Fish or Fowl?

Last night, we were lucky enough to get a babysitter so that we could go see Richard Brody discuss his book, “Everything is Cinema” about Jean-luc Godard. We actually missed the majority of the discussion while grabbing dinner, but the dessert was getting to see “A Married Woman“. It was inspiring in its simple complexity.

In working on our current project, “Battle of Brooklyn” about a fight between a community and a developer, we have struggled mightily with documentary push and pull between information and story. Audiences have come to have an expectation about what a documentary is – they often feel that they need clear information so that they can understand the story – and if our film doesn’t in some way meet those expectations…we have to wonder who will ever see it.

As filmmakers and artists, we have always existed in a grey zone. We started making narrative films that were documents of real people playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Some people were confused and thought that they were documentaries. When DV cameras became somewhat affordable, we decided to make a documentary. When it was done, many people were confused and thought it was a scripted film.

We’ve never been able to secure funds before filming with any of our documentaries, so it has been increasingly important for us to think about how we might be able to sell them as we put them together. In a perfect world, we would be able to focus on the film that we want to make regardless of the gatekeepers who will determine how much we get paid for it (and who gets to see it). Happily, we were able to find TV homes for our documentaries “Horns and Halos” and “Code 33” – which allowed us to continue to move forward with other projects (actually, we had to dismantle “Code 33” and add a lot of new footage to turn it into a TV show called “Miami Manhunt.” While I was pleased to be paid well for that TV show, it pained me a great deal to dismantle a film I was proud of. You can’t eat pride though, and it certainly doesn’t pay for health insurance. In one sense, we feel compelled to think of the audience in the broadest terms, and to try to consider what will make the film work for them. On the other hand, we need to make the film that we feel compelled to make.

We usually go through a process of rough cut screenings that help us focus our film. We’ve only done a couple of these so far with “Battle of Brooklyn,” and the feedback has sent us in several different directions. After our first screening, we got the sense that the audience wanted a lot more details about the larger community fighting the battle. We added in a lot more footage of the different people who made up the fight. At the next screening it was a sprawling boring mess. We realized that instead of more of that community, we needed even less. By introducing them, we raised the expectation that they would be followed. Now the film focuses even more directly on our main character. In the earlier stages of putting together a documentary (or any film for that matter) small changes don’t have a huge effect on how the film plays. When it starts to get close to being finished even small changes have a major impact. We are at the point in the cut where even small changes make a big difference.

A couple of weeks ago, we showed the film to a programmer who gave us a lot of great feedback. We were rushing to get the film done for him and while it was closer than it had been to done, it just wasn’t ready. After shooting for 7 years, we are somewhat desperate to get it finished, but we also don’t want to waste the 7 years of work by making a film that isn’t as good as it can be. The programmer felt that he needed more information about the developer, about the issue, and many other things. We understood where he was coming from, and worked to find ways to deal with those issues. However, after watching “A Married Woman,” I have the sense that what we need to do is once again go in the opposite direction. He was looking at the film as a documentary, and we intended to make a film. He was right, though – the film wasn’t sure if it was fish or fowl; we were trying too hard to make it both and in the end it did neither as successfully as we might have liked. After last night I know that I want it to be a film and not a “documentary”.

We don’t need to know how the developer got powerful. Developers are powerful. Business and government are too cozy. These are truths. We all know this. The more we get into the details of these issues the less room we leave for the audience to be with the issues themselves. The real issue though is being immersed in the story. If some talking head expert tells us about the developer’s connections it makes no sense in the framework of what we have put together. If a character mentions it, it can work.

“A Married Woman” begins with a series of very tight shots of hands and body parts. We hear the voice of two lovers but it is some time before we see their faces, and we see the woman’s face well before the man. From these simple cinematic facts we understand that this story is about the woman more so than the man. This couple is an old Paris apartment. She talks of the husband she will leave for this new man. She tells him that her husband won’t be home for a while. Then she goes to pick him up at the airport where he is a pilot. We know that she is not an honest woman. They go their modern apartment. She is torn between worlds and desires.

In “Battle” we begin near the end and then flash back to begin our tale. In this opening we find out that our main character is besieged and challenged, but reasonable and steadfast in his opposition to a project that seems inevitable- a project that will seize his home and bulldoze his neighborhood. When we flash back we see the announcement of the project. Using the language of cinema, we can’t help but see all kinds of problems with the announcement. Having seen what we have seen we know that these powerful people aren’t speaking the full truth.

In a “documentary” an expert would say Mr. Jones did x y and z. In a film it is more effective to hint at what Mr. Jones may or may not have done. It is even better to hint at it, to see in action that Mr. Jones has lied, and then to have Mr. Jones lie again.

As such I think that rather than get more specific about the details in our film- as egregious as they may be- and instead work to make the film more universal by getting less specific and focusing on characters under increasing levels of stress.

  • Alana
    Posted at 16:43h, 25 July Reply

    Yea, I agree.

    I have a few stories that I like to tell people at parties or in getting-to-know-you moments and after telling them slightly differently with different bits of information, it becomes clear that removing information creates more impact more often than not.

    Designing for the human brain’s threshold and limited attention span.

  • Michael
    Posted at 17:11h, 25 July Reply

    the key is understanding what information is essential- and the more you pull out the more you realize what is essential and what should stay cut.

    right now we are busy putting bits that we had cut out back in the film because now that it’s moving in a certain direction they make sense.

    i used to always float ideas that i was having at people and when i got a good response i would keep refining the idea. i also found that if i told enough people about a project i kind of had to follow through- or at least it gave me pressure to….

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