Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An inside look into the Brothers Warner

By Ashlee Fairey
Sun Staff Writer

“The Brothers Warner,” a special presentation featured in the Aspen FilmFest, is a documentary portraying the four famous Warner brothers who founded the Warner Brothers Studio and transformed the silver screen.

It is about the “close-knit band of brothers (who) proved in their pioneering efforts to use mass media to ‘educate, entertain, and enlighten’ while being commercially successful.” The brothers’ motto echoes that of the Aspen FilmFest and can be seen as the embodiment of the festival’s ideals.

The film comes from a new voice: It is the first film by director Cass Warner, granddaughter of Harry Warner. As a child Cass Warner was very close to her grandfather. “He was a fine, kind human being,” she recalls. “He would come home with tales of behind of scenes.” These fantastic tales would create a lasting impression on the young, eager granddaughter.

When she reached her 20s, Warner realized those family legends were unrecorded and slowly slipping into murky memory. She took it upon herself to become the family archivist, a role that was essentially the first move towards the making of the movie. In 2003 she authored a book entitled “The Brothers Warner,” the namesake for the future film. The book was a rags-to-riches story that compiled the photographs and letters that Warner uncovered in her archival efforts.

Those same family archives were used in the film. The never-before-seen footage includes audio interviews with deceased family members, photographs and old home movies. These reveal, as Warner puts it, “guys who came from nothing, who never quit until they made their dream a reality. They made a fantastic team.” The director wanted the film to highlight their conscience, a rare virtue for filmmakers. Harry Warner once said, “It is not the challenge of dollars, it is the challenge of ideals and ideas. If the producers of pictures see only the dollar, I believe, those productions will fail.” They understood that “film is a powerful tool,” as his granddaughter says, and they used it wisely.

Considering director Cass Warner created a documentary on her own family, objectivity may seem an elusive outcome. But Warner describes herself as a fair person who concentrates on offering different points of view. She certainly basks her characters in a light of praise, but she feels the film also conveys character flaws. “I was raised on character-driven films,” Warner explains. “I want to know what makes them tic and why they do things.” The result: “a thorough, deep look at (the Warner brothers) as people.”

Directing a film about one’s own family can have great benefits as well. The making of “The Brothers Warner” was not only a journey through the lives of four extraordinary men, but became a self-exploration. “It helped me to understand my roots and myself,” she noted. “Through osmosis you get certain traits that you were witness to,” and through the camera lens Cass Warner was able to peer into a mirror. The road to the documentary’s creation was not smooth or speedy. “It has taken a long time to make. I have gambled everything,” the director said. The buzz of positive reviews, however, seems to have made it all worth while.

Cass Warner is also the niece of Lita Warner Heller, the honoree of a celebration dinner benefiting the Emerging Filmmaker Fund, and as Warner calls her, “a true lover of the arts.”

The showing of “The Brothers Warner” will be on Friday, Sept. 26, at 5:30 p.m. For tickets call 920-5770 or visit aspenshowtickets.com.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Cass saw the history of social activism that has run through her family.

Story,” into her first film, “The Brothers Warner.”
The movie shows today, at 5:30 p.m., at the Wheeler Opera House, as part of Aspen Filmfest, with Warner expected to attend. The screening will be followed by a dinner celebrating Aspenite Lita Warner Heller, a cousin of Cass’ who is featured in the film. Proceeds from the dinner will go to Aspen Film’s new Emerging Filmmakers Fund.
“Brothers Warner,” made through Cass Warner’s Warner Sisters company, plays partly as a personal reflection. Through home images and the memories of Warner and other family members, the film tells of the Polish-Canadian Jewish siblings who became fascinated with the emerging film technology and built a chain of theaters. It is another version of the American dream tale: immigrants taking extreme risks, dreaming big, and succeeding in expanding the business and artistic landscape.
“Being close to my grandfather, working to do something in his honor — that was a big purpose,” said Warner, whose late father, Milton Sperling, was a film producer and screenwriter. “I think it’s a great saga of family who had a dream and didn’t quit until they made it happen. You can’t quit if you have a dream, and every barrier is an incentive not to stop, to keep going.”
The documentary also works as a tale of ego and family strife. Jack Warner, the youngest of the studio founders, is recalled as a flamboyant figure, the brother most closely associated with the studio, and a back-stabber who acquired exclusive control in Warner Brothers after convincing his brothers to sell their stock in a sham business deal.
Cass Warner learned from this episode that film can be a potent tool not only for the viewer, but for the maker.
“He’s an interesting character,” she said of her great-uncle Jack, who died in 1978, “and I learned to love him as well as the rest of the family. I felt good about including him and forgiving him, rather than making him the enemy. I’ve always been interested in evaluating information for myself, to uncover who these characters were. Why they made these decisions was fascinating to me.
“Power is an interesting state of existence, and it’s a very delicate and potentially dangerous tool if you don’t know how to control it.”
Warner, the mother of four and grandmother of three, is intent on using her newfound power as a filmmaker. She has two projects in the works. “A Shade of Grey” she describes as a “To Kill a Mockingbird”-like story, seen through the eyes of two children. The project has several well-known actors attached to it whom Warner would not publicly identify. The other is “Dog Stories,” a four-person coming-of-age story which she might direct herself.
The documentary “The Brothers Warner” shows at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Wheeler Opera House as part of Aspen Filmfest.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cass on NPR!

Did you hear Cass on NPR? She was interviewed by Larry Mantle on Friday, September 19th, 2008, and you can hear it by clicking this link:


(Scroll to the bottom of the page and you will hear her interview!)


Monday, September 8, 2008



Thursday, September 25, 2008
10:00-11:00 p.m. ET

– Intimate Look at the Men Behind the Lights, Cameras and Action of the Warner Bros. Studio; Film By Harry Warner’s Granddaughter Includes Home Movies, Rare Footage and Recollections From Family And Colleagues –

Harry, the little-known major player. Albert, the “Honest Abe.” Visionary Sam. Volatile Jack. Together, this band of brothers started a movie business that revolutionized Hollywood. They did this with no education, a lot of chutzpah and the belief that if they were told they couldn’t do something, they knew they were on the right track. Their history unfolds in THE BROTHERS WARNER, AN AMERICAN MASTERS PRESENTATION, airing Thursday, September 25, 10:00-11:00 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

“I was riveted by this story,” said Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS. “It’s a wonderful, intimate, deeply interesting film about the actual Warner brothers, illuminating the personal history behind the studio. It beautifully dovetails with our other AMERICAN MASTERS presentation, ‘You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story’.”

Narrated by filmmaker and author Cass Warner Sperling (Harry Warner’s granddaughter), the film gives an insider look at the four original Hollywood independent filmmakers, their disparate personalities and their canny business sense. Industry icons Norman Lear and Roy Disney Jr.; actors Dennis Hopper, Debbie Reynolds, Angie Dickinson and George Segal; film historians,; and family members all contribute to this extraordinary story.

Old footage, family photos and personal documents trace the brothers’ scrappy rise to fortune from their meager immigrant beginnings as working-class Russian Jews. The personal tragedies and professional battles they overcame are an integral part of the story. From opening their first storefront theater by hanging a sheet on the wall and borrowing chairs from a local funeral parlor in 1907, these four brothers built an empire on a dream, transformed Hollywood and created one of the top studios in America.

“THE BROTHERS WARNER is a well-made, fascinating documentary,” said Barry Meyer, chairman & CEO, Warner Bros. “Cass has not only honored her grandfather’s legacy with this work, she’s also paid homage to one of the guiding principles of the four Warner brothers who founded the studio by producing a film that will educate, entertain and enlighten audiences.”

Underwriters: National Endowment for the Arts, Rosalind P. Walter, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Jack Rudin, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Public Television Viewers, PBS and Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Producer: Warner Sisters. Producer/director/writer: Cass Warner Sperling. AMERICAN MASTERS producer: Thirteen/WNET New York. Creator and executive producer: Susan Lacy. Format: CC Stereo Letterbox/HD-Upconverted where available. Online: pbs.org

– PBS –

CONTACT: Donald Lee, Thirteen/WNET, Tel.: 212-560-3005; leed@thirteen.org

Donna Williams, Thirteen/WNET, Tel.: 212-560-8030; williamsd@thirteen.org

■ To take AMERICAN MASTERS beyond the television broadcast, the companion Web site (pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters) offers interviews, essays, photographs, outtakes and other resources.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


THE BROTHERS WARNER is airing on PBS/KCET as an American Masters show on September 29th at 9pm,

“I was riveted by this story,” said Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS. “It’s a wonderful, intimate, deeply interesting film about the actual Warner brothers, illuminating the personal history behind the studio."

The DVD is now avalable for purchase! Click: http://www.warnersisters.com/brotherswarner.html

Monday, September 1, 2008


At the end of the windy road, and after what seemed like hours of sisterly squabbles and some carsickness, there was the serenity of grandpa Harry’s ranch waiting for us. We’d start out first thing in the morning and arrive in time for brunch as there was no freeway from where we lived in Los Angeles to the Valley.
Pepper trees lined the mile long driveway leading up the hill where ol’ Prince, the St. Bernard, greeted us with his massive clumsy, furry body and wet kisses.
I had a favorite ritual, which I always made sure I had time to do. After successfully stuffing myself with the usual brunch goodies of lox and bagels, potato pancakes with apple sauce, cole slaw, pickled herring in sour cream and onions, fresh fruit salad, and, of course, most importantly the desserts—poppy seed cake, assorted breakfast rolls, beautifully molded jello, and frosted lemon cake, and getting sufficiently bored with the adult conversation, I’d excuse myself and go and mount my favorite deer.
She rested on her haunches, legs tucked under her starring out at the racetrack, the barn and the gentleman farm below. So what if she was made of metal? That only meant that she would always be in the same place waiting for me. Once I had taken in the panorama and opened all my senses to the familiar smells of sage and California earth, I’d manifest the same gaze that my friend the deer had on her face, and drift off into the comforts of my inquiring mind. I truly felt immortal, definitely privileged, and without borders or boundaries. Reflecting like this became a regular habit for me. It was something I cherished and learned to do well. Having the time to figure things out from my observations became routine for me. By the time I had indulged in this form of personal dessert, my food had digested so that I could get permission to swim.
The pool overlooked the expanse of the land below, as it bordered on the edge of a knoll that the ranch house sat on. It had a large shallow end, so us short folks could keep our heads above water if we wanted to stand. By the time I climbed out, the skin on my hands were especially white and shriveled. I’d pretend to be an old lady monster and try and scare my little brother.
The mention of going to the stables with Grandpa to go riding assisted greatly in getting us out of the pool. Grandpa’s pride came shining through as he walked us down the hill pointing things out as he went, and giving us a tour of the sleek race horses in their immaculate stalls. Sometimes, he'd drive us down on the tractor. He’d stick around and make sure that we learned to stay in the saddle by gently yelling instructions as we trotted around him on old nags that were always saddled up and waiting.
I’ll never forget how honored I felt when Grandpa showed me a prize colt and told me he had named her after me. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. Putting his arm around me as we both admired her, he told me that he KNEW she was going to be "a winner"--a moment that remains as vivid as if it happened yesterday, and is a constant reminder of his belief in me.
His love and reverence for Nature and his land became mystical as he proudly showed us what he was growing in his vegetable gardens, how beautiful his prize laying hens were, how the seasons caused the fruit trees to be different during the year, and the comings and goings of the birth and death of his animals. Sharing this mind-set of his was part of the legacy he wanted us to remember. His reward was observing our reactions and the expressions on our faces as we took it all in. His certain, quiet dignity and knowing that the ranch represented so many life lessons that he could demonstrate was an obvious important pleasure for him.
My grandfather, Harry Warner, was the benevolent patriarch of our family as well as Warner Bros. studio, and created a most beautiful, solid foundation on which I stand.