I’m sitting in 514 guesthouse in Kathmandu. It’s nearing 3pm. My laptop is heating my legs as a fan cools me off from across the room. Children are playing basketball in the school across the street, and motorcycles bellow up and down the alley beside me. It is the last day of my three week expedition to Nepal to film a documentary for a very big NGO client, one you have definitely heard of… and I feel like a failure.
The only consolation is this: I’m pretty sure I’ve felt this way after every project I’ve ever shot.
I always feel like I could’ve done more. Usually it’s that I could’ve gotten more shots. I don’t feel that this time. This time, it’s because I feel I could have told a better story.
Over the last year, I’ve been wrestling with a dilemma that many filmmakers are at my age and stage: whether to focus on being a director, or a DP (Director of Photography).
On this project, I came in really wanting to direct something great, to really dig into the emotions and plight of these people who have just experienced a devastating earthquake, and are in the middle of defining their future through the writing of a new constitution. And yet, I’m not sure I did it justice. So I present, to your judgment, my excuses.
1. Time: Lack of time is always an excuse. As a guerrilla filmmaker/one man band, you are expected to get the shots regardless of how much time you are given. In anticipation of this, I tacked on a week in Nepal to my trip on my own dime to reinvest in stories and get more b-roll. However, I learned when I travelled with the clients and their team, that I could only film with the characters that I met when the team was present. (I guess they didn’t trust me to be alone with them… 😉 )
Also, they could only afford one extra day during my whole trip for follow ups. Bummer. As well, when you’re in a place with a team of people, and they are all waiting for you to get the shots you need, you feel pressured to move as quickly as possible. No time to wait for the perfect light, or just explore, or get to know people so they feel comfortable with you. No time to train non-filmmakers to help you with anything more than carrying the tripod. Getting what I needed in the time I had was definitely a challenge.
(an interview subject on my first day)
2. Language: During my interviews, I like to listen first to a person’s whole story, everything they feel they have to communicate, so that they feel I am honouring them and so that I get a sense of what I should dig for. However, when you don’t speak their language, and your translator can only give overall impressions, finding the most heart jerking lines, coaching them on delivery and digging for the most important pieces becomes really difficult. Especially when they’ve never been on camera before.
3. Health: During my trip, I got food poisoning, twice. The first time was especially bad––I even fainted while on the toilet, banged my head on the counter and woke up in a pool of blood. Sorry, no pic. This came just after I’d gotten over the jet lag. So I barely felt like I was at 50 percent til the project was pretty much finished. I just had to keep going, even when I didn’t feel like it, and though I was able to get the shots, I didn’t feel I had the patience or strength to do the work necessary to make the story as good as it could be. It’s also easier to forget things like boom poles, diffusion, etc and cut corners when you’re not feeling great and everyone is waiting on you.
These were just three excuses I found really hindered my abilities as a director on this project, among others such as cultural sensitivities, NGO rules and more. Are they valid? You tell me. (Though I guess you’ll have to wait two months to see the documentary before you’ll know if you can tell the difference!).
But I can’t just blog about what I did wrong, right? Shouldn’t I should offer some sort of solution?
Well, since this isn’t my first time on the merrigoround of fast paced NGO filmmaking, I do try to think a head, a little. So here are my #FilmTips for the week.
One solution for time is to ask for two vehicles to go to the area, and clearly communicate that you will be coming back last, and people will have to wait for you, in advance. Second, sit in the front seat, and if you have a camera that shoots 180 fps like I do, use it! Get the b-roll from out of the window! I do it all the time, and sometimes it really pays off. (Though most of it ends up being blurry, jumpy crap). Third, tell the driver you may stop him occasionally. We all know that great shots require great timing, so don’t be afraid to yell ‘Stop!’, get out of the car, get the shot (preferably in Slo-Mo so you can get it without much setup) and then hop back in.
You have to be bossy to be a good director. It doesn’t mean you have to be an a-hole, though. Smiles and thanks go a long way.
As for language, clearly communicate to your translator what you are looking for, then after each monologue/answer you get, ask if it was clear and emotionally impactful. Eventually, he will pick up on what this means, and help you coach the talent to do a better job. As well, it usually goes terribly the first go round, while there are lots of people staring and you’ve just met, and all of a sudden there’s a camera to capture the awkwardness… so wait til everyone leaves, and if you can make the time, try again. Also, be friendly, and pay attention to them, not the camera! (This is an art…)
As for health, DON’T EAT THE BUFFET! IT’S BEEN SITTING AROUND ALL DAY! GET SOMETHING MADE FRESH!
Ok, that’s it for this week.
What are your excuses for bad storytelling? And more importantly, how do you overcome them?