Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


To those of you who have dropped me a line or made a snarky comment (okay, those were all people I know) along the lines of Where the hell are you??? Things have been very busy with the doc lately and so all of my time in front of the computer has been spent either writing grant applications or e-mailing with my partners or editing. And I've also had some work, some of which will hopefully make for interesting blog-fodder.

But I have not left the building. So thanks for paying attention, if you still are.
Here goes…

Uh, how do I do this again?

Life Behind the Fourth Wall

It's hard to explain. You arrive at a housewarming party, or a 3-year-old's birthday party, or a dance recital, and everyone is glad to see you. You chat with people, eat red hot dogs maybe (if you're in Maine) or an unidentifiable "hot dish" (if you're in Minnesota), make the usual small-talk, joke around, catch up on what's going on -- but then you catch yourself. You stop and say, "Wait! Hold that thought."

And just like that, you go get out your camera, and all of a sudden, everything's different. And you and everyone else there knows that no matter how much they like you and feel like you've become their friend, you're really in their lives to make a movie.

Yeah, it's a little weird, what we're doing. This is the second documentary that I've directed and I don't know if you ever get used to it. I don't know if it's something you can or should get used to: moving back and forth between being a normal person and being an observer behind the quote unquote fourth wall of every intimate detail you can possibly get to pass through the lens, and the more intimate the better.

With the film I'm currently co-directing, this can be especially weird, because a lot of the conversations we get into have to do with serious subjects. We'll be having a casual house tour with a woman we've known for an hour or two and all of a sudden we're hearing stories about how three of her children died. We're having a friendly interview with a very tall, apple-cheeked lady in front of a cheerful, autumnal diorama complete with wooden scarecrows and pumpkin hummels, and then one question later, our subject is in tears telling us how the hospital she was working in as a nurse in Vietnam was bombed and she was one of only two people who survived. In fact, a lot of our interviews end up with people in tears -- including us. Sometimes I'm trying to keep my mascara from running all over my notes and then I hear Lauren sniffling behind me and I know she's trying not to get snot on the camera.

Of course, we provoke the tears, though not on purpose. But we ask. And then we ask some more. And the funny thing is, most people tell, and seem to want to. We always say up front that nobody has to answer any questions that they'd prefer not to, or they can decide what they want and don't want to talk about on film. We had one subject, even while we were unearthing a story about her marriage and the raising of her daughter, somehow manage, through avoidance of the words "husband," "ex-husband," and very careful verb tense choices, to completely talk around the issue of her divorce. That took some skill, and she was more media savvy than many. Even when people aren't, very often the best moments come when we're not filming because the camera transforms everything. But then there are the people who talk much more, knowing that the world is, potentially, listening. Or simply because somebody asked, and that somebody happened to be us.

A lot of the time, you and they end up in places neither of you ever expected. With Chris, one of the subjects in my first film, we started out talking about personal grooming habits, went on to looking at photos of his friends, and family, and half-naked ladyfriends, moved from there to him modeling his extensive collection of hats and sunglasses, and eventually, after four hours of tape had been rolled, ended up in a discussion of how he was in recovery from addiction to crack. That was surprise information that both bonded and separated us. Because it was out there, and I knew about it, and he knew that I knew about it, and it was now part of the film, it could never be taken back or taken out of our relationship with each other -- a relationship which hadn't really existed four hours previously. But would he have told me without the camera there? Or at least, would we have spent the four hours together of non-stop show-and-tell that created the intimacy that allowed him to tell me about it? And even if he had, without the camera between us, would I have dared to probe into the details? My thinking is no.

There was also the case I've already written about with J, who started out as a friend of a friend, but became in some ways more intimate with me than with many of her friends, because she told me things that she would never have occasion to tell anyone, or reveal, even, maybe, to herself. I knew not just about her tough break-ups and how she came out to her mother, but her dreams; how she thought about who she was and who she wanted to be -- the kind of thoughts that a lot of us don't think to formulate until we're asked about them. And then, like J, we surprise themselves with what we were thinking and and feeling.

Or with how much we're willing to reveal. Vanessa really wanted to tell everything, or so I thought. I hardly needed to ask her a question and she was off and running. She really could have been the star of her own reality show because she was constantly changing her job and where she lived and her appearance in the interest of reincarnating herself. And she wanted to talk about it, because talking to me was, in some ways, making her transformations real. But then came that day when we were talking about what I'd shot when she suddenly said, "Well, you're not going to use that, are you? That's private." I'd kind of thought that the fact that she'd said it on camera meant that it wasn't, and I'd come to believe that she wanted to say pretty much everything on camera. But then I realized that it's pretty easy for people to lose track of where they're heading when they start to open up. Which, on the one hand, is what you want most as a documentarian when you're talking to your subjects, because you want them not to censor themselves. But you don't want to feel bad because you took them too far -- even if you went there with them. After talking with Vanessa, we came to an agreement about what was for public consumption and what wasn't. I kept in the conversations about her family and cut the photos of her with her ex-boyfriend and the story of how a former boss had try to extort her for sex -- which, even though it was fascinating, didn't really belong in the film anyway.

That's one of the hardest parts: navigating that territory which is not only about ethics but who you are as a filmmaker. You need to build these relationships, because if you're not the friend or the confidant, you won't get what you need to make the film. You have a lot of power and, yes, a lot of responsibility. You don't want to hold back because you feel guilty. But on the other hand, you don't want to exploit the trust that people place in you by ending up with an image of them that they would loathe -- or even really, really dislike -- particularly
one that is forever committed to celluloid, tape, or zeros and ones. So you just try to make it true. Whatever the hell that means, because if there's one thing you learn in the editing room it's that, man, there are a lot of versions of the truth. So you've got to man up (so to speak) and admit that from the start, remember that that person is a whole person, and accept that your mission, if you choose to accept it (and if you've shot it you've already accepted it, baby) is to do justice to them while also doing justice to the story you're trying to tell. Which goes right to the heart of your personal integrity, and how you do right by others, and your responsibility to the human race, and why you're in this fucking business in the first place, yadda yadda yadda.

But there's another hard part, which is about how you relate to people and, in particular, what connecting with them means to you. Because the time will come when you'll stop filming and you'll have to figure out where to go with all of this connecting. With Chris, even when I was still trying to finish up with him, it was harder and harder to get him to return my calls, and then, once we were done, I never heard from him again. I wanted to know if he was still all right, that he was still holding down his two jobs and trying to finish his masters -- a routine that had him going without sleep two nights a week. And I wanted him to see the film, to see how people responded to him, how much they enjoyed hearing what he had to say and admired what he was doing. But I think opening up in the first place had been hard, and now having someone around who knew too much too soon was, well, too much. And who was I to try to tell him otherwise? What was my role now? Who the hell was I, anyway?

With J it was similar at first, and then things suddenly switched when she was diagnosed with leukemia. Now I was the one who wasn't sure I could handle being so invested. For her, things were a lot clearer. I think that happens when realize your life is finite. But then she helped me realize that once I was in, it didn't matter so much how I'd gotten there, or where the lines were drawn, as long as I wasn't afraid to be there when it mattered. And as hard as it was, I did my best to do that.

With Vanessa, she was the one who didn't want to let go. After five years, I had become not only the person who would always take an interest in her life and listen, rapt, wanting to hear what came next, but I think talking to me had become her way of sorting out things for herself. To this day, she'll continue to call me up, out of the blue, often when something's happened -- she's gotten a new job, or she's in a new relationship, or she's dyed her hair blond. And the funny thing is, as busy as I am, and as unsure as I am about what this is now -- is it a friendship? Am I free therapy? -- I call her back. And we get together for lunch or coffee and she tells me everything, and I admit it: I want to know. Partly it's that we've got a routine. Partly it's that I do care about what happens to her. And partly it's just that I can't stop following her story and I want to know where it's all going to end. Because even when I pack up and go home, their lives go on.
But I guess once I'm in, I'm in.

But that's okay. I like being hooked. If someone lets down their guard for me, I tend to return the favor. And I think that's a good thing. It's at times like this -- or when you're utterly slain by a spectacular view, or when your nephew holds your hand, or by that incredible spark that comes off a certain person when the two of you collide -- that you've just gotta think, Damn it's good to be a human being. No matter which side of the camera you're on.