First Documentary Feature Screening

I’m taking David Mamet’s “Master Class” right now and he had an interesting point: for him, it was always easier to perfect his written dramas when he was doing theater, because he could tell whether or not something was working by observing the audiences. If something that was meant to generate a laugh did not, he would tweak until it worked. Cinema and television, he thinks, are much more difficult because there is very little audience observation.

Well last week I hosted a small gathering of trusted friends and fellow filmmakers for the very first ever screening of my feature length documentary: “The Space of Our Time,” and like Mamet, I felt like I learned a lot from seeing how the scenes were coming off to an audience, albeit a group that I know and trust. I explained beforehand that they were watching a rough cut, with the inevitable sound and picture issues, scenes that run just a little too long, and temporary music. The screening was followed by a great discussion and I thought I’d share with you guys what I came away with. I’m posting my thoughts in public like this so that you can go on the journey with me and perhaps experience part of the submerged iceberg that is all the research and thinking that goes into the final film, which of course is just the part that you can see above the water.

As a reminder, here’s the original trailer I made for the film:

Anytime you are trying to craft a story out of the either, or out of the raw elements of documentary film: interview material, B−roll imagery, music, voiceover, archival footage and stylistic photography, it might seem overwhelming. There are choices to be made at every turn, and unlike a narrative fiction film, you cannot simply tell your subjects to say what you want. Each interview is an encounter of sorts, and people have their own agendas and motivations for speaking with you. So I feel like the direction of the story is always in flux. The process is a “journey on foot” as Werner Herzog put it, and to my thinking, the journey does not stop when the film is finished. The encounters after the film to me are often just as interesting as the encounters while making the film.

But I want to talk a little bit about the process of feedback, and when it can be helpful, and when it turns out to be detrimental. When someone sits down to watch your film, they are developing an expectation for what they are about to see, and their opinions are colored by that expectation from then on. If you are tying to do something unorthodox, or adhering less to the genre conventions of your era, the feedback process is going to be a lot more difficult. Therefore, for me, the opening images are the most difficult.

In the case of my film, I can feel the forces that would push it into conventional genre constructions. What I mean by that is that the tone of the rough cut is not fully formed yet, and therefore people tend to read in to what they are seeing, or imagine what the finished product might look like in terms of films they have already seen or are familiar with. In my case, the subject runs parallel to many of the environment/health related documentaries out there. Suburban sprawl is wasteful, unhealthy and unsustainable, yes. But I’m not all that interested in making an entire documentary just to point that out. In fact, in the years since I first came to the subject of urban planning, New Urbanist ideas and the influences of the built environment, the paradigm in general has been shifting. Millennials, as one subject in my film points out, are moving back into the cities in droves, and the wealth that used be on the outskirts of our cities is now moving back into the downtowns of America. So there is a sense in which I feel like people already know about the adverse effects of the suburban pattern of development.

What I’m after is the answer to a larger question: why do we isolate ourselves from our communities? What is the interplay between the need and desire to live life together, and the urge to have our own space? To my thinking, there will always be a tension between these two poles, and that healthy community exists somehow IN this tension. However the process requires a collection of background material to set the stage or frame the environment in which this tension can play out, and since this conflict is not quite as obvious or on the surface in our daily interactions, for me, it’s much harder to film. So the first draft feels like an essay or expository style film, even though I know that the expository elements are not the essence of the piece. For me this is the most difficult part, because the ideas used to set up or frame the thematic material do generate discussion and interest. But this interest causes people to think that the film about transportation solutions or the environment or fiscal issues et cetera.

In order to clarify my thinking on this a little more, I went back and looked at two of my favorite point of view style documentarians: Werner Herzog and Ross McElwee. Both tend to upset the genre conventions, and both tend to infuse a lot of their own personality into their work. McElwee’s most famous piece, Sherman’s March, employs a kind of bait−and−switch moment right from the beginning. He begins with a map animation and baritone voiced narrator explaining the path of General Sherman through the south, destroying everything in his path with total war. But very quickly the veil is pulled back as McElwee allows the take to continue, and we hear Ross, the director, telling his voiceover actor to try it one more time. The point of view then shifts to that of McElwee himself, as he appears in front of the camera and takes over the voiceover duties, a technique that he would become famous for. What McElwee was doing was essentially breaking a genre convention paradigm right from the beginning, setting us up for the fact that we are about to watch something entirely different. The film turns out to be a kind of self−experiment on the part of Ross, in finding one’s self as an artist, as a man in search of a woman, relating to one’s family, all against the backdrop of the south.

In Werner Herzog’s case, right at the start of Encounters at The End of The World, he simply tells the audience that what they are about to see will not be like other “penguin movies,” that he is interested in different questions, such as, “why human beings put on feathers or masks to conceal their identity?” and, “why do they saddle horses and feel the urge to chase the bad guy?” and, “why is it that certain species of ants keep flocks of plant life as slaves to milk them for droplets of sugar?” His trip to Antarctica therefore constitutes a journey set up to explore philosophical questions.

For me, the theme of my story really is loneliness and isolation vs. love and community. Sometimes the design elements in our cities and towns make it easier to have organic community, and sometimes they hinder it. But because of the human tendencies in either direction, there are counter examples everywhere. One subject in my film, Shawn, lives in the suburbs but yet values community, family and quality time more than anyone else. Other people (who I don’t have filmic examples of yet but plan to), seek the benefits of public space and shared environments but experience conflict in doing so, like several of my female friends who explain to me that it is simply impossible for them to take the train at certain times of the day for fear of harassment.

Like Mamet, in watching his plays performed before audiences, I’ve now come away with some insights on to how to proceed. First of all, I need to make each scene be about that core theme (loneliness vs. community). What this means is that all my talking heads will have to be cut down to the bare minimum simply to set the scene, and I’ll want to get to those examples of that tension between isolation and community in our various urban environments quicker. To that end, I’ll be looking to add the following scenes. First is an interview with an Orthodox Rabbi about a certain strand of Judaism that prohibits driving on the Sabbath. This requires all members of the community to live within walking distance of the Synagogue. How does that transform the ethos of the community? That’s what I want to know. I’ve got my eye on one particular community in the Pico corridor in Los Angeles. Second is an exploration of the dangers of public transportation, interviews with women who feel uncomfortable or have been harassed on the subway, and the measures they have to take to stay safe (such as having a change of cloths to put on so as not to attract attention). Third, I’ll want to spend some time with someone who lives a commuter lifestyle, perhaps spending hours in the car. Finally, I’ll need to establish this thematic tension right away in the first scene. I’m not quite sure how to do this yet but I feel like this is going to make or break the movie.