I’m a bona fide sucker for the development phase of documentary filmmaking. It’s how I got my start in the industry. My job at CBC Television in BC was to wade through proposals for all genres and manage those that were selected to receive funding for a development phase. A process that would help decide which projects should ultimately be chosen for production. I was always drawn to documentary (funny, that) as it allowed filmmakers to map out in initial proposals what they thought their project could be while knowing all the while that all bets were off once they unleashed their camera’s honest eye on their subjects. At the end of development, the broadcaster is presented with a demo. Sometimes the reel would mirror the pitch. Sometimes it looked like a completely different film. Either way, it was an exciting process.
Cut to years later and becoming a filmmaker myself… “Development? Bah. Just gimme the cash and let me make my film!” Oh, how the tables turned as I’d often grumble about the extra paperwork. But in my heart of hearts, the writer in me wins out and I get jazzed about hunkering down to create a detailed mind movie. It forces you to cover territory and really think about where the film could go. (April and I thought we explored every angle. Turns out we missed one….)
Going through a development phase for Father Figures was a no brainer. And Knowledge Network was game. We could go on a mission to not only explore story, but find out what the main characters were like to interview and follow. Considering they were based in a foreign country, it would have sucked to go right into production and find out they were just interesting on paper. And frankly, we knew this was going to be at least three years of our lives we were about to commit to. We wanted to make sure we were gunning for something important. (We got more than we bargained for, it turns out.)
Everyone had heard a similar story…Older white man. Young Asian woman. If it was true love, we wanted to know. If it was a sham, we wanted to know. What did her family think? But our exploration had a unique twist… For one of the filmmakers, this controversial relationship was close to home. What did it mean for Dale’s family — for April, as his daughter?
Development meant April and I could experiment with our creative vision. We wanted to intimately capture April going on this journey. And – see April’s blog on a two-person crew – I was the lucky candidate to be shooter number two.
Now let me be clear on something. In all my past films, my role on set as director or producer included keeping the story focused, directing the cinematographer to capture the right tone of a scene and not letting go of the big picture when details took over. Keeping track of the environment and character nuances while being responsible for physically capturing moments (properly) was not in my bag of tricks. So I had to learn quickly.
Our development shoot was our first foray into the Philippines where April would meet Girlie. We all but got off the plane and Girlie arrived at our hotel in Roxas City unexpectedly. So far I had dabbled in shooting at the airport and that’s it. Now it’s our first major scene and I have to shoot it – now. Oh that’s just fabulous.
The test was on. Two cameras, with April being my main focus. In essence, I represent you, the audience – who is watching April, watching them. We also needed to exercise the process of April constantly articulating what she was experiencing, to camera. We needed on going access to her thoughts so that we were getting true reveals in the moment as opposed to trying to conjure up feelings later in post-production using voice over. That meant if she began sharing something late at night, while putting away gear — I’d get that look on my face – (You know we gotta shoot this.) Then she’d give me that look on her face – (Oh, *&^%$!) And out came my little camera.
We knew our systems were working during our first major shoot with Dale and Girlie at their apartment. We got into a rhythm with our photography and following the scene together, anticipating the other’s move. We had pitched to Knowledge that we would both direct for this exact reason. And our commissioning editor, Murray Battle, had faith. A filmmaker himself, he could see the benefit with such a small crew. He knew we’d need to have each other’s back.
While we were navigating Dale in his wheelchair on the white sand beaches of Borocay, our story had already begun to have its first major shift. April was learning things about the relationship that neither of us had banked on. And sticking to the creative vision became harder as emotions surfaced and more became revealed.
It also meant that I’d have to get much better at B Camera because the story became more and more about a father and a daughter. We’d look at footage together and April would patiently remind me to white balance, not to cut her head off and – ahem – to record sound. (One time. ONE TIME!)
Knowledge Network green-lit production based on our demo and proposal. Eventually I found my camera operator legs, could focus beyond April’s head and the camera became a useful extension for every scene. I even threw my back out in Hong Kong just like a proper shooter. Yay, I was in the club.
I also managed the incognito shoot at the marriage license office as neither April nor I was keen to get detained by another country’s immigration team. (But that’s another blog).