Jaywalking: Documenting the Powertown

Monday, July 02, 2018

If you attended any of the Turners Falls High School softball games this season, you may have noticed the filmmaker on hand.

The man behind the camera was Richard Widmer, and he spent the past three months filming legendary coach Gary Mullins and his 2018 team. Over the next two months, Widmer will edit the six terabytes of film he accrued from every one of the team's practices and games, and on Sept. 27, Widmer will share the documentary with the community at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls.

Widmer is a native of Somerville but attended school at Northfield Mount Hermon School in the 80s before moving on to college and then heading overseas for a decade. He returned stateside four years ago and moved along with his wife (Zhaohong Wen) and their two sons — Andre (age 12) and Daniel (10) — to Millers Falls.

Widmer, who has 20 years of commercial broadcast experience and has worked for programs on PBS among other things, said that he wanted to get to know the community and one of the best ways to get involved is through local sports. Both of his sons have been playing baseball in the Newt Guilbault Community League among other athletics, and Widmer has fallen in love with the area he now calls home. 

As a filmmaker, he also became inspired to do something that reflected the community, especially in a time when it seemed that the community was experiencing turmoil, as it has over the past 18 months with the nickname debate.

“This is a great place that I've chosen to move to and I said, ‘What's the best story in town?'” Widmer explained.

Widmer said that as a coach himself, he wanted to learn from someone whom he looks up to. Who better to turn than the man who has coached more varsity games in the state than any other coach? Mullins has been coaching in Franklin County for 39 years and with over 1,800 games coached between three sports — softball, basketball and soccer — the Hall of Famer for whom the Turners Falls softball field will someday be named after, is the best subject to feature in a film about coaching.

“What I'm trying to illustrate is how important a person like Gary, and the coaches, families and players, are to the community regardless of what the team name is,” Widmer said. 

With that in mind, Widmer approached Mullins over the winter to pitch the idea.

“His first question to me was if I could I see the finished film. Right away, I could see that he was sort of coaching me,” Widmer said. “He wanted me to be successful. He gave me permission and it was very meaningful the way he was trustful of me.”

There was one stipulation, however.

“He said, ‘This is not about me, it’s about the team,’” Widmer continued.

That is how it has always been with Mullins, who sets the bar high for his teams, and then expects them to go out and achieve greatness. Widmer said he appreciated that about the coach, and it has created something that many young girls in the community aspire to reach one day. 

Widmer was there when the team began practicing in the cold weather in March. He was there every practice and game this season. He was on hand when the team suffered defeats, and when it celebrated victories. He was on hand during the team's run to its fifth straight western Mass. Division III softball title. He was there the day the team advanced to the state finals. And he was on hand the day the season ended with a loss to Abington in the Division III state championship game.

Prior to the season, each family on the team signed a release, which allowed him to film. He realized he should also sign something for the team, so he drew up an agreement that he signed and presented to the team. In it, he explained that the film was about the players and the team. He explained that players could ask him to turn off his camera at any time, view footage at any time, ask questions of him, and not share footage without their permission among other things. He ended it by writing, “I will make an honest film that will make us proud.”

Widmer said that the adjustment of always having a man with a camera on hand wasn't always easy for the players, which he appreciated, and worked to step back from the team so as to not interfere in their goal to be the best they could be. 

It did not stop him from getting an up-close look at how the team, and Mullins, operates. One thing that stood out to Widmer was Mullins’ willingness to listen to others. He said it was interesting to see Mullins listen to all information and ideas from others on his staff, something he brought up to Mullins at one point. The coach responded by explaining to Widmer that he is always seeking information to become a better coach.

The hard work put in by Mullins and his players has helped lead to the success of the program, which has made it the benchmark for high school success in Franklin County. Mullins said that it’s that hard work he hopes will come out in the film.

“Our kids work hard and I hope this story shows that our kids put in incredible effort and that’s why we get results,” Mullins said. “It’s not that everyone in Turners Falls has softball players coming out of their wombs.”

Widmer will now follow up three months of filming with two months of editing, where he will pluck the most meaningful moments from the season to include in the documentary. He hopes to condense that into 90 minutes. The documentary will be featured in upcoming film festivals, and Widmer hopes that could lead to a distribution deal.

“His effort was amazing, he put in an incredible amount of hours,” Mullins said. “It was a good experience for all of us, coaches included. I don’t think the kids realize that this will be something that they are really going to enjoy later on down the road.”

Widmer is still doing a GoFundMe for his film with a goal of $5,000. People can donate by searching ‘TFHS Softball Documentary.’ Widmer also has three movie trailers on YouTube for the film, and those can be found by searching ‘Turners softball documentary’ on the website. 

Widmer also wants to put what he has learned to use and the soccer coach will be hosting free youth soccer clinics at Highland Park in Millers Falls on Tuesdays in July beginning July 10. Clinics will run from 4 until 5:30 p.m., and a friendly pick-up soccer game will begin at 5:30. The clinics are for children ages 10 to 14, but all ages are welcome.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com.