During a doc interview, a subject says “I’m really shy.” Cut to the subject at a party, having a ball.
Or they say it in interview, but that doesn’t make it into the film. Instead you see them having a ball at that party, then get close enough to see that their eyes are nervous as hell, maybe they’re a little drunk, or maybe they’re a little startled when somebody bumps into them. Uncomfortable in their skin.
The first example tells me things, then it’s up to me to decide which I believe. Left to interpret the second example, I can reach my own conclusions about what’s really happening. I can relate to being at a party, to being out of my element but putting up a front. I’m making a hundred internalized connections that will stay with me. The first example will roll off my back, just like a duck.
Now that’s me, and it’s probably a bone head example, but hopefully it’s a functional one that cinema should be cinematic, the information should come through the context, not be stated. Tell me a story, only don’t TELL me the story.
Working with my own stuff I’ve been as guilty as anyone of telling instead of showing from time to time. It’s always a bit trickier when you know everything about your subject. Working with creators on their projects is, in a way, a bit of a cheat. Without their baggage I’m able to cut through material pretty quickly.
Grey Violet – Odd One Out, is a case in point. I met Finnish team Reetta Aalto and Liisa Juntunen (Finns really like doubling the letters in their names) when they pitched the film at the Baltic Sea Docs pitching forum a couple of years ago. It follows the journey of Grey, a complicated, “queer”, mathematician/art activist from Russia to Finland, where ze seeks asylum and some sort of meaning. I fell for the team right away, and the punk rock attitude of the material, coming as it does from the same environment Pussy Riot sprang from.
A couple of years later, and Reetta, in rough cut stage, has reached the end of what she felt she could do on her own, and mother hen Liisa calls me in to lend a hand. She sends me the rough cut.
“Too much of a good thing” is an apt description. Reetta clearly likes a lot of what Grey has to say, and I mean she really likes a lot of it. And it’s all in the film, and it, and Grey, are just too much. And we all know it. So again, the question (over a crappy skype connection because I don’t live in Finland) : “What’s your film about?”
It turns out it’s sort of about all of Grey’s strange theories and hard to decipher political positions, but not really. It just so happens that one thing that makes Grey an interesting asylum seeker to follow instead of one of the thousands of others is that ze does have these thoughts. But more to the point, ze doesn’t fit the mold, ze’s very, very odd. And therein lay the beginning of the core we worked towards.
We talked about a lot of strategies on identifying one focal point and building around that. There were very concrete suggestions thrown around, as well as more subtle abstractions, and then off she went with her notes.
The rough cut I saw next was totally transformed. She’d run with some of our ideas, totally ignored others, and showed me a character and a film I suddenly felt things for. And for that simple reason, a lot of Grey’s ideas flowed through me, and the one core theme rams home. It’s openly stated, but it really sinks in because of the way Reetta put everything together before that moment. A whole new film.
I still had tons of notes for her (because I’m a nitpicker), but all pretty specific; with the structure and emotional beats laid out, what was left were details.
So does the information get lost in the story? Some people will always think so. Some will want more of that, and less heart, or more heart and less politics, or whatever. My mission is always to help creators to craft films that will linger, with unanswered questions, honest characters, and a unique spirit.
Does Grey Violet do that? You tell me.