On Location

Much of the approach to directing people on location has already been covered in the section on interviewing. In this chapter, I will try to fill in the gaps, covering the more intricate situations.

In shooting, you aim for one thing, maximum naturalism—your key objective is to get people to behave in the most genuine way in front of the camera. Luckily, that problem is much easier to solve these days than it was in the past. Television and the mass media have become an integral part of our public lives. We are all too familiar with the camera crew in the street, the vox populi interview, the filming in the park, the cameras at the football games, and so on. At the same time, cameras and video equipment have also entered our private lives. At least one member of the family has a video camera, using it not just for weddings and parties but also for experimental filmmaking.

This increasing familiarity with the filming process undoubtedly makes the documentary filmmaker's task easier. But there are still problems, since the documentary film is intended for public exhibition, not private, and because you the filmmaker are an outsider, not an insider. Documentary filmmaking often intrudes into private lives. We are saying, "Give us your lives. Trust us, and let us put it on the big screen." And for the craziest of reasons people agree. So we arrive with loads of equipment and cigarette-smoking strangers and say to them "Fine. Now just act natural!" The amazing thing is that—for the most part—they do. What's the secret?

A great deal depends on the bond of trust established between the director and the participant. The deeper the empathy and the greater the ease between the director and the people in the film, the better the final result. This is particularly true of most verite and deeply personal films. This doesn't mean that the filmmaker and the subject have to be buddies, but it does mean that time spent getting to know each other pays off in the end.

The second part of the secret is that people look most natural when they are performing some action, usually familiar, that takes their minds off the camera. In the Canadian film Lonely Boy, about the career of singer Paul Anka, we get a few natural scenes and a few terribly self-conscious scenes, and it's easy to see why. In the natural scenes, Paul is always involved—he is rehearsing on the piano; he's rushing to change clothes; he's signing autographs or driving a bumper car. In the self-conscious scenes he is usually sitting with a friend or a manager and the director has obviously said, "Well . . . er . . . just talk about anything." Paul is clearly conscious of the camera a few feet away, there is no motivation for the dialogue, and the scenes fall absolutely fiat.

The best action scenes arise easily from the natural flow of the film— the mother sending the children to school, working around the house, attending to the garden, visiting the neighbor; a man dealing with an intricate job, then relaxing over a beer in the local bar. The action should be relevant, should advance the film, and should also reveal something about the characters. And, to repeat, it should be something the character feels comfortable doing.

A while back, I was doing a film on aging and the distances that can grow between marriage partners after fifteen or twenty years. We shot one scene in the living room, with the husband reading and the wife knitting. It was dreadful! The scene made the essential points, but it was static, awkward, and boring. I then asked the woman what she was most happy doing. "Gardening!" she said. So we filmed her among the roses. The husband was happiest alone in his room, building model airplanes. We filmed that too. Later we added a voice-over of them explaining how they retreat to their private worlds for satisfaction. We also used scraps of them talking to us as they gardened or built, and that worked perfectly. I had tried the same thing previously in the living room, and it had been a dismal failure.

A common fault in documentaries is to have people engaged in actions that say nothing about them or the film. For example, a woman cooks for five minutes while the voice-over tells us she believes in women's rights, was married at seventeen, and divorced at nineteen. So what? The picture is irrelevant to the development of the thoughts and seems to have been put on the screen purely to pass the time.

Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

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