Join Ashley Kennedy for an in-depth discussion in this video Planning, shooting and editing the documentary: telling real stories, part of Filmmaking Forum: Conversations.
- When I make a documentary, it's, you know, I try to do as much research as possible, reading articles, reading stories, reading books, watching other films, so that I know what else has been done if there's a topic and then also I try to, you know, think about what's new, an angle that's different than other people have taken. And so, and then I say "Okay, what are my strengths?. You know, what am I good at? What, you know, I could do this but I can do that. - Number one: getting a really good crew in place.
Like, I made sure I had that early, early on that it was somebody that I felt as though I could work with and he would bring in other people that I could work with as well. - I love going in to something with one vision of the story that I think I'm making and then I'll interview people and there'll be these doors that open, these narrative doors and you go on a true exploration whenever you make a documentary film and the process for me is as interesting and as creative and often as relevant to the story we're making as the final, final product.
- My style is to always have a reasoning of where I am, how I shoot something, and how I build a narrative. I don't, I'm also not a big fan of, of shooting a bunch of footage and finding a story in the footage. Usually I always have some sort of an idea of what the narrative of each story should be. Obviously that can change in the edit but I should have some sort of a clear idea of what my direction is. - The key is it's like casting for a film. You're looking for people who are really interesting, who an audience would be spellbound by, - You know, what would it be like speaking to this person who I wasn't thinking about speaking to? What could come out of this conversation and how could I get to this point where they would sort of open up to me about something like this? - And then once you do that, you know, you're sort of telling their story and so, you know, then I think up what are the sequences in their lives that are worth shooting that will tell an audience about this topic or these people and what this topic means to them? - And the other weird thing is the documentary keeps changing every time a new interview subject will come on board or every time an interview subject will say, "Hey, you should talk to Joe.
He'd be really interesting in this as well." and then you suddenly realize, oh yeah, that would be interesting. Like I've rewritten the treatment for this documentary about ten times so far because it really is, it's just this amorphous mass at the moment, that keeps sort of shifting, and moving around, and I know that deep down I wanna sort of tell this story. I'm just still sort of trying to figure out what that story is. - Trying to cover, here's the basic thing I'm thinking of what we might wanna do and so then you just start setting up shoots based on that, right? So, but, and you start, when you start finding the people you're interviewing you have based your list of question off of, this is what I think we're probably gonna do, but you don't really know because you don't really know what everybody's gonna say and then you'll go and shoot things, then you start putting it together later, and you go "Hmm, okay, mm, maybe that works.
Maybe that doesn't, maybe that's too much." - I think that, um, building trust and a relationship with your interview subjects is kind of like the most important part of the process in a way because nobody is under the obligation to speak to you and tell you your story. They're basically doing you a favor by doing that and, you know, in both the director's chair and in the edit suites, I feel a really, really big obligation to be helping people tell their story.
I've gotta keep reminding myself that I'm not actually taking these people's words in order to say what I wanna say. I'm trying to enable these people to say what they're trying to say as best as possible. Now, as an editor, I may be cutting that down for the purposes of making it more succinct or making it relevant to the overall topic but really the idea is, the person should be able to look at what you've filmed in an edited form, and say, "Yes, I believe in what I've just said there.
You haven't actually changed the context or whatever I've said." - Half the challenge is making, sort of, your subjects feel comfortable with you and the camera. There's a sort of trust that people form, naturally. I think a subjects, when they see that you're not going back to a hotel every night, you're not eating at a restaurant after work every night, you're literally with them, and sort of seeing firsthand what it is they feel like or what it feels like to live there full-time and I think they appreciated that. You know, the fact that we woke up every morning at four in the morning.
We ate breakfast with them and we ate lunch with them. We ate dinner with them. We drank with them. We drink, had karaoke sessions with them. We even worked with them sometimes, you know, and I think, I think they appreciated that and I think they were willing to be open, to have them open up to you. - So, the subject matter is really what determines the structure and the style. So I don't, I, that's what I mean about a long career. I've had a long enough career to develop, to be able to say well, you know, my style doesn't necessarily work unless it works for the topic of the film.
- The biggest difference, I think, between doing fiction film and documentary film is that with documentary film you have a responsibility to the subject and to whatever, whatever you're filming. So, in some ways, you have to lose that sort of ego of what your style is because you can't, you have to make a style that's best fits them, that best puts them in the light that's truth, and I think with narrative films, you can make whatever style you want, basically, cause you're, you're kind of making it from scratch but with documentary films, I think you can't have that same approach, and so I learned this the hard way.
Well, that's why I think the editing took a very long time is because I think at first, I wanted to make this very stylized film in this way that I always saw things, but then, you can't do that because it doesn't fit the subject matter. - The whole actual story arc ends up coming together in the editing room. For documentary pre-production, there will be a treatment and the producer and director will decide who they're gonna edit, what B-roll they're gonna shoot, what stock footage they need. They have everything all planned out and they've given me all the elements, but you really don't know the story until you do the interview, until you see what you find in B-roll.
- If you shoot that much footage, and then you are going to be thorough, with, to make sure that you know what you have to look, that's the only way you find those little moments and little details, is like, it took me three months to sit there and watch that 300 hours. You know, and like make notes and figure out what it was. - So you have to sit there and analyze it and say, "Okay, what does this stuff mean, and what's the most important, what's the most important point?" So I like finding the bead in the documentary and actually starting to build up the idea of the piece.
- It can be a very rewarding process because you, you're really formulating a story arc and, and kind of, molding characters out of this footage. - My favorite part of making a documentary is definitely being able to structure a story where there was no obvious structure to a story before and being able to find that and discover it in the actual edit is fantastic but at the same time, the thing I hate about documentaries is that there's no structure to the footage that you're receiving and you're the one who has to find that, and, and you'll go mad looking for it sometimes, because you're trying to, you're trying to find some sort of narrative form to something that didn't have it beforehand.
- So the editor has enormous power to create the story in the audience's mind, initially on their own and then in collaboration with the director. Sometimes documentary directors want to be surprised and they want to leave the editor alone for weeks and then come in and watch and have some independence and some fresh perspective on what is presented to them. - I don't know it just sort of, after a while, it seems like it just kind of becomes obvious what it wants to be and particularly once you get the footage there, and you start looking, okay, this speaks to me.
This speaks to me. This speaks to me. You, you separate out the parts that really, like, as you're watching it, you know, echo and resonate for you for some reason, and, like, okay, does that belong here? Where does it go? Does it go... These two things are kind of alike. Let's put that there and mm, mm, this does, okay, but. So it just becomes kind of this process of a it sounds really "oogly" or whatever, but, like the footage kind of tells you what it wants to be, I think, at a certain point. - It's really important that you keep people wanting to, wanting to know what's gonna happen next, and that each scene sort of plays off of its each other, and then the whole arc that the full, the narrative has feels continuative, and that people feel like they're, sort of, I've just walked through this journey and I'm walking away with a very strong impression of these people, or this subject, or this story.
- A lot of times for a documentary, refining is taking hours and hours of footage in interviews and finding the most human story relatable to an audience. - Is it moving people? You know, that, that a lot of times, the characters in the documentary don't have an arc, but the arc comes, the audience can have an arc. You know, so that's, I think, what you're looking for is, is are you taking your audience someplace that they, that they, moves them? And if you can do that, it's gonna be a successful film.
- Advice for novice filmmakers entering the industry
- Finding, enhancing, and tweaking your story
- Experimenting in filmmaking
- Solving problems and troubleshooting your film
- Changing your approach or finding new angles
- Communicating and collaborating on set and in the edit room—and with clients
- Working on different genres of film
- Teaching and mentoring new filmmakers