Working With Film Subjects (2)

Posted in Documentary, Filmmaking on May 9th, 2013 by Dave

I’m no expert in producing films — I’ve only made five of them so far — but I do know that even one really bad experience can be a great teacher.

I spent about five months on a film last year, a profile of a local artist that ended up being nearly 25 minutes long. I thought the film’s subject — let’s call her “Anita,” for the sake of privacy — understood what I was going for in the film, but after screening the final edit, it turned out I was completely wrong.

Much to my surprise, Anita hated it!

I thought I’d done all my homework. I’d given Anita the edited audio track, essentially giving her an opportunity to “vet” the content. At that point, she liked it fine.

The real problems came when I showed her the first visuals. Anita disliked my visual interpretation of her work, and my characterization of her creative process.

Her reaction went beyond dislike. After several conversations by phone and by email, and many attempts to harmonize her wish-list with my vision, it became clear that there was no way I could please her. I felt I had no choice but to shelve the film.

It was truly amazing to me how our relationship changed in the blink of an eye. From cordial, cooperative, relaxed, and friendly to cold, abrupt, and…over. I was blown away — and I stayed blown away for quite some time.

This wasn’t just a bad “review;” this was a complete disaster. Five months of work with nothing to show for it. At least, publicly.

I hadn’t asked Anita to sign a release. At the beginning of the relationship, I felt I needed to build trust, not impose a legal constraint. This wasn’t negligence on my part, but instead a calculated decision. A release wouldn’t have provided me total protection anyway; in this country, a person can still sue if they want to.

After the relationship fell apart, I second-guessed myself. Perhaps having a signed document would have helped me go through the motions of releasing the film. But did I really want to release it under those terms? As an unauthorized bio?

That’s definitely not how I saw my role as filmmaker. Moreover, I felt I needed to take the high ground and respect Anita’s wishes. After all, the ultimate responsibility for her bad feelings lay with me as a producer, right?

In my mind, I felt I couldn’t breach Anita’s trust, even if I felt she was breaching mine. In the final analysis, it was her face on the big screen, not mine.

So I buried the film deep in my hard drive, where it resides to this day.

This chapter in my life as a filmmaker was painful and dispiriting, but over time I’ve come to see Anita’s perspective a little more clearly. I even see her disappointment as a kind of a mirror image of my own. I’ve gotten to the point where I can put the frustration out of my mind. More importantly, I’ve moved on to other projects.

A friend gave me some good advice: roll over it like a bump in the road.

He was right. What’s the alternative? Just give up? Never risk anything going forward?

I’ve learned some valuable lessons from this epic failure. These days, before I ever pick up a camera, I spend a lot more time getting to know my subjects — and letting them get to know me. I do everything I can to make sure they understand that this is a film about them, and not for them. There’s a big difference.

I’m not interested in making a puff piece or an infomercial. I have my own artistic goals. In the future, if the vibe starts trending towards conflict or instability, I think I’ll pick up on it much quicker, and either resolve the issue or consider aborting the project, long before I’ve put in months of work.

I’ll still share the progress of the film as it develops, and particularly while it’s being edited. That seems like a sensible precaution. I’m even posting weekly drafts of my latest film on a protected page of my website, so my subject always knows what’s happening.

No more, “The film is done, what do you think?” and then hope for the best. Springing the film on Anita, like I unfortunately did, was a huge gamble. I know that now.

I would have been better off buying a lotto ticket!