Filmmaker Daniel A. Miller is a crusader. His documentaries showcase injustices, from the Holocaust to the September 11 attacks. But he does not illuminate subjects with the punishing light of interrogation; instead, his examinations gently tease out the grey areas of morality, such as America’s role in the Spanish-American War or the modern miracle of wiring this country for electricity. At the same time, you get a history lesson so thorough in its arcana that your temples might ache. But egghead Miller leavens his work with abundant heart, turning potentially dry filmic screeds into engaging portraits.
A self-professed nerd, the Cold Spring-based Miller is one-third of Ironbound Films. He’ll be the first to admit that partners Seth Kramer and Jeremy Newberger share his obsessive, bookish affliction. (All three were raised with a New York Jewish suburban sensibility that inculcated them, they say, with a lingering sense of inferiority. It has only made them try harder to succeed.)
Miller, Kramer, and Newberger grabbed onto filmmaking as an escape from their conformist suburban surroundings, Miller said, and, not incidentally, as a “search for meaning in the world.” Working together since 2003, when they co-founded Ironbound, the trio has built on individual reputations to establish industry presence for their production company. The result is that they are shortlisted for buzz-worthy gun-for-hire projects, in addition to a roster of self-generated work.
It is a wintry day in the Lower Valley. Here in the sweet but somnolent town of Garrison, the stately, red-brick Ironbound Films headquarters sits adjacent to the railroad station. The company partners have called it home for three years.
As a filmmakers’ workspace, 35 Garrison Landing boasts a cinematic pedigree. Hollywood descended on this river town in 1968 and dressed it up as 1890s Yonkers for the movie musical Hello Dolly! The Ironbound company office was then an inn in its declining years, but director Gene Kelly transformed it into the hay and feed store of stuffy Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau). The Dutch surname, in ornate scroll font, remains on the plate glass doors and windows. Furthermore, a Dolly musical number shot here serves as a heart-lifting leitmotif in last year’s film Wall-e.
While they are nerds, Miller and company are not slackers; they have a ferocious work ethic. On both floors of their offices today, the trio and their staff are multitasking. In one room, Newberger, 35, digitizes footage for a PBS documentary about social entrepreneurship called The New Recruits. Around the corner, Kramer, 37, discusses a future project with interns. Downstairs, Miller, 36, reviews a stacked wall of videos: the entire run of a 1980s TV talk show hosted by coruscating chain-smoker Morton Downey Jr. This raw material will anchor a documentary titled Evocateur. Miller is selecting material for a “sizzle reel”—a compilation of scenes utilized as a fundraising tool. By mid-April, principal photography began.
This January week, the team is awaiting the PBS debut of its Sundance Film Festival hit The Linguists—a global pursuit of two men who rescue dying languages. (The film went on to win numerous festival awards, including, most recently, honors at the Native and Indigenous Film Festival in the Czech Republic.)
While hoping the February airing will attract more assignments, Daniel and his team remain busy. After a string of erudite projects, the team vowed their next gig project would be less scholarly and more mainstream. Hence,
Evocateur, which Miller hopes will be “a marketable movie; one you could actually sell to people.” Translation: a film that finds a home beyond PBS, where most of their works are usually seen. (Miller’s long alliance with public broadcasting started in the mid ‘90s, when he worked at its flagship, Channel 13.)
Evocateur would be more visceral than most PBS fare, dissecting the story of a Wappingers Falls teenager named Tawana Brawley. Downey’s career intersected with the young girl’s fabricated claims of a racist attack in 1987. Several years later, Miller notes, Downey would himself claim he was the victim of a hate crime perpetrated by neo-Nazis. Like Brawley, however, he had stage-managed the bogus assault. Evocateur is “a pop culture examination,” Miller said, that promises to be “fun.”
While “fun” might be the least suitable adjective for a foray into American racism, Miller makes it a point to inject some measure of humor, if not sly irony, into the most sober of his past works. The 1999 PBS presentation “Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War” is, as evidenced by its stodgy title, a chapter-and-verse explanation of the war that made Teddy Roosevelt a household name. While this two-hour tale of American colonialism unfurls in a Ken Burns copycat style (slavishly in vogue at the time), Miller has a trick up his sleeve: The soundtrack features numerous pro-war songs from the era, jingoistic ditties that refresh the wearied viewer. When helming 2002’s “Electric Nation” for PBS, Miller also chronicles the public thrill of incandescent lighting in a sampling of popular sheet music of the day. Miller maintains boundaries; there is no room for levity in 1997’s emotionally exhausting but never mawkish The Trial of Adolf Eichmann.