I have some very close friends who annoy me no end with questions such as, "When are you going to make a real movie." "What do you mean," I ask. "Aren’t documentaries real enough for you?" "Well, documentaries are OK, but why aren’t you famous like Spielberg or Coppola? Where are the corporate jet and the entourage and the house in Beverly Hills?"
"So you think I’m a failure because I’m not famous?" "Why aren’t you famous?" I shout back. "Why aren’t you the head of the Mayo Clinic?" I ask my doctor friend. "Or on the Supreme Court?" I say to my lawyer buddy. "Or the president of a giant insurance conglomerate?" I say to my agent. "That’s not the same thing," they answer. "You make movies and the measure of success in America for movies is the Hollywood standard." Well, not for me it ain’t.
Whatever you think of the typical Hollywood movie, the bar for quality shooting, editing, and music for a Hollywood film is set very high. The reason is obvious: – moolah and lots of it. The major studios spend upwards of 100 million for a picture and even a very low-budget movie usually costs two or three million bucks.
I directed a low-budget feature film once, but we didn’t have close to that much money. In fact, we had far less than a Hollywood films catering budget to produce a 1850s period piece with foreign actors and child stars.
The film was The Boyhood of John Muir, and it was based, in part, on a documentary we produced called The Wilderness Idea, about the conflict between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot and the battle over flooding Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park. Muir had a dramatic and sometimes brutal childhood, which he overcame to eventually become a naturalist and early leader of the wilderness preservation movement. Directing both a documentary and a feature on the same subject provided me with one salient insight into the difference between documentary and features: control.
There are a few successful feature films, such as those by John Cassavetes or Lars von Trier, that rely on improvisation and cinema verit , but for the most part feature films are about controlling everything the viewer sees: the dialogue, the lighting, the extras, the music, even the weather. The feature starts with a script, which is broken down into a storyboard in which every camera angle is plotted in advance. It has to be this way; there is too much money and time at stake for the director and crew to screw around with creative ideas on the set. The screwing around happens months or years in advance. The creativity, one hopes, appears on the page.
When we shot The Boyhood of John Muir, we had such a tight budget that any accident or even rain storm, would have ruined the schedule. We didnt touch a word of the script and we followed the storyboards closely, only changing the blocking and angles when what we had planned failed to work. Although the small budget and crew and lack of resources were stressful, the truth is that, after having produced many documentaries, directing a feature was pretty easy. (Producing it was another matter, but thats for another time.) After all, we knew what people were going to say, we knew the narrative story line, and we had a script to follow as we edited.
Compare that to making the documentary about John Muir and Giffod Pinchot. Yes, we had a script. We needed one to get the funding. But the script for a documentary is just a shooting guide. Anyone who tries to edit a documentary based on a script written beforehand will end up with an unworkable mess. Once you get into the editing room, the material tells you what to do. Who gave the strongest interviews; what are the best landscapes; which is the most compelling anecdote? Unlike editing a feature, documentary editing is a process of self-discovery: how much do I like these characters; do I want to weave their stories together or tell them separately; what political message do I want to emphasize?
When all that mess of footage in the editing room somehow becomes an entertaining, provocative, and cohesive documentary movie, it’s a thrill. That’s my measure of success. Would I welcome the glamour and money that comes from making Hollywood features? Probably, but that was never my goal. If I’d wanted to make movies for the masses I would have left leafy Western Massachusetts long ago.
So I say to my goading friends, don’t expect to live your movie mogul dreams vicariously through me. I’m an out-of-control kind of guy and documentary filmmaking suits me just fine. I just wish I had a catering budget.