Directors Uncut: Notes on One Team’s Process
by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Alfred Hitchcock said, "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out." As two filmmakers who take years to complete each project, always facing over 100 hours of material, we take these words very much to heart. To synthesize countless vérité scenes, interviews, images and characters into a well-told story is the goal we constantly chase as a directing team.
We have been making films as a team for 10 years and are now working on our fifth documentary feature. While our craft and approach has changed since our first feature debut (The Boys of Baraka; 2005; ITVS/THINKFilm), we have a process that we loosely stick to, which works for us as nonfiction directors. We offer a small glimpse of that process here.
Choosing a Story
We work in the cinema vérité style, relying mainly on intimate scenes with extraordinarily ordinary people that unfold in real time before us. We rarely choose to embark on any project that does not have a strong observational element, or one in which the majority of the action has taken place before we arrived on the scene. Thankfully, there are artists like James Marsh (Man on Wire) and Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir) who beautifully take on (and breathe new life into) tales with a historical or archival element. As for us, we mainly stick to the here and now, with a preference for direct cinema and all the maddening, hair-raising and thrilling adventures that come with it.
When choosing a topic for our films, we ask ourselves: 1) does the subject matter provoke and challenge us enough to stay passionately interested over a long period of time? 2) is there something of national relevance at stake? and 3) does this story have real cinematic potential? Too often we see nonfiction work that, while intellectually interesting, has weak visual elements and would in many ways have been better as a New Yorker article or a radio episode of This American Life. We work in a visual medium and are always on the lookout for stories with both emotional and cinematic legs.
Making our films sometimes feels like examining an antique object puzzle. If you stare at the picture long enough and turn it upside down, the ordinary becomes something entirely new: The barn dance suddenly becomes a duel; the peacock morphs into the devil. If we knew how our films would end, they would be boring to make and even duller to watch. It is thrilling to discover what lies beneath the obvious. So, while we do appreciate watching films driven by a specific agenda or political outcome, we prefer, in our own work, to wade into murky waters where we do not have a strong bias. We strive to be open to whatever comes our way.
One example where we allowed ourselves to discover the story lurking in plain sight was with Jesus Camp (2007, A&E Indie/Magnolia). We did not set out to make a film about the Christian Right per se, but about a Pentecostal summer camp with a larger-than-life, downright Wagnerian subject at the center of the action (the irrepressible camp leader, Becky Fischer). As shooting progressed, we realized we were right in the midst of that nameless, faceless "voting block" that was supposedly tipping elections for George W. Bush. At that point, we turned our interest to include the political aspect of the movement and its ties with the camp into a bigger American story. Being flexible allowed us to take the film in a more robust direction.
The Look and Feel
As co-directors, we develop and "cast" our films together and take several trips into the field with our cinematographer to create the mood and tone of the piece. We often include our longtime editor and collaborator, Enat Sidi, at this early development stage. After this process, we begin to venture separately into the field, just one of us on location at any given time. This allows the person who stays behind to maintain fresh eyes toward the material gathered on that shoot--an approach that helps us make better decisions in the edit.
In this cynical age of reality television, we need more than ever to put our subjects at ease so they do not feel the need to "perform" for our camera. To this end, we attempt to make ourselves as invisible as possible to our subjects. A skeleton crew is ideal, with one of us on location, accompanied by a single cinematographer. We often record our own sound (much to the frustration of our long-suffering sound engineers) and also employ long lenses whenever possible in order to get a distance between the shooter and the subject.
This low-impact approach was crucial in 12th & Delaware (2010, HBO), where we had the privilege of capturing searing, intimate moments with young women in the throes of deciding whether to terminate or continue with their pregnancies. The tension, at both the abortion clinic and the anti-abortion "crisis pregnancy center" across the street, is the crux of the film, but was challenging to capture. The smallest facial expression belied the entire picture. Our cinematographer on the project, Kat Patterson, was very much dialed in to those "in-between moments" that make the difference between an average scene and a riveting one.
Like many nonfiction filmmakers, we are on the quest for the unrepeatable moment, the nuances of human expression that can tell the big story in a few simple shots. A good vérité DP is in many ways the opposite of a narrative DP, who has the luxury of a script and storyboards. Documentary is freestyle. It takes years for a doc DP to both trust her instincts and to be in tune with the director. When it works, it's a beautiful thing. When it doesn't, well, you have to cut that stuff out.
We tend to favor solid-state cameras, most often using the Sony EX-1 due to its excellent zoom range, flexibility in natural light and ability for meaningful color correction in post. Like many of our colleagues, we have recently begun to use the Canon 7D Mark II, which, of course, has its "wow" moments. However, we do find ourselves using a variety of fixed lenses to change the hyper-shallow depth of field that comes with that camera, as it calls much attention to itself and is immediately recognizable as a 5D or 7D. We are cautious that the tool doesn't drive the scene. The last thing we want the audience to be thinking about is the filmmakers' process and equipment in the middle of a dramatic moment.
Our Characters and What We Owe Them
We have learned a few things over the years: 1) Kids make excellent subjects, as they tire quickly of the camera and return easily to the all-consuming job of being children; 2) it's best not to try coaxing highly self-conscious individuals into natural performances...better to let them go and move on; and 3) the best characters are identical whether the camera is rolling or not. They are themselves, no matter what.
We see a person's participation in our films as a gift not to be taken for granted. No one owes us access. We have no natural right to witness the most joyful or most humiliating moment in the lives of strangers. Subjects can walk away at any time, change their minds, or disappear. We cannot control the idiosyncrasies of freethinking individuals, but we do our best to be transparent and open with our subjects. We promise to present them in our work just as we experienced them, and do our best to reveal their essence as people.
We also feel strongly that subjects of our films should not see themselves on the screen for the first time while sitting in a cinema full of strangers. When our docs are nearly finished, we screen the work for them. This private viewing is not an invitation for editorial changes but a respectful gesture that fosters a frank discussion about the decisions we made in the edit. Here, grievances can be aired and any factual errors remedied before the film flies out of our hands and into the world at large.
As our colleagues know, documentary filmmaking isn't really a job, but a way of life. Each project throws open unexpected opportunities and obstacles. We are currently making a feature-length film in Detroit (working title: Detroit Hustles Harder), where the vibrant subjects in this complex place are so involved in simply surviving in "The D" that they scarcely seem to notice our presence. That is utopia for us, as the realism we have been able to capture in this gorgeous, tragic, magical and frustrating city (and Heidi's home town) has kept us exhilarated, exhausted and on our toes, ever searching for that achingly wonderful, unrepeatable moment.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are co-founders of Loki Films.