Notes from The Master Class on Directing with Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing
AFI/Discovery Channel Silverdocs
Silver Spring, Maryland
June 25, 2011
Notes by Erin Essenmacher
*Read also on Christian Science Monitor’s Culture Cafe.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are fierce. As Loki Films they have produced countless works for television and four feature length documentaries, with a fifth currently in production. Their work has taken them from inner city Baltimore to East Africa, from the jungles of Sri Lanka to a non-descript looking corner in Florida that is actually ground zero for the fierce debate around abortion rights. They have snuck into abandoned buildings and the country of Cuba, fearlessly following where the story takes them. Their work has premiered at Sundance, appeared on networks like HBO A&E and Al Jazeera and been nominated for an Academy Award.
That’s all to say that when I heard they were coming to Silverdocs to spill all of their secrets on the craft and process of directing, I was more than a little excited to go hear them speak. Let’s just say the discussion lived up to the hype. Read on for some of the highlights.
Grady and Ewing opened the “Master Class: Directing” by showing a scene from their film “12th and Delaware” about an anti-choice “family counseling” clinic that opened up across the street from the area’s only abortion clinic. The scene gave a great feel for their special brand of verite filmmaking – where the audience feels like a fly on the wall of the action that’s unfolding in front of the camera.
That sense of being in the moment with their characters is a hallmark of Grady and Ewing’s films. Ewing explained it this way “There are lots of different ways to approach making a documentary…for us, if action has happened in the past or we’ve missed the action, we probably won’t do it, because it doesn’t suit our style. The action or the drama needs to unfold on camera for us to consider it.”
She went on to say that one of the biggest mistakes that filmmakers can make is letting their passion for a subject blind themselves to the fact that the story may not actually make a good doc. “They don’t ask themselves ‘is this visual?’ We’re not doing radio here, “ Ewing said, “You have to be able to show the action. You have to ask yourself would this be better as an article in The New Yorker?”
Before they take on a new project, Ewing and Grady also have to agree they are both passionate — and curious — about the subject matter. “If we have all the answers or a strong opinion we won’t make that film,” Ewing explained, “If we feel like there’s nothing to learn, we don’t’ make that film.”
Grady explained that six months into the edit on their latest project, “Detroit Hustles Harder” they’re just now starting to figure out what the film is really about. “Hopefully your assumptions are going to turn out wrong because that’s where the magic happens,” she explained, “It’s exciting. We just watched the first act and it’s starting to work and the themes are starting to emerge.”
Grady went on to site their Oscar-nominated film “Jesus Camp” as an example:
“That film is really about the next generation of the Christian Right. Going in, we thought it was film about religious children, and that’s certainly there, but it’s also about forming a child and is it brainwashing? And don’t we all brainwash our children? And isn’t that what raising a child is?”
Ewing explained that they want to make sure whatever film they’re making is not just a niche story, but that national, international or universal themes emerge. She cited their film ‘Boys of Baraka’ and explained while it is about two boys from the inner city that go off on a crazy adventure; it’s also about so much more. “It’s a commentary on our educational system and about the potential of the human being, and the luck of family you’re born into. We hope that happens in all of our films.”
The women switched gears from overall story to talking more specifically about the technique and craft of filming interviews and creating a story arc. Grady explained that they never want to go for the stiff, sit-down interview. “Our interviews are meant to feel organic and in the element.” Grady also stressed the need for a three-act structure – at least to start out. “You need an organizing principle, some way to structure the narrative,” she explained, “If you give something away too soon, you can ruin the story.”
The women then showed a clip of scene from “Boys of Baraka” where one of the main characters goes to visit his father in prison. “We were in the world’s ugliest room,” Ewing recalled, “but we had no choice. Lots of times life is not cinematic. We like to go for the emotion rather than a perfectly composed shot. A lot of times the most interesting thing in the room is not always the person talking.” Ewing underscored the importance of making a solid choice about where to place the camera and then having the courage to go for it with as few moves or takes as possible. “Too much direction can remind subjects that they’re part of a movie,” she explained, “and it gets in the way of capturing the intimacy of the moment.”
Both women stressed their need for interviews have to both form and function. They showed clips from their work that illustrated alternatives to the formal sit down interview: an elderly Cuban dissident discussing free speech while gutting a fish in her kitchen, two boys talking on a burned down playground, a woman speaking as she paced in front an abortion clinic holding a protest sign. “Try to think of things your character can do while you’re talking to them, “ Grady suggested, “it makes them more comfortable, it gives you something to cut away to, and you might discover something about your character in the process.”
Grady went on to say that when it comes to developing a story, casting is key. “You want someone who is consistent, who is the same off camera as they are on camera, that they’re genuine and true to themselves,” she explained, “Audiences are sophisticated. You can’t trick them. They don’t miss a beat. If character isn’t genuine, it won’t ring true.”
In terms of getting a subject on board, Grady suggested leveraging a character’s own agenda, or figuring out what it’s in it for them to participate in the film. She referenced one of the main characters in “Jesus Camp” as a prime example. “She felt like she had something to gain and a message to get out there,” Grady explained, “it helps if subject has an agenda but only if you realize that your subject has an agenda and don’t get caught up in it and give the film over to them.”
Ewing then introduced the topic of story structure, specifically the ever-vexing question of how to create a compelling story arc out of dozens – and sometimes hundreds — of hours of footage. She pointed out that most documentary filmmakers struggle with this issue, because “unless you follow someone everyday for 6 years, you’re going to have arc problems. There are going to be holes in the story.”
The story arc for “Jesus Camp” presented the filmmakers with a particular challenge. “We watched an early cut together and said ‘we have kids speaking in tongues, and flailing around on the floor. Why is this boring?” Ewing recalls. The women showed it to editor they respect who pinpointed the problem immediately: no conflict.
Grady explained it this way “We realized that watching it you felt like you were going crazy, because no one [in the film] was saying what the audience was thinking which was ‘this is crazy’ and ‘are these kids being brainwashed?’”
Ewing and Grady realized they needed another perspective to counterbalance the strong voice of the ultra religious characters in the film. They found their solution on the airwaves. “There was this Christian radio host on the local radio station, and even though he was Christian, he spoke really passionately about how the eroding wall between church and state was dangerous,” Ewing explained, “he was the perfect voice because he had credibility in that world but he was a voice of dissent.”
The filmmakers were already nine months into their edit, but they knew they needed to restructure “Jesus Camp” to include the radio host. The question then became how to incorporate him into the storyline. Grady and Ewing decided to include a clip from his broadcast under their opening credits. Since the audio from the broadcasts would become a through line in the film, they wanted to establish the device at the outset. “The audience will go wherever you want for the first five to ten minutes,” Ewing explained, “They’ll accept what you do, but if you throw something new in the second or third act, they’ll reject it.”
An audience member asked the women to talk about their unique collaboration, how they decide who does what when two people are steering the ship. Grady explained that they decide on the topic and characters and determine a visual look and feel together, but then take turns in the field once production starts. Whenever whoever is directing in the field gets back, the other will watch the footage and comment. “It really works well because you get fresh eyes on your footage and whoever was not in the field doesn’t have as much emotional attachment to the material.”
Grady explained that sometimes the person filming will feel like they got nothing, but back in the edit room, the other partner will see a great moment that really serves the story. Or on the flip side, the person in the field may think a scene totally reads, but then get it back home and discover through the eyes of the other that it’s just not there. Ewing explained it this way. “Sometimes when you’re in the moment or in the room, that it all went great, but after you get it home, you realize the camera was in the wrong place. A lot has to come together to make a scene work.”
Another attendee wanted to know at what point in the process do Grady and Ewing decide to start working with an editor. “There are advantages to shooting and editing at the same time,” Ewing explained “you should have most of the material in the can before you bring in an editor, but early enough that you can still rectify problems and film more if need be.”
As for when a film is considered “done” and ready for prime time, they both agree that having a satisfying third act with a solid ending is the best indicator. “Also when new material feels like repeat of what you’re already gotten, what’s already clear in the film,” Grady said. She also reminded that at the end of the day, it’s also driven by the budget. “You can’t edit forever. You have to set deadlines for yourself, even if you don’t always meet them.”