The New York Film Academy’s Los Angeles campus welcomed director Tim Warren and producer Kelli Joan Bennett for a Q&A following a screening of their award-winning, impactful documentary, High School 9-1-1 for summer high school students. NYFA Director of the Q&A Series Tova Laiter moderated the event.
The doc follows a year in the life of the members of EMS-Post 53, a volunteer student-run ambulance service in the small town of Darien, Connecticut, where Warren himself had volunteered as a senior in high school.
Tim Warren is an American film and television producer whose credits include popular reality programs such as Bar Rescue, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and more. Kelli Joan Bennett is an actor and writer, who recently produced and starred in the feature crime-thriller Collusions, alongside Tom Everett Scott. Together, Warren and Bennett formed Boomerang Production Media in 1996, and it was under this banner that High School 9-1-1 was ultimately produced.
Laiter started the night off by inquiring after Warren’s motivation for pursuing the film, so many years after he had experienced life at Post 53. “I was sort of thinking,” he explained, “if I die tomorrow, what would I regret not doing? And ultimately, I always thought about doing a documentary on this organization that was so positively impactful on my life. And even though I didn’t go into the medical field, the things that I learned on the ambulance thirty plus years ago, I still use today as a producer and director.”
Many of these lessons, Warren noted, came in the form of mantras from the organization’s beloved founder, Bud Doble. “One of them was, ‘Be prepared for what you find, but be prepared to change your mind.’ And that applies to not only when you’re on the ambulance, but when you’re in television and film.” Warren went on to paraphrase, “You need to have a plan. You need to have an idea of what you want to do. But you can’t be so married to that plan that you either miss a greater opportunity, or don’t see a problem that’s coming at you.”
Over the course of several years following their almost year-long stage of principal photography, that lesson would come into play in more ways than one. The first cut of High School 9-1-1 was upwards of six hours, followed soon thereafter by a two-hour cut. After screening the film for an audience, and being told it was still too long, the two of them cut it down by another fifteen minutes. “We submitted the one hundred and four minute cut to the top ten film festivals,” Warren began. “We were [resoundingly] rejected. So we’re now seven, eight years into this process, a mountain of debt, and nobody loves us.”
Warren and Bennett returned to their professional lives for a time, until their collective spark was reignited after Bennett ran into the program director for the LA Film Festival. “The program director says, ‘Oh, I remember that film — great film. Too long. But don’t give up on that film.’ And she said that the film needed to be under 90 minutes. So, that reinvigorated us.”
The pair then cut the film down to 86 minutes and launched a successful festival tour, screening at Heartland, Kansas City, New Haven, and more, as a part of the American Film Showcase program. After nearly ten years put into the project, its success was well-deserved. But documentary film, as Warren later attests, isn’t necessarily about success.
“The thing with documentary that I always say is… you have to be really passionate about the subject matter. And you have to go in pretty much knowing that it’s not your ticket to riches… If you’re thinking about doing a documentary, you have this feeling that, ‘I have to tell this story, and I’m going to tell this story — really — at any cost.’”
High School 9-1-1 is currently on a world-wide tour, screening at high schools and within communities, with the ultimate intention of “empowering young people through responsibility.” For behind the scenes, screening information, and more, visit here.