As a professional working documentary film editor since 2001, I have seen many documentary “filmmakers” come to me with – literally – 40, 60 or 100 hours of footage, and really no sense of what they want to say past the initial idea that started them shooting in the first place.
They started armed with enough charisma and enough of an idea to garner support from various quarters – but most destructively – they started armed with a virulent case of “Documentary as Discovery”. Now, these documentaries (because I always help edit them into the best film I can) may actually win prizes – and even have important things to say in the end – but they typically fight for distribution. Why is that? And what can be done to help the fledgeling documentarian with enough chutzpah to get it done, and even a decent idea to start – what can help them actually go the extra mile, to enable them to create a film that people love to see, that actually sells, that really works as a complete piece?
With this question in mind, and having in the past to story edit again and again material that didn’t have all the elements it needed, and fresh from my own four year struggle to write a lengthy memoir under the guidance of writing teacher Al Watt, I started a documentary workshop this spring.
Four filmmakers came – and what made them similar is that they each showed up with a lot of charisma, and a pretty darn good idea. Here is what we learned about how to take a good idea to the next level:
1) Don’t stop with a good idea. Really work it through. Keep asking yourself, “What do I want to say with this movie, and how do I want to say it.”
2) Pull it all in. What is really making you excited about this movie is more than what it seems on the surface. Really explore all the aspects of the material – where does this material REALLY take us.
3) Things you need to have:
A way in. This is how you are going to tell the story. We are going to follow so and so. We are going to mix verite footage with intense montages of archival footage. But it’s about more than the surface explanation you give for the funding – it’s really about how we are going to get into the material.
A Kitty Hawk Moment. Think of your favorite documentary. Now think of that amazing moment when you realize this movie is about more than what you came to see – it is about “everything”. That’s what you need to take your film over the line and make it more than you imagined.
How do I find these things?
I can tell you what we do in the work shop – we get still, and really allow our unconscious to speak, then we listened to it. And six weeks later, each of the filmmakers is confident that they each have their whole movie – and each of them know what they are looking for in that Kitty Hawk moment all along the way of their shooting.
They will have plenty of room for discovery, but they have a road map, and a plan, a structure to take them there and an approach.