Charlottesville cinematographer Todd Free’s near miss with the Oscars

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Todd Free (above) and former C’ville resident Scott Mactavish were in contention for an Oscar
nomination for their documentary Murph: The Protector. Todd Free (above) and former C’ville resident Scott Mactavish were in contention for an Oscar nomination for their documentary Murph: The Protector.

Charlottesville was closer to being represented at last Sunday’s Academy Awards than a lot of people realize.

While Darlene Love of 20 Feet From Stardom sang during the acceptance speech for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, local cinematographer Todd Free watched from his couch on Belmont Avenue and thought, “I could have been there.”

Free was cinematographer, film editor, and co-producer of Murph: The Protector, a documentary about Navy Seal Lieutenant Michael Murphy who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2005 and given the Medal of Honor posthumously in 2007. The film, written and directed by one-time Charlottesville resident Scott Mactavish and now available in select stores, was considered by the Academy for four Oscar nominations: Best Documentary Feature, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song.

To get on the list for Oscar consideration, a movie has to be released and advertised in certain key markets, particularly New York and Los Angeles, and recommended by an Academy member. Murph was Free’s first film to enjoy a national release—it appeared in 180 Regal cinemas across the country. Two notable reviews—one rather indifferent by The New York Times, another very positive from the Washington Post—also gave the movie some momentum. By the time the doc became available to the masses on DVD and digital download, it had enough notoriety to earn the top spot on iTunes’ download list of documentaries for more than three weeks. It spent several days in the top 10 most downloaded movies for any genre and settled into the top 20 for a full week.

“It’s hard to tell how close it actually was to being nominated for an Oscar,” Free said. “But it is unheard of for a documentary to be in the top 20 films on iTunes, including blockbuster films, for an entire week.”

Free said his eventual association with Murph was set in motion in 2003 when Mactavish was part of the Charlottesville film scene, a scene that “had about seven people in it,” Free said. The two filmmakers worked together on a documentary about breast cancer, became friends, and stayed in touch. After Mactavish moved to Virginia Beach in 2011, he contacted Free about collaborating again, this time on the movie he wanted to make about Murphy. Mactavish, a veteran of the U.S. Navy himself, said he wanted to celebrate the life of someone he considered an American hero.

Murph is my third ‘fallen hero’ film,” Mactavish said. “The first was God and Country, about fallen Marine Brad Arms from Charlottesville. If it were up to me, I’d produce a film on every fallen man and woman that gave their lives for our freedom.”

The instinct to do a movie about Murphy was a good one. The popularity of Murph has largely come from the strong support military movies get in certain parts of the country, Free said, as well as people’s respect for the Naval officer himself. As the WAPO reviewer put it, “by celebrating an actual American hero, Murph reminds audiences that bells and whistles, budgets and effects aren’t necessary so long as filmmakers have human stories of bravery and valor to tell.”

Free, to a certain extent, downplays his work on the movie. He spent several years in Los Angeles working on his craft from 2007 to 2010, and he has multiple shooting credits on his resume. He’s done notable camera work on the horror films House Hunting and The Watermen with Jason Mewes. Where those films involve dynamic camera angles and quick cuts, according to Free, Murph consists of testimony from Murphy’s friends and family along with footage of Navy Seal exploits. Free said the shooting and editing for the film was simpler than what he does on more action-intensive movies.

“It’s not really what I would point to as the best example of my work as a cinematographer, but we did do something riskier with the editing,” Free said. “We really just let our subjects talk, and through their testimony, we get to know them, and through them, we get to know the life of a man who would be awarded the Medal of Honor. They don’t give those medals out to just anyone.”

Free doesn’t downplay the effect Murph had on him personally. He became engrossed in the storyline—regular guy from the block devotes his life to helping people and makes the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield—and was inspired to create something of his own that might help others. The result was Free’s latest project, The Interactive Pixel Company, which looks to help non-profits and small businesses push their message out through advertising and web development. He draws on his background in film to create engaging videos for his clients where he can.

“I wanted to use my talents to sell something other than T.V.s and cars,” Free said. “I wanted to work with companies that are dedicated to helping other people.” So far, those companies have included Charlottesville’s Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry, the Music Resource Center, and Camp Holiday Trails, a camp for children with special health needs.

Looking back on the start of his career as a filmmaker, Free considers how much he’s changed over the years. When he was living in Rhode Island and studying documentary filmmaking in 2002, he remembers thinking that being able to attend the Oscars someday would be a kind of validation for getting into the field. It would be a symbol, a benchmark. And it also looked like a pretty cool event.

“It kind of goes against my idea of wanting to help others with film,” he said. “Maybe I have evolved a little bit. But to me, it is a celebration of people that have worked at the highest levels of filmmaking.”

There’s always next year.

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