In three very short years, YouTube has changed the way people consume media both online and offline. Now the site is about to give birth to its very first feature-length documentary. Producers Steve Kearney and Chris Adams have joined forces with director/producer RJ Cutler to bring their creative talents to The Daniel Meadows YouTube Story (working title), a film about the love story between Australian video blogger Daniel Meadows and American Shannon Jones.
Meadows and Jones posted hundreds of videos on YouTube, using the site to chronicle their Internet relationship. When Meadows attempted to visit Jones in the United States and finally meet her in person, he was detained by Homeland Security personnel at the Detroit airport on suspicion of terrorism. Apparently, the combination of a light-hearted e-mail from a friend that mentioned box cutters and exploding shoes, and the fact that Meadows was visiting someone he’d not previously met was enough to garner the attention of the US authorities.
According to an article in Courier Mail, Meadows was body-searched, held for a day and then sent home without being given a valid reason. Four days after getting on the plane to come to the US, Meadows was back in Australia without ever having stepped foot outside the airport. He and Jones never met.
The story came to the attention of Australian producer Kearney, who then brought it to his producing partner, Chris Adams. The two have a production company, AdamsKearney, which is dedicated to making Australian-based films.
“I went, ‘Wow!’” Adams, a co-founder of Participant Media, exclaims. “It was one of those rare things where it was all there—this wonderful love story with this almost tragically comedic Homeland Security FBI thing. It occurred to us that this was like the quintessential boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-tries-to-get-girl-back story, while using the Internet as his primary means of communication.”
Adams’ next step was to get Emmy Award-winning producer/director Cutler involved. The two had previously worked together on Facebook Diaries, an eight-episode series that blended submitted footage from YouTube users into half-hour thematic episodes. The series was a partnership between Comcast and Facebook, and the final episodes played cross-platform on Facebook and Comcast's Video-on-Demand service.
The first step in the Meadows project was obtaining Meadows’ and Jones’ life rights. Currently, the focus is on culling through hundreds of hours of YouTube footage to find the gems that will most effectively convey the romance. In addition to the videos shot by Meadows and Jones, there are also video entries posted by other YouTube users who followed the love story and Homeland Security situation online and commented with their own video responses. The community that has grown up around Meadows and Jones is an integral part of the story.
“The neat thing about this is that the end is not written,” says Adams. “Daniel and Shannon did actually end up meeting. She flew to Australia to meet him and they had a few days together. They’re still in love, they’re still communicating, they still want to be with each other.”
Given the fact that the story is still unfolding, Adams, Kearney and Cutler have not yet determined how or when the film will end. As they put together the couple’s past, their future is evolving every day. The producers have told Meadows and Jones to continue living their lives as they would normally, regardless of the fact that a documentary is now being created around their story. They’ve asked them not to shoot anything specifically for the film, though they have requested that should Meadows and Jones happen to create more videos in the natural course of their evolving relationship, they make that footage available to the production team.
“At some point there will be a meeting place where their lives and their love goes, and where our editing and our cameras go,” Adams explains. “And it’ll have a natural resolution point.” One possibility that has been discussed is finding a way to reunite Meadows and Jones and shooting the reunion.
Despite the new media element of the project, this brings up a few conventional questions: Does the very act of observing subjects alter their behavior? Now that Meadows and Jones know they are the center of a film, will it change what they film and how they communicate? To what extent should a filmmaker get involved in a story to propel events forward?
Another traditional element of this cutting-edge film is the importance of good, old-fashioned storytelling and editing skills. Until now, Meadows and Jones were chronicling their own story and shooting their own footage. This means that Cutler and team have to take the material that has been provided to them and find the dramatic arc within it.
“YouTube as a platform doesn’t differentiate between an RJ Cutler and some kid posting a skateboard video,” Adams points out. “But when it comes to putting together a piece of art that tells a story that is universal, that takes two people’s individual lives and elevates them to the level of great dramatic and thematic artistic storytelling, that’s where a professional filmmaker comes in.”
Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.