It’s the lot of documentary filmmakers these days to have to say something along these lines: “No, it’s not reality; it’s real.” “Reality” has taken on a dubious definition, something not all it appears to be. “Real” is something else.
Reality and documentary are definitely affecting each other, and creating a kind of aesthetic that owes itself as well to lighter and cheaper equipment, digital technology and the seemingly insatiable interest in “real” people – the irony is that the way to become a celebrity is by not being one.
As The Hollywood Reporter piece of last week declared, “Reality Television Is Killing Scripted TV,” it’s worth noting that “Reality” is taking on as much dimension as “Scripted,” which would encompass everything from “That 70s Show” to “Mad Men.” But in the same way, the groundshift may be bringing reality TV and documentary filmmaking closer together, and in that way creating filmmakers who are equally comfortable in both sides of that particular coin.
“Dying to Do Letterman,” the work of husband-and-wife filmmaking team Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina, is something that really shows that. Joke and Biagio have been working on reality shows for IFC (“Commercial Kings”), VH1 (“Scream Queens”) and MTV (“Caged,” slated for 2012).
“Dying to Do Letterman” shares elements with reality TV, in a way. It is not a documentation of an existing reality, but a story with a definable goal, and a clear MacGuffin. The film’s subject, Steve Mazan, has learned he has possibly life-threatening cancer, and as a stand-up comic decides that he will pursue his dream of appearing on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” In the course of his pursuit, Steve narrates his tale, and seeks counsel with well-known comedians such as Ray Romano, Jim Gaffigan and Kevin Nealon. The audience follows his pursuit, a mission that might have task-connection to such shows as “The Apprentice.”
So how is it different?
“’Commercial Kings’ is the reality series we’re doing now,” Biagio says, “and when we interviewed for that, we saw that clearly there was a built-in format – the guys are going to make a commercial, but you don’t know what you’re going to find along the way, or how people will react to them.”
And the fact that they were interviewed to do the work may be a major distinction. Reality is “produced,” if you will: It’s conceptualized, formatted, and packaged. The true driving forces are producers, not the filmmakers, and the story lines often are reactive to conceptions of what audiences want. Joke says this:
Commercial Kings kind of walks the line for sure, but to me the definition has always been this: In a reality show, we take people an kind of put them into the producer’s environment. “Big Brother,” as an example, literally took people out of their own lives and put them in a house, or “Beauty and the Geek,” which we did, or “Scream Queens,” which we did, takes people out of their every day lives and you put them in your world – “Survivor,” “Amazing Race,” all that stuff.
Doc is, for me, where we’re guests in our subjects’ lives. We go and follow them, and document them, and let what will happen, happen. Then you can really craft the story back in the edit bay.
“We all know there are shows out there calling themselves reality that are as scripted as any dramatic series,” says Biagio, but he says their work stays far away from such productions.
“We’re doing a documentary for MTV, for the documentary side of the network, called “Caged,” which will be on in 2012. They’re leaving us alone, and letting us chase stories. We’re shooting 12 days an episode.”
Where the line of “Is this more doc or more reality?” comes with things like “Swamp People,” or “Ax Men,” where you’re clearly in their world but you also know you need one thing to do each episode. They’re not living in your house, but there’s more of a format to it. Those are doc series with more of a reality format. If you have a Venn Diagram, you have Reality, and you have Doc, but then you have that Doc Reality. I think “Commercial Kings” falls in that middle bubble. We’re definitely out in the field and in people’s lives, but we know the format is that within three or four days there will be a commercial.
“Dying To Do Letterman” is distinguished not only by its multi-year journey with Steve, his illness and his aspiration, but it’s also clearly a film in its production values – careful editing, a three-act structure, Steve’s own ruminations and memories, and the visual devices that punctuate the film. Reality TV, for the most part, doesn’t have the time to devote to cinematic quality.
But that’s polarization, and that seems to have diminished with the rise of what has been called, again somewhat euphemistically, “Quality Reality.”
Like a lot of newer filmmakers, they have not viewed reality shows as a threat to documentary film, or as something to avoid. The work they have gotten has made them professional, self-sustaining directors and producers. MTV pioneered the tipping of the word “Reality,” but working for MTV now, Joke says,
What’s great about that is that they are also trusting in what is real, as opposed to going in with preconceived notions of what needs to happen – ‘we need a catfight,’ or ‘we need somebody to get drunk.’ I think we’re seeing that more out in the TV landscape, the idea of what real people are really doing. I think it’s definitely helping the documentary world.
Notes on Video has a comprehensive post on the Boston Final Cut Pro Users Group, and as in other locales, people are not raving about the new Final Cut Pro X.
In checking in with the array of members of the group, Notes’ Michael Murie found,
I counted about 60 people at the meeting, with about ten admitting to having bought Final Cut Pro X. Only four said they were actively using it, while one person said he’d returned it. If any characteristic could be used to describe the communities attitude towards Final Cut Pro X, it appears to be hesitation.
Given that Apple’s stock price just topped $400 based on a nearly religious ardor by consumers for new Apple products, hesitation is not a great thing.
Some comments from his post:
“Are we calling it Final Cut Pro Ten or is it X Final Cut Pro?”
“I downloaded it on the first day and I opened it up, and I said ‘this isn’t Final Cut Pro.’ There’s no timelines. There’s no projects. I can’t do anything. So I’m getting mad and then I go on the COW [Creative COW] which is probably the worst thing I could have done because they are all steaming about it. So I send Apple a letter, I tell them this isn’t what I bought.”
“It’s a completely new paradigm. But they completely messed up the release, they didn’t set up the expectations right.”
“I don’t know that I’d call it… it’s not Final Cut Pro, but it is an amazing program.”
Documentaries, more and more these days, involve a journey rather than a discussion. Even classic films like Frederick Wiseman’s “Juvenile Court” don’t involve a definable goal, and Errol Morris’s works often explore an idea from a sitting position. But these days, people going somewhere, trying to do something, and having definable success or failure is more and more the mode. Perhaps because audiences have become familiar with reality shows and their “see it happen” conceit.
Biagio Messina and Joke Fincioen, a husband-and-wife filmmaking team, are conversant in both sides of that realm. They have a reality show on IFC called “Commercial Kings,” and have worked for respected documentarian R.J. Cutler, who made “The September Issue.”
Their new film, “Dying To Do Letterman,” which was just selected for DocuWeeks 2011 after having been at several festivals including Cinequest, tells a story as it happens, but as it happens, the story is a defined, created, caper. Their friend Steve Mazan, a stand-up comedian, decides after learning he has cancer that he is going to try to figure out a way of appearing on “The Late Show With David Letterman.”
Biagio, who met Joke when they both had first arrived in Hollywood, first encountered Steve doing some video work for him.
We had been working in LA, and Steve had just moved down from San Francisco. He was doing whatever he could to break into the comedy scene. I cut his very first comedy reel – I remember it as $10 an hour, but he remembers it as $20 an hour – but I don’t think I made that much. We kept in touch after that.
Later, I think it was when Joke and I had done our very first television gig as producer/director on “Caesar’s 24/7,” and still living in the one-bedroom apartment at that point, that we got the email: “Hey, got to my website dyingtodoletterman.com, because I’m trying to get on Letterman.” He never said he was sick in the email. I was editing, and I remember hearing Joke from the other side of the room, gasping. She said, “Steve’s got cancer.”
She had read on Steve’s website that he was sick. He had about a dozen malignant growths in his liver. He had already decided on the premise of “Dying to do Letterman.” Not surprisingly, Steve had set a life goal on appearing on that showcase of comedic talent. But having been told he might have as little as five years to live, the goal had become something of a quest.
“He had this whole explanation of how he was launching this campaign to get on Letterman,” Biagio says. “We called him and asked if there was anything we could do to help, and he said “Look, I’ve been shooting a little bit of footage myself with my Handicam, and I really want to make a documentary on this. Would you guys be interested in doing it?”
The answer was not instantly positive.
Joke and I, we were almost in unison in saying, “Uh, we have to think about it.” We knew him as a friend first, and we were still just processing the fact that our friend was sick. So we talked about it a lot.
Joke and Biagio had two cameras, a Panasonic DVX100B, and a Canon GL2. “I gave him the GL2, and said, Just take it – you can have that. It’s better than what you have, so just shoot everything you can. We’ll figure out what our involvement will be as we go along.”
We called Steve back and said, “Here’s the thing – if we’re going to do this documentary with you, we have to do it right. And what that means is if we’re there, and things are bad, we’re not going to be able to put the camera down and give you a hug. We’re not going to be able to be your friends; we’ll be capturing the moment. There was this long pause, and then he said, “You just made my tumors hurt.” We sort of laughed and cried, because it was so strange that our friend was dealing with his impending death this way.
Steve had been diagnosed with an inoperable tumor in his liver, in 2005, and the work on the film began in 2006.
“Steve said, ‘I don’t consider myself a depressing guy,” Biagio says. “He said, ‘If you’re going to do this I want it to be funny. I want it to reflect the kind of guy that I am.’ He made us promise that even if he did die, we had to finish the movie and make sure it was funny.”
When I heard of this film, I couldn’t help but think of Scorsese’s 1982 “King of Comedy,” in which deranged stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert DeNiro, plays out his obsession to appear on a Letterman-like show. While Steve is not that film’s talentless hack, but rather a working comic, and his desire to achieve the goal clearly relates to finding a way of taking on the cancer, the deeper themes of fame and immortality seem embedded in what is on its face a somewhat lighthearted gambit.
Biagio says, “We had Steve do diary cams – just setting up the camera and talking into it. I said, “I just want you to speak your mind. Sit down and talk for an hour straight if you want to – just talk. I think some of the most raw, emotional moments of the movie came from that.”
Beyond that, they followed him in his journey, Biagio says.
We ended up having around 300 hours of footage. The final cut is about 80 minutes. So obviously it was a lot to sort through. But I always wanted to lean on what was real.
When the movie was done and the shooting was done, I wanted come up with a narration style – something that was clearly narration after the fact, but something I wanted to feel a bit more unique. So we did this thing where we set him on a comedy-type stage, with a microphone. For three days straight, I had him just tell his story as he remembered it.
We shot that part on the RED. Our friend Adam Sampson, who’s one of the best undiscovered cinematographers out there, owns a RED and graciously offered his time. I didn’t want Steve to stop. He just went with it, and when he was tired he’d go home, then come back in the morning and we just continued.
The Fincioen-Messina team has done work that includes creating and producing VH1’s “Scream Queens,” but as documentarians did not maniplate the story. As part of the quest, Steve sought advice from top comics such as Ray Romano, and these were filmed. Biagio says,
And when we were in verite mode, we were in verite mode. We didn’t mess with the scenes, we didn’t mess with the order; we never wanted to go and shape a scene for the sake of shaping a scene. We did rely on a lot of classic storytelling structure. We knew there was a big turning point that happened early in his journey. It spun the story into a different direction, and that was for real. That set a lot of other things into motion. So the story is perfectly linear, but to get from 300 hours to 80 minutes, it was a lot of, “OK, this is a perfect second-act turning point…”
More to come in Part II
When I spent some time working at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard a few years back, one of the concepts coming to the fore was that of “crowdsourcing.” With people like Jeff Howe, Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson leading the charge, the discussion was of “harnessing the crowd” to create media. In some instances – such as the 2011 Arab Spring, when the flow of news came from ground level by nonprofessionals – it has tremendous potential. But in other instances, it may be the worst kind of cynicism.
I saw a crowdsourcing exercise at my own neighborhood at about that time when a PBS show called “Planet Forward” put out a call for submissions. The show, from former CNNer and now George Washington University journalism director Frank Sesno, asked for short videos on environmental issues. A group of students here, led by a journalism professor, went about assembling a dozen or so pieces of a minute or so. A few of those videos had a few seconds of them played on the PBS show; the rest were put on the PF website. Most of the show was Sesno leading a panel discussion about the issues. And if everybody was cool on that being what it was, no problem.
But later, I saw that one of the students involved put out on her resume that she had been “Producer/Editor/Camera for ‘Planet Forward (PBS) Nationally Broadcast.” It could either be viewed as shameless dishonesty, or possibly naivete of the saddest kind. But either way it wasn’t true. Basically she had sent free content to a venture that used a small bit of it to make their show. In crowdsourcing, that’s called being “in the crowd.” But I’m not sure she saw herself as “the crowd,” that great mass of outsiders. She mistakenly saw herself – or wanted to see herself – as an insider.
I reflected on that as I read Sheri Candler’s post today, in which she takes on the notion and ethics of crowdsourcing, specifically Ridley Scott and Kevin MacDonald’s “Life In A Day,” which is apparently asking people who contributed video for free to now help market it – of course, for free.
Sheri, an indie film marketing and publicity specialist in LA, says,
This experiment isn’t fan building or relationship building that benefits both sides. You were used to create a profit making vehicle for large corporations and now they want you to help them promote it so they can make more money. If you aren’t considered a close member of the team, you have no decision making power, you aren’t profit sharing in any way, the film premiered on Youtube during Sundance but is no longer available online for you to view a film you helped to create while they take it out to theaters and make money from it, then this isn’t true collaboration. Outside of a credit on a theatrical film end credit roll, there is nothing in this relationship for you.
I can’t help think of the famous line in “All The President’s Men” in which a government official threatens Bob Woodward with ending their relationship if certain information is reported. “But sir,” Woodward says, “We don’t have a relationship.”
The element that drives so many in the crowd, it seems, is indeed the false notion of a relationship. For example, when The Boston Globe does a “send us your cookout photos” online feature, some more self-delusional contributors may say “I’m a Boston Globe photographer.” The crowd is generally not the idealistic “common men and women” of crowdsourcing theorists, but most often wanna-bes and aspirants who desperately want that connection and are happy at times to overstate it. I wonder if what the contributors to “Day” get is the small ego boost of feeling their footage was selected by the project. Is that enough?
I blogged back then about my reservations about crowdsourcing, and more specifically “citizen journalism” (aka “free work”), calling it the Tom Sawyering of the media, as when Tom dupes his friends into doing his work – whitewashing the fence – for free. Indeed, I’ve only spent a little bit of time around Hollywood and its habitues, but I’ve seen from afar how many people out there devote their lives to getting other people to do the work, then taking credit for it (Yeah, get me talking about a “producer” I had to work with a few years back whose resume fell apart upon factual inspection like an apple crumb cake). Crowdsourcing fits that Hollywood ethic like a comfortable old shoe.
So, with a crowdsourcing exercise such as “Day” or “Planet,” what does the contributor get? Maybe a bit of focused experience toward a task, or material they can apply to their own project, or perhaps the lottery-ticket dream that they might be “discovered” by getting their work in front of these accomplished pros. Maybe it was just fun. But most probably think it might get them somewhere, and I think as little of that happens, crowdsourcing will fade. Do someone else’s work for free? I’d rather do my own.
The point I am making to my indie filmmaker friends is this. Don’t exploit your audience. True collaboration means there is something in the relationship for all parties. Don’t build up a following with the sole intention of using them for ideas, a workforce and profit that benefits only you.
CNETs Greg Sandoval has an interview piece with Eric Garland, CEO of media-tracking firm Big Champagne, discussing the recent price hike at Netflix and what it means – they are making the case that it’s akin to Apple’s move in 1998, when they introduced the iMac G3 without a 3.5-inch floppy port. The view of the discussion is Netflix is forcing a move away from DVD usage to streaming: “Netflix’s library of streaming movies and TV shows are often dated or obscure titles. It’s obvious Netflix is struggling to acquire more sought-after content.”
For filmmakers looking to distribute, going to streaming without the mastering, printing and shipping of DVDs may be favorable. For consumers, though, the DVD is still regarded as current technology, one they’re not necessarily eager to shed.
As you know there are a lot of us still watching DVDs and specifically those first-run titles on our relatively big-screen TV but that’s a lagging indicator. That’s like the person who so vociferously and so vocally objected to the introduction of that first iMac that came without a 3.5 inch floppy drive. “What am I supposed to do,” that person asked? “My whole life is on 3.5 floppy. I finally migrated off the 5-inch drive and now your marketing a computer that has no 3.5inch drive.” It was outrageous, until it wasn’t.
He notes that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings isn’t killing the DVD – “it’s already dying.” Netflix may simply be furthering DVDs to the grave.
Reed is deliberately creating dissatisfaction. He’s creating dissonance precisely because that title availability, those first-run titles, needs to be available more immediately and more widely as a (video on demand) or as a streamed offering. So this is a leverage play. This is Reed saying you can’t bifurcate. You’re going to have to make all of your content available in a way that your customer has clearly indicated that he or she wants. Netflix is wagering that if all parties are dissatisfied; if Netflix is unhappy because Netflix customers are unhappy and if Hollywood is unhappy and if everyone is unhappy then we’re going to speed the clock on new solutions.
In Part 1 of our look at “Indie Game: The Movie,” we looked at how Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky had put together their look at independent video-game designers, an effort that started with a Kickstarter campaign, then went back for another one.
As James had related in the earlier post, he and Lisanne shot 300 hours of footage as they worked to find their story, something that ended up with a more focused look at three designers trying to bring out their games.
Kickstarter, which seems to have found its place largely as a venue to pre-build audience and sales, has worked well for them.
Lisanne says, “We basically started with the Kickstarter campaign in May 2010, and we just had one piece, and we put out that slice of the film, and we made our goal in 48 hours. We asked for $15,000 and we ended up with $23,000.”
The intent was more general then, what James described as doing a broader look at the game designers, in the vein of Gary Hustwit’s films “Helvetica” and “Objectified.”
As we continued making the film, we just kept building the audience. We’d put out lots of videos while we were shooting – which might be ill-advised. We put out 80 minutes of content while we were shooting, separate pieces and things like that. It was really helpful creatively to help us figure out what we were doing, and show people, and get a response. People would pass around those videos, and that would lead us to new stories, and to gaming sites, and it just kind of grew from there.
As this was happening, we just kept finding out that this doesn’t just apply to people who are interested in indie gaming or making indie games themselves, but to general gaming people, or people that just want to make something themselves.
That all led us to the second Kickstarter campaign, which has of this writing has four days to go and has already raised $60,000 from 1,353 backers. That puts to rest some concerns they had, according to Lisanne:
We were a little worried about people saying, “You already did one, why are you asking for more money?” but the film just turned into something different. It’s a film that’s dramatic, and we wanted to do something good with it. We wanted to get some really good music, and some audio mixing we’re not comfortable doing, and mastering and all that. So we asked for $35,000, which was the exact number we needed to finish it. We got that in 25 hours.
Like the first campaign, she says, “I’m pretty sure the people who have backed us are people who make games. There are a lot of people who make games, and a lot who appreciate indie games.” But James notes,
I feel that was true more for the first Kickstarter. I think the majority of that was the indie scene and the indie community. The second one seemed to cast a wider net. That core of indie-game developers and aspiring developers is still there, and makes up a huge part of our audience, but I think it’s appealing more to people who just like the creative process – and that was always our dream. Like people who frequent design blogs, even though they are not designers themselves.
The second Kickstarter includes, for people donating $15 or more, a digital copy of the film. For $35 or more, the donor gets a DVD of the film, but for $75 or more, a special-edition DVD, which James says makes use of the volume of video they shot in the process.
The neat upside is this: We have two movies, really enough footage for three movies, really. So what we’re going to do is make this special-edition version of the film, which will have that original movie and that original intent kind of deconstructed into a series of 10 or 12 three-to-five-minute pieces. The stuff we shot of everybody else that that didn’t make it into the film is really good stuff. But in order to do justice to the dramatic arcs that really excited us, it needed more time in the film. We wanted to keep the thing under 90 minutes.
The fact they may by the end of the process have raised $100,000 in funding goes, they believe, toward a transparency that tends to flout the rules of filmmaking, in which material is guarded carefully.
“We feel we were very open in the whole process,” Lisanne says, “in telling where we are and what we’re doing, and it’s just the two of us. On the day of our (second) Kickstarter we got 2,000 emails.
“In terms of the rewards, we basically wanted to do things we could fulfill ourselves. We didn’t ask designers in our film to give game codes or figurines or things like that. We felt like they had already given us their time, and that was enough.”
The next step is getting the film out. Lisanne says,
So we’ve gotten a lot of response, so it’s a matter of what we want to do now. We want to show it at a couple of festivals, and we have interest from festivals, but festivals don’t tell you when you’re in or not when you need to know that. But we’ve applied to Canadian festivals that happen in the fall, and we’ve been invited to some in the States.
We want to be in some festivals, but not because we want to try to make a deal. We just want to have that little bit of exposure in that world, but mostly we’re going to do our own screenings.