Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Emmy-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Stephanie J. Castillo, Transmedia, and Jazz


When +Stephanie J. Castillo read a newspaper obituary about her brother-in-law after he died of leukemia at age 40, she had no idea of the impact he had made in this world. She knew Thomas Chapin was a jazz musician, but the story of his life would compel her to tell his story the only way she knew how: through a documentary called Thomas Chapin, Night Bird Song: An Incandescent Life of a Jazz Great.

At first, Castillo interviewed a number of people in the jazz industry just to see if such a documentary was warranted. Would anybody care? Their passionate response about the man and his music fueled what came next.

As a jazz musician, Chapin was on the cusp of greatness. He was well-known in Europe, but his music was just being mainstream-recognized in North America. He gained attention from his performance at the 1995 Newport Jazz Festival with his eclectic sound.

Thomas Chapin at the Newport Jazz Festival
He was called, "a virtuoso, one of the more exuberant saxophonists and band leaders in jazz" by the New York Times. "A typical solo of his moved easily between traditional jazz and the sonic explorations of the avant-garde."

A normal documentary takes about five years to assemble. Castillo worked her magic to do this script in a self-imposed deadline of just eight months. It began with a Kickstarter campaign and the blessing of the family, including Chapin himself, who asked his family to make sure his music would live on.

Because he was such an improvisational artist, the script was also somewhat improvised. Thomas Chapin's music was the main character in his story but it is this filmmaker's gift toward storytelling that has allowed the right blend of interviews, life history, anecdotes, and music to culminate into an unexampled work of art, much like the music.

This isn't just a story about jazz or creating a legacy for the man himself. This is everyone's story. This really became clear when Castillo traveled to see first-hand how young musicians have been inspired by Chapin since his death. Night Bird Song as a story that shows creativity, passion, spirit, love, and what some consider “the divine art of jazz.” The film shares the lessons from Chapin's life that teach us about living: how to live with passion, how to go to the edge of fear with boldness, how to find courage, how to dream, to dance and to be free.

The media that uniquely tells the story about Thomas Chapin can be found through newspaper and magazine links, YouTube, CDs, the documentary, musician bios that credit his influence, and a whole lot more.

The documentary has begun with a director's cut, which is four hours long. That has been whittled down to 150 minutes, and eventually to 90 minutes and a seven-minute trailer. Each version will have its own audience appeal. From there the film has been booked for screenings at well-known jazz establishments. There are interviews, Facebook, websites, blogs, film festivals, and fan-driven content -- each telling a new and unique part of the story, the story of his music.


Castillo won an Emmy for her first documentary, Simple Courage, which examined the history behind Hawaii's leprosy epidemic and the compassionate intervention of Belgium missionary priest Father Damien. The Thomas Chapin project is her 10th documentary.