Ground Rules

Cinema verite often makes more strenuous demands on the filmmakers and the film subjects than do typical documentaries. There is usually a much greater demand for intimacy and openness. The filming is frequently done in homes rather than in public places, and the filmmaking itself can take months rather than weeks. In those circumstances, you need to establish a set of ground rules from the start. These help define and smooth the working relationship between you, the filmmaker, and your subjects. The rules will vary with each situation, but certain discussions come up time and time again:

• Time of shooting: Can you shoot at any time and on any occasion, or only at certain defined periods?

• Prelighting: Can you prelight the main shooting areas so that all you have to do is throw a switch (much the best way), or do you have to set lights each time you shoot?

• Off-limits areas. Can you film anywhere, or are certain places offlimits?

• Recording: Can you record anything, or are certain subjects offlimits?

Obviously, one aims for as broad a permission as possible, hoping that the subject will trust your judgment about when to shoot and when not to.

In the mid-1970s, Roger Graef shot a cinema verite series in England called Decisions. The films were shot during discussions over vital decisions made by three huge business corporations, including British Steel. The films were breakthroughs, bringing cinema verite techniques to the corporate world and demystifying the way business works. This kind of filming had never been done before, and Graef's chief task was to gain entry to the corporations, win their confidence, and assure them that the films would be both to their credit and for the public good. The ground rules that Graef laid out between himself and the corporations were as follows:

• The filmmakers would shoot only what had been agreed on by both sides.

• There would be no scoops to newspapers. This was essential because a great deal of confidential information was being disclosed.

• The films would be released only when both sides agreed to it. In other words, the filmmakers weren't setting out to embarrass the subjects.

• In return for the above, the filmmakers asked for total access to one or two subjects they had agreed to film—that is, the right to film at any time and walk in on any conversation. • The filming would be done without lights and without anything being staged.

When Richard Leiterman shot A Married Couple for Allan King, he basically lived in and around Billy and Antoinette Edwards for two months. The three main rules for that film were these:

1. There would be no communication at all between the filmmakers and the subjects.

2. The filmmakers had the right to come at any time, morning or evening, and film anything unless a door was closed.

3. The subjects were to continue whatever they were doing or whatever they were talking about whenever the filmmakers walked in or started shooting.

I talked some while ago with Leiterman about that shooting, and it is quite clear that what mattered, more than the rules, was the confidence that the Edwards had in Leiterman's judgment of when and when not to shoot. Severe and violent quarrels, including Billy throwing Antoinette out of the house—yes, that was all in, as was Billy and Antoinette about to make love (that was all right while they were playing around with each other, but off-limits once they reached the bedroom).

Even though you have set ground rules, you still have to proceed with caution and common sense. In 1963, Robert Drew, Ricky Leacock, and Don Pennebaker were given permission by John Kennedy to film intimate presidential staff meetings for what ultimately became Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment. Kennedy had given the filmmakers virtually free access, and yet this is how Leacock described the filming to critic P. J. O'Connell:

Pennebaker [the other cameraman] would notice that the President would keep glancing at the camera. And then Penny would stop shooting. Because if he didn't, he knew that within minutes the President was going to say, "Stop." Then you would have the problem of starting again. You have to get a Presidential permission to start again. If he stopped before the President stopped him, then he could decide when to start again. Okay, you're going to miss a whole lot of stuff, but you've got the power to start again.

Film Making

Film Making

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