Cost. When you make a cinema verite film, you are entering uncharted regions. Very often you don't know what you will shoot, how much you will have to shoot, and what makes sense to shoot. You just plunge straight in and spend your time waiting to cover the critical moments. But because you cannot immediately identify the critical moments, the tendency is to shoot and shoot, and that becomes tremendously expensive. Many cinema verite films are shot on a ratio of forty or fifty to one because nothing is preplanned or prestructured. This may mean the purchase and development of fifty hours of film stock. If the film can be shot on videotape, then there are tremendous savings, though editing costs may still be very high. Stock costs are just the beginning. Crew costs then have to be added, and as the number of shooting days are indeterminate, these may be tremendously high. Students viewing the marvelous early Drew and Leacock films often forget that these films were financed by Time-Life, which is certainly not one of the poorest corporations in the world.
Postproduction costs can also be astronomical. Editing time is likely to be longer than on the structured film, and taking care of the paper work, transcripts, records, and the like is also likely to be expensive. Married Couple, Allan King's study of a marriage in crisis, was shot over a period of eight weeks in 1969. The estimated budget for the ninety-minute film was $130,000. The final cost, due to overruns and the need for extra shooting, was $203,000. Today, the cost would be at least $800,000 to $1 million—not very much for a feature, but very high for a documentary.
Finding the film. Some filmmakers plunge into their films without the least clue what they will be about. They're just following a hunch. If you film long enough, something interesting will happen. I guess the same rationale supports the argument that if you leave monkeys long enough with a typewriter, they will write Hamlet. It seems obvious that one must have a clear concept before embarking on a film, yet many cinema verite filmmakers ignore that at their own peril. You must know what your film is about. It may change direction or emphasis midway, but without that initial clarity, you are going to finish up in some very deep waters.
Don Pennebaker took a risk in doing Don't Look Back, the story of Bob Dylan's first English tour, but not much of one. Dylan was controversial, colorful, charismatic. Something was bound to happen on the tour, and even if it didn't, the songs would guarantee a reasonably entertaining film. By contrast, the dangers were far greater in Ira Wohl's Academy Award-winning Best Boy. Following a brain-damaged adult for a few years could not have been the most promising of subjects. In the end, the film succeeds because of the warmth of the subject and his family, the sensitivity of the filmmakers, and the riveting process of change in Philly presented by the film.
The problem the filmmaker often faces is that having weighed all the changes and come to the conclusion that the subject matter is interesting, even fascinating, the film still goes nowhere. Nothing seems to happen. Nothing seems to develop. And in the end, one is left with a mass of material without center or focus, which, if the truth be told, looks pretty boring.
When the Maysles brothers started filming Salesman, the concept probably looked intriguing: Follow four Bible salesmen around long enough and something will happen. As it turned out, although the brothers shot some amazing footage, they didn't have a clue what the final story might be about. According to editor Charlotte Zwerin, the real story was only found on the editing table.
David and I started structuring a story about four salesmen, very much in the order the thing was filmed. Anyway, we started with the four salesmen story, and it took a long time because we started off in the wrong direction. We took about four months trying to make a story about four people, and we didn't have the material. Gradually we realized we were dealing with a story about Paul, and that these other people were minor characters in the story. So the first thing was to concentrate on Paul, and go to the scenes that had a lot to say about him. That automatically eliminated a great deal of the other stuff we had been working on till then. (Alan Rosenthal, The New Documentary in Action [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971])
What to film. What do you film when you are not sure of the story, you're not sure what is going to happen, and stock is costing you about $175 for every ten minutes of filming? This is one of the greatest dilemmas of cinema verite: When should you start shooting? In action, conflict, or performance films, the answer is relatively easy. You go for the action, the drama, the climax. You shoot the race, getting the beginning, a bit of the middle, and definitely the end. You shoot the soldiers' assault on the hill, including preparations and the moment of takeoff. When you shoot the performance, you make sure you have plenty of backstage material, first entrance, audience reactions, and highlights. But what do you do when your film is about ordinary lives, where there are no clearly defined dramatic points? Do you just hang in and shoot everything? Obviously not. But what are the guides? First, you look for the scenes that reveal personality, attitudes, and opinions—through either what someone says or what someone does. The corollary of this is that you have to be very sensitive to what is happening, listening very carefully as well as watching.
Often the motivation of when to shoot comes from intuition, from the way someone walks, is dressed, and glances at or observes his or her surroundings—from the feeling that something interesting may develop if, for example, two people talk. As Fred Wiseman once put it, you learn to follow a hunch. Your hunch may not always be right, but it is better to follow it rather than risk losing a good sequence.
Second, you look for scenes that will develop into something—an argument, a burst of passion, a rejection, a coming together. Even if the scene doesn't develop, you watch something that is significant in itself for indicating mood or feeling.
Third, you look for patterns over time and try to mark out the most useful time to be around. It might be dinnertime, when all the resentments of the day begin to flare up. It might be late evening, when the kids have gone to bed and the husband and wife are left to face the predicament of their faltering relationship. Anticipation is the key. You have to cultivate the sensitivity to know when things are going to happen or going to break and be ready.
How to film. Usually, filming cinema verite implies no retakes. So what do you do if the situation is jumping but, as usual, you're in a one-camera shoot? You go for the most important sync dialogue and try to anticipate where the next main dialogue is going to come from. Afterward, you try to get the cutaways, so that the editor will have something to work with, hoping that while doing this, you're not losing too much sync. The essence of cinema verite shooting is not that much different from normal documentary. You try to understand the scene and what's going on, seize the heart of the action, and then go for it.
In the film Crisis, Don Pennebaker's task was to shoot a meeting in the White House between President Kennedy and his staff as they discussed the integration of two black children into a Southern school. It's interesting to see how he planned to shoot and then how he changed his strategy because of the evolving situation.
I told the soundman, stay out of the middle of the room. Get the best sound you can but don't get in the middle because I am going to try and get a whole roomful of people. The most extraordinary things were happening in the room. It was the first time we'd ever tried to shoot a roomful of people and it was very hard to do.
The usual rule is you start wide and you end up on whoever is making the scene work, whoever you're interested in, and you come in tight and you watch him—you know, you go in that direction.
In this case I had to reverse all that and keep pulling back, because every time the president would do something or say something, there'd be eight people moving around or changing position, and you realized there was some extraordinary ritual dance going on, which had to do, I guess, with the way power was leaking out of the system. (From P. J. O'Connell's "Robert Drew and the Development of Cinema Verite in America")
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