Into the Zone: Telling a story.

D Juan with baby FG I recently taught a class at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum called “Lean Team Documentary Filmmaking.” The idea was to help fairly inexperienced filmmakers find the confidence to tackle a documentary by themselves or with one other producing partner. I emphasized keeping your footprint small, your equipment basic, and your subject matter manageable. I wanted them to filter their entire doc filmmaking approach through the Lean Team model.

If at any time during the making of your film, I told them, you start putting on weight (toting along that groovy Kino-Flo you don’t need; hiring a grip to set up that cool new camera slider you bought on B&H Photo/Video; shooting so much footage you need a four-person team of transcribing slaves just to wade through it) then you have abandoned the core principles of LTDF (Lean Team Documentary Filmmaking) and it’s time for a reassessment.

What kind of film do you want to make? How much money do you want to raise–and spend–to make it? How long do you want to wait before it’s finished? Each pound–literally and figuratively–you add to your film will mean more pressure to pay for it, which means more time you’ll spend looking for help, applying for grants, submitting to pitch sessions, etc. The Lean Team model is intended for the creative person who wants to be a constant filmmaker, not the creative person who may spend ten years of their prime filmmaking years making just one film, and be so burned out at the end of it they’ll never want to make another.

In making our film Zona Intangible, as with all of our docs, we applied the LTDF model almost without thinking about it. We were intrigued about a health clinic named after the great uncle of my wife and producing partner, Ann Hedreen, smack in the middle of a dusty human settlement just outside of Lima, Peru. We inventoried our mental LTDF checklist of questions: could we film the story with just two people; could the b-roll and interviews be accomplished with a bare bones equipment package; were the characters and locations accessible; were the shooting conditions safe enough so we didn’t require security, assistants, permits, etc.; once we started the film, could we complete it in a relatively short time frame, since we didn’t have the time, money, or inclination to make several trips back and forth; would the completed film have audience and distribution potential (admittedly, a difficult question to know the answer to in the early stages). The answers were mostly all “yes,” although we did need to hire a driver and a translator.

The key component to all of the above rests on a mantra I’ve repeated to myself since I began shooting TV news in my very first job in Reno, Nevada in 1981: GET CLOSE. If you can get close to your characters, your b-roll and your sound source, you can shoot a documentary all by yourself. You don’t need a soundperson hanging a boom mic over every shot, you can interview people off your on-board shotgun. You don’t need an assistant moving lights or carrying equipment, you’re shooting handheld with available light. You don’t need an external monitor or a director telling you what to do, this is your film and you’re in charge. The intimacy and mobility that comes with LTDF is liberating. If two of your main characters start walking up a steep, sandy path in the barren hillside of a squatter’s community, as a doctor and nurse did in Zona Intangible on their way to making a housecall, you’re already shadowing their every move. You are synced to the story’s own dynamic force.

There are many other steps to making a successful lean team documentary. I covered them in my class, including tips on gear, shooting in the field, capturing ambient sound, finding textural elements in a scene that add to the aesthetic subtlety of a moment, and recognizing and using available light. There are also many things you can do in the field to minimize your post-production costs. I won’t go in to them right now (that’s what the class was for), but much of the success of LTDF comes down to a crucial difference in viewing the holy grail of documentary filmmaking: the story. I urge lean teamers to concentrate on finding A story, not THE story. I think too many filmmakers get bogged down in an elusive search for what they perceive to be the only story worth telling, when really any story, imaginatively and artfully told will do just fine.

We went to Peru thinking were going to tell THE story of a health clinic in the middle of a desert slum that would represent the global crisis of refugees surrounding the major cities of the developing world. But then we realized that in order to tell this story we’d need a far more wide-ranging film, a more expensive-to-make film, a more time-consuming-to-make film, a much fatter film. So we readjusted our expectations and asked what story we could tell with our lean, two-person team. We decided to tell a much more narrow, personal, idiosyncratic story in the form of a personal essay of observation and reflection, combined with a ruminative investigation of the notion of home. It’s A story we look forward to telling, but it’s hardly THE story.

Two recent films come to mind that illuminate, for me, the difference between A and THE.  

In Oil & Water, directors Francine Strickwerda and Laurel Spellman Smith could have made a film about big oil, the stomping carbon corporate monster in the jungle, and the two Davids struggling to defeat this Goliath. That is The story the filmmakers chose to place in the background. Instead, they told A story, an engaging, moving, personal story, of two boys who come of age during this time, each navigating the struggles of becoming young men and responsible citizens at the same time.

In the recent doc The Wolfpack, the director Crystal Moselle sells her film on the basis of The story of six NYC brothers who grow up in virtual imprisonment in their public-housing funded Lower East Side apartment. But the film, although intriguing to watch and think about on its surface, is, in my opinion, an amorphous, underwhelming work. The movie drifts along without a sense of chronology or meaning. Would it have worked better if it had told A story of one brother’s liberation (the first one to leave the apartment), A story of parental abuse, A story of the power of imagination to overcome physical limitations?

The lean team documentary filmmaker, the one who wants to be a constant filmmaker, eventually comes to realize it is infinitely more rewarding to tell A story, rather than THE story, simply because you won’t be able to wait until you find another to tell.

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