Lest we Forget
Filming a hero’s story
Bob Bear and Jay MacNamee never intended to become filmmakers. Bear is a retired orthopedic surgeon and MacNamee does marketing for an auto parts dealer. However, companionable evenings around the dinner table with a compelling Air Force veteran changed all that.
“Norman Phillips is an interesting and complex character,” Bear says. “We met when our children were at Berwick Academy together. Norm had his son at age 68, so he was much older than we were. He would tell these incredible stories of his adventures during World War II, the Cold War, and Vietnam, and our jaws would drop. As time went on, we realized that this man had led an amazing life. He is a true American icon and his story needed to be shared with others.”
After getting Phillips’s okay, Bear and MacNamee reached out to the New Hampshire film community for advice and leads. They wound up working with Greg Gerber of Gerber Video Productions in Rochester, New Hampshire, and decided to let Phillips tell his story in his own words. Gerber set up a double-camera shoot, and they filmed six sessions that lasted all afternoon. During these sessions, Phillips’s journey from poor immigrant to military hero to art professor unfolded.
“We felt this approach would work best because Norm is such a good speaker,” Bear says. “He has great presence and personality and is very intelligent. He doesn’t hesitate when talking and he doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects. The interviews are very honest—even when he’s recalling situations that may not show him in the best light. He admits his mistakes. We let him tell his life story in chronological order. It’s his story and we wanted it told his way.”
Both Bear and MacNamee knew that filming someone sitting in a chair, no matter how amazing his life story, would be boring, so they arranged for a number of location shoots. They also set up interviews with other key individuals from Phillips’s life to add dimension.
“We journeyed to his childhood haunts, to the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, and to SoHo, where he brought students during his art teacher days,” Bear recalls. “At the aviation museum, the director let Norm climb into a P-47, which he once flew. Even at 95, the age he was when we were filming, he was able to climb in that plane unassisted. You could tell he immediately felt at home there, lining up the gun sights and remembering the engine’s unmistakable ‘burbling hum’ as it powered up for takeoff.”
The pair had also accompanied Phillips to a reunion of his 22d Fighter Squadron, which he commanded during the Cold War in Europe. Although these former fighter pilots were now in their eighties, they were just as sharp and articulate as Phillips. “They were all very accomplished men and clearly had enormous respect for Norm,” Bear says. “Those interviews really sold us on doing the film. It was obvious that he was the real deal. Not only had he experienced all the adventures he described to us, there were actually many more!”
But the interview process was just the start. Then came the challenging part—editing the wealth of material down to a manageable 90 minutes. “We had 45 hours of raw footage,” MacNamee says. “We weren’t even sure where to begin. We began working with Greg on making the cuts and eventually got it down to 11 hours, then to seven hours, then three. The more we cut the harder it got. But no one is going to sit through hours and hours of film.”
Adding to the challenge was the fact that although Bear was retired, MacNamee was still working full time, so he could only squeeze in editing work on the weekends and any other spare moment. “We were also trying to do this on a shoestring,” he says. “There was no big budget for this film. We spent about $20,000 of our own money to get Norm’s story told. The point wasn’t to make money—it was to honor Norm and his service to our country.”
As the story began to take shape, the filmmakers had to figure out how to bring it to life with strong visuals that would enhance Phillips’s recollections. Phillips had some home movies that covered everything from downtime hijinks with his crews to celebrating the end of World War II in German officers’ quarters, but more was needed. Bear and MacNamee began the painstaking process of researching video that would partner with Phillips’s incredible journey. They found footage of World War II battles and bomber runs, of fighter-bombers like the F-100 and F-105 that Phillips flew, of Cold War tactical planes, and more.
“We found footage of P-47s doing a ground attack during World War II, which we used as Norm talked about being involved in a similar one,” Bear says. “We also unearthed video of F-105 fighters being refueled in midair over Vietnam in 1967 and helicopter rescues from the jungles of Laos—both situations that Norm experienced.” Using such footage required legal expertise, so the duo hired an entertainment lawyer to make sure they acquired the appropriate permissions.
Phillips also had numerous scrapbooks and let them make use of his vast archive of personal photos. “In addition, we talked with Mary, Norm’s second wife, who gave us important insights into what makes him who he is,” MacNamee says. “We wanted a multidimensional portrait.”
After four years of work, the documentary, An American Solo, was ready. Phillips had not been involved in the film at all, other than to tell his story, and he left plans for its debut and promotion up to Bear and MacNamee. “At his heart, Norm is an artist, and as an artist, he understands the creative process; his only direction for us throughout the process was to go for it,” Bear says.
He and MacNamee felt that Phillips would like to see the film’s launch tied to veterans. Things came together when they talked to Greg Whalen of Veterans Count, a nonprofit that raises funds to support veterans, service members, and their families. They decided that the film’s premiere would serve as a benefit for the organization. “Greg got on board and was very enthusiastic,” Bear says. “In no time, all 212 seats at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth were sold out!”
Since then, Bear and MacNamee have founded Star Island Films and, with guidance from film marketer Jon Reiss, entered the film into a number of festivals. It was an official selection of the Normandie-World War II International Film Festival in Normandy, France; the Veterans Film Awards in Miami, Florida; and the New Hampshire Film Festival. It was also a semifinalist in the Atlanta International Documentary Festival. “If all goes well, we are hoping that a streaming service such as Netflix will purchase the film and that we may also get DVDs distributed to schools, libraries, and universities,” MacNamee says. “Individual DVDs may also be sold on Amazon.”
Neither Bear nor MacNamee could have imagined the wild ride that making a film turned out to be, but they would not trade the experience. “You don’t see someone like Norm every day or even every year,” MacNamee says. “It has been an unforgettable journey and we are proud to have told his story.”