Owner of Whatantics Entertainment, Denn Pietro has worked as a TV field producer and/or director on such projects as ABC Good Morning America, World News Tonight, Nightline, and countless other shows including trials on Court TV/Tru TV trials. He was a director and camera operator for the world record and media feed of Saddam Hussein’s War Crimes Trial in Baghdad in 2006-2007 while working for the U.S. Regime Crimes Liason’s Office in conjunction with the Iraqi High Tribunal.
In 2000 Denn Pietro set out to bring the world an intimate look into the world of James Dean with his documentary James Dean: Born Cool. Granted exclusive access to whatever was needed to honor the memory and life of Dean by Executive Producer Marcus Winslow Jr. Pietro managed to create one of the most enduring documentaries to date. It was an honor to be able to bring our readers a deeper look into the project with this interview.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you from? How do you think your early upbringing influenced you most to be who you are today?
I have a seven year old son named Canyon (I may have an obsession with the Grand Canyon) that I adore and other than that, I sometimes mow my grass and watch Survivor Wednesdays on TV.
I live South of Detroit, Michigan in an area known as “Downriver” which I love, but the rest of the Detroit area likes to make fun of for reasons I don’t think they even know, but mostly because some cheesy radio DJs can’t think up better jokes. It’s a blue collar area with hard working people. I grew up in Inkster which was a predominately black community before moving to Taylor which was predominately, well, the butt of Downriver jokes. It was a happy place where playing army in the woods, jumping dirt hills on our bikes, and playing with our Star Wars action figures kept us sane… when we weren’t watching TV.
Did you develop a love of television and film early on?
I grew up on a dirt road that was kind of rural. Movies and TV were a gateway into an imagination filled with travel, adventure, laughter, love, heroics. I loved shows like Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, Dukes of Hazzard, Three’s Company and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. I cried during E.T., wanted a Gremlin and wished I had found a treasure map and became a Goonie.
When did you first know you wanted to pursue a career in the industry? What advice would you offer others wishing to do the same?
I used to want to be on Saturday Night Live at a time when a friend got an old VHS video camera as a present and wanted to start making movies and he needed actors. Since his options on that rural dirt road were kind of bleak, I was plopped in front of the camera starring in short films inspired by Miami Vice and Night of the Living Dead. They were terrible. I was terrible. I wanted to run the camera and the rare times I was allowed to shoot a quick shot, my friend would look at it and then announce, “Okay, we gotta reshoot that one!”
I think that rejection propelled me to pursue this life.
My advice is, even if you don’t know how to make a film, documentary or TV show… fake it! Look at the best stuff out there and mimic the quality with the intention of having your project look and feel as close to that one as possible. My second advice, because this is the part I fail at, is learn how to sell yourself and be a showman for you and your work like PT Barnum or Robert L. Ripley to help ensure that people see your work.
What do you love most about your particular line of work? What do find most challenging?
I love the challenge of trying to tell a story and having to adapt as a filmmaker to all the hurdles that come up along the way and still, in the end, being able to finish project that you can be mostly proud of. One challenge in particular that comes to mind was trying to do a documentary about Dan Robbins, the creator of Paint-By-Numbers. In talking to him, I discovered that he was embarrassed by his involvement with PBN and felt that, in some ways, it ruined his career and life. I remember him showing a painting with regret and saying this was the last time he truly felt like an artist – it was art he made in high school before his involvement with PBN.
Through the telling of his story, I wanted to not only convince the art world that PBN and Dan were important and deserved to be in the Museum of Modern Art, but to also convince Dan of the same thing. Unfortunately due to his health set-backs, by the time we were ready to start shooting, all of our talks about how great he and PBN was began to resonate and by the time of the interview, his answers were much different. In the end, I convinced him how great he and PBN was, but sadly, I couldn’t tell the story I originally intended.
How did you come to work on the Saddam Hussein War Crimes Trial? What was that experience like?
I did a lot of work for Court TV and I guess I was unique in being a field director and a robotic camera operator for live court trials in the Midwest and East Coast. There was a production company out in the West Coast that also did the same thing for Court TV and the guy who owned that company bid for the government contract and got it. There was a lot of talk about the people brave or dumb enough to go risk their lives covering that trial and I was asked a few times before I finally said yes.
We worked for the Regime Crimes Liaison’s Office, which was part of the Department of Justice, and the RCLO worked with the Iraqi High Tribunal. I was in Baghdad for 15 months and decided to go because, as a writer, I felt I needed to experience war and its affects, but on my terms. I wasn’t brave or strong enough to ever be in the military, though I worked for a couple years filming for the Marine Corps when I was young enough to be a recruit myself.
For me, being in Baghdad was surreal. I lived at the US Embassy and though we had to dodge rockets and mortars, we didn’t live in the same kind of assault the Coalition Forces had to endure. I felt like I was doing my part for the country without having to make a choice to kill someone, though as a director, there were many court participants like some judges, attorneys, and guards that we couldn’t show on TV because they would be killed if known of their participation in the trial. Plus, I would be at risk of going to some sort of Iraqi jail for such an incident, so the trial was on a 30 minute delay just in case somebody walked into camera view, the editor would have time to cut them out before the footage is fed to the world press.
One of the other directors and robo cam operators, Dennis Lynch, just released a book about his experience covering the Saddam Hussein Trial called Shooting Saddam. He has an incredible point of view and sense of humor as he endlessly pursued finding a good cup of coffee over there. I definitely recommend his book!
Is there any one project that you hold more dear than the others? What is it and why?
Freezer Geezers. hands down. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about them. Freezer Geezers, my documentary, with Denver Rochon, follows 83 year old coach Ray Tuller and his team – Millenium 75’s – from Springfield, MA, as they challenge three other teams from all around the world competing in the world’s oldest age division, 75 and over at the Snoopy Senior World Hockey Tournament created by beloved Peanuts artist Charles Schulz at the ice rink he built in Santa Rosa, CA.
I don’t fear growing old, they taught me to lighten up, stay active and have fun. Pepe, an 89 year old player, was still walking his dog a couple miles every day rain or shine in Massachusetts and let me tell you, that dog was so big he’d knock you down. In fact, out of the group I was closest to, Pepe, the oldest, who lived the longest.
Whenever I’m feeling tired or sore, I think of them. They’ve had hip replacements, cataracts, triple bypasses and they’re all still playing hockey and most of them are in their eighties! I think in finding this story, I may have discovered the fountain of youth!
When did you first take an interest in James Dean?
I remember vividly sitting on my dad’s lap in a doctor’s office flipping through a People or US magazine and, because I was a huge fan of Fonzie from Happy Days, my dad pointed to this geeky-looking photo of a young James Dean wearing glasses standing in a basketball pose for his team photo for the yearbook. My dad said, “That’s James Dean, he’s Fonzie’s hero!” That was enough for me, if he was cool enough for Fonzie, he must be the coolest guy on the planet! After that, Jimmy became the epitome of cool.
Why do you think he has left such an impact on the world so many years after leaving it?
James Dean left an impact because his role in Rebel Without a Cause came out in a defining age where the culture and idea of being a teenager was changing and I think Rebel was a movie that really spoke to the masses without being over the top or preachy. The characters were relatable and ordinary, just good kids putting themselves in bad situations that can happen to any of us.
James Dean was a star on screen. You couldn’t not watch him, he pulled you in and didn’t let go until he was out of a scene which is a testament to his acting. I think pop culture has helped carry on his legacy and I’ll even throw it back to Fonzie in Happy Days. I think having a photo of James Dean in Fonizie’s locker helped solidify Jimmy’s place as a symbol of cool and rebellion because that’s what the Fonzie brought to that generation that was then learning about Jimmy.
Today, James Dean can be many things to many people. In Jimmy, people found a bit of themselves – a loner, a rebel, someone who wanted to fit in or someone wanting to fight. Girls wanted to date him, guys wanted to be him. He came across as vulnerable, temperamental, unpredictable, funny… so many things.
I bet most people who can recognize James Dean haven’t even watched one of his three movies, but they know him as a rebel or as cool because that’s how he lives on today in the images we wear on shirts or the posters on our wall. As long as pop culture still continues to value his image as a prop on television and film, he will never be forgotten.
What do you think his feelings might have been on the subject?
I think Jimmy would laugh off the attention he gets and would want people to remember him for his work on screen. What fascinates me about him is how much he deeply loved and respected acting. Do you remember the jock in school who would draw out plays on a napkin? Well, that’s what Jimmy would do. I loved finding the notes on napkins on display at the James Dean Historical Museum or reading his letters about acting. He seemed to think a lot about such things and was always writing notes on how to be better. He planned to be a director and kept notebooks with notes he picked up shadowing the directors he worked with – Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray and George Stevens. Sadly, those notebooks were probably thrown out after his death.
What one thing do you admire about him most as an individual?
James Dean was talented. That’s what I admire most. He was so damn good in his three movies and it is such a loss to film that he died far too young which is also what makes his life so remarkable and his legacy so mystifying.
Do you think there is far too much focus on the fame aspect of his life and not enough on who he was as an individual?
Although others sometimes disagree, I think fame is what brings us all to James Dean and I love the fact that people decide to say, “Hey, who is this guy, I’m gonna to check out his movies” or they get so interested in him that buy a poster or wear a shirt. I love that some fans take it a step further and watch a documentary (you know, say… mine!?) about James Dean or visit his hometown in Fairmount, Indiana. Fame is what brings all of his fans together to celebrate his movies and his life.
How did the idea for James Dean: Born Cool come about?
I’ve been a fan of James Dean since I was probably 8 and when I learned his hometown was only four hours away, I was certain I was going to drive and visit Fairmount, IN as soon as I got my license. Sadly, I didn’t make it until I was 24 – the same age James Dean was when he died.
I gathered a pretty eclectic group of friends for a road trip to see a concert at Wabash College and visit James Dean’s hometown which was on the way. We went there and I kind of rushed the visit because I didn’t want my friends to wait around too long as I looked around the James Dean Gallery. After we left, one of my friends finally in the car was reading a brochure that showed where the tombstone was and the Winslow Farm where he grew up. We apparently also missed the other museum in town – the Fairmount Historical Museum.
The next day, we went back to Fairmount and we visited the Historical Museum. I raced through that museum because I didn’t want to hold my friends up from getting home and when I was finished, my three friends were all sitting around talking to the people volunteering at the museum so I just kind of let them know I was done and sat down with them. My friends fell in love with Darlene Campbell and Phil Zeigler! Darlene went to high school with Jimmy and Phil was a fan who fell in love with Fairmount and moved there after he retired. There were so many stories that she had about Jimmy and her and Phil recounted endless stories that the people in town shared with them that also knew Jimmy. Five hours later, we were still there talking and the museum was closing!
Phil told us how to get to the cemetery so we left and went there and to the farm just down the road. While outside the barn, a car pulls up towards us. It’s a new best friend Phil! He gave us a great tour of the farm and next thing I know, we’re back at Phil’s house for the next three hours before the four hour drive back home forces us to end our visit.
On the way home, when everyone was asleep I kept thinking about all the stories and how great it would be if someone records them and documents them before the people are gone and the stories with them. I kept thinking that until all of a sudden, I sprang up in my seat and thought, “Why not me!?” So the next day I called my favorite Fairmount Ambassador Phil Zeigler and asked him if such as documentary was ever made and if Marcus Winslow and the James Dean estate ever granted full access to their archives. The answers were no but Phil thought I should be the one to do it so he helped me set up a meeting with Marc and the rest is history!
Were you nervous when you first approached Marcus Winslow Jr.? What was it like to work with him and Phil Zeigler up in Fairmount? What are they like as people?
I wasn’t nervous to approach Marc because I thought the worst thing he would say is no and at least I made the meeting a nice road trip with a girl I liked at the time. He was very supportive and said yes to everything that I wanted to do in making the documentary in terms of access.
In making Born Cool, Phil allowed me to stay in his extra room in a house that Jimmy’s father lived in late in life which is next door to the Farm. I would look out my window and see the farm and would wake up to the sound of cows “mooing”. It was great. I couldn’t have made the film with Marc or Phil. They were absolutely instrumental in talking to the normally reclusive friends and family into participating in my documentary. There are always people coming in and out of there trying to make a buck of Jimmy and then wasting everyone’s time or angling the story so they wished they hadn’t been a part of those projects. Mine was different because Marc and Phil trusted me for some reason.
Was there anything you were surprised to learn about Jimmy during your filming of the piece?
The thing that surprised me most about James Dean is how funny everyone said he was. Some thought he would’ve become a comedian rather than the serious, brooding star he became.
What was the most challenging issue you faced in bringing that film into existence?
The biggest challenge in making the film was time. I shot almost all of the interviews, but I worked full-time and had to travel four hours and really wasn’t an editor. I had just completed a short film with my friend Denver Rochon and his wife Lydia called Whippersnapper and I thought working with them was so much fun so I asked them to eventually join me on Born Cool as producers and Denver as an editor. Having them with me during the road trips and all-nights while scanning photos at Phil’s was so much fun. The energy really came alive with all of us working together.
Do you have any stories from behind the scenes of the project you might be a liberty to share with our readers?
Phil set me up with an interview with Hugh Caughill, a former teacher of Jimmy. Hugh was in a nursing home and had some memory issues. He thought I had a car similar to another guy from California who was working on a book who, he claims, stole a picture of Jimmy, and believed me to be him. After the interview, Hugh began calling people in town telling them to look out for this shyster in town – which was me! Needless to say, news travels fast in a small town and I probably would’ve had more interviews if it weren’t for mistaken identity. Marc WInslow had to make a number of calls to assure people I wasn’t that person and he supports me.
Do you have a dream project you’d most like to bring the world before your time is up?
My dream project is to direct and sell my script inspired by my documentary Freezer Geezers. I am working on it and would love to make that a reality! I’ve been so fortunate to accomplish and exceed my dreams, this is the last for me to accomplish, but I still have a little time!
What do you think is key to a life well lived?
Do you know what the secret of life is? One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit. What’s the one thing? That’s what you gotta figure out.
I couldn’t resist. I love City Slickers and that scene where Jack Palance is telling Billy Crystal what the secret of life is. For me, I’m learning that you just gotta laugh lots.
Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
I hope people maybe go to whatantics.com and learn a little bit more about the projects because so many talented people helped to make them a reality and I’m a horrible salesman! Thank you again!!