I was asked this question again recently, so I thought why not repost my response from two years ago. It’s not like my answer has changed.
People have actually said that to me after I tell them I’m making a documentary. I’m usually rendered speechless and sometimes I can’t even manage to raise an eyebrow. Of course I know what they mean. They mean a narrative feature film with actors in it and lots of lights and cables crossing the sidewalk and grungy looking PAs with walkie-talkies and a table full of danishes and sliced fruit.
It’s a good question, since I’ve spent most of my life writing fiction–screenplays, short stories, the novel in my closet–and my short films were narratives. So why a documentary? (Not why this documentary? That’s a different question, one I wrote about in an earlier post.)
I decided to make a documentary because I wanted to make another film. I wanted to capture moving images and have those images tell a story. Most filmmakers can attest to just how difficult it is to get a narrative film made. So much time and energy is spent chasing producers, name actors, and money. Lots of money. When you’re trying to get a narrative film made, even a very small independent film with a micobudget, these elements have to fall in place long before a frame is shot. You might as well be waiting for all the cherries in all the slots in all the casinos in Atlantic City to line up at once. It’s enough to snuff out whatever creative fire you have burning inside of you.
My reasoning went like this: I could work on a documentary a bit at a time, which is something you can’t usually do with a feature (there are exceptions, like Roland Tec’s excellent We Pedal Uphill); I could make a documentary with a small crew and I wouldn’t need a steamer trunk full of Hamiltons to get it started. The big questions were could I live with making the film in stages and was I prepared to undertake the marathon that is making a documentary of this kind? Could I keep my enthusiasm up for years and years?
The answers so far: still alive after three good subjects interviewed, 70+ hours in the can, more on the way in August ’09; plenty of kick in me and as passionate as ever about this adventure.
But I haven’t answered that first question, have I? Do I want to make a real film? A narrative feature film, yes. But right now, I have this film I’m still excited about and that still requires most of my attention. When A Life’s Work is finished, and if I can rig it so all those cherries in all the slots in all the casinos in Atlantic City line up at once, then I’ll make that feature.
Photo: Peter LaMastro
[cross-posted at Extra Criticum]