As student filmmakers you learn in the process of creating your own productions, but you also can learn from watching the masters.
The masters in documentary offer some specific lessons in handling voiceovers, archival materials, on-screen hosts, and live events. Errol Morris, in particular, provides some key lessons to consider when handling interviews.
Morris is an eclectic documentary maker known for his esoteric subjects, such as pet cemeteries in Gates of Heaven; the residents of Vernon, Florida; the mole rat expert and the robot scientist in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, and a former beauty queen in Tabloid. He also addresses serious subjects, such as Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamara, about the Secretary of Defense who served under both President Kennedy and President Johnson during the Vietnam War. The Thin Blue Line retraces a shoddy death penalty case, and the documentary provided enough evidence to help overturn the conviction and get the falsely accused set free.
With each of his documentaries, Morris introduces a wide range of people. Some people seemed connected to the subjects at hand, such as the lawyers and the suspects in The Thin Blue Line, while others leave us scratching our heads as to why they are there. But overall, this variety is what makes Morris’s work so valuable for studying. Here are five lessons to consider:
1. Be prepared for the subtle surprises.
In general, you probably have ideas of what you seek when talking to people for your documentary. Every once in a while, though, a surprise might occur. In The Thin Blue Line, for example, while suspect David Harris talks, he nonchalantly reaches up to scratch, revealing his hands bound in silver cuffs. The gesture is subtle, but powerful. Up until that point, Harris seemed charming with his Texas drawl and big smile, but that simple gesture suggests otherwise.
2. Be prepared for equipment failure.
Being prepared is good advice, and equipment failure caused one of Morris’s more interesting interviews in The Thin Blue Line. Instead of a camera, we see an audio cassette recorder, which plays Harris’s confession to the murder. This scene caused some speculation about Morris’s intentions, but it actually was due to equipment issues. The end result, though, is an iconic scene and an important moment.
3. Be prepared for “different” people.
Many documentaries feature the traditional talking head, or an expert sitting in an office before shelves of books talking about something he (usually) studies from a distance. While these talking heads offer information and sometimes commentary, they often offer no expertise on lived experience. Those who lived through key events provide some powerful perspectives, and they become connections for some viewers. Aside from these two types, though, remain open people on the fringes — they might provide some of the most interesting ideas you might not have considered before. In Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, for example, a topiary gardener asks us to think of shrubbery shaping as art. In Vernon, Florida, a worm farmer gets us to think about why his stock disappears after he buries it in the ground, while a turkey farmer shares — in detail — the depth of skill involved in turkey hunting.
4. Be prepared for natural speech.
People rarely talk in sound bites. Instead, people talk with verbal pauses, silent pauses, repeated and redundant phrases, multiple tangents, endless contradictions, and seemingly pointless details. They might ramble on for twenty minutes about something that has nothing to do with the questions you are asking. In Gates of Heaven, for example, Florence Rasmussen talks for almost 20 minutes, starting off with recounting her beloved pet and shifting to her son. Her ramble only slightly connects to the pet cemetery drama unfolding, but she adds character and personality just through her presence.
5. Be prepared to ask the hard questions.
Within the interesting subjects and the natural speech, some truths will get suggested that might be relevant to your documentary’s overall argument. However, the people talking might not see those truths as relevant as you do, or they might avoid those truths because they are too painful to recount. Be ready to ask that hard, direct question, if necessary. If Morris had not asked that question, a man might still be sitting in jail on false murder charges.
Heather McIntosh is documentary critic and historian who teaches at a university near Boston. She started documentarysite.com almost a decade ago as a resource for documentary, and regularly Tweets about documentary news and happenings. Website: http://www.documentarysite.com