Tags: /

Programs Tue 11.17.2015

Five Lessons Learned at the Film Independent Documentary Lab


Film Independent is now accepting applications for their 2016 Documentary Lab. We asked one of last year’s lab participants, James Demo, to talk about how the lab helped him and his project, The Peacemaker.

In 1971, Padraig O’Malley gambled his college scholarship on the Ali-Frazier fight, lost and dropped out of Harvard. He landed at The Plough and Stars, a pub in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he met a number of Irish ex-pats. Through those contacts O’Malley eventually got involved with solving the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

I first heard about Padraig four decades later, while I was having a pint at the Plough, which he now owned. At the time, Padraig was in Iraq, moving in and out of the Green Zone, trying to get warring parties to meet with Northern Irish and South African chief-negotiators who had helped settle major conflicts in the past. It surprised me that the owner of this little corner bar was risking his life to do this kind of work. I had to know more.

I got in touch with Padraig and asked him to meet with me. He explained that he never went into his bar because he was a recovering alcoholic, so we agreed to meet late one night in a Boston-area library. He told me the incredible story of his life and how his recovery from addiction informed his current work. I asked him if I could follow him during a new reconciliation effort he was launching in divided cities in conflict zones. Four continents and five years later, in December 2014, I wrapped production on The Peacemaker, a 90-minute character-driven documentary about a man who helps make peace for others but struggles to find it for himself.

This past March, I was excited to learn I was invited to participate in the Film Independent Documentary Lab. I learned so many lessons learned during the lab, but I was able to narrow it down to five.

The tyranny of a deadline is your friend
With 400 hours of footage and just three months of work under our belt, my editor, Erin Casper, and I had not cut the majority of our scenes, much less assembled a rough cut. We had adopted a methodical approach: watching footage together, pulling selects, discussing potential scenes and structure, all with an eye towards creating an assembly. Then and only then would we move toward our first rough cut…or so we thought. Those best laid plans were tossed out when we were invited to the lab and had three weeks to cut something to show to the other fellows and advisors.

There is nothing—and I mean nothing—as motivating as the tyranny of a deadline, after which your work will be considered and discussed by people you respect. Fear, when mixed with urgency, is a great clarifying force. It pushes you to decide what your story is and what are the key points that will help create the arc.

Erin and I agreed the exercise would only be helpful if it honored the film we were making. We didn’t want to just to edit just for the lab cut and then abandon it. So we worked non-stop, day and night, cutting scenes and deliberating. When we were forced to stop at 4:00 am the last night before deadline, we had a two-hour assembly that represented about 70 percent of the footage. Watching it through, we were pleasantly surprised. We didn’t want to pack a few bags and go into hiding. Ideas that hadn’t existed before the cut emerged as signposts pointing toward an eventual rough cut. It allowed us something substantive to test screen for feedback. Before I had even arrived in LA, the lab had given us something significant.

Lucy Walker says “Screen!”
When Film Independent first told us we were to be assigned an established filmmaker as an advisor, the first thing I said to myself was “Shit! We don’t have a rough cut.” But the second thing I said was, “I hope our advisor is Lucy Walker!” There are a lot of great documentary filmmakers living and working in LA, but Lucy stands out as a filmmaker who continuously handles complex material with nuance, always earning emotionally affecting moments that never feel forced. We were overjoyed to learn we’d be working with her.

Lucy was incredibly generous with her time, provided great insight into our cut and sharing the fundamental details of her process. She convinced me that documentary filmmakers have an obligation to their films to screen rough cuts as often as possible. Lucy emphasized that at a certain point objectivity can only come from others. Lucy screens her rough cuts regularly—at some points in her process as often as weekly—in small groups of 6-8 people. Each time she brings different people into the edit bay and provides them with a list of questions. She said “Don’t let anyone say anything until they have had the chance to write their thoughts down, then engage in a discussion around the film but mostly listen carefully, they will show you where the problems are.”

Each scene should be about one idea
When I walked in to meet accomplished editor Greg Finton at his Venice office, he graciously gave me a tour of the different edit suites where he works. The first thing I noticed is that index cards cover almost every wall. Greg showed me how on each card he puts an idea that represents a scene from the film. I’ve found that when you film a long, verité sequence or a great interview that covers a broad range of subjects, the impulse to serve more than one idea in a single moment is seductive.

In The Peacemaker, we have a number of scenes in which Padraig covers multiple subjects in just a few sentences. Greg cautioned against taking that second bite of the scene apple. He said, “Ask yourself what is this scene about and then keep boiling it down to its essence, I keep reducing and reducing, sometimes even to the point of going too far, and then I have to build it back.” As Erin and I continue to work, we now focus on which idea best serves the scene and the overall story –and then we cut toward that.

The sound mix puts life on the screen
There is an old saying about film: “Sound is 70 percent of what you see.” As Glenn Kiser, Director of the Dolby Institute, stated when he came in to speak to us, “An audience is sophisticated enough to forgive a lot as far as picture, but they won’t forgive bad sound.” Sound Designer James LeBrecht, from Berkeley Sound Artists, made a compelling argument, using examples from his work, that a sound mixer’s job is not always just to clean up a film’s audio; they can serve an even greater function by actually helping to put more life on the screen.

I was eager to talk with each of them because Erin and I have discussed how our sound mix can be used to distinguish the paradoxical nature of Padraig O’Malley’s life—his isolated personal life and the vibrance he displays in his work in conflict zones. In discussing isolation, Glenn mentioned a scene in the woods in Miller’s Crossing (1990) where the only sound you hear is the wood of the trees creaking in the wind. It’s not an absence of sound, but more specific sounds, that brink the moment to life. It really was an ear-opening experience (forgive me).

The shared experience of the lab fosters community
Making an independent documentary is not logical for someone who wants a normal life. The film will likely dominate several years of your life and there is a good chance you will have to sell a kidney to get through post-production. There are many dark nights of the soul where you ask yourself, “Am I the only one crazy enough to be doing this?” Then you come to the Film Independent Lab and it’s like you have found a lost tribe you didn’t realize you belonged to.

It was a true honor to spend time with the other fellows, to discuss their work and be invited along on the journey of each film. My brilliant lab-mates had so much to share, offering up every suggestion to make my journey a little bit easier. We would often loiter in front of the elevators or in the parking garage, chatting late into the night about opportunities for each others’ films or solutions to struggles we were facing.

I walked away from the lab knowing our paths would cross again. It was also deeply heartening to know that we all have Film Independent’s support going forward. Their staff cares so deeply about independent film and knowing we can call on them for help is such a great encouragement. I am truly thankful for such a meaningful lab experience.

Applications for the 2016 Documentary Lab are open. The deadline to apply is December 7, 2015.

James Demo / Documentary Lab Fellow

Tags: /