not going to want to be shot or they're uncomfortable being shot. It's just a matter of getting past that hurdle. If somebody's really uncomfortable being shot then you just don't shoot them. There's people who just said, 'I don't want to do this' and then they're not in it."

Making sure that everybody's on board with being filmed means getting them to sign releases. "Every single person that shows up has to be signing a piece of paper that says it's okay to shoot them," Selditch explained. "All of those logistics are always pretty challenging, especially when you're doing other projects. You know, this was all independent (work done) through my own production company (and) we had some investors. It was a very small scale low budget project so we were all working (on other things) while we were doing this.

"I was running a series at the time so it's a challenge to figure out how you're going to do (something). Rob shot most of it himself and I shot some of it. We were doing the shooting ourselves so that was just another ball in the air to juggle."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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