It’s been a season of rough-cut screenings, trailer critiques, trailer building, and project tutoring. What’s nice about this more fractured pace, as opposed to spending long stretches editing a single film, is a reminder that, not only is there a huge variety of ways to tell a story, but that one of the most important bits of storytelling is the genuine honesty of the storyteller’s voice.
Any of you who have seen David Lynch’s Inland Empire might agree that it’s an opaque, mysterious film. I’m still not sure I understand… any of it. But, there’s not a second of screen time that I don’t firmly believe. Whatever Laura Dern gets up to feels absolutely genuine. Wherever the narrative takes us, weird, crazy and uncomfortable as it is, feels completely immersive and natural. The world Lynch creates is grounded in human experience, but it taps into the loony, subconscious way each of us, individually interprets the world. The performances, the editing, the cinematography all create a seamless weave, unique to Lynch’s vision.
What sucks about industry, is that formula is inevitable. In doc we sit around tables and talk about slots and 3 act structures, and the market. Sometimes we even talk about the audience. But there are only so many stations, so many broadcast hours in a day, so many docs we think audiences can stomach. So as an expert, I can gently coax creators towards the kind of structure and narrative that I know the BBC is in the market for, or that might work for Sundance. “You’ve got a good idea but for the sake of distribution you should X, Y, and Z.” That’s the market. That’s the whole shebang if you want to make your films for an audience of more than one. At IDFA this week, a massive part of the industry focus is on gearing creators to think that way.
In a mini-doc about Atom Egoyan I once made, he said “it’s absurd that a medium as young as film should already be so locked in form and content.” I agree, and it’s probably why I fell off the feature film wagon for quite a while. (until I saw The Lobster. Sensational!)
The danger in critiquing other people’s films is the risk that you might go past the questions that bring filmmakers closer to their own voices, and instead put your own stamp on it. Unlike the editing process, where your job is to influence the content and challenge assumptions, the development stage is more delicate; the film is slowly coming into focus and the filmmaker needs to get there more or less on their own.
Refreshingly, a couple of years ago Albina Griniūtė. was pitching her stunning Paradise Gowns at Lisbon Docs. Broadcasters didn’t know what the hell to do with a slow, contemplative, black and white doc where the main character was a place! But one of the sales agents at the table encouraged her to go farther “more of that! Build the cache and make it even more of what it already is.” (I’m paraphrasing. It was a while ago).
But then there’s life, and mortgages, and bills to pay and kids to feed, and cultivating an uber-creative voice in a flooded market is no guarantee of anything except frustration and struggle. There’s not any one answer. But asking the question on a regular basis keeps me honest. I hope.