Filmmaker John Fitzgerald brought us The Emerald Diamond, about the Irish National Baseball Team and Baseball Ireland. He also brought us Playing for Peanuts, a 10-episode documentary on a minor league baseball team. Recently, he took some time to answer a few questions for us. Here is what he had to say.
Your first baseball documentary was “The Emerald Diamond” about the Irish National Baseball Team and Baseball Ireland (the governing body). What was your inspiration for making the film?
At the time, I was working as a Production Assistant on some big budget movies and TV shows – Ladder 49, NYPD Blue, etc. – but I wanted to do my own stuff. I also wanted to play baseball for Ireland. Because I wasn’t eligible to play for Ireland in the European Championships, I decided to make a documentary instead to help them get their story out there.
How much did you know about Irish baseball before taking on the film project?
I probably knew about half of the story that ended up in the film. I had already had several conversations – via phone and email – with the players and coaches. At that point, I was still hoping to play for Ireland, so I wasn’t asking questions with the intention of making a documentary. I just thought the story was fascinating and I couldn’t believe I had never heard the story before, since I’m a huge baseball fan and I’m of Irish descent.
The film has received a lot of critical acclaim, yet I have read you had never produced a documentary before. What was it like to do it for the first time? Did you have experience with shorter projects?
It was alot of work. I had directed a short film and I had worked in film/TV production before, so I knew how to manage a project – budgets, logistics, that sort of thing. My good friend Bill Winters is an accomplished cinematographer, so he was able to help whenever I ran into difficulty. Besides that, it was mostly a trial and error process. But I learned alot! And quickly!
Your next baseball project was “Playing for Peanuts” where you followed around the minor league team the South Georgia Peanuts. Where did you get the idea to do this project?
I wanted to do a story similar to The Emerald Diamond, but this time I wanted to follow a team somewhere in America. Much of the themes in the two documentaries are the same – the love of the game, playing for little or no money and learning to overcome long odds to succeed as the underdog.
You produced a 10-episode series. How much of the season did you spend with the team?
I was with the team for about 75 games of a 90-game season. We had a small crew of camera operators and we also worked with the local news station to make sure we had all our bases covered, so to speak.
How much access were you granted by the manager, former big leaguer, Wally Backman?
We had total access from Wally and from the league. I think they both understood that they had nothing to gain from limiting our access.
What kind of feedback have you gotten on the series? Did you get any feedback from the guys on the team that are in the series?
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. And it continues to this day, in large part due to the fact that the league folded after one season. So Playing for Peanuts sort of stands as the definitive look at a baseball league that otherwise would’ve disappeared from people’s memories. When you think about it, there must be some amazing stories of leagues, teams and players that have simply been wiped from history because nobody was there to document it. It’s kind of sad in a way. I’m just glad that we were able to capture something that will never happen again.
Can you tell us a little bit about the production process of a documentary? For instance, how many hours of film go into an hours worth of finished product?
That really depends on what is being filmed at any given time. For instance, whenever Wally Backman was ejected from a game, we knew we would be using virtually all of the footage. But then there are times when we would film an entire 3 hour game and none of the footage would be used because nothing interesting happened. But that didn’t happen often because we always had Wally Backman and a few of his players wearing microphones during the game. It’s very easy to get interesting footage when players and coaches are mic’d up! Something as seemingly mundane as a manager visiting the mound to change pitchers can be very entertaining.
Your new baseball project is Baseball United. Can you tell us a little bit about what you are trying to do?
Baseball United is a social network and statistics website for amateur baseball teams. After making The Emerald Diamond and Playing for Peanuts, I realized two things: 1.) making films costs a lot of money that I don’t have and 2.) There are too many great stories to cover – there just aren’t enough camera crews in the world to do it!So I created Baseball United as a way for teams to tell their own stories through the videos, photos and comments that they post. And part of the website is a statistics software that lets them keep track of stats. Most importantly, there will be a way for teams to accept donations through the website. I think that will be especially helpful for international club teams and national teams in places like Europe. I encourage all players to sign up at BaseballUnited.net. And coaches can get their teams on the site too.
Lastly, do you have any words of advice for an aspiring documentary filmmaker?
The landscape has changed so much in the past few years. If you want to make a documentary, get a cheap digital camera and go shoot it! But keep things small until you know what you’re doing.Practice by shooting interviews and B-roll footage. Post it to YouTube. Start conversations with other aspiring filmmakers on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Learn from your mistakes and from the feedback you get online. And don’t quit your day job. If you really love doing it, you should love doing it for no money. If you wind up making some money off of it, that’s great, but documentary filmmaking isn’t very profitable to begin with. So do it for the love of doing it. Sort of like the people in The Emerald Diamond and Playing for Peanuts.
We’d like to thank John for taking the time to answer some questions. If you haven’t seen either film, you should pick them up today. Both are well put together and well told stories. You can visit ThatBaseballShow.com to order the videos or you can find them on sites like Amazon as well. You can also see video clips from Playing for Peanuts on YouTube. Don’t forget to check out John’s new project over at Baseball United.net as well. You can find more info on FaceBook too.
Eric Bynum is Managing Editor here at BaseballdeWorld. He spent three years as an ESL teacher in South Korea, and is now working on his master's degree in history with a focus on baseball and WWII. He has played and/or written about baseball for the past 30 years and is an avid Atlanta Braves fan.