Filmmaker continues building on big break from 2005's 'New York Doll'

Published: Thursday, June 7 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Greg Whiteley, above, is known for being entertaining, funny and reliable.

August Miller, Deseret News archives

Greg Whiteley's life changed the day he took his video camera to a seedy Los Angeles pawnshop.

Whiteley is now an up-and-coming documentary director, but eight years ago he was just another young graduate student living in the L.A. area. The only reason he knew Arthur Kane is because both men attended the same Mormon congregation.

Kane, who appeared to be a middle-age burnout, survived on government disability, and those dire straits likely fueled an insatiable desire to regale friends with stories about his glory days as a rock star. Whiteley initially doubted the veracity of Kane's tales, but the aspiring filmmaker eventually confirmed enough details to know that his goofy buddy was in fact one and the same with the "Killer" Kane who played bass for the New York Dolls — an edgy and influential rock band in the early 1970s that Rolling Stone magazine included in its list of Greatest Albums of All Time.

The car-less Kane called Whiteley out of the blue one day in 2004 asking for a ride to the pawnshop so he could retrieve his bass guitar out of consignment. Whiteley quickly consented, but he had a request of his own.

"Do you mind if I film you getting it?" he asked.

The footage Whiteley shot that day of Kane retrieving a 4-string electric bass with sparkling-gold paint and white plastic pick-guard would become the seed for "New York Doll," Whiteley's directorial debut and a heartwarming documentary that played at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and quickly won widespread critical praise.

For all the places Whiteley could've caught his big break, it was at the L.A. pawnshop with two pink neon signs — "Cash" and "Loans" — hanging in the display window and ugly metal bars reinforcing the front door that his career truly started taking off.

Today Whiteley retains that same knack for storytelling that allowed him to parlay a pawnshop trip into acclaim. His career sits at a dramatic and exciting crossroads, because he's on the cusp of breaking through into scripted filmmaking. Above all else, Whiteley is the rare Hollywood insider who makes no bones about prioritizing faith and family over career concerns.

"You really can't have a better friend than this kid," said Walden Media co-founder and president Micheal Flaherty, the values-based media mogul whose company's films have grossed more than $2 billion in worldwide box office sales over the past decade thanks to such successes as "Charlotte's Web" and three "Chronicles of Narnia" installments. "He's entertaining, he's funny, he's always there and he's reliable.

"In life you occasionally meet people that make you say, 'Man, I wish I could see that person every day.' That's Greg."

Telling the story

Because they don't work from a prepared script, documentarians employ a specialized skill-set that is unique even within the broader medium of moviemaking.

"Documentary filmmakers have to make people feel comfortable enough to really open up on camera, and then they've got to tell interesting stories with what they get from that interview," explained Brad Barber, a BYU film professor who specializes in documentaries.

Barber knows Whiteley well from their time together working on "Resolved," the 2009 documentary about high school debate teams that netted both men an Emmy nomination. Whiteley wrote, directed and produced "Resolved," his first major project after "New York Doll." When he needed to bring somebody aboard to assist with editing and cinematography, he connected with Barber — then a graduate student at USC — through a mutual acquaintance.

Even though they had both completed undergraduate degrees at BYU and subsequently entered the specialized ranks of documentary filmmakers — "a small community in any town, even in Los Angeles," Barber noted — Whiteley and Barber did not know each other prior to that time. Nonetheless, the pair quickly bonded.

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