Making a doc on only days of shooting: Robert Greene’s two in a year, Part 1
When Robert Greene, who had been primarily an editor at 4th Row Films in New York, decided to make his first feature documentary, it was an exercise in economy (as he documented in part 1 and 2 of a series last year). Doubling up family road trips with a shooting schedule, mailing cameras to friends who could shoot for him, “Owning The Weather,” about using science to manipulate the climate, had a hands-down payoff: It premiered at Full Frame, made its way to iTunes and Netflix, and has had a wide array of screenings.
Greene is now bringing out two new films in one year that are taking the idea of economical filmmaking further – “Kati with an i” and “Fake It So Real” were feature-length films made with shooting schedules numbering in days, rather than weeks or months, and which have again hit: “Kati” premiered at DocNYC last September, was nominated for a Gotham Film Award, and was called one of the “top undistributed film of 2010” by the Village Voice (although distribution will certainly happen). “Fake It” premiered a few weeks ago at True/False, one of the most interesting emerging film festivals in the country.
Greene has worked this all around his position as producer and head of editing at 4th Row, which has also produced “An Omar Broadway Film” (Tribeca, then HBO) which Greene edited and co-produced.
Busy, indeed. Which is why when he went to Alabama in the week leading up to high-school graduation of his half-sister, Kati Genthner, as she pondered whether she’d leave for North Carolina to join her parents moving from the town in which she grew up, or stay on to be with her boyfriend. Greene knew that in that story was drama.
The way we came to “Kati” was I’d made “Owning The Weather,” which was a much bigger film that involved scientists and experts and big landscape shots, and it took me a year to shoot it. I wanted to do something different with “Kati,” so I went entirely in the opposite direction. When we started the filming we didn’t even know if it was going to become a film; we knew it was going to be in a compressed amount of time, but whether you’re going to get what you need in that amount of time is another thing.
Greene is a professional – making a full-time living in the film business – who’s never been all that enamored with the hardware. As with “Owning The Weather,” he shot “Kati” with a Mini-DV camera he says he’s shot more family vacation footage on that documentary work (although his shooting over the years has yielded lots of family footage with Kati in it). Working with cinematographer Sean Price Williams, he knew going in that it was going to be an intense window of shooting.
The reason you shoot a film in a year is because that’s what you need to do in order to get what you need. We shot this in a way that was an experiment: Keep it very, very direct, and very intimate, and very quick; the end was that we knew her graduation was going to be the end of the film. What we got was something we thought was filmworthy, because of what happened on the days we shot, and also something that was not manipulation in the strongest sense, but the setting up of scenarios we knew would allow us to be able to film stuff.
But as a seasoned editor, he also had clear intention. He gravitated toward the project clearly intending to have a film.
For Kati, it was about her, as a character, in a situation: She was about to graduate. The South, high school, high school girls, high school boys and relationships – they were all pithy things anyway, they were cinematic. That’s why there are so many high-school movies.
I didn’t know the extent of the situation she was in – and it was pretty awful – but we did know that these days were going to be pivotal. She had to decide whether she was going to go or stay, or whether her boyfriend was going to come or stay behind. The movie is, basically, she and her boyfriend deciding whether they were going to stay in Alabama or go to North Carolina. It ended up being about how these days were deeper and harder than they even understood.
Having gathered the footage, the work on the edit began the process of finding its narrative. In a life-situation that can be all around us but for which we might have limited ability to observe, bringing story out of a mass of experiences finds its challenge in edit.
It’s a hard story – meaning hard to find, not difficult. It was hard to find a very clear narrative. The first 25 or 30 minutes are a little bit more impressionistic, and then a narrative kicks in. And that’s how we experienced it. And some people have said it has a feel of a narrative film, rather than a documentary.
When I’m editing, I try to impart some of the experiences I had in making it, because I feel that adds some energy.
We didn’t have a story line. We had a concept, and we wanted to get impressions.
Then there was the thing we didn’t know, which was the whole relationship with James, which we didn’t know about when we went down there. That became a pivotal couples of days her – we got lucky.
One of the ways to make that palatable, and real, is an event. I read somewhere that for the old Italian Neorealist movies of the 1940s, a lot of times they weren’t all that story-driven, but that you often had to end the movie with someone leaving – The Guy Who Left Town. Because something happened, things had changed, and you moved on. It’s a matter of what are the aims of your character or characters, how are they going to experience it, and how are you going to watch them experience it. And then an end point. It’s like, say, three days before a gay person comes out. Those days will build emotionally to what’s going to happen. You’re going to see the before, the during, and then the aftermath.
There were some mild “directing” choices that attempted to find situations that Greene knew were part of Kati’s life – for example, he asked her to go to the mall with her friends, something she did a lot of but might not have done that day. But more often than not it was following her through her week. The fact that Kati has grown up familiar with her older brother’s camera going was probably part of why she was willing to be open to being in the project.
The fact that he could have abandoned the project at fairly low cost is likely one of the reasons he could make the film as he has. Greene says if there is one aspect of filmmaking, it’s the technological changes that have opened up so many possibilities, allowed for so many films, and at times ruined its share of projects because of it.
One of the things we have with the technology, with the light cameras and the way we can edit now, we have infinite choices. Sometimes infinite choices can be really crippling. Especially when you’re starting out, you just don’t have the confidence that you’re making the right choice. Sometimes that can be really self-defeating, and you can end up over-thinking things. I like the idea that you throw yourself in the fire, basically. Hold your camera, see what happens, and see what comes of it.
In Part 2, we’ll look at “Fake It So Real”