Documentary filmmaker Karyl Kreizinger Evans is the producer, director, writer, and editor of the upcoming one-hour documentary film, Letter From Italy, 1944: A New American Oratorio. A five-time Emmy Award winner for her work on previous documentaries, Ms Evans is particularly thrilled to have had the opportunity to film the making of the Oratorio with the Greater Middletown Chorale.
The project began with dozens of interviews, including the two sisters who wrote the words and music to the piece, poets, composers, music critics, and three World War II veterans of the 10th Mountain Division, all in their 90s. Many interviews took place during the two-year period before the Letter From Italy, 1944 performance on April 28, 2013, at the Performing Arts Center at Middletown High School, in Connecticut. Twenty shorter interviews took place the day of the premiere. To date, it is the only time the two-hour performance, featuring soloists opera singer Patricia Schuman and Jack Anthony Pott, has ever been performed. It is her hope, and the hope of artistic director and Greater Middletown Chorale conductor Joseph D’Eugenio, said Ms Evans, that the documentary will spark enough interest that the Oratorio will be produced again — and again, and again.
“It is probably my favorite project I’ve done,” Ms Evans said in a March 19 interview with The Newtown Bee. The statement carries a lot of weight, considering that she has served as the primary filmmaker for more than 50 films of at least ½ hour in length. “I strongly believe that art elevates and heals our society, and that art makes for a fuller experience in life. [Making Letter From Italy, 1944: A New American Oratorio] was inspirational for me,” she said, allowing her to document other artists and “illuminate the creative process.”
The making of a documentary, though, begins with the making of the filmmaker.
A Newtown resident since 1970, and a 1975 graduate of Newtown High School, Ms Evans did not plan a future in the film industry.
“We’re an academic family,” she said, with parents Jean Dolloff Kreizinger and Harold Kreizinger in the life science fields. At the University of Kentucky, she studied horticulture and landscape architecture, graduating with a degree in that field in 1979. But an internship helped her see that she needed a career with far more people contact than drawing up plans in an office offered.
She took a year off, and when her mother suggested that she pursue something she loved, Ms Evans focused on her lifelong interest in film and television. She applied to San Diego State University.
“In my family, if you change careers, you get another degree,” she said.
In California, Ms Evans immersed herself in practical film courses, as well as graduate level courses on film theory, and earned her MA in telecommunications. She started work as a production secretary for a new television station in San Diego, producing live sports shows. “I loved it. I loved the kind of people I met, and the creativity. Then I pitched a film review series,” said Ms Evans, which included interviewing directors and reviewing films. “I knew this was for me,” she said, but she also knew that for any one wanting to make it in the film industry, Los Angeles was the place to be.
The Lure Of The Documentary
“So I moved to L.A., but while I was waiting for school to start for the directing program at the University of Southern California, I met someone who needed an associate director for a feature film,” Ms Evan said. She joined and organization called Women in Film and was asked to produce and direct a tribute to Academy Award-winning costume director Dorothy Jeakins. “She asked me to interview John Houston (American film director, screenwriter and actor), John Frankenheimer (American film and television director), and Robert Wise (director of West Side Story and The Sound of Music), because she had done costumes for all of them. I thought I had died and gone to Heaven. That’s when I realized that working in documentary film and interviewing real people could be so inspiring,” she said.
Still exploring all of her options and wanting to make the most of her L.A. experience, Ms Evans spent the next two years working for feature film company, New Vision Pictures. “I had the ultimate Hollywood experience, working with people like Sam Sheppard, Sissy Spacek, and Barbara Hershey. I even showed up in a couple of films,” said Ms Evans.
It was the other side of the camera that continued to call to her, though. “I had an idea to turn classic children’s books into a film series. [Actress] Shelley DuVall responded and we developed Bedtime Stories,” a series, she said, that Showtime bought.
Narrated by Burt Lancaster, it was the making of Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist, however, that solidified for the filmmaker her desire to focus on documentaries.
It is not surprising that many of the films she has made in her career center on historical figures, places, or themes, she said. “I love history, and how it connects us to who we are today,” Ms Evans said.
In 1990, a draw as powerful as the desire to make documentaries pulled her back to the East Coast.
“Family is so important. My sisters had children, and I wanted to be a part of all that, and I wanted to start a family. I always knew I couldn’t stay forever in L.A. It’s not the right values there,” she said. What she longed for were the values she had learned in Newtown — honesty and integrity — that were very much not a part of the L.A. scene.
Back in her heart’s center, Ms Evans volunteered for three years at CPTV, “where documentaries are made,” and served as managing director at the Media Arts Center in New Haven. She also taught at Southern Connecticut State University, where she met theater director and instructor Sheila Hickey Garvey, a connection that would involve her in the making of Letter From Italy, 1944: A New American Oratorio.
“Sheila had worked with the Greater Middletown Chorale, and we went to a Chorale production of Elijah together,” Ms Evans said, where she recognized the professionalism and talent of the group. When the Chorale decided that with Letter From Italy, 1944, a documentary about the process would be beneficial to the group, Ms Garvey, selected to do the staging, brought in Ms Evans.
Choosing to document the process of making Letter From Italy, 1944, she said, was not difficult.
From the first few pieces she heard, Ms Evans knew that she was listening to something very special. The oratorio music is written by Sarah Meneely-Kyder, a composer out of Wesleyan, with her sister, Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely, producing the lyrics. If Letter From Italy, 1944 has a supremely personal feel and effect on the audience, it is because the Oratorio is based on actual letters and poetry written by their father, Dr John K. Meneely, Jr, during World War II, a medic with the elite 10th Mountain Division.
“The music quality is astounding,” said Ms Evans, a choral singer herself, “and I still get chills every time I hear it.”
A Timeless Story
Dr Meneely is long dead, a victim of World War II, although he returned physically unscathed by the war. Haunted by the friendly fire that killed companions during a confusing combat situation on the Aleutian Islands and the carnage he witnessed in Italy, the doctor struggled with his return to civilian life and his family, before finally taking his own life, 18 years after the war had ended.
“I think this piece resonates today with veterans and others with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD],” Ms Evans said. The story is about Dr Meneely’s daughters’ and wife’s struggles to understand Dr Meneely after his return from war. “By the end of the piece, they come to understand the effort he made in those post-war years, and the love and compassion he had for them,” she said. “It’s inspirational in that it allows you to understand the dynamics of what happens to a veteran; how difficult it is to go through a war like that and then come back and try not to think about those horrible memories. It gives a face to vets, and then we can understand them better, ” she added.
The documentary has value, she believes, in the current context of veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. “It is so important to do projects like this that speak to people coming back from war now,” said Ms Evans.
The creation of Letter From Italy, 1944 served as a means of healing for the Meneely family, but the April 2013 performance and any future performances, could provide cathartic healing for other families, for years to come, she said.
A Star Steps In
Along with the powerful story line, what may move the documentary forward, once it is released, Ms Evans said, is that the film is narrated by Meryl Streep. The Academy Award-winning actress was a classmate of Sarah Meneely’s at Yale, when both were in the theater program there.
“I was so excited to hear that Meryl Streep would narrate,” said Ms Evans. It elevates a film in the minds of consumers to have the cachet of a well-known artist involved. “Meryl Streep is a definite plus to bring people to the project,” she said.
Driving herself up from New York City, Ms Streep arrived in New Haven in the midst of a February snowstorm to record the narrative.
“When I was directing her, I looked over and it was like a dream. I was directing Meryl Streep!” exclaimed Ms Evans. “I’ve been involved with a lot of actors, but Meryl was incredible. Working with her equaled my interview with John Houston. That’s how excited I was,” she said.
In just one hour, Ms Streep had completed two readings of each of the sections — “to perfection,” said Ms Evans.
When the more than year-long editing process is completed on Letter From Italy, 1944: A New American Oratorio, it will be a one-hour film including clips from the Greater Middletown Chorale rehearsals and performance, material from over 70 interviews, archival photographs and documents, and footage from the 10th Mountain Division Archives at the Denver Public Library, so that the audience might know more about the 10th Mountain Division with which Dr Meneely served. It will also include an original score, and of course, the narration by Ms Streep. Viewers will hear portions of the 23 poems Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely constructed from her father’s writings that tell the story of innocence exposed to the horrors of war, and the valiant effort made to return to life at home when the war was over.
Ms Evans is grateful, she said, to the many donors who made the production of Letter From Italy, 1944 possible.
“The State Department of Economic and Community Development, Office of the Arts is our primary funder,” she said, along with The Kirkpatrick Family, and the Tenth Mountain Division Foundation. More than 300 other individuals, businesses, organizations, and corporations contributed to the funding of the documentary.
Additionally, said Ms Evans, Ms Streep’s readings, the 100 members of the Chorale, the 30 orchestra members, Ms Garvey’s staging skills, and especially the artistic direction of Chorale conductor Joseph D’Eugenio raised the film to a higher level. “Without Joe, it wouldn’t have happened,” she said of the conductor.
When the film is finished, Ms Evans will market it, hoping to find a venue with a national audience, such as the PBS. “I would love to bring it to film festivals, too. It is nowhere, right now, but it needs to be. It is a universal story about a soldier with PTSD, and the family situation,” she said, with broad appeal.
Her documentary tells the underlying story to the Oratorio, but with proper funding i, Letter From Italy, 1944, which Ms Evans videotaped in its entirety in the process of making her documentary, could be edited into a concert for future television audiences.
In the meantime, “This film is one way to document it, to make sure it is, one day, performed again,” she said.
For updates on the release of Letter From Italy, 1944: A New American Oratorio, visit karylevansproductions.com.
This story was amended April 2, 2014, to clarify that the name of the oratorio is Letter From Italy, 1944, while that of the documentary is Letter From Italy, 1944: A New American Oratorio. Ms Evans received her Masters Degree in Telecommunications and Film in 1984 from San Diego State University, not San Diego University, and was accepted into the directing program at the University of Southern California, not the University of California. Additional information has been provided by Ms Evans since the original interview.