Documentary filmmaker shooting at Cobb Field

Updated: July 12, 2007, 11:27 AM ET
Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. -- During a visit to his parents' house in Idaho last summer, Craig Lindvahl fell in love with Pioneer League baseball.

He went to a Chukars game in Idaho Falls, and he couldn't help noticing the intensity of the fans, the sense of connection so many of them felt for the team.

"For a lot of people," he said, "it was like, 'These are our boys, this is our team.' I looked around and I said, 'This is what baseball is supposed to be. This is why baseball was invented."

Lindvahl, a teacher and documentary filmmaker from Illinois, started thinking that night about his next project -- a film about a day in the life of a minor league ballpark. After doing some research and talking to minor league followers, Lindvahl decided Cobb Field would be the perfect subject for his documentary.

He liked everything he learned about Cobb Field. For one thing, it was built in 1948 and will be demolished this fall to make way for a new stadium. He was also impressed that the Billings Mustangs had been affiliated with the same club, the Cincinnati Reds, for 34 years.

He loved the setting -- the old-fashioned stadium looking out on the sandstone Rims -- and he heard good stories about the many families and individuals who had been dedicated Mustangs fans for years and years. Most of all, he liked the lack of frills and the near-total focus on baseball that was part of the Cobb Field experience.

After spending much of the winter and spring laying the groundwork for the actual filming, Lindvahl and a crew of five arrived in Billings Monday and will stay until Saturday. They will have four cameras filming all facets of three home games against Orem, Utah, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights.

They will be filming and interviewing the players, coaches, umpires, the play-by-play announcer, fans, groundskeepers, clubhouse attendant, managers and anyone else they find interesting.

"The film is about 24 hours in the life of this place, but the story is about the people who populate it," Lindvahl said. They won't know which day to focus on until they look at footage from all three game days.

Lindvahl started out as a band teacher in Teutopolis, Ill., who turned into a documentarian after he and students from 10 high schools produced a pair of music videos in 1985. After that, Lindvahl taught himself the craft, producing, writing, filming and composing the music for six documentaries that have been shown on PBS, NBC, CNN and The Learning Channel.

He has won nine Mid America Emmy Awards (regional versions of TV's top prize, given to works that don't get nationwide exposure) and the Studs Terkel Award for contributions to the humanities. He is still an educator, teaching high school band and a television and film production class in addition to elementary music.

Joe Fatheree, Lindvahl's partner on this and three earlier documentaries, is a high school film teacher in nearby Effingham, Ill., who was named Illinois Teacher of the Year this year. He couldn't be in Billings this week because he was at a conference in Philadelphia.

Mustangs General Manager Gary Roller said he started talking to Lindvahl last fall and was only too happy to open Cobb Field to him.

"It's a great thing for this community and a tremendous opportunity to showcase minor league baseball in Billings," he said.

Lindvahl said he is working with a PBS distributor who will shop the Cobb Field documentary to PBS stations around the country when it is finished, probably next summer. Individual stations choose what to air, he said, and they don't pay for the kinds of documentaries that Lindvahl creates. The only money he makes comes from the sale of videotapes and DVDs.

Not that he minds. Lindvahl said he does a lot of corporate and grant-funded work in order to be able to produce movies "for the love of doing it." He owns all his own equipment and does the editing, writing and composing on his own time.

He usually does the filming by himself, but this week he is being assisted by four former film students and by Tim Fish, a junior high principal in Effingham. Fish said the students, whose expenses are covered but who don't get paid, are getting invaluable experience in film production.

"This has just opened a whole new world to these guys," he said. "How do you put a price on that?"

Austin Brooks, 19, studied film and television for two years under Lindvahl. This fall he'll be entering Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla., for his second year of communications studies. He said the best thing about working with Lindvahl is that he operates on a low budget and uses his skills and creativity to compensate for the lack of resources.

"The way he teaches is all hands-on," Brooks said.

Lindvahl said he'd like his latest film to be a present to the city of Billings, a remembrance of a great ballpark in the last year of its life. He also hopes, of course, that it will appeal to people in other parts of the country.

"I like to do documentaries that are uplifting, heartwarming and optimistic, and that make people say, 'Huh. I didn't know that," he said.

Lindvahl said he was commissioned a few years ago by the Smithsonian Institution to make a documentary about old barns. He agreed to take on the project only after deciding to focus on the barns not so much as structures, but as "witnesses" to interesting events and human lives. That's the way he sees Cobb Field, as a witness to interesting stories and a window on the community.

He also looks forward to telling the stories of young baseball players, most of whom are playing professional ball for the first time in their lives.

"This is their first chance to say, 'What do I do? I play baseball," Lindvahl said.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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