June 2, 2014

'112 Weddings' and a Documental: Doug Block's Look at Marriages Years Later

Given the vicissitudes, volatility, capriciousness and downright struggle that is the documentary career, a sidelight career is in order: Teaching, shooting music videos, producing commercials, crewing on reality shows—whatever it takes to keep the cash flowing to pursue your nonfiction dreams. The sidelights may primarily pay the bills, but they just might also provide a rich mother lode of material for your next documentary.

Doug Block has managed just that. Paralleling his impressive canon-highlighted by the acclaimed 51 Birch Street (2006), about revelations about his parents following the death of Block's mother, and The Kids Grow Up  (2010), about Block's daughter's last year at home before she goes off to college—he has, for the past 20 years, forged a successful sidelight as a wedding videographer, capturing the angst, tears, joy, pageantry and bacchanalia that is arguably the most epochal day of one's life—whether you are the couple, or the couple's respective parents.

From that rich trove of material, Block has crafted his latest work, 112 Weddings, in which he returns to a handful of his former clients to talk to them about marriage, love, hope and expectations. Each couple has their own set of joys, challenges and heartaches, and two couples had divorced by the time Block made his return visit. On the other side of the spectrum, two couples marry in the film—one, for the first time; the other, after many years of living on their own terms as partners, with Block having filmed their custom-made commitment ceremony.

The film, having screened on the festival circuit at Hot Docs and Full Frame, with Sheffield and Ambulante on tap for June, premieres June 30 on HBO. 112 Weddings will also play in theaters in Canada and the UK through Dogwoof Global.

Documentary spoke with Block by phone in New York City. This interview has been condensed and edited.

 

Courtesy of HBO

 

In looking at 51 Birch Street, The Kids Grow Up and 112 Weddings side by side, do you see these films as a trilogy of sorts, or as a triptych?

Doug Block: I guess they are a related triptych. I see a more obvious connection between 51 Birch Street and The Kids Grow Up. And clearly the connection between 51 Birch Street and 112 Weddings—that's where I introduced the whole idea that I've been shooting these weddings and I had this very arrogant attitude that I thought I could tell who would make it as a couple or not just by looking at something and getting a feel for it on their wedding day—which, of course, got totally upended by my own seemingly happy parents, when the secrets emerged around my mother's death. And then The Kids Grow Up seemed to be about my daughter going off to college, and this whole concept as parents of letting go of your child and dealing with the empty nest. But it certainly was an awful lot about marriage as well—my marriage in particular.

I thought about whether this film would touch on that autobiographical element again. It certainly could have gone in that direction, but in the end I decided I would look outward this time instead of inward.

What factored in that decision?

I wanted to keep the option open. First, I thought that this was the only way to create an arc to this. Why would I be looking back at these marriages? And what would I have learned from them? It's this classical thing we fall into with "story," and the "story" becomes all the more important than documentary. I certainly thought it was justified because I was going into starting the serious work on the film after years and years of thinking about it.

It was a tough year; the 25th anniversary had me thinking about marriage. The empty nest was a real readjustment, and there's a very real reason why so many marriages break up when the kids leave home. I toyed with the idea, and there was a humorous element to that too, but in the end, by the time I did start working on the film, we had sort of worked that out. And I thought, "Do I really want to impose this kind of false narrative on the film to make it work, and mess with chronology for the sake of art?" I work on instinct a lot on this. I was already sort of going there in my mind, but both Maeve O'Boyle, my editor, and Lori Cheatle, my producing partner, felt it just didn't need it. Lori kept saying, "Curiosity is all you need." And she was so right. I remember when Dogwoof came on board after we pitched at Toronto two years ago. They basically said, "It may well be a better film if your marriage is in there, but it will be a bigger, more commercial film without it." So all of this combined had me thinking that I had never come up with a more commercially mainstream idea for a film. Did I really want to jeopardize the chance of it getting out there more widely by sticking my own story in there again? I don't know if it would have been a better film. It would have been an interesting film, but my wife is very happy she's not in the film.

You've expressed your debt to Ross McElwee as an inspiration for your career, and I see it in 51 Birch Street and The Kids Grow Up. But with 112 Weddings, I see more The UP Series as more of an inspiration—the idea of Michael Apted going back to his characters every seven years and asking them about their lives, their hopes and their expectations. Here, you manage to get 10 couples to really open up about what marriage is. Did The Up Series play a role in helping you rethink how you wanted to tackle this project?

Not really, strangely enough, because time is such a key element in my film. Apted also did a series called Married in America that HBO wanted me to see—not to model myself after, but to know what was out there. It was interesting because I only saw the one that was seven years after; I didn't see the one where everyone got married. There was a key difference: He had the crews shoot the weddings. It was a very critical difference that I shot the weddings; it was just me spending the day with them in a very fly-on-the-wall manner, but there was a strange, interesting, quick bond you form with couples when you share that kind of day with them—and it's an amazing day. Then I'm showing up years later to interview them—and it's only me; I don't have a crew. It's an intimate conversation with them, and I'm narrating the film. I thought it was very important to keep in the film those references to me when they ask me questions and we go back and forth. Even just hearing my questions made it a bit more personal; I think that's a big part as to why they're so candid.

 

Courtesy of HBO

 

The dynamics change in your relation to them as a wedding videographer versus as a documentary filmmaker. They knew you in a certain context then, but you come back some number of years later in a very different role. Was it difficult for them to reach that kind of interpersonal engagement that they had in a different way?

I think what helped was that when I was first hired, the fact that I was a documentary filmmaker was a selling point. I made it clear that I'm primarily a documentary filmmaker. I do these weddings on the side, and I do very few of them, as a way to support the documentaries. That's the kind of style I'm going to bring to the video—shooting in vérité style, just me being as much of a fly-on-the-wall as I possibly can and hopefully they won't even know I'm there. They did know me as a documentary maker as well as a wedding videographer. Part of the reason I called on the first few couples was I had stayed in touch as my films had come out over the years. I knew they'd be more amenable to doing it.

Did you have all the couples review their wedding videos prior to the interview?

No, I just explained what I was doing with the film: I'd be interviewing for an hour and a half, and I'd shoot whatever was going on that day. I saw from the first interview, when we put our sample together for HBO, it was to see if that style was going to work, if just an interview was enough, with the wedding performing the function of the cutaways. Initially, I thought we might follow three couples in more depth. What I found very quickly from one fairly brief interview was that to me it was more fun and probably just as revealing to do a more superficial look at the marriage. Then you get to project more, in a way. You don't really know; I could have been there for a year. It could have been like An American Family, and I'm not even sure if that captured the total truth of that marriage and family.

But you did manage to capture some real candor—particularly from the divorced couple, who were very forthcoming in articulating their pain, as well as the couple who was married for five years and she was struggling with depression, and the couple whose child had a terminal illness and she was initially reluctant to talk about that.

The interviews were far more revealing that the couples knew, largely because I filmed them predominantly in a two-shot, so you can see their body language and reaction to what the other was saying. It was so interesting because for Maeve and I, our challenge in the edit room was to try to tell in five to seven minutes a story of a couple as dramatically as we could, but balance it with real fairness, and not get cheap laughs at their expense. Or do it so we're judging them, which would have been easy to do. Part of the fun is projecting: Do they have a good marriage? It's also interesting where they disagree about things. I wasn't trying to make any statements about marriage myself; I really found that I was in this incredibly privileged position of having shot these weddings, having this really wonderful wedding footage and being able to go back to these couples and find out what they expected marriage was going to be and what it's turned out to be. It was almost that simple a premise: Let's find out. And of course, we wanted to get as wide a range of experiences as we could. But we were so focused on the individual stories and making them work. What we had hoped was, "Is this going to say something interesting about marriage in the weaving together of it? Will it create almost a mozaic-like portrait of marriage?"

Going back to your sideline career as a wedding videographer, how did it help inform your documentary filmmaking prior to making 112 Weddings?

With every wedding, I'm honing my craft. I'm shooting basically a feature-length documentary every time I shoot a wedding. For many years, I edited in the camera and only took out stuff I hadn't meant to shoot. I just didn't have the time to go back and edit, and it wouldn't have been quite as worthwhile for me to do. So it was really helpful to shoot that way in that I had to really listen. You have to wait for somebody to finish saying something so that you can cut the camera off as soon as they're done, to make the edit point work. Likewise, if there was music playing in the background, I had to wait for the beat. I always had to keep the editing in mind as I was shooting, so that helped enormously in my shooting over the years.

Weddings get a bad rap. I had an attitude about weddings when I first started seeing wedding videos; I just thought they were cheesy and silly. So when I took my first wedding, I just thought, Why not? Somebody called and said they didn't mean to insult me but they needed someone to shoot their wedding. Did I know anyone I could recommend? I said, "I'll do it." And I went. And I just thought it was amazing. As a vérité documentary shooter, what do we want most when we shoot documentaries? Access. And they were paying me good money to have the most amazing access you can possibly have to a couple on their wedding day.

 

Doug Block filming on of his 112 weddings. Photo: Bob Krasner. Courtesy of HBO

 

But as Jonathan, the rabbi, hinted at in the film, it is a spectacular day, and everyone's happy. It's tremendous pageantry, and it's a ritual that is thousands of years old—and there is a bit of artifice to it. Janice and Alexander had a real resistance to it. They wanted both a wedding and marriage on their own terms.

Janice and Alexander were extraordinary. They're the only couple who, when I shot their partnership ceremony, I knew that whenever I got around to making this film they absolutely had to be in it. When I called and said I was doing this film, Janice said, "Good timing! Come back in a few months because we're getting married." When it came time to edit the film, it shifted a bit because that question became a central question to the film: What does change by the nature of your signing on the dotted line? In one sense, it's really about long-term relationships as much as it is about marriage, but the fact is, they all signed on the dotted line. 

 

Janice and Alexander during their commitment ceremony, from 112 Wedddings. Photo: Linda Peckman Dubliner. Courtesy of HBO

 

You talked about exploring the idea of including your marriage but decided not to. After making the film, and screening it, and screening it for the couples in your film and hearing their reactions, what did it teach you about your marriage?

I did come at it from a perspective of knowing that marriage is hard work and not easy. I don't know if I can say what I learned; I certainly confirmed a lot my feelings about marriage and the work involved, what it takes to make it work.

This didn't come up in the interviews, so this is pure speculation on my part, but it could well be that there are so many more things to distract us on our free time—there's Facebook, email, work. We're always working harder than we used to. Whatever the reason was when I interviewed them, they seemed to not only enjoy the interviews but they craved talking about [their marriage], even the ones who were most reluctant. They didn't want me to stop; we kept talking long after the interview.

You asked me what I learned about my own marriage; we've learned how to work things out and we're both committed to our own growth as individuals, which is really important. And I just think the film reinforced the importance of that. It's hard to say what I learned because I don't use these films as therapy. I'm so focused on the audience and what they might learn. So I bring to it my own experience of being married. I know it's a roller coaster. Olivia says she goes through these periods where you love your partner and then you stop; you respect them, then you don't, then you do again. "It's like riding waves," she says. I would find these moments in what all the characters were going through, and I would relate to them all because I've been there.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.

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