Mondays at Racine Documents Beauty Salon for Cancer Fighters
COW Library : Indie Film & Documentary : Debra Kaufman : Mondays at Racine Documents Beauty Salon for Cancer Fighters
An Academy Award nomination isn't new territory for director Cynthia Wade, whose short subject documentary Mondays at Racine is nominated in that category. Among the numerous short documentaries she's made, she collected the gold statuette in 2008 for Freeheld.
This year, she's attending the Oscars with Mondays at Racine and some of this short documentary's main characters: Cynthia and Rachel, the two brassy Long Island sisters who open up their hair salon, Racine, every Monday to offer free beauty services for women undergoing chemotherapy, and Cambria, one of the women in the film undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
What attracts her to a project? "There are two types of documentary filmmakers: activists and storytellers," says Wade. "Sometimes the story is just a story, sometimes you end up being an unintentional activist. I like high stakes and tension and drama in the film with a strong subject and strong characters, and to do tell a powerful story of people facing insurmountable odds in a short film."
Wade found the story in Mondays at Racine from painstaking research. "This was my fifth film from HBO in a decade," she says. "It began from a side conversation about someone we knew who had to shave her head. Originally we thought it might be about nurses caring for patients going through cancer -- and there is a film that needs to be made about nurses. But my spider sense told me it was a more emotional film."
"Then I found out that women either shave their heads in the privacy of their own home with loved ones, or in the salon where they've shared secrets and triumphs for years," she continues. "The relationship with a hairstylist can go on for years and be very close so it makes sense to go there. We started looking at salons that cater to women with cancer, and when we saw the Racine website, we called and they asked us to show up. We found two sisters with sass and humor who had lost their mother to cancer in the era when nobody used the word cancer. The fact was that they'd been offering these services quietly for ten years, and I thought that would be a good place to structure the film."
The characters of the sisters Cynthia and Rachel -- who brought some joy and levity into the film with their liveliness and humor -- also sparked her interest. "Casting is my strength -- to find the right people to tell a story that sheds light on the societal issue," she says. "The people and the connection and relationship to them is what really makes the work pleasurable and fulfilling to me.
Wade went to Racine every Monday for nearly two-and-a-half years as well as support groups and met many women over the weeks. "I chose two women whose stories complemented one another, " she says. "It's all about waiting, being patient, shooting, listening, and even following stories that don't end up in the film. You find out in editing what to keep and what to let go."
She shot Mondays at Racine with the Canon XL H1. "It is the last tape-based camera that I have used," says Wade, who also owns a Canon 5D and Canon 7D. "We started it just as shooting on cards was coming into existence and by the end, it was a bit of an outdated camera. But I was going for content over gloss and the Canon XL H1 is a workhorse camera. Given the longitudinal study of the film and that I shot a lot of it myself to get as much as three times the number of shooting days as was budgeted, this camera was the right choice." Wade also gave the women cameras to shoot video diaries and wove that footage into the film.
Working on a FCP 7 system, David Teague (who was also Wade's co-director of cinematography) worked with Wade to edit Mondays at Racine. Teague had edited several Wade documentaries, including the Oscar-winning Freeheld as well as the short documentary Born Sweet. "David and I have worked a lot together," she says. "We have the same vision. When we started this project, we both had offices in the same building in Brooklyn. By the end of the project, I was living in the Berkshires, so he ended up working alone. But I didn't need to be over his shoulder because we share the same brain. It was a pretty smooth process because we know each other so well."
Alex Noyes, who has a small sound studio, resound POST, in Brooklyn, completed the audio work. The team went to Final Frame for the color correction, and Brian Bowman at Nice Shoes did the animated titles, both in New York City.
After the Academy Awards, Wade is returning to a full plate of work. Freeheld is going into production as a fiction film directed by Peter Sollett and starring Ellen Page; Wade is a producer. "This is my first fiction film and I'm excited," she says. "I've always worked in non-fiction, and shooting it like fiction. It may be that I want to go into fiction. I'll have the chance to watch them work and see what that process is like. Then I'll be able to make up my mind." She is also developing a new documentary project for HBO, about an ecological disaster in Indonesia. And she continues to shoot commercials, which are informed by her work in documentaries. "I've increasingly been doing the docu-commercial work where it's real people in a setting," she says. "It's very high paced and all about the skill of casting and finding the story. It uses all my documentary skills in a commercial setting and delivering a story to a client that's selling something...but it also feels organic and natural."
Post-Oscars, Mondays at Racine is slated to air on HBO. If you like your documentaries full of heart and sass, sadness and humor, make sure to check it out.