Interview: William Lorton on “Take Away One” about Teacher Mary Baratta Lorton

Posted on November 25, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Mary Baratta Lorton was a pioneering teacher whose revolutionary ideas about making learning more accessible and involving transformed nearly every classroom in America in the 1970’s.  Her books included Mathematics Their Way.  Tragically, she was murdered.  The killer was never found.  Her nephew, the talented filmmaker William Lorton, has made an enthralling documentary titled, “Take Away One,” which tellingly applies to both stories.  Lorton answered my questions about his film.

When did you first hear about the mystery involving your aunt’s death and how was it explained to you?

Mary was killed in 1978 when I was eight. My parents had to tell us within a day that she had been shot and that the murderer was at large because they knew it would be on TV and probably also on our school playground. I didn’t hear the larger context until college, but even then the whole thing was so convoluted and contested that by the time I was shooting interviews 20 years after that, there was quite lot of detail to sort out. During my adulthood I would sometimes be asked about the case and would always find it an unruly anecdote. I’d be telling the story to someone and I would sound like: “And then this, and then that, oh, but before that there was this…” So making a documentary to get the story in one place with as many participants speaking for themselves as possible had been on my list for years.

When did you first understand how influential she was as an educator?

When I was 14 I got a job at my aunt and uncle’s educational non-profit in Saratoga. Working in the stock room was my summer job for a few years. From the volume of manipulative teaching materials I personally shrink-wrapped and the sheer size of their warehouses and staff, it was clear that people were way into Mary’s work. I mean they were moving pallets of Unifix cubes around with a forklift. They also had this huge wall-chart of how many workshops were being held world-wide and the number of attendees.
You had a real challenge as a filmmaker in essentially having two different stories to tell, the professional and the personal. How were you able to do justice to both?

That was the central filmmaking issue. It was a challenge as a storyteller and as a nephew. Ideally, my aunt would be alive today. She’d be the J.D. Salinger of math textbooks and she would have granted me a two-day interview that would have been just her with some blocks and beads. And believe me, thousands of people would have watched that.
Some of the math people around this issue were against the idea of a film about Mary because they realized it would be impossible to produce her biography without including a component of true-crime material that would either bring up memories that are too painful to re-visit, and/or would distract from the importance of her work. As you can understand, educators are intensely focused on protecting children and politically are keenly aware that anything resembling scandal can be twisted into promoting one teaching method over another. On the other hand, Mary’s family and the retired police who promote the conspiracy theories about her death felt that anything I, as a family member, put together would by definition be biased.

So I would explain to the math people, sometimes in vain, that this is the true story we are unfortunately stuck with, and how would it look if one made a biography of JFK or John Lennon while leaving out the fact that they were victims of foul play? And I would tell the conspiracy theorists, who think the only story here is the murder, that you have to explain who a character is and what she achieved if you expect that murder to have any impact on an audience member who arrives at the theatre knowing nothing about Mary at all. On top of all of this I had to make certain that I as the filmmaker was clearly identified as a family member and to make sure my own perspective was delineated so the viewer has what they need to unwind the perception matrix.

And I would explain to everybody that to make a documentary that is not inclusive is to fail before you begin.

So during four years of production I continually imagined myself in a room giving an oral report with all the diametrically opposed participants watching me. I think the audience gets it, but I doubt whether any of the real-life participants will be 100% satisfied. People prefer to tell their own version of events. Once someone else starts telling what you have owned as your personal narrative for 35 years, every single divergence gets under your skin. And this is a film with over a dozen people voicing the story.

Was there anyone you wanted to interview who refused to participate? Or imposed conditions on the interview that made it more difficult?

The first person I contacted was Mary’s brother, the lead proponent of the conspiracy theory of her death. The guy’s a professor and author and not in any sense an intellectual lightweight. I really wanted to interview him but he rejected it outright, saying that any project that didn’t both start out and end up with the conclusion that my uncle killed my aunt would be “a deception.” But I felt that such an approach would not be “a documentary.” So that was too bad, because for many years I had wanted to meet him in person.
I came very close to having better luck with the original investigating inspector. As I recount in the film, the inspector was very into participating. We emailed and spoke by phone. He was going to get his speaking fee (he’s been on TV many times as an expert.) He introduced us to a great location we could use for the shoot in his hometown. We were even discussing his wardrobe choices. Then a couple of days before the interview he told me he was going to the Hall of Justice in San Francisco to review the case file. He also mentioned, ominously, that he would be asking the DA to review the file as well. Then two days before the interview, he emailed me saying he’d reconsidered after re-reading the file, and decided not to participate. He didn’t mention what the DA’s reaction had been to the file.

This was also someone I’d always wanted to meet, because he’d not only handled my aunt’s murder case, but he had been Dan White’s softball coach and three months after my aunt’s death had done the interrogation on White about his assassination of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk – which got him some criticism in the press. I’d also wanted to talk to the modern-day SFPD. Although their PR office was very friendly and responsive, it was clear the department has some unspecified issue with discussing anything about this 35 year old unsolved case. They would not even come on to say where or when it happened, which they were happy to do previously for a newspaper article.

What was it like to play at Mary and Bob’s home?

Great. As you can imagine, they were experts with children and knew how to keep your mind constantly engaged with no budget. I think my brother, sister and I (incorrectly) perceived them as “hippies” because they had green shag carpet, wore sandals and were authors. So I at least perceived their place as a “freedom zone” in contrast to the kind of disciplined atmosphere parents are obliged to provide. And they had a staircase.

How were you able to find the archival footage, like Mary’s television interview with Captain Kangaroo?

Every aspect of the Bob Keeshan footage was a very lucky break. Mary’s publisher got probably one of the first VHS cassettes ever made from KPIX after that interview was taped in the early 70’s. Getting the rights to use images of Keeshan and the show’s host, Kathryn Crosby (who acted in “Anatomy of A Murder” and is the widow of Bing Crosby), turned out to be a rabbit-hole of its own, but it had a happy ending. The 16mm news footage was all located at the Bay Area Film and Television Archive in San Francisco. I can’t tell you how lucky we were that this material was archived and intact. Apparently most of the local TV stations had big bonfires of all their 16mm material in the 1980’s because they had switched over to videotape and didn’t want to store their film forever. This of course is absolutely galling to any film historian, or any thinking person for that matter — and so ironic of course because by now that whole bonfire could fit on a medium-size hard drive.

Did your family have any concerns about telling this story?

Yes, and they still do. Some of them have the concern that telling the complete story will distract from Mary’s educational work, the value of which is and should be the main takeaway from the film. My response to them was and is that a.) to leave out Mary’s death would not be biographically ethical and b.) the well-established function of a death in a story about an emerging innovative leader is to throw the shortened life of that person into starker relief as you contemplate exactly what was lost.

You have some innovative visuals, like the numbered hangers whose import is not fully revealed until the end. In a way, this is the clearest demonstration of Mary’s approach to showing, not telling. How did you develop these techniques?

That’s the point where Mary and I converge. The best films and the best teaching techniques both follow the “show don’t tell” rule. After all, they’re doing the same thing, right? (For example, when I was informed one Thanksgiving that I had to carve the turkey, I went to YouTube and watched a video of someone carving a turkey, I didn’t look up written instructions on how to do it.) The classic challenge to anyone making a non-fiction piece about events that happened 40 years ago is that you don’t have much footage of what you are talking about. So unless you actually want a 105 minute parade of talking heads, you need to get creative with filling what we call the “black holes” in the cut, which are the places in the film that you leave empty, waiting to find a photograph or element that will illustrate the story and get the camera off the interviewee’s face. I did a lot of this in “Take Away One” by using family photographs, fair-use imagery and motion graphics I made on my computer –- but fortunately Mary’s work was largely visual, and attractively so, so it was a natural solution to fill up the movie with images she herself made, whether it’s re-creations of her math lessons or the notecards she used to write down what was happening in her life.

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