July 31, 2003

For Your I's Only

Creative Filmmaking From the Inside Out
Five Keys to the Art of Making Inspired Movies and Television

By Jed Dannenbaum, Carroll Hodge, Doe Mayer
A Fireside Book
204 pps. (paperbound) $16.00
ISBN 0-7432-2319-5

 

Three professors of motion picture studies at University of Southern California have jointly written an intriguing book about the creative process of filmmaking which they characterize in the introduction as "the mysterious transformation of mere glimmers of thought into coherent stories, characters, images and sounds." The authors themselves are filmmakers.

In breaking down the overall process of creative filmmaking, the authors have divided the book into what they call the "Five I's": Introspection, Inquiry, Intuition, Interaction and Impact. They have also enlisted the assistance of several professional filmmakers to give an added dimension to their discussion.

Among the filmmakers featured in the book, Renee Tajima-Peña is the documentary producer spotlighted. "Most times, I'm really pissed off and that's why I make a movie," she says. "I was pissed off about race, probably from the time I was very young. It really just drove everything I did. So I made films dealing with race."

Tajima-Peña's documentary credits include Who Killed Vincent Chin?, My America...or Honk if You Love Buddha and The Last Beat Movie, among others.

Documentary editor Kate Amend is responsible for the documentaries Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, The Long Way Home and Skinheads, among others. "I love those hours of just pouring over the material and looking at it over and over and over again," says Amend. "You're outside of time, just totally focused on the creative process, making something exist that didn't exist before."

In the chapter devoted to Introspection, the authors note that Amend had been a college humanities and women's studies teacher for five years when she experienced "a life-changing moment of realization." It occurred one night when Amend was editing her five-minute Super-8 film for an introductory film course at City College of San Francisco. "I had an epiphany that I had never been so happy in my life, sitting there splicing this film together," notes Amend. She then took a bold step, quit her teaching job and moved to Los Angeles to look for film work.

For Tajima-Peña, it was the death of her mother-in-law Rosa from lung cancer that motivated her to produce documentaries. "A few years ago, I decided to focus on economic inequality in this era of great prosperity, which is why I'm doing things on poor working families," observes Tajima-Peña.

The authors characterize these moments of peak transformation as "discovering your creative field" and "finding the resonance," or choosing stories you want to tell.  The second chapter on Inquiry includes breadth of knowledge, observation of the world and doing the homework.

"Real-life observation is intrinsic to documentary filmmaking, which is one reason we encourage all our film students, even those planning to work in fiction, to take a documentary production class," write the authors. Tajima-Peña observes that "If you're a documentarian, your eyes are always  darting around." For the filming of My America, she and her crew drove into a trailer park that was "really scary."  Only when they got out of the car and got on ground level with the people in their documentary did they begin to understand their subjects.

"'Getting out of the car' is not only key to understanding the subjects of our observations," write the authors. "It also brings us face-to-face with the intellectual, emotional, ethical, aesthetic, practical political and thematic questions that we need to respond to as responsible filmmakers." The authors encourage their documentary students to see the dramatic difference it makes to confront the flesh-and-blood complexities of real life and move beyond a mere intellectual construct.

In the third chapter on Intuition, the authors discuss Amend's editorial work.  Such filmmakers "capture the paradox of diligent dreaminess, focused play" and "they also know that creative ideas can occur anytime, anywhere, and that sometimes you need to get away from the work and the workspace."

For Amend, domestic chores often prompt the solutions to editing dilemmas. "I like to cook," says Amend. "And when I'm cooking, I'll be thinking about the scene. I might be driving. Or in the middle of the night, I'll think of the one thing that will solve it. It's always stored in the back of my mind. It doesn't all happen right in front of the screen."

In the fourth chapter on Interaction, Amend emphasizes the need to fight for the creative choices you think are right. She prefers not to work with directors who are dogmatic or authoritarian. However, she observes, "The one thing you really have to develop is the ability to let go of things."

The chapter on Impact deals with creative filmmaking that "can produce work that resonates deeply, touches our common humanity, stirs and even changes an audience." This uniquely humane book offers both neophyte and seasoned documentarians a refreshing opportunity to expand their perspectives on the power and purpose of the moving image.

 

Ray Zone can be reached at r3dzone@earthlink.net.

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