“You only come by here once. I haven’t talked to nobody been by here twice.”
Clarence Garrett says that at the end of Milwaukee filmmaker Kristin Catalano’s documentary “Clarence,” with his trademark mix of wisdom, humor and kindness. He lived that credo to the letter, a retired U.S. Army mechanic and World War II veteran who sent his four kids through college and then, at the age of 85, enrolled himself.
Garrett’s story of perseverance is mirrored by that of Catalano herself, who spent the last 10 years making the 76-minute documentary pretty much on her own. The film has its world premiere at the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival next Wednesday and Thursday.
“It was true,” Catalano said of Garrett’s philosophy. “If you want to do it, you can do it.”
Catalano grew up knowing Garrett as a friend of the family. He was the mechanic at the warehouse of the grocery store her family owned, Sav-On Foods in Milwaukee.
Catalano initially went to film school at UCLA with the intention of becoming a screenwriter for feature films. But after taking a class in documentary filmmaking, she saw the appeal of telling a story without prior approval from a Hollywood studio.
“I can do this on my own,” Catalano said. “I don’t need anyone’s okay. I can go off on my own and make a movie.”
Catalano knew Garrett would make a great subject for a movie, and initially thought she would just interview him about his long and eventful life. When she asked him if he had any regrets, she assumed he would say no.
But Garrett said he had always regretted never finishing college. Catalano knew that the story of an 85-year-old man going back to school to complete the degree he started a half-century earlier would give her documentary a real narrative pull. So she asked Garrett to let her know if he ever did re-enroll.
He did, and Catalano spent the next two years following him around with a camera at UW-Milwaukee, taking classes, interacting with students and professors, going to exercise at the Y. If Garrett ever felt out of place in the campus environment, he never lets it show, happily leaping into new experiences like using a computer for the first time.
“He was eightysomething years old and he never felt out of place,” Catalano said. “That was encouraging to me. Even I feel old doing certain things.”
In the end, Catalano amassed some 200 hours of footage to sift through.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “It probably took almost a year just thinking about what was I going to be doing with all of this footage, and start to filter through it.”
It took her another two years to edit the footage down to a 97-minute rough cut that was all “fly-on-the-wall” footage. Then she added interviews with Garrett and his family, and cut it down even further to the current 76-minute cut. While she had a friend do the soundtrack and got filmmaking advice from another friend, she shot, produced, directed and edited the film all on her own.
It was daunting because she had so much material of Garrett she wanted to include. But her training as a screenwriter helped her separate out what was truly necessary to the film. The film ends with Garrett being honored by Gov. Jim Doyle at a Martin Luther King Day celebration in the Capitol Rotunda, where he jokingly wonders what they’ll do for him when he gets his master's degree.
Garrett passed away in 2012, but he saw an early cut of the film and approved of it. Finally, with Wisconsin Public Television eager to show the film on their series “Director’s Cut” in 2015, Catalano completed the film.
After its world premiere in Madison, Catalano plans to submit “Clarence” to other festivals, and get Garrett’s message of "You're never too old" to more audiences.
“That was his message,” she said. “You only go around once, so give it all you got.”