In May 2014, Marshall Kaplan invited his son Ben to grab a coffee at Starbucks. He wanted to pitch his son an idea: that July, there was going to be an international Brady Bunch fan expo in East Rutherford, N.J., to commemorate 40 years since the show’s series finale; would Ben be interested in joining his dad to film a documentary about the experience?
Ben Kaplan found the idea intriguing. Not so much the convention itself – his dad is a reality TV producer and an almost frighteningly diehard Brady Bunch fan, but he never cared much for the show. Yet he’d been wanting to break into the video industry, and the opportunity appealed to him.
“Who would be going to this convention 40 years down the line?” Ben Kaplan thought to himself. “This could be an interesting case study.”
So the two of them spent the next few months mapping out shooting schedules and logistics, contacting former Brady Brunch actors for interviews and shooting preliminary footage around the house. In July, they travelled from their Toronto home to New Jersey for a smooth, non-stop shoot. After it was over, coincidentally, both Kaplans found themselves in Los Angeles: Marshall went for a producing job and Ben landed an internship on a comedy show.
Ben Kaplan recalls that around that time, as he was sifting through the documentary footage, “it really hit harder that there was something deeper at play here.”
The project began spiralling outward, and the result is Viewer Direction Advised, which is debuting at this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival as one of the few contemporary films by Jewish-Canadian filmmakers. The doc is a near-chronological tale of the duo’s journey, beginning with the Brady Bunch convention and branching out into a deeper question: why will there never be another show like it?
The film’s central theory, backed by virtually every onscreen interviewee, posits that as television has become more fragmented, so too have family viewing habits. The sociological effects have created a splintered entertainment ecosystem that’s devoid of kitschy catchphrases, replacing the notion of “prime time” with binges on demand.
Viewer Direction Advised falls short of drawing this thesis out much further, skirting the ways in which mass fragmentation has created opportunities for minorities and helped tear down the monolithic conglomerates that once controlled international narratives. Instead, it banks on the comedy inherent to Marshall and Ben Kaplan’s father-son dynamic – dad is a chatty, goofy extrovert, causing his son to usually hide in embarrassment.
“It’s really a father, a son, one camera and a mic,” Ben Kaplan says. Their camera rig was remarkably simple: they plugged $50 lapel mics into their iPhones for sound and Ben Kaplan shot the whole thing on his own camera.
“Ben has made the documentary deeper than what I saw it as. I don’t know how else to say that,” Marshall adds. “I always thought it would be this frivolous, fun, quirky experience.… Ben went deeper and came out of the doc with more revelations.”
If Marshall Kaplan sounds like a proud dad, that’s because he is – and their onscreen journey plays as a metaphor for the film’s thesis. In the same way modern television has fragmented families, Marshall and Ben Kaplan begin the movie emotionally closed off, and only through their road-tripping adventures across Hollywood do they realize that television is just one potential conduit for family bonding. Without it, they argue, we just have to try a little harder to connect.
“We need to focus on how we come together in time and space, when we are together, to really think about what those times mean to you,” Marshall Kaplan says. “Because they’re not as common as they once were.”
Viewer Direction Advised is debuting on May 5 at Innis Town Hall in Toronto at 8 p.m.