Wilshire Grand Center is currently under construction in Downtown LA’s Financial District. It will be the tallest building in the city’s skyline when completed in 2017, at 73 stories. Filmmaker Kelly Candaele has set out to celebrate the workers bringing this Korean Air-developed project to fruition. Through his documentary Heads, Hands and Hearts, Candaele will showcase the skill and expertise behind the high-rise’s physical structure. Beyond his Hollywood success, Candaele is also a journalist and former City of LA elected official. In this TPR interview, he shares the progress and intention of the documentary, as well as commenting more broadly on union politics in Los Angeles and the city’s new minimum wage law.
“We’re following the project from beginning to end—starting with the famous ‘big pour,’ where the Guinness Book of World Records was broken… I’m going to follow it all the way up, looking at each craft and what they bring to that process. Then, I’m following people into their homes and communities, to see how the work they do relates to the communities that they live in.”
Kelly, you are in the process of producing a documentary film titled Heads, Hands and Hearts about the craftsmanship involved in building the Wilshire Grand Center high-rise in Downtown Los Angeles. What’s the theme, and why the title?
Kelly Candaele The film’s title captures the major theme of the film. The premise is that building these projects takes heads, hands, and hearts—in other words, intelligence, the physical rigors of the labor, and dedication to completion.
When you talk to workers, whether they’re plumbers, electricians, sheet-metal workers, or ironworkers, there’s a great deal of pride in what they do. They all come out of apprenticeship programs that last up to five years, where they learn their skills, then apply them on these jobs. They have great respect for their craft and the physical labor. They bring their families to look at these buildings once they’re done. They feel a great sense of accomplishment when they see these buildings complete.
Before we drill down on the year and a half of work you’ve already invested in Heads, Hands and Hearts, share your background and qualifications to do this film.
I’m not sure what my qualifications are, other than that I love this project.
It’s interesting that the first film I did—A League of Their Own—was honoring my mother, who was a professional baseball player. In a way, this film is honoring my father’s legacy as a union electrician, as a tradesman who supported our family through his work—even though he died many years ago.
I’ve done other documentaries that honored other people, like Olof Palme, the assassinated prime minister of Sweden. Maybe it’s a theme of the work I’ve done.
This film has also spawned the publishing of essays by you, including one about hands. Could you elaborate?
Because the use of your hands is so important in work like this, I got interested in the relationship between the hand and the brain. Going back as far as the Greeks, they had this idea that the brain and the body were bifurcated—that only slaves did work with their bodies. I was interested in the relationship, in evolutionary terms, between the development of the brain and the development of the hands.
When you look into that literature, the theories are fascinating. Changes in the structure of the hand as a result of evolutionary adaptation led to the creation and use of tools, which stimulated an enlargement of the brain and, therefore, the growth of intelligence.
I was also interested in the way that my father defined himself through his hands. He would come home from work and say, “Touch these hands. These are a working man’s hands.” They were full of callouses. He would complain about there being too many “paper pushers” in the world—people with soft hands.
It struck me as interesting that we communicate with our hands and identify ourselves with what we create through our hands. I’m exploring what hands mean in terms of physical labor and in terms of art—the obvious example being the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo has Adam being created through the touch of the hands. I’m looking at different ways in which hands are meaningful to us.
You’re the producer and the director of this film. Describe how you engaged collaborators in the making of this film.
Producers have to convince other people to go along with what they want to do and raise money.
In Chris Matthews’ book Hardball, one of the chapters was titled “It’s better to receive than to give.” Having run for office myself, it’s an odd thing to embrace. Matthews makes the point that as a politician you have to believe you are doing people a favor by allowing them to donate to you. But in producing, you have to ask people for money and convince them that it is going to be a great project—that there’s a benefit to them and the community.
Who have you asked for support and cooperation?
Everyone. The unions have been very supportive. Most of them have kicked in. The iron workers, electrical workers, pipe trades, sheet metal workers, cement masons, heat and frost insulators, operating engineers, and laborers have been very generous.
You can’t build a building without cooperation between the workers and the companies that they work for, so I have spoken to all the subcontractors, and Turner Construction for access to the site.
How have you approached the actual filming? The high-rise is a construction site, presently 30 floors high. It will eventually be 73 stories tall.
We’re following the project from beginning to end—starting with the famous “big pour,” where the Guinness Book of World Records was broken. We talked to the people managing the project—including Mike Marchesano, who told me the critical path, the goals at specific times during the creation of the project, and how those goals relate to the number of people you can actually put on a job site like this.
There’s going to be 500-600 people on any given day on the job. I’m going to follow it all the way up, looking at each craft and what they bring to that process. Then, I’m following people into their homes and communities, to see how the work they do relates to the communities that they live in.
Kelly, our interview takes place as you are filming the construction. You have focused on the many crafts engaged in construction, and today you afforded craftsmen and laborers an opportunity to pay tribute to their fathers. Share how you will incorporate today’s footage into the film.
I’m doing a piece on fathers and sons and fathers and daughters because there are several father-son and father-daughter combinations at the worksite.
I’m interested in the generational passing-on of wisdom, knowledge, and opportunity that was perhaps more prevalent some time ago than it is today. Christopher Lasch famously wrote about that in his book Haven in a Heartless World. He talked about the indispensability of the father to sons and daughters. The poet Robert Bly has also written about this.
I wanted to capture, in the process of this building, what I think is indispensible in terms of what fathers provide for their sons and daughters. They want to be role models. They want to be an important part of their family. They want to teach their kids the difference between right and wrong and the importance of hard work—all the things that we should expect and would embrace.
What is your personal connection to the craftsmen who are constructing what will be Los Angeles’s tallest building? What’s your history?
My relationship spans from my family, through politics and the labor movement, through the community college system, and now to this film.
Decades ago, I worked closely with Bill Robertson and Jim Wood while at the County Federation of Labor. There, I got to know the work of each of the trades. It started a long time ago.
When I ran for office and became a trustee of the Community College District, we did $6 billion of construction work. I made sure, along with my colleagues, that the work was done under a project-labor agreement. The construction industry requires literally backbreaking work. You don’t see many men and women over 50 years of age out on these projects, because your body gets worn down over the years. There’s no reason, in my view, why anybody who’s part of the construction industry wouldn’t want to be part of a union. That’s where you get a pension, a retirement, fairer wages, and a negotiated process.
In the course of your conversations with workers on the site this morning, you engaged them in conversation about their schooling. Many of them felt that public education had failed them, and, as a result, that they had found curiosity, motivation, and skills through their craft unions. As a former elected trustee of the LA Community College District, how do your react to their favoring learning by leaving school?
It might be one of the most crucial issues we face. It’s a tragedy what’s happened to so many of our students.
Clearly, not every student wants to go to college or will go to college. If that’s the case, how do we prepare men and women who are not college-bound? How do we ensure that they’re going to become middle class? The shrinkage is in that area: folks who don’t go to college, who used to be able to make a good living in a unionized manufacturing plant or in the building trades. There’s a massive group of people that are being lost.
That’s why I’ve appreciated so much the ability—where I could—to make a dent in that. It’s important that these jobs are well-paid and have union protection.
There’s been a lot of thinking, even from Obama and other folks in the academy, about emphasizing more trade skills, like learning how to be a welder. If you’re a union member coming out as a journeyman, you’re going to make $50-60 an hour if you add the benefits, pension, and vacation pay. That’s a good living.
Kelly, you’re a writer, producer, director, and former elected official, but also a journalist. Expand on the last, and how it has informed your filmmaking.
I wrote a lot for the LA Times and the New York Times about baseball and culture. I also wrote from Northern Ireland for the LA Times because I traveled there when Clinton went there three times during his Presidency. I wrote about the Irish peace process
Earlier you asked about qualifications. Sometimes you have to force yourself into situations and convince people that you’re qualified. I really enjoyed it, especially the Irish stuff—being part of a process where this intractable conflict that everybody said couldn’t be resolved met with the success of the Good Friday Peace Agreement. Seeing that up close is one of the great joys of being a journalist.
There’s a certain voyeuristic part of both documentary filmmaking and journalism where you throw yourself into the lives of other people. You’re an observer, rather than a participant.
Delving back into your film Heads, Hands and Hearts, what are the main themes being explored? What are you hoping audiences will appreciate most?
I hope people see what is actually involved in these trades—the good and the tough. You can make a living, but it’s not easy.
You have to know math to become an electrician. To become a plumber, you have to know some math. There’s a stereotype of blue-collar work being unskilled, or for people that perhaps didn’t have the intellectual capacity. I want to break through that stereotype.
I also want to showcase pride in craft. The philosopher Michael Polanyi wrote a book called Personal Knowledge where he explores this idea of tacit knowledge and how important it is to preserve. Tacit knowledge can’t be explicitly articulated sometimes, but it is intuitive. It’s the ability to make solid judgments based on the recognition of patterns, which is almost inherent in the work that you do. Sometimes it’s hard to codify, but nonetheless, it’s so important.
I also want to deal with the rituals of solidarity that take place in worksites like this. There’s something about it that is separate from the world. You enter into a protected space—the 73-story building—with hundreds of other people. Solidarity grows organically from the experience itself. If you don’t watch out for each other, people die or get hurt. I’m interested in these rituals that are acts of faith, you might say, which is true of all rituals.
You’ve also alluded today to the importance of a Socratic dialogue between journeymen and apprentice electricians as they integrate practical knowledge into the tasks before them. Give our readers a sense of that learning process.
I was jumping off of Plato, looking at the Socratic dialogue that I thought was taking place on these jobs, particularly between apprentices and journeymen. There’s a certain authority to the knowledge of a journeyman that an apprentice defers to. Watching them work, it struck me that their dialogue was Socratic: A kind of dialectical exchange getting toward some sense of truth, even if the truth is, “How do we wind this electrical conduit around this complicated structure of rebar?”
I enjoyed looking at some of the Socratic dialogues, particularly the Phaedrus, where that type of exchange goes on. In the Phaedrus dialogue, Socrates questions the value of writing speeches down and simply repeating them. They get codified, become ossified, and don’t allow for the more dynamic exchange of information between two people that face-to-face conversation encourages.
We do this interview the week in which the City of LA’s minimum wage law is likely to be signed. For the last 10 or 15 years, the LA County Federation of Labor has increasingly relied on public-sector unions rather than private-sector craft unions for membership and dues. As the offspring of a craft-union member—who, whether apprentice or journeymen, earn $55-60+ an hour— how do you react to the County Fed’s prioritizing minimum wage?
More generally, I think it’s very difficult to achieve appropriate balance in a labor movement when you only have seven percent of the private sector organized. That is probably, in the long run, not sustainable. That’s why I’ve tended to focus on how to improve the situation with workers in the private sector. It’s harder to organize than the public sector.
Private sector workers bring a certain orientation to the table in working with their union brothers and sisters, which is the significance of the health of the companies and employers. If you look at all these buildings trades guys, they don’t get work unless their employers can thrive. They recognize that.
In general, I’m happy the minimum wage is going to go up. But I think the more critical problem is how to develop a society and an economy with more people making $25-50 an hour.
I don’t see that many politicians or leaders talking about, or offering solutions to that problem.
Kelly, let’s conclude with the film’s timetable. How might readers enthralled by this interview and the theme of Heads, Hands and Heart help you?
There’s a website: www.headshandshearts.org. You can go there and pre-purchase the film or buy a T-shirt. You can tell Bill Gates what I’m doing and maybe he’ll contact me!
The film will come out as soon as the building is done—probably in a year and a half. I’m going to follow it all the way through, until they put those Christmas tree and American flag icons right on top of the building.