‘Great War in the Air’ – Interview with Documentary-Maker Jan Goldstein

By Richard A. Martin
9/22/2010 • HistoryNet Interviews, World War I

I also wanted to incorporate anecdotal material and even discuss some of the obvious mythology that has passed as “fact” in the years since the war. While some of the stories of the earlier aviators had certainly been embellished through the years, I really felt they should be at least mentioned when appropriate, being a real part of the legacy that has endured since the 1920s.

Jan Goldstein. "I really just wanted to tell the story of my childhood heroes."
Jan Goldstein. "I really just wanted to tell the story of my childhood heroes."
When my script was finally completed I immediately began putting the film together. My hobby project now switched from early morning to late at night. In the wee hours, after the restaurant closed I would sit in the club’s sound booth recording narration.

Narrating was easily my least favorite part of the process, but like everything else, I learned as I went along. One important lesson was to slow down my delivery; you can tell my narration is a little rushed in the first 15 minutes or so of the film.

I generally recorded the narration to one section in the middle of the night and would meld the clip with pictures the following day. If narrating was my least favorite task, setting the sequence to the photographs was the part I liked best. This is where it all came alive for me, combining words and pictures. The final step with each clip was selecting the background music. Then I’d be back late night sitting with my script and a microphone working on the next segment. It took me five months to write my script and an additional four to assemble it.

RM: Where did you dig up so many pictures and film clips?

JG: This first film used period photographs but no film clips. The pictures came from a myriad of sources—some old books, online resources, and pictures I’ve collected over the years. It was a real challenge to be as accurate as I could with the visuals as I was telling the story. If, for example I said, “Albert Ball shot down an Aviatek,” I really tried to show a crashed Aviatek. Not THE Aviatek he shot down, but an Aviatek nevertheless.

I’m sure I made a few mistakes over the four hours of my film, but I really tried to be as accurate as possible. I’ve seen some of the commercial stuff covering the subject on cable TV, and to be honest, I am sick of seeing that stock footage of the Sopwith Camel when they’re talking about Mick Mannock in his SE5a, etc.

RM: Were there any surprises in the research or production of the film?

JG: There were a few surprises and a few instances where I really had to rethink some of the stories I’d believed to be “fact” over the years. As I said earlier, at times I’d have a handful of books open, weighing the different accounts and trying to arrive at the truth.

I was surprised at how smoothly the writing process actually went, never having tried anything like this before. I was determined not to backtrack and repeat myself, so I was always looking for the segue that might “jump me across the lines” or to the next scene. Everything connected so nicely. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, as this is the nature of history; nothing really stands alone.

I wrote this like a British documentary, with lots and lots of information. It seems to me that American documentaries often present a lot less information and then drill it over and over.

RM: Did you score the documentary as well?

JG: No. I let the masters do that. I used selections from about three dozen classical composers, some obvious and others more obscure. Adding the music was the very last step with each segment of the film, and I have to say, one of the most pleasant for me.

RM: When The Great War In The Air first came out, it was a YouTube-only release. Why did you pick that venue?

JG: As I said, I really made this film for my own amusement. It was never my intention to market or sell copies. When it was finished, I had a modest premier at my club, where we brought in a big-screen TV and invited the public in to view about an hour’s worth of clips, followed by a Q&A. I’d prepared a small pile of DVDs to sell that night, but truthfully, it was more about promoting the restaurant than selling my film. It was easy enough to get some local press for the event, and I had a good turnout of strangers that night.

My end goal was to simply put the film on YouTube and let that be it. In my mind, I don’t own this story. It belongs to all those brave kids who lived and died so many years ago. They were my heroes when I was young, and I just wanted to pass their story on to a new generation.

I’ve spent an awful lot of time over the years on stage with my band. I’ve have written songs, sold paintings, had my nightclubs and generally been in the public eye. I needed no glory for my Great War in the Air project. That belongs to Richthofen, Mannock, Guynemer, Garros and all those other brave men who lived this remarkable adventure. So it seemed natural to me that I should just give it away on YouTube.

What happened, though, is that once it was online, I started getting requests asking about a DVD. I put this off for a long time; I was often working 90–100 hours a week in the restaurant—the hours got longer as the economy nosedived—and I was making my DVDs one at a time. My attitude was “enjoy it on YouTube; ya don’t need a DVD.”

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