What I’m Working on in Paris

Hey all, in the spirit of author and creativity consultant Austin Kleon’s notion of “showing your work,” I thought I’d update you all on what I’m up to here in Paris.   My documentary, The Space of Our Time is about urban planning, or more specifically about how the design of our environment affects quality of life. How does it, for example, affect community, daily habits and overall happiness? Much of my high school and undergrad leisure time for example, was spent in parking lots. The project evolved into a kind of comparison between European living and quality of life relative the design of these older, more compact and organic cities, and the “modern” car−centric design of most American cities.   In the course of my interviews, I encountered a lot of people talking about a French architect named Le Corbusier, who in the 1920’s advocated for his “Plan Voisin” or “Radient City.” For this, he proposed the demolition of two square miles of downtown Paris in favor of this.     That would have been 18 glass towers (full of office space) set up on a uniform, gridlike pattern, with large swatch of grassy park area in between, and […]

Robert McKee and the Genre Seminar

Robert McKee, Hollywood screenwriting guru and folk legend, runs a very popular workshop that is regularly attended by all the who’s who of the Hollywood writing community called Story (which is also the title of his book). Over the years, McKee has had a prominent influence over the writing conventions in Hollywood, and the way the industry thinks about story. McKee was famously immortalized in a Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufmann film called Adaptation in 2002. In the film, McKee is portrayed as a foul-mouthed, hard nosed but genius writing wizard, played by Brian Cox. When I attended the highly entertaining and densely packed three-day seminar, I found Cox’s portrayal to be uncannily accurate, and yet the seminar was highly informative and entertaining in its own right. Drew Barrymore was just starting her directing career at the time and was in attendance, along with a good chunk of the young, up-and-coming writers on staff at Disney and Pixar. Following the popularity of his Story Seminar, he added a three-day “Genre Seminar” as an addendum to his main workshop, exploring the genres of horror, thriller and comedy. In it, he sought to define genre, and posited that genres are essentially writing […]

Sartre and the Paris Cafe

It was a quiet, rainy Sunday morning today in Paris, and I left my hotel early in search of a famous café, Café du Flore, which, as it happens, is directly across the street from Les Deux Magots, on Saint-Germain des Prés. Both of these cafes are famous for being inspiration points for prominent Parisian intellectuals and artists.   Having studied philosophy for my first master’s degree, I have a soft spot for the existentialists, Camus and Sartre, although I now see them as indicative of their era. I can remember reading passages from their works in class and imagining the view from the cafes in which they would write. In particular, Sartre famously used an example of a waiter at the cafe to illustrate his notion of “bad faith” or the antithesis to authentic living, in Being and Nothingness, a profound concept that I still sometimes see illustrated in my daily life. As a filmmaker, I think about the notion of authenticity quite often. When we are observing someone on screen, their actions can come off as either genuine, natural or believable, or as is the case with bad acting, forced, fake or inauthentic. With nonfiction film, interestingly enough, even though […]

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There’s a film coming to PBS that covers the trials and challenges of a woman who found herself dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome. Here’s a quote from the subject and director of the documentary, Jennifer Brea:   “From as early as I can remember, I wanted to swallow the world whole; I just thought I’d have more time… when medicine has no answers for you, where do you turn? ”   Often times extreme circumstances, difficult circumstances like this force us to confront realties that are true of all of us, like the fact that we are all limited on time, and the realities of sickness and death. How do we live meaningful lives in the midst of setbacks, hardships, unexpected trials and frustrations?   It’s films like these that so often give me pause. They allow me to step back and look a little at the big picture, to see how it is that she found hope in circumstances that I do not share. But even though we don’t share the same reality in kind, we fundamentally share the same reality in type, and this is a milieu in which we must wrestle with out existence. In essence, we […]

The Four Elements of Narrative

Theologian Wesley Kort says that narrative has a “mediating position between ordinary discourse and mystery.” Perhaps a good way to look at the process of creative cultivation that each of us had experienced in art school is in this light. Life is full of mysteries, about who we are, what we are capable of, who God is and what life is about and whether we are religious or not, we tend to seek answers to these questions through story, through recounting our experiences, and listening to and interacting with the stories of others. Traditionally, the process of addressing mystery happens when we interact with scripture. This is the medium by which we listen to and interact with God’s story. Then, as we move through life, our stories interact with this grand story. This process helps us strengthen our relationship to God through interaction and shared narrative. Kort, in looking at the ways in which scripture functions, says that there are four basic aspects of narrative: plot, character, atmosphere and point of view. Each of these four aspects help us understand the “power and meaning” in the narrative. Plot is simply what happens in the story, the events. Character is who […]

Ken Burns

Happy New Year to you all! I hope that 2018 will bring unprecedented levels of creativity, expression and connection in all your endeavors, including any and all engagements you may have with documentary film!   To that end, one of the stalwart names in the documentary community, Ken Burns, is out with a new film dealing with the times in which we live: a fifteen hour documentary on the Trump presidency so far. As you can see from the link below, it is causing many a critic a measure of anxiety, not due to the craft of the filmmaking, but due to the experience of reliving the news of the past few years.   https://www.newyorker.com/humor/daily-shouts/what-critics-are-saying-about-the-ken-burns-documentary-on-the-trump-administration     Perhaps people will grow to see this offering from Ken Burns like the Showtime documentary about the 2016 presidential campaign called “The Circus,” sensational and therefore entertaining in a kind of hard−to−watch kind of way, but lacking in any real substance in terms of an overarching theme or artistic direction.   Of course, the seminal documentary about a political campaign is D. A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, about the 1992 Clinton campaign, which was an excellent exercise in cinema verite by one of […]

Creative Identity

One of the first classes that I took in art school was a one-on-one directed study with the chair of the film department called “Creative Identity.” In it, through conversations about the films that inspire, fascinate and resonate with us, he would help each of us think about and ultimately articulate a unique identity with respect to the films we wanted to make. To do this, he had each of us make a list of movies that moved us, the type of movies that we could watch over and over again. In compiling the list, he showed us how these films shared many of the characteristics of the stories we tended to tell. As the film program went on we began to see our own work, whether in its screenwriting, narrative or commercial iteration, line up with the creative identity that we were cultivating. One classmate of mine always seemed to find a way, no matter the medium he was working in, to make the work revolve around the wonder of imagination. Another seemed to be fascinated with the underdog. My own work seemed to always come back to the notion of a healthy and flourishing community. The creative identity […]

This Urge

Perhaps because this urge to investigate, testify, confess, celebrate or mourn is so embedded in our psyche, having been a part of our liturgies and cultural practices for centuries, we seldom recognize that this is quite often what many documentary filmmakers seek to do as well. There is a sense in which the films that work best are able to tap into these religious and culturally rooted themes. They cannot, in other words, help but gravitate to these deeply human forms of expression. If you are a filmmaker, and you hope to craft meaningful and moving films, exploring this connection will help you understand the why and the how, and help you to craft meaningful experiences, while inspiring and connecting with your subjects and your audience. If you are not a filmmaker, but want to understand and interact with nonfiction film in a deeper way, exploring the way in which these films touch and move us will help you engage with the subject matter of these films with a renewed understanding. It is my hope that you will accompany me on this journey, in search of the truth, the truth that truly sets us free. – from the upcoming book […]

A Journey Through the History of Documentary

I see this book as a journey through the history of documentary, an art form not more than one hundred and thirty years old, looked at in light of this call, this mandate, to bear witness to the truth. We will start at the beginning, and examine the major genre developments in documentary technique, and then explore these truth-revealing functions in representative films within each genre. There is a sense in which documentarians in each period have recognized the need to push past the noise, the justifications, the cover-ups and diversions in order to bear witness, testify, confess, celebrate or mourn and finally, to illuminate the truth. As we shall see, the major historical developments in style within the genres of documentary film quite often have to do with the desire to more accurately represent reality, and these new techniques seek to uncover more and more of these aspects of truth. – from the upcoming book “How to Film the Truth: The Story of Documentary Film As a Spiritual Journey” to be released in the Spring of 2018 by Wipf & Stock


In an age in which there seems to be endless content for documentary, the question of curation becomes important. For example, there’s a lot of art out there, but the role of the museum or art gallery is to sift through all of the noise in order to find gems that are worth your time, well done, enriching or enlightening. As our media distribution platforms are getting more and more decentralized, there are more good documentaries out there for the viewing, but in many ways they become harder to find.   There are some that point to PBS’s “Independent Lens” as an important curator of good content. I can attest to this. Their picks are usually quite good. Here’s a New York Times review of one such pick: “Supergirl.” Id recommend you check it out! I haven’t seen it yet, but when I do, I’ll post a review here.