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A Tale of Two Docs: Pre-Production (Part I)

By Chuck Workman

In the summer of 2001, I sat in on an acting class guided by director and teacher Milton Katselas. A group of experienced actors performed a short scene, then participated in a revealing give-and-take critique of their work. The analysis was very personal, but always related to the art and craft of acting.

I attended as a director of dramatic films, but I couldn’t help seeing a documentary there—one camera on Milton and the class during the critique, another on the actors, the same two cameras on the performance. This documentary could be a look at process--the actor’s process. What do they do? How do they do it?

I made a simple agreement with Milton and the class, got some guidelines from three performance unions, and quickly began shooting, with two BetaCams. We soon had five hours of pretty interesting footage.

I’m usually not that impulsive. It’s helpful for me to have more of a concept going in. But I admired the way the vérité masters would jump into a situation because it was simply intriguing—a Bible salesman on the road, a Bob Dylan tour—and they would come out the other end with a film. Of course, it wasn't that simple, but I wanted to try it.

The subject—actors and performance and emotion—merited this kind of free-form approach. This “actor film” would be vérité, with no narration, and few, if any, interviews or historical clips. This would be a film in the present tense--like acting--though not necessarily with the patient, fly-on-the-wall technique of a Frederick Wiseman. It would be theatrical, using photography, editing and a few other non-intrusive techniques to give it an attitude and subtext. I figured I needed a year to do 15-20 days of shooting, allowing for some necessary fundraising along the way.

A few months later, a Hollywood group responding to the events of last September 11 asked me to make a film about images of America in movies, which became a montage called The Spirit of America. The film got some positive attention, particularly from a non-partisan group called the White House Historical Association. They called me to discuss a documentary for the 100th anniversary of the West Wing of the White House about US presidents at work—what they do and how they do it.

After a development stage involving a script and much research, I was invited to make the film. It would be an hour, feature a dozen presidents, and highlight a crisis they dealt with or a goal they achieved by using their particular skills or character, or by taking advantage of the circumstances they met. For me, this was the way they “worked”—usually more reactively then proactively. It would also use movie and television clips—those many Hollywood Lincolns, Kennedys and FDRs; fictional presidents; Saturday Night Live presidents, etc.— as lighter asides and chapter breaks that would reflect the popular view of the US Presidency.

I share with most people certain prejudices about historical documentaries. Wrong or right, my film would have no re-creations, no hand holding a quill in golden twilight, no musket sounds and whinnies over the art work, and, with the exception of the people who were actually there, no historians. This approach does make the process tricky, especially when you’re talking about Jefferson and Lincoln, but the facts are already quite dramatic if presented properly. Reality is the true content of documentaries anyway, not re-creations. There were stills, art work, documents, and, from McKinley on, plenty of stock footage. And there was America wherever I looked; I didn't have to recreate it. The title of the film would be based on a quote by John Adams about the White House: “Let none but honest and wise men rule under this roof.” So there would be irony, too.

I decided on a style that would change throughout the film, one that reflected the president we were tackling. The style would be almost opposite from the verité of the actor film.

I've always tried to have an independent project going on among the commissioned ones. Often the work is synergistic; sometimes one can get in the way of the other. Both of these films, as different as they appear to be, can be effective and interesting, and I am strongly committed to both. There is a definite deadline on the “president film,” as the West Wing anniversary is in November 2002. There is no deadline on the actor film, which could mean an endless project, so I promised myself and our group of actors that the film would be done by late 2002—well, maybe early 2003.

I have a film about the past, using one approach, and one about the present, using another. The rules I’ve made for myself have forced me to give up certain techniques that would make both films easier to make. But the important thing is, the restrictions aren’t arbitrary. They seem organic to the material, and they’ll help the films be better, whatever that means. Now I have to make them.


Chuck Workman’s documentaries include The Source and Andy Warhol, Superstar. His new dramatic film, A House on a Hill, will be released later this year.