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  • NYS Writers Institute

Albany Film Festival event: Don Rittner's "Karen or Bust"

A featured event of the Albany Film Festival.

In director Don Rittner's autobiographical film "Karen or Bust", Ringo and Freddie, two teenagers from upstate New York hitchhike to Florida in 1966, the summer before the "Summer of Love," to see Ringo's girlfriend. They don't make it, but they battle with segregation, discrimination, injustice, almost get killed by rednecks, and learn about an underground community in Baltimore where Ringo falls for someone else.

Don filmed most of the scenes in the Capital Region and also featured many actors and extras from the area. Read more about Don below.

Karen or Bust

World premiere 7 p.m. Saturday, May 1

More about Don Rittner

Don is well known in the Capital District. He has published more than 50 books, including EcoLinking Everyone’s Guide to Online Environmental Information (Peachpit Press, 1992), the first book to show how to use the (then) brand new Internet for a social cause. For years, he wrote a history column for the Troy Record called "Heritage on the Hudson,” and until recently a history & culture blog on the Albany Times Union website.

(Don on the set of A Place Beyond the Pines in Schenectady, 2013. Photo by Paul Grondahl)

During the 1970s when he led the fight to save the Albany Pine Barrens, he founded the Pine Bush Historic Preservation Project and was responsible for the city of Albany acquiring its first nature preserve, the Albany Pine Bush Preserve. During 1983–89 he served as the preserve's manager and designed a 40-mile hiking trail around the city of Albany called the Albany Greenbelt. Back in 1973 he became the first city archaeologist in the country when he worked for Albany Mayor Corning's administration excavating colonial tavern sites in the Pine Bush. He later became the preserve manager under the Whalen administration. More recently, he served as the city and county historian for Schenectady.

(One of the dozens of history books written by Don)

For seven years he was the Schenectady Film Commissioner and brought movies to the Schenectady area including The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) with Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper and Winter of Frozen Dreams (2009) with Thora Birch and Keith Carradine. In 2014, Rittner was the producer for Mary Paley’s award-winning documentary "The Neighborhood That Disappeared," and "Echoes from the Neighborhood That Disappeared" (2015). Both appeared on PBS's WMHT. He was the Location Manager for the movie “H” shot in Troy in 2014 and also appeared in the movie. In 2014 he directed George Kaufman’s Helen of Troy NY, based on a 1923 Broadway hit about the collar industry in Troy.

He is currently an adjunct professor at SUNY Westchester where he teaches Archaeology, Native American History, Cultural Anthropology and World Religions.

You’ve had a multifaceted career. How would you describe yourself in... two sentences?

I’m a nobody who has done a thousand interesting things from writing books, making movies, digging up the past, saving nature and historic buildings, and building a replica of the first fur trading ship building in America.

I never lost my curiosity for wanting to know what makes the world spin and I spend every day trying to find the answer.

You’ve been cast as an extra in movies such as "Ironweed", "Age of Innocence", "H the Movie", and "Place Beyond the Pines", where you get beaten up by Ryan Gosling in a bank robbery scene. What’s that experience been like?

Fun. I fell into the industry in a strange way. I got a call in the 70s out of the blue from a woman who introduced herself and then asked me if I wanted to be in the movies? I obviously laughed and thought it was a female friend fooling around.

She then corrected herself and said that Héctor Babenco, the director of "Ironweed", saw me in the newspaper and told her to find me. He wanted me to be one of the raiders beating up on Jack Nicholson. She then cast me in "Age of Innocence" later on and I got hooked.

Being an extra is mostly waiting for hours to shoot for minutes but I studied all the production staff because I knew I wanted to make my own movie one day so saw this as a on the job training experience. I created the Schenectady Film Commission after that to bring movies to the Capital District.

I have worked with the History Channel, HBO, A&E, and Discovery as a scout finding local locations for many of their TV Shows. I also produced Mary Paley’s two documentaries about Albany’s South End. Derek Cianfrance, director of "Place Beyond the Pines," gave me total access on the set, and I studied everyone who worked on it and after that knew I was ready to do my own movie.

Where was the local filming done for "Karen or Bust"?

Much of it in Troy, Salem, outskirts in Rensselaer County and also Baltimore which makes up half of the story.

What made you decide to take on writing, directing, and producing "Karen or Bust"?

It’s a true story, actually my story, when a friend and I hitchhiked to Florida in 1966. We both had long hair and I wanted to find an old girlfriend who moved down there.

It was the beginning of the 60s and you could see American society of the time starting to crack. We experienced segregation (most of our rides were from Black truck drivers), police injustice, almost got killed by rednecks, and learned about the large gay community that lived in Baltimore at the time. I ended up falling for a lesbian and the story revolves around that.

The experience is what made me an activist in my later college years after that and I always wanted to tell the story in some way though thought it would be a book. Hitchhiking through the South with long hair in 1960s was NOT a good idea. After working in the movie industry all those years I decided to do it as a movie instead.

What were the biggest challenges you found in getting this film done?

Money. I maxed out my credit cards. Also, we only had 16 days to shoot the film and that included a day in Baltimore and renting a 1966 Trailways Bus while there. Casting was pretty easy. We got our main characters from NYC and the rest were locals here. I think we had more than 100 people involved.

The main character is played by Max Schuster from New York City. Does he look like the Don Rittner circa 1966?

Scary. He looked almost exactly like me – even had the hair. When he auditioned, I thought I had gone back in a time machine. He ended up wearing the same fringed jacket I wore on the original trip. He did a great job and so did the actor playing my sidekick. Ironically, Max was originally from Slingerlands I believe it was and I worked with his father in the 70s during my Pine Bush days.

You came of age during the 60s. What are the most striking differences are there for teenagers growing up in the 60s versus these days?

You don’t have enough space for me to answer that.

The 60s kids were post WWII kids and were growing up in a bubble. You did what you were told. You believed in the government, your parents, teachers, and adults, but then Vietnam started, and we were told to kill people we never met, and they could never give us a decent reason. We let our hair grow, started asking a lot of questions, and realized it was all bullshit. The counterculture was created, and the revolution started.

Music drove much of it and I was a drummer in three local rock bands, smoked pot with Allen Ginsburg and the Beats, and called Pete Seeger a friend. It was a hell of a time good and bad. The kids today are clueless to how they got what they have today in terms of technology, culture, fashion, and the list goes one. They are not as curious as we were. I do like the Gen Z kids though. I teach them now in college and they remind me a lot of my generation. Makes me optimistic for the future.

What’s next for Don Rittner?

Working on 25 more books (aiming for 100) and editing three episodes of a TV pilot I shot last year. I am doing it with my theater partner Justyna Kostek. “History on the Road” is Justyna and I travelling the original highways of America, stopping at the oldest villages, interviewing people and learning the unique history of each and trying to solve local history mysteries. We have three networks interested in it. Also writing some more movie scripts. I don’t know everything but I’m working on it.


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