Arts & Culture

Film about parkway is ‘one big special effect’

By
Contributing
Friday, October 1, 2010

A recent documentary produced by Charles Greene ’13 and directed by Eliza McNitt, a sophomore film student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, blurs the line between dream and documentary.

Greene and McNitt said their mission in making “The Magic Motorway,” a film about the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, was to inspire awareness about and, hopefully, attachment to the parkway.

The Merritt Parkway Conservancy approached Greene at the beginning of this past summer and proposed the project to him, McNitt said.

“We were approached to make a documentary that would appeal to a younger crowd,” Greene said.

The conservancy had been depending on donations to maintain the parkway, Greene said. But its steady decomposition and the lack of awareness from a younger generation has necessitated a change in strategy.

“Our purpose is to show people how beautiful it is, that we are really lucky in Connecticut to have such a beautiful place,” Greene said.

“It’s known as the ‘Queen of the Parkways,’ ” McNitt said.

Featuring 68 bridges and adorned with native trees and plants, the 37.5-mile parkway — running from the state line in Greenwich, Conn. to the Housatonic River in Stratford, Conn. — is a highway meant for enjoyment, not merely traveling from place to place, Greene said.

“You would get on (the parkway), and that would be your destination,” he said.

The opening of the parkway in 1938 “strangely coincided with the World’s Fair,” McNitt said. Expanding upon the idea of the “dream fair,” a popular concept from the time, McNitt and Greene wrote a screenplay that is nothing short of magical.

“It tells the story of two kids who travel along (the parkway) in time,” Greene said.

Moving from the 1930s through 2010, “The Magic Motorway” is about “driving into the future,” McNitt said.

The contrast between the past and the present is significant. Completed in 1940, the parkway “represents one of Connecticut’s greatest Depression-era public works projects,” according to a 2010 press release by the Merritt Parkway Conservancy.

According to the Conservancy’s website, during the parkway’s groundbreaking event in 1934, U.S. Rep. Schuyler Merritt — after whom it is named — said, “This great highway is not being constructed primarily for rapid transit but for pleasant transit. This county (Fairfield County) is fortunate in having such beautiful backcountry and it is our great duty to see that these beauties are preserved.”

Since its construction, proposals to add more lanes or to turn it into a highway have challenged the Merritt Parkway’s existence. Today, the parkway is one of 11 sites named on the National Trust for Historic Places’ list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places.

This lack of concern is what motivated the Conservancy’s directors to seek out McNitt and Greene. Currently, the parkway suffers from maintenance issues which raise driver and road safety concerns, McNitt said.

Since many youth “don’t understand or appreciate it,” McNitt said, “we had to appeal to a younger group of people to celebrate the parkway.”

To do so, McNitt and Greene decided on “breaking away from traditional documentary,” said Greene. The film itself is an eight-minute time warp of the parkway’s history from past to present.

Meant to symbolize the experience of traveling the Merritt Parkway at its grandest moment in the 1930s, Greene and McNitt combine archival film and original footage to produce what McNitt described as “one big special effect.”

Part of the documentary was filmed against a green screen in a garage while the actors sat in a 1939 red Packard convertible, said McNitt.

Archival footage of the parkway was merged with original takes — all filmed within one weekend — breaching the boundaries of time to show the parkway’s history.

McNitt and Greene are not new to filmmaking. Last year they entered the C-SPAN “Studentcam” National Documentary Film Contest, responding to a prompt to create a documentary about America’s most pressing issue and potentially have their film screened at the White House. Their film, “Requiem for the Honeybee,” about bee colony collapse disorder, won first prize, McNitt said.

Born within two hours of Greene in the same room on the same day, McNitt said her friendship and collaboration with Greene will undoubtedly continue. “He’s always been a twin,” she said.

Despite his passion for filmmaking, Greene said he has chosen to pursue a more academic life by attending Brown.

“Getting a well-rounded education is something that can only help you if film is where you want to wind up,” Greene said.

Mutually acknowledging the support and energy that they each put into film, Greene and McNitt await the film’s release in early November.