Captain Allen. Photo: Mark Birnbaum
- Join Art&Seek and Video Association of Dallas to celebrate this season and watch Frame of Mind at 9 p.m. Thursday at the Texas Theatre.
- Tune into KERA on Thursday, September 4th at 10 p.m. to watch Birnbaum’s Swingman in the first episode of Frame of Mind.
You may have heard, Frame of Mind is getting its first true season on KERA. Mark Birnbaum, a documentary filmmaker will be kicking off the series with his film Swingman. This film tells the story of Marshall Allen, a Fort Worth firefighter who was in a a freak accident that left him physically paralyzed and emotionally healed.
Birnbaum has lived in North Texas for over 30 years and has made a number of noteworthy documentaries, including Stop the Presses; The Big Buy: How Tom DeLay Stole Congress; Slant 45: The Movie, and Swingman. He began making films while serving as a photographer and filmmaker for the United States Army in Vietnam. Swingman was premiered at Dallas Video Fest 25 in 2012.
I met with Mark Birnbaum at his house to talk about Swingman.
Capt. Allen on ground right. Photo: Glen Ellman
On the making of the film:
“A mutual friend introduced me to a woman who had just written a book about Marshall Allen. I spoke to her on the phone and she invited me to come meet Marshall. So I met them at a Starbucks down near Red Oak, and, I was immediately impressed by this man.
“Marshall Allen was a fireman’s fireman. He was one of the first black fire fighters in the Fort Worth Fire Department. He was a picture of ultimate control. He had it all: power, intelligence, confidence, courage, good looks. Today, Marshall is a quadriplegic. He needs metal hand braces to help articulate his fingers, but he drives his own van. He just retired from his full time job as a Captain at the Fort Worth Fire Department. He continues to command great respect and he’s greatly admired, not just for his tenacity, but for his strong work ethic and leadership. Marshall is alive; he’s thriving, and by his own account, he’s happier than he’s ever been.
“I met him and I came to understand the potential of that story very quickly. Why did I make the film? Because I can. I have the tools and the experience. Because he lived right here in Fort Worth, it was a project I could undertake without a lot of travel expense, so I started shooting almost immediately. There are a lot of interesting twists and turns in the story as it evolved. I shot for about a year and then I had to stop for a year to work on another project, and then I came back to the story and finished it.”
Marshall Allen at bike accident site. Photo: Mark Birnbaum
On working with Marshall Allen:
“It’s easy working with Marshall. The film is a character-driven documentary. Making a film like that means spending a lot of time with that person and a lot of time with the camera on and just seeing what happens in different types of circumstances. You hope to develop some real trust with a subject like that, and I think we did come to trust each other.
“There’s a scene in the film that’s late at night in his garage, that is kind of a confession. Marshall called me earlier that day and said that he had been surfing the web and he discovered on Facebook a page for a girlfriend that he’d had when he was about 17 or 18 and he hadn’t heard anything about her for all of those years. He found her and was reading about her and dredged up a lot of feelings and emotions that he’d had back then about how he behaved. This was in contrast to his life now which has changed in so many ways since he became a quadriplegic in some very unexpected ways. So he called me, asked me to come over, and said “We have to talk about this.” When you’re making a film with someone and they care enough at that moment that when there’s something really important to them that they have to share it, they want to share it with you, on camera. And it turns out to be one of the most moving moments in the film.
“In that respect, Marshall was a terrific subject. He embraced the process of making the film and welcomed me into his life because he really wanted to share his life with a wider audience, especially with young men. He had something he really wanted to say to them — about how they might live their lives with some benefit from what he had learned.”
On his biggest challenge:
“I think the biggest challenge in making a film like this is editing, fashioning a story from glimpses of a life, and finding that arc of a beginning, a middle, and an end. [Jean-Luc] Godard said ‘editing is turning chance into destiny,’ and I think that’s very true. There’s a lot of chance that goes into making a film like this and you never quite know what you’re going to get. Once you’ve got these scenes, how do you structure them to tell a story? And almost always, the most difficult thing is how does it end? Because, of course, it doesn’t end — his life continues and expands. For example, he has recently retired from the fire department and entered a whole new phase of his life, as a grandfather too. Finding an ending is often difficult to do. You just have to keep editing until something strikes you that is an appropriate place to stop.”
On his favorite Texas filmmaker:
“[Richard] Linklater is probably my favorite Texas filmmaker. I just saw Boyhood and it was an amazing film, a truly wonderful film… Almost a perfect film, I think.”
On KERA broadcasting Swingman:
“I’m really excited that it kicks off this year’s season of Frame of Mind. I know it’s a series that Bart Weiss has worked on for a long time, to make the series work, and it’s a thrill to be able to kick off this season with Swingman.
Capt. Marshall Allen and author Alex Allred. Photo: Mark Birnbaum
“Marshall will be at the screening at Texas Theatre the night that the film is broadcast on KERA, His daughter, Talaya, a Dallas police officer who is also in the film and Alex Allred, who is the author who wrote the book about Marshall that got me initially interested in his story will also be in attendance that night. They’ve been really enthusiastic about the success the film has had.
“Marshall has embraced the film and understands its potential to reach out to people who also may be disabled and in a chair, or suffering from depression which is also a theme in the film. He’s been a great ambassador for the film and he’ll be there on Thursday night.”
“I guess I’ll just reiterate — It’s really a thrill to kick of this season of Frame of Mind with our film Swingman. I’ve looked at the other films in the series and I know it’s going to be a lot of interesting viewing through the fall and into the winter. I’m grateful to Bart Weiss who put it in the series and to KERA for broadcasting Frame of Mind.”
To find more of Mark Birnbaum’s work, you can visit his website, and his Vevo.