Recently at my “day job,” I was fortunate enough to spend some time with a documentary filmmaker who was researching for a new film project. Like most of us, I am somewhat in awe of the film industry, probably because they are able to tell their stories in the most impressive, emotionally-charged way. A quiet, thoughtful book seems a pale second to all the CGI-created fantasy that flashes across the big screen. Granted, a book can have so much more in the way of plot―more complexity, more nuance―and can round out the characters with back story much better than a 90-minute movie can. They really do seem like two very different things, and yet … they both tell stories.
Wondering about this balance of similarities vs. differences, I asked her about her process. Did she story-board her ideas? Did she do an outline? Did she do most of her own filming?
Her answers surprised me. She filmed some on her own but if, funding permitting, she could hire a cinematographer, that person would do a good share of the filming as well. She talked about the importance of having someone else filming, seeing the subject through another’s eyes, having another person to bounce ideas off of. I realized the cinematographer for her would be much like an editor is for a writer: fresh eyes to see if the story flowed, if the characters played true, if the plot unfolded in a believable, unforced way. Authors, of course, are very isolated and insular story-tellers; having someone else look at our work is a good way to test if we are getting as much information out of our heads and onto the paper as we need to communicate the story. (I actually think that’s one of the hardest things about writing: knowing how much of the story is on paper and how much is still in my head, how much I know about my characters and how much my reader may or may not gather from the writing.) So this was definitely an area where, although the medium was different, the process was very similar.
The filmmaker said she did not story-board. She said she knew some filmmakers who scripted their entire film before starting, but she found that if she did that, she had a tendency to lock herself into the details and lost the openness that allowed the living, organic quality to infuse the work. If she set herself on a schedule, she found she was more worried about whether or not the sun was shining that day, whether the light was right for the filming she had planned. I could definitely relate to that. As I’ve written before about the dynamism of writing, I use a loose process that allows the story to grow and evolve, sometimes to my chagrin! I will set down a few descriptors of my characters (age, physical build, personality traits, main emotional drivers), then jot down maybe five bullet points that are the main development ideas and/or plot turns. I tweak those things a bit as I go just so I have a very brief outline of where I’ve been and where I’m going, but beyond that, I just open the gates and see where the story wants to go.
I’ve been told I’m very undisciplined (which works for me), so it was nice to hear that this filmmaker did something very similar. Obviously there are a zillion ways to go about this, probably as many ways as there are story-tellers.
What’s your process?
(And now the lead character in my latest is dragging me back by the throat. Gotta write!)