Happy Wellness Wednesday!
When it comes to wellness, long-time readers likely are familiar with one of my more frequent refrains: legal professionals should make time to pursue interests outside the law. Or, to borrow a phrase that Jennifer Emens-Butler coined when working for the VBA, “pursuits of happiness” are part of wellness.
I’m fortunate to be privy to the non-legal passions that many of you pursue. Among the most popular, movies & film. My friends – today’s post is for you!
This weekend marks the First Annual Vermont Film + Music Festival. Produced by Stowe Story Labs, the Festival’s Film Program runs from Friday thru Sunday at the Stowe Cinema. Here’s the trailer:
The Festival schedule is here. Not only is there something for everyone, but it’s also FREE!
Even better, David Rocchio, one of the founders of Stowe Story Labs, is a lawyer admitted to practice in Vermont. Many years ago, Rocchio transitioned out of the law to pursue a long-held dream of working in film. In conjunction with the Festival, Rocchio was kind enough to agree to an interview, the latest in my series on members of the legal profession who pursue passions outside the law. So, without further ado, I’m pleased to present the world print premiere of:
Meet David Rocchio: The Move to Movies
All typos and errors are mine.
MK: David, let’s set the background. You’re a lawyer! I remember what I was doing when I first met you, but for the readers, share the outline of your career.
DR: Going way, way back, I grew up in Warren, Vt., when it was a farm town with some skiers in it. I graduated from UVM in 1982 with a degree in political science and history, and my first job out of college was as a legislative aide to Jim Jeffords when he was Vermont’s lone Congressman. After three years in D.C., working for Congressman Jeffords and then Ralph Nader, which was one weird experience, I went to B.C. Law. When I graduated, I clerked for John Dooley and then went to Hale and Dorr in Boston, which I did for four years. Interesting, varied work with great people, but not how I wanted to spend my life. Jackie and I moved to Vermont and I told her then I wanted to be a writer, but it was a long turn to get there. When we moved back to Vermont in 1994, I worked as an assistant AG under Jeff Amestoy, focused on complex litigation and constitutional defense, which was terrific (and which was when I met you!). Howard Dean then hired me to be his Deputy Legal Counsel, and when Janet Ancel left, I was promoted to be Governor Dean’s legal counsel, and I served until the end of his term. That was my last job as an attorney, although for many years after I consulted on strategy, complex problem solving, and then corporate culture and cultural alignment, which I still do when I can because I love it.
MK: An interesting and varied background! I did my first year of undergrad at BC and lived on Newton Campus. I don’t think I knew that’s where you want to law school. I remember when you first started with the AGO – you handled the ACLU case against DOC. At the time, I was an AAG assigned to DOC. I didn’t work on that case, but you helped me to learn a lot about how to be a lawyer. If I’ve never thanked you for that, I apologize and, also, thank you!
DR: You are welcome! I enjoyed the ACLU case because obviously it was wicked interesting, and Joe Winn was a joy to work with, and John Gorczyk was an incredible leader and client, but also because you were there! Always a joy working with you — at least to talk about the Sox if nothing else! And you had the tools and I was more than happy to talk with you about the cases. Just loved getting to know you and here we are nearly thirty years later!
MK: Yeah, the Sox. More on them in a bit. So, your work for Governor Dean. I’m intrigued in particular by two things. The first is the sort of role reversal in which the client provided the lawyer with some important advice. The second being that the advice, albeit given long ago, is so consistent with what we talk about these days when we discuss attorney wellness and work-life balance. Can you share your thoughts on the advice you received from Governor Dean and how, really, it was the start of a journey that you’re still on today?
DR: It wasn’t advice from the Governor, it was an order. The order was to take a six-week parental leave when our son Callum was born. At first, it was an offer, but when I said I didn’t think I could take the time, it quickly turned to, ‘you are not understanding me. You will take the time to be with your family.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ was the answer. And it was a wonderful time. Governor Dean was always focused on family wellness, and rightly so. That time with Callum was truly a joy. I don’t know if it made Callum a better human being, but it certainly made me one and I remember it almost minute to minute. And it helped me obliquely because I wrote the first draft of my first script with Cal sitting next to me in a bouncy seat. I cranked out a terrible first draft — which was 22 years ago almost to the day — and it turned into a pretty good script and almost got made — and might still one day. I should thank the Governor for that time, because it definitely lit a fuse with me. I always, from a very early age, wanted to write and make films but did not pursue it for dozens of reasons. The Governor took away all excuses. That fuse may be a long and slow burning one, but once lit it has not gone out.
MK: What a great order by Governor Dean! I love that you mentioned your memories of the time with Callum. I understand that, as lawyers, we have jobs to do. But your story drives home a point I try to stress: wellness includes making time for what matters. And family matters! Ok, so, let’s backup. You also mentioned your “first script” and a long-held interest in making films. Tell us some more about that interest. Who or what kindled/sparked the flame that lit the fuse?
DR: My Dad. He kindled my love of cinema, taking me past just liking being in the theater to thinking about story, about character, and what makes a film worthy of having been made. He was an English teacher, so lots of Socratic method on drives home from the Capitol Theater (back in its majestic art deco balconied-movie-palace version) to Warren. And he was not afraid to dig deep either. He took me to see The French Connection when it came out and, probably not a great idea, took me and a friend to see Deliverance for my 15th birthday. Not his best parenting decision. He started buying me books of scripts when I was very young. I remember reading Cool Hand Luke and The Hustler, which were two of his favorites, and he bought me a collection of Preston Sturges movies, which I still love and read now and then. And the movies are fantastic. By the time I was ready for college, I wanted to make films, but that path just was not available to me. I did make an awesome short for a class I took at UVM — and making that film remains one of my best memories from college — but I did not pursue it. The desire never dulled. Maybe my legal career was just deep research for projects to come. The challenge of making the turn mid-career, and with a growing family, is real but I couldn’t not do it.
MK: Did you know that I use Cool Hand Luke at CLEs? In my experience, most disciplinary complaints are rooted in a lawyer’s failure to communicate reasonable expectations to the client at the outset of the representation. And speaking of The French Connection, your dad, and Gene Hackman’s later role in Hoosiers, I think I read somewhere that your dad was also a coach? Is that right?
DR: Yes, my dad was a coach. He coached football for Montpelier High in the ‘60s and then coached football at Hanover High for years. He was also a Faulkner scholar and an English teacher and drama coach so had a pretty interesting and well-rounded run as a high school teacher in Vermont. And my dad was the closest thing I had to film school. Beyond movie nights with Dad, I had no idea how to break into the industry. I did not go to film school and had no contacts in the industry. And it is a very closed industry, meaning it is relationship driven and the way to get work made is totally opaque — there is not one process or approach.
MK: Interesting and well-rounded indeed! I bet he taught or coached (whether on the grid iron or the stage) some future members of the Vermont bar! Sounds like he was a wonderful mentor. Something we could use more of the legal profession. By the way, I don’t know anything about movies, film, or cinema, but I found a Preston Sturges quote that I love: “the most amazing thing about my career is that I had one.” I can also relate to that!
DR: Yes, that is a great quote. I think Preston Sturges felt really privileged to have done all he did.
MK: Here here! Ok, back to you. Your Dad lit the fuse, Governor Dean gave the order, you wrote your first script . . . what happened from there?
DR: The first thing that happened with my work was that first script of mine actually did well. It started to come together as a project, but then as happens more than not it all fell apart.
So I kept writing. I wrote, produced, and directed a short film, and then another. As I developed my work, I had a simple test to determine whether I was crazy. Do the projects attract attention in the industry? Do they do well in contests and festivals? If yes, I’d keep going and if not I’d stop. They did well. I had a short film at Cannes, and it went to another very small but wonderful festival in Italy (Capalbio), and from there I was invited to markets for emerging filmmakers and did well in contests.
Just to make it easier to find like-minded souls, I started a filmmakers’ lab in Stowe in 2013 with a colleague I’d met at a workshop. That first year we had 16 New England based filmmakers. This became “Stowe Story Labs,” and by the third year we had hundreds of applicants and admitted 50 participants annually. We now work with about 200 emerging artists from around the world each year.
We run labs, retreats, ongoing mentoring programs, and online writing programs for TV and film. Participants come from all walks of life and backgrounds, and the common denominator is a good story and a collaborative nature to getting work made.
We are about to open our Tenth Annual Lab, and I continue to write and work to develop my own projects (and make short films).
The Tenth Lab will coincide with the 1st Vermont Film and Music Festival, which will bring all the elements together. Making new work, exhibiting it, and selling it into a complicated industry. Bringing the industry into Vermont I hope will incubate projects getting made here. That is an uphill battle in Vermont for lack of a film commission and tax credit program, but that’s a whole other conversation.
MK: Wow! It seems that, in a sense, Stowe Story Labs is mentoring in action. Helping folks to learn the ropes and find their way in the business. Is that a fair description?
DR: The labs are 100% designed to mentor new talents. We look for people with great ideas and the capacity to work in this collaborative art. The point is to find voices that otherwise would not be heard, and we are good at doing that.
MK: I read on the website that you “pitched” the idea of SSL. Using the lingo, did you “pitch” it in the same sense that you and others are now “pitching” scripts?
DR: I did ‘pitch’ the idea of the labs to David Pope, my colleague now for ten years, and it was a good pitch just like pitching a story. He adds a lot to what we do. David is very good at explaining and demystifying the complexity of story. He also gets writers to think deeply about what they are working on. I took a workshop with him at Cannes (which I did only because it was free if you had a film in the ‘short film corner’ and I had nothing but time) and we hit it off. We then met again at the Rotterdam International Film Festival (I was at the market and he runs the producers lab there) and I pitched him on the labs over Chinese food. He’s brought a lot to what we do, which is, as he puts it, ‘meaningful feedback in a supportive environment.’
MK: By the way . . . Cannes! To me, in film making, making it to Cannes means you’re among the best of the best? Or, at the very least, one of a select few. Is it the legal equivalent of arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court?
DR: Cannes was certainly the “E ticket” of festival admissions. I was so green at the time, I thought ‘I’ll send this to Cannes,’ since I knew it. Who knew what a big deal it would be to be there? Well, I guess a lot of people knew, but I did not. And it is a good film. It’s helped me advance my work. This is a long game, though, and the community of the labs makes the road a bit less daunting, and not maybe so lonely.
MK: I love that last bit: forging a community to make the road both less lonely and daunting. We need more of that in the law. Especially now when, at least it seems to me, isolation and stress are driving people from the profession. Ok – how can folks learn more about the Labs and the Vermont Film & Movie Festival?
DR: The Festival will be terrific. It starts Friday night at Stowe Cinema at 7 PM with The Sound of Silence, which stars Peter Sarsgaard. It was produced by one of our mentors, Jonathan Duffy. Saturday and Sunday are a mix of fantastic films – docs and features – from the deep south, blocks of horror films (for those who can take it!) and short and narrative films from our alumni, and A League of Their Own, speaking of baseball, followed by a Q&A with one of our alumni who has been cast in the TV remake. The schedule is here and there’s a trailer here.
MK: Sarsgaard is awesome! So, it seems like there’s something for everyone. Is that the theme? Or is there a more specific theme?
DR: The theme of the festival is ‘portraits of America’. We have chosen films showing the breadth of life in this country (with two outliers I’ll explain about below). Each film shows some aspect of the human condition and contains notes of hope or uplift.
A key element of this program is the Southern Voices strand, built in partnership with the Sidewalk Film Festival of Birmingham, Alabama. For several years we have run a narrative lab at the Sidewalk Film Festival, and we are pleased to be working with them to bring these films addressing issues such as
- What does it mean to be ‘Southern’ in 21st Century America?
- An examination of the efforts to bring America out of a dark past. (SNCC, Directed by Danny Lyon)
- The struggle of high-level high school sports against the backdrop of a failing public school and all the curve-balls life throws us (Wrestle, Directed by Suzannah Hebert and Co-Directed by Lauren Belfer)
- And just the struggles of being young in the South (Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Directed, Filmed, Edited, and Written by RaMell Ross)
And there are a dozen more ….
The two outliers are
- Freddy Mercury: The Final Act, which is a documentary about Freddy Mercury’s struggle with aids and the groundbreaking tribute concert Queen staged in his memory. This doc was released this year. It was produced and directed by James Rogan, a Stowe Story Labs mentor (and my partner on my doc THE GUN SHOP). James and the film were nominated for a BAFTA this year and we just wanted to honor James — and Freddy — by screening it.
- The Bootlegger, which was written by an alum and we helped develop the project. It is a Quebecois Film about a student returning to her reserve to carve a life, and chaos reigns …. Written by Daniel Watchorn
Both generally fit the theme of struggle and hope, but the stories are not based in America ….
There are also two blocks of short films, just because shorts are fun! One block features films by our alumni. The other features films from a wonderful festival called the HollyShorts Film Festival. On top of that, we are screening one block of horror shorts and a screening of The Babadook late Saturday night. The shorts are by the Nyx Horror Collective, which is a community of women writers over 40 digging deep into horror.
The entire schedule is here. And there’s music Saturday afternoon at the Alchemist (schedule is here). And the entire program is free!
MK: Again, wow! There’s a theme, something for everyone, and it’s free! Ok. A few final questions. Having transitioned away from the law, do you have any thoughts or advice for members of the legal community who have similar thoughts? That is, folks who are thinking of doing something else, maybe following the dream that, like you, they had as a kid? On the flip side, are there things you learned or skills you developed as a lawyer that helped you enter and grow in the film industry?
DR: My thoughts on moving away from a career in law are complex. Law is a wonderful career and there is so much you can do with the degree. It is also a nice, predictable income, which film is not. For me, I took a long, slow turn away. In my mind it was like turning a large cargo ship; nothing abrupt about it and no way to turn it quickly.
Much of what I learned in my law practice is used both in my writing and the work with the labs: thinking logically, being analytical, really driving to comprehend material, seeing the way forward. Much is not useful. That same analytical thinking which helps push things forward is not a good space for creativity and pushing boundaries. For that you need to leave a lot of thoughts on process behind. For me, the best thing I did to make the move is to commit to it. I talked with my wife about the intent, I pushed some work out into the world, and slowly found myself being more of a writer than a lawyer, which was liberating for sure.
MK: Not listening to the analytical brain can be a challenge when considering change. I get that. What happened to the short you made your first year at UVM? Any chance it’ll be remade by the Labs?
DR: Ha! I lost that film. It was a silent, black, and white cowboy movie we shot at the Webb Estate before it was restored. Was such a great experience making it and it came out great, but somehow it ended up lost.
MK: Damn! What about you? What do you like to watch? What are your all-time favorites? And, speaking of “watching,” if memory serves, you don’t have a television. I seem to recall that you and Jackie would only watch tv once per year. You’d go to Hanover to watch the Academy Awards . . . is that right?
DR: You remember right! We did not have a TV for years. Now we have apple tv and stream, but still no channels. We do go each year to watch the Academy Awards at a hotel. It’s a long-standing tradition (but the show is not so good so we might stop!). My go-to movies are anything by Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder (or William Wyler — The Best Years of Our Lives is my favorite all time film). I love The Life Aquatic by Wes Anderson (and a few other Anderson films are top contenders). Another favorite is A League of Their Own, which we are screening at the Festival at 3 PM on Sunday, June 5th. The screening will be followed by an interview with an alum of our programs, Lea Robinson, who has been cast in the TV remake of the film, which will be a trans take on the thirty year old classic. Lea is both an outstanding writer and actor and we are thrilled they are part of our community.
I could write another twenty or so titles ….
MK: There’s no crying in baseball! Seriously though, great list. Speaking of baseball, I cut the cord recently. My package doesn’t include NESN. So, like you, I listen to the Sox on the radio. Since we started this interview, they’ve lost a bunch of games to bad teams.
DR: Yes, the Sox are driving me mad.
MK: You should write a film about that: how mad our younger selves would be that our current selves let the Sox drive us mad even after winning 4 World Series. Younger Us would’ve settled for ONE by now!
DR: Very good idea. I almost miss the dark days – when you could get a good seat for $10 and then move to a better one to watch Jim Rice hit into a double play. And you remind me to add Moneyball to my list of favorite films.
MK: That made me laugh! A true Sox fan indeed. Thank you for doing this! It was great to catch-up. Good luck with Stowe Story Labs and the Festival!
DR: Thank you! I hope people come out for the films and music. Anyone can reach out with any questions. Thanks again.