When Doug Blush was growing up in Detroit in the late '70s, there wasn’t a lot of moviemaking going on in the Motor City. “I was fascinated with films,” he says, naming Star Wars as a particularly inspiring flick. But, he laments, “they seemed so far away and impossible to be a part of.” So he simply began crafting homemade science-fiction films with some friends and his father’s Super8 camera. A creative self-starter, Blush unsurprisingly grew up to be an award-winning director, producer, editor, writer, and cinematographer.
Blush developed his skills and in 1984 was recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation, giving him an honorable mention for his drawing talents. The organization, which supports emerging artists, didn’t have a film division yet or anyone to teach the craft in Miami, but Blush kept in touch. “I always thought that at some point I’d love to come back and be a part of it,” he says. This week, his Oscar-winning 2013 film about the lives of backup singers, 20 Feet From Stardom, will be screened at the Miami YoungArts Biscayne Bay location two nights and paired with a feast provided by the Frank Gehry-designed Ted’s restaurant.
Blush has spent seven years as chair of the Cinematic Arts Division for YoungArts, choosing new rising stars deserving of support. The foundation had a lot to do with his pursuit of cinematic arts at the University of Southern California. After graduation, he did sound design for TV shows and feature films. His friends all thought they’d direct but ended up working at restaurants. “I learned so much in how to make sound work,” he says of his experience. “That affected 20 Feet from Stardom... Music films really matter to me.” He found himself as a director of photography and filming behind-the-scenes documentaries of massive productions such as Independence Day and Dante’s Peak that would end up on HBO or Movie News. While working on Titanic, the biggest film he’d ever seen, he fell in love with not the moviemaking but the documentaries. “I realized I could make documentaries that were just as good as these films.”
Since then, he’s worked on every aspect of making a movie and on at least 70 features, in all capacities, largely editorial. With his wife, Lisa Klein, he started the production MadPix Inc.; their 14-year-old daughter, Madeline, is the CFO.
His first big hit was Word Play, about the people hung up on the New York Times’ (in)famous crossword puzzles. It blew up at Sundance Film Festival. “Everybody who worked on that film got their careers from the film. I’ve really never had to look for work ever since.” But what he’s focused on now are films that affect the world, such as Invisible Wars, about how the military handles sexual assault in its ranks. “We were able to actually affect laws in the Pentagon and beyond” with that feature, he explains.
Another Blush film that encourages advocacy is The Hunting Ground, showing how young rape victims started a movement to get colleges to recognize the prevalence of sexual violence on campuses. Asked about its relevance to the recent Stanford rape case, Blush says, “When we made the film, we knew that there’d be stories like this. It was sadly no surprise when this story broke, because we heard hundreds of stories like this.” The good news, he notes, is there is a national movement to expose these injustices. “I hope the film had something to do with that.” He adds that some campuses use it as required viewing for incoming freshmen. There's now pending legislation in the Senate against campus sexual assault. “The signs are good that we might get more traction on this,” Blush says. Lady Gaga even did the theme song for the documentary and performed it at the Oscars to raise awareness.
Another of his films that drew attention to a serious issue is Of Two Minds, which he directed with his wife. Klein’s sister had bipolar disorder, which is the subject of the film. “She really wanted to give something back,” he says. He learned a lot about the disorder after working for three years with the subjects. “It was really profound to get to know this not as a condition or a label by as human beings... That’s why we made this film in the first place.”
His wife is directing a film about suicide survivors, The S Word, which, he reveals, is not sad. Blush's films also focus on “the joy of creating and of life” the stuff that “makes people feel like life is worth living.” He makes certain all of his films incorporate that feeling and humor.
20 Feet From Stardom is one of the more joyful films he’s worked on. His sound design background came in handy too. Of the stories of the background singers, “they just came out magically,” he says, scene after scene. The film features great interviews with heavyweight crooners such as Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and Bette Midler. It even received a standing ovation when it showed opening night at Sundance 2013.
The film features another YoungArts alum, Judith Hill, who is featured in the film. She was close to being the lead singer on Michael Jackson’s comeback tour but instead was thrust into the spotlight because she sang “We Are the World” at the King of Pop’s funeral. “Everybody was stunned,” he notes. She’s been making her way in the solo world, and her first album was the last one produced by Prince before he passed away. He says her career was definitely affected by the documentary. She represented the “next generation” of singers. “She’s the new voice of the new millennium... a symbol of coming out of the shadows” for all featured backup singers. At this week's screening, another YoungArts alumna, Kelley Kessell, will perform, and the trailer for Blush’s upcoming flick The Music of Strangers, about Yo-Yo Ma’s orchestra, will segue into the feature.
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“I’m really excited about doing this special appearance,” Blush says. He wants to speak about his experience at YoungArts. “Giving back is so important... It makes me feel like there’s another generation coming up behind us to keep the torch going.”
Applications for 2017 YoungArts are now open.
Pairings at Ted’s
Doug Blush presents 20 Feet from Stardom, with a performance by Kelley Kessell. Friday, June 24, and Saturday, June 25. General-admission tickets cost $35 plus a $25 food and beverage minimum, including small plates, wine, and spirits available for purchase. Use promo code YA_FRIENDS for $5 reduced GA tickets. Prix fixe dinner package includes a three-course menu priced at $95 (beverage, tax, and gratuity not included) with priority seating and table service. Visit youngarts.org/teds.