The Different Documentary Filmmaker’s Hats –
or How to make your brain switch from colours to counting (in 37 degrees)
While racing through my filmmaker’s life lately – fortunately at the moment the private life takes place on a reasonably remote island with a beach at my front door, so not much racing is needed there (and maybe that is intentional…) – so, while racing through my filmmaker’s life, I noticed that a): I love it and b): there are actually quite a few “brain modes” you go through while making a documentary. I have recently worked on a short TV report where those different modes followed each other in quick succession, but they are all part of making The Island Bus, too.
The Gut Feeling –
is what first attracts you to a documentary subject or any creative project, and is named after the body part where you experience it. To explain it to those who claim they are not creative – there is no such thing, read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, but anyway – this bears a lot of similarities with falling in love: it hits you in the most unexpected ways, is totally irrational and sometimes even hard to put into words, but your curiosity is triggered and chances are you will go to some length to make it happen. (And it’s exciting and scary and fulfilling and fun, all at the same time.)
The Pitching Stage –
is when formally or just to friends and possibly interested collaborators you start to put into words what you want to do. This can reach from: “I think it would be a great idea to make a film about life on Tilos by just driving around on the bus all day and showing the different things Pavlos does” – which is (you guessed it) the first sentence about The Island Bus that ever left my lips – but can also take the far more formal and articulated form of a written proposal in which you tell the whole story as you think it might happen. It is incidentally my least favourite part of the whole process. Because I don’t like writing about films. Don’t get me wrong: I love writing (hadn’t you noticed!) but I don’t like writing about something I want to show in (moving) images. It never seems right. I think this is a sentiment shared by many filmmakers and contested by producers and financiers who – for good reasons – want to understand what your gut feeling is all about.
The Numbers –
once you have convinced anyone to actually pay for that film you want to make (and even more so if you haven’t but are bankrolling it yourself), you need to calculate how to do it. Sums, counting, logistics and a lot of rational thoughts are involved to work out the best possible way – and how much all this is going to cost. It’s actually more fun than it sounds – as you get to spend some time trawling travel booking websites and looking at nice cameras and other geeky stuff – an activity that never fails to excite me.
The Hectic –
can occur at any time during the process but seems to hit me most often once I got the go-ahead and realise: this is really going to happen. For some reason, things seem to speed up at this stage and I find myself wanting to go to that beach very very much… Best survived by thinking of the beach – but starting the project.
The Colours, Shapes, Sounds and Movement, in other words: the Flow –
when I’m out there with a camera, capturing those moments. I sometimes really feel – David Cronenberg would like this – as if the camera and I turn into this hybrid creature: it is an extension of my arm that feels natural and feeds my eye images, a flowing, floating process, very hard to describe. In fact, words are difficult at this stage – see The Pitching Stage – which means that interviews often interrupt this flow. Especially when conducted in a language that is not so familiar (and – shame on me – even after all those years Greek is not familiar enough), I really struggle to speak while I’m filming. Apparently there is a brain research explanation for this. There are ways to get around it, little tricks that make sure I can create images and elicit words at the same time – luckily, really. How else would The Island Bus ever happen? In general, filming (like writing for the sake of writing) feels like swimming: a moving, flowing action that is best not thought about too much.
The Edit –
I love it. The more often I get to edit anything, the more I learn and the more I discover and the more I love it. It is really “writing a documentary”, but this time you have got those colours, shapes, sounds and movement and can use them to form – a film. You can completely lose yourself in an edit – and it helps when there are thoughtful people near who remind you that it’s a good idea to eat sometimes…
The Round-up –
yet another rational moment when it’s time to deliver what you’ve worked on and have to make sure that it is really all there. Constant checks and balances and a lot of technology involved – which usually fails. In fact, as I write this, I am fighting it out with a little virtual animal named Cyberduck – a program used to connect to an FTP-server to upload my work which does not just do what it should, but needs to be prompted now and then. A patience test.
The Socializing –
filmmaking in general is collaboration and when making a documentary you have the added bonus of being thrown into worlds very different from your own. So there is lots to discover, a lot of communication to be done and you feel overwhelmed as a default setting. At some stage you will also feel very tired from all those wondrous things you see and the constant decision making.
The Utterly Distracting Life –
which is usually when you are confronted with the fact that there is a whole life to be lived that has very little to do with your filmmaking. It’s usually a baffling realization. Re-entry into that life can be confusing. It’s worth it, though, because you finally get to go to that beach – and get more material for the next documentary project and more chances for one of those unexpected moments of gut feeling…