Making a documentary can mess with your head in more ways than one — just ask Roger Ross Williams (“God Loves Uganda”), Rachel Boynton (“Big Men”) and Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”).
All three award-winning documentary filmmakers participated in a Tribeca Film Festival Master Class on “capturing reality” last week and shared quite a few anecdotes from their experiences making documentaries over the years.
We’ve compiled highlights from the discussion, which you can read below:
The story changes through the process of filmmaking.
“You want to be really angry and you want to really hate them, [but] it was a growing process for me. As I grew, so did the story. I think that is what is surprising about it. Through the process I actually learned so much,” said Williams, whose film “God Loves Uganda” examines the impact that the North American evangelical movement has had on discriminative attitudes towards gay men and women in Uganda. “Being a gay man, I was totally freaked out and angry and I thought it was going to be this really damning thing,” said Williams.
Over the course of two years, however, Williams and the evangelical community members participating in the film gradually changed their attitudes towards one another. “We actually grew to like and respect each other through the filmmaking process,” said Williams, “and in the end, one of my main characters, who when I started said she believes all homosexuals should be put in prison — and at the end I said [to her] do you want to see me in prison and she was like ‘no, I love you Roger.'” The film also changed from his original perception of it. “It wasn’t this sort of angry, hateful film, it was a film where we learned to understand each other and I understood their motivations and who they were,” he said. “They actually were good people.”
“I have trouble making [things] simple,” said Boynton. She said that while she has “a tendency to see things in a very complicated way,” she recognizes that films are “movies are built to be simple.” The challenge, however, is knowing how much to simplify a subject so that the complexity which made it such an attractive story in the first place remains intact.
“One thing that I’ve learned over the years is that as a director, I really need to understand my own process and it took me a long time to have confidence in my process as a director in the cutting room because I’m not like a lot of directors,” said Boynton. She was quick to admit that her style of directing is nothing like that of her peers. “A lot of directors are very comfortable with getting transcripts made, watching stuff with the editor and then walking away and letting the editor form a film and then coming in and giving notes and working in that way,” Boynton said. “That is just not me — it’s just not who I am. I am extremely hands-on, I memorize everything, I do all my translations myself because I was an associate producer first so I am super, super detail-oriented.” When she tried to be less hands-on for part of the editing on “Big Men,” Boynton said that the method didn’t work for her and actually ended up lengthening her time in post-production.
“I have a lot of ideas, right? And they are great ideas, but so many ideas just don’t stick. You look at em, you make some phone calls, you send some emails, but they just don’t stick,” said Boynton. What makes an idea stick? It depends on the situation. When you are working for yourself, Boynton told the audience, it’s imperative that you believe in your idea. For her, she said, it means that the idea must feel “fundamental to the time I am living in.” It’s a different story, however, when it comes to making a work-for-hire project. “Doing something for hire is a very different beast,” said Boynton, “and that is actually incredibly freeing and fantastic: when you have money and you can just make a film and you don’t have to feel that way.”
Contradictions are a good thing.
Making a documentary is “a journey that you go on towards a truth that you
discover in the process of making the film and listening to people and
dealing with contradictions in the edit room,” said Garbus. Contradictions, she went on to suggest, are perhaps the soul of the documentary, “for what they teach us about the human being and the human spirit and our myriad capabilities as a human being, towards goodness, towards badness, towards evil, towards pure artistry and beauty.”
Convincing your subject to trust in and talk to you is perhaps the hardest part of the process.
Just because you want to tell someone’s story doesn’t mean that you will be given permission to do so. “I think one of the biggest challenges that we have when we go out as filmmakers is, ‘will you talk to me?'” said Garbus: “It’s often people’s judgements of you and whether you are the suited person to tell the story that they hold so dear. It’s either their life or a person that they loved or a person that they hated — whatever the thing is, [the question becomes] how do you convince yourself to be the person to trust?”
“It should be as long as it is good.”
This was advice Garbus received early on in her career, courtesy of longtime HBO President of Documentary Programming Sheila Nevins. “Not everything should be a 90-minute film, and if you’re not sure that you’ve got the goods or if you’re still pushing, then maybe that’s not the right film for you,” said Garbus. “I’m critical about my own work that way,” she continued. “Oftentimes, just because it’s an awesome idea or politically relevant or you have a great character, doesn’t mean it’s going to work as a film.”
Listen to the full panel below courtesy of WNYC: