Telling the ‘close to home’ stories
So you think you have a great idea for a documentary, and you can get your hands on a digital video camera for not too much money, and it’s not that expensive to film people sitting in chairs pontificating about important topics, anyway. Documentary filmmaking is booming these days, what with easy, inexpensive access to equipment and no requirement to write a 120-page screenplay like all those other guys are doing. What more do you need to make a documentary?
Plenty, according to Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller, a husbandand-wife team of Santa Fe documentary filmmakers who mentor novice documentarians (theirWeb site is documentaryhowto.com). The couple are just finishing up the documentary Circle of Stories; their Shakespeare Behind Bars played at the Santa Fe Film Festival in 2005. Speaking by phone, the couple offered some practical advice and reflective comments on documentary filmmaking. Pasatiempo: Do you sense that more people want to make documentaries? Hank Rogerson: Yes. I think people see that there are not only better avenues for making films but better access to distribution with the Internet. Before, it was very hard for any documentary to get any sort of distribution other than through educational outlets. Jilann Spitzmiller: And it’s a lot easier to make a documentary than writing a script and gathering together 50 to 100 people to make your fiction film. You only need one to four people on a documentary crew, depending on how you approach the filming. And as people get cameras in their hands, I think they turn to what is closest to them, the stories that are close to home. Pasa: Does “documentary” necessarily equate to “the truth”? Rogerson: We like to say truth is relative. What we work for as filmmakers is to represent the truth of the subject. Spitzmiller: If some fictional features say, “Based on a true story,” then documentaries are “Based on a true story times 100.” But it’s still a little removed from the true story. Rogerson: What you choose to shoot on any given day is sort of altering the truth. You go to your subject’s house, and they’re making Thanksgiving dinner, and you film that, and then their family comes over and you film that, and then they decide to go to church and you decide not to film that because you want to take a break. Right there you’ve altered the truth. And when you put a camera on somebody, it changes things automatically, because everybody wants to be a star today, so they start changing how they act in front of the camera. Spitzmiller: I wonder if we don’t benefit from some of that, people being less guarded in front of the camera. Pasa: What advice do you have for newcomers to the field? Spitzmiller: Educate yourself in film language. Decide if you are going to shoot it yourself or hire someone who is more experienced to shoot it, but either way, understand the grammar of filmmaking. Rogerson: Understand storytelling: the beginning, the middle, the end, and not necessarily in that order. Think about character motivation — challenges, obstacles. And understand the legal aspects of it all. Instead of going into it with blind faith, make sure you get the proper permission for your subjects, your locations, your crew. Spitzmiller: And of course you need to learn how to raise money.
Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller