Some people think of Whitney Blake as Meredith Baxter Birney's mother. Or they remember her as the actress who played Shirley Booth's housewife-boss on the '60s sitcom "Hazel." But the credits on the documentary "Reno's Kids: 87 Days Plus 11" (at the Nuart through Saturday) list her another way, as the film's director-producer.
It is the story of a class for difficult students at Jefferson High School in Daly City, Calif., and it is Blake's first time out as the star player behind the scenes. She learned about the group in a newspaper article--a motley crew of recovering drug addicts, graffiti artists in trouble with the law, delinquents and Reno Taini, their unorthodox teacher.
Taini has a system for guiding troubled teens back to the mainstream, through wilderness training mixed with academics. To Blake it sounded like the stuff of a movie of the week or a TV series.
She has already co-produced a successful sitcom, "One Day at a Time," about a divorced woman raising two children alone in the mid-'70s. But as it turned out, she went well beyond a producer's credit with "Reno's Kids." She even financed the project herself, after a Hollywood production company let its option on the story lapse. "That made it possible, necessary , for me to make the film myself," she explained in an interview.
On a small budget, "nowhere near $500,000," Blake hired a crew of five women.
"It was just a coincidence that we were all women, but maybe it made it easier for me to relax and know what to do," she said. To cut costs she used the office in her Malibu house as her editing room. But her financial scrimping hasn't cost her any rewards. The film won honors at the International CINE Council and the Chicago International Film Festival--which qualified it for Academy Award consideration.
"I'm not an actress anymore," Blake said. She can tell you why in one word: "Power. As an actress you're only part of the puzzle, and it's not in your hands. If you want autonomy, you have to take charge."
Even so, she still looks like an actress, with her porcelain complexion and her pale, glistening eyes. And she can still deliver a dramatic line.
Concerning the lead characters in her film, she frankly admitted, "I had no interest in teen-agers." It was Taini who fascinated her. "He creates in people the will and the tools to survive."
He even inspired her to scale desert rocks and to walk a tightrope between trees as part of the wilderness course he teaches students. "At first I said I'd never do that, but I did," Blake said. "My experience was, 'I can do anything after this.' "
Taini's outdoor treks are the heart of Blake's film. "I was propelled by the energy I found there," she said. "People looking for ways to overcome obstacles and how they finally did it, that moved me. I was trying to edit real life into a form of theater."
In one scene students spend a night alone in the desert, then meet to talk about it. A girl admits with a sense of wonder that she was afraid of the sound of her own heartbeat. "I thought it was rats," the girl confesses. A boy explains that isolation helped him discover his true calling in life. Solemnly he reports he will be a tattoo artist.
Throughout the film, action and dialogue tell the story. Blake follows the cinema verite method where characters ignore the camera and there is no narration. But an occasional deft bit of instruction by Taini takes an event beyond itself. When he explains how to read a compass, it sounds like a lesson in living. "If you know where you are, you can go anyplace."
Blake said her omnipotent crew didn't cramp the performers' style. They all behaved naturally whether or not the film was rolling. "It's a TV generation," she said. "Everyone became used to us very fast."
In keeping with the one-woman show "Reno's Kids" has turned out to be, Blake is now marketing the film. After its Los Angeles run, she will take it to Minneapolis.
Her son Brian Baxter, a consultant to publishing companies, helped her book a theater there. "My goal is to break even and make a salary," Blake said. "This is like raising kids: You're thrown in, you do the best you can. Who's prepared?"