A post by Matt Bockelman
Make a Plan. Forget the Plan. Make a New Plan. Forget That Plan.
Producing a verité documentary is challenging work, and it can often feel like all the forces of the world are conspiring to keep you from realizing your vision. If you’re shooting outside, it will rain. If you’ve booked a car to drive six hours to film a scene, your subject will cancel. If your story is contingent on having access to a specific location, you’re not going to get in. If you think you know what your film is about, but you haven’t shot it yet, then you’re probably wrong.
It can be a frustrating process, having every creative idea fall flat, get rejected, or simply not pan out. But what I’m learning (or rather, forcing myself to believe) is that this is not a hitch in the creative process, it is the creative process. And it seems to be a lesson I’ve learned before.
My day job is working as a freelance cinematographer. As a cameraman it’s unusual for me to walk into a situation with much more than the synopsis of the story that the filmmaker is trying to tell. Normally, I’ll have a pre-production discussion a day or two before the shoot, where the director and I discuss the project in broad strokes before getting into the details of the upcoming shoot. The director will tell me what to expect and what he hopes to come away with. I get notes on shooting style. I get brief character descriptions. I get location logistics. Then, I am set loose. On most days, although I shoot what was asked for, I almost always come up with something else as well. That “something else” is typically a result of things not going exactly as planned or due to my own curiosity and reactions to the subjects.
I’ll give you an example. I recently worked on a documentary entitled Gimp, about a dance group that integrates dancers with physical disabilities and conventional dancers. A major theme of the film revolves around questioning when it is acceptable to look at someone – and specifically what parts of that someone. The director had asked me to get up close, to really zoom in on the performers and dissect their bodies, to force viewers to see things that may normally motivate them to avert their eyes. I did that. But soon I felt myself wanting to look away, feeling guilty about watching so blatantly. So, I started flirting with the concept of looking away. I’d point the camera toward the corner and wait for a performer to pass through the frame. I’d start a shot on a dancer’s face and then subtly creep down to see his “disability.” These shots, while not as in-your-face as the director had asked for, echoed the sentiments that were expressed by the audience during a Q&A after the dance performance. Their impulses and reactions to the performance were in-line with my own. And as a result we had the imagery to support their experience of the production.
In Gimp I was conscious of executing the director’s vision, but my impulse to look away allowed me to cover the scene in a different way. It was the difference between forcing the footage into a perspective and letting the natural response shine through.
Now, as I make a film of my own, as director and cameraman, I find myself tempted to plan out each detail. I want to pre-interview each subject, block out shots, control the flow and topic of scenes, to know more than I ever asked a director for when working as a cinematographer. The more I think about these things, however, the farther I move from that openness that I have developed on the sets of other people’s films. I’m finding that I need to make a conscious effort to approach directing this film more like I approach shooting one. Yes it’s important to visualize what I think could or should happen, but I also need to be ready to submit to what actually does.
Matt Bockelman on location for You Have the Right to an Attorney
My new film, You Have The Right To An Attorney, is about public defenders and their clients in The South Bronx. Much of the story hinges on the tenuous relationships that develop between public defenders and their clients. Much of that development takes place in institutions notoriously difficult to access with cameras (courtrooms and correctional facilities) or under the protection of attorney/client privilege. Arraignments, the process in which defendants are first introduced to their court-appointed attorneys, were high on my list of scenes to shoot. I intended for the arraignment scenes to illustrate the unstable ground on which the relationship begins, as well as introduce the massive caseload that the attorneys carry. Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more likely that I won’t get the access to film in this context. This is disappointing but not terminal to the story.
Instead I’m now looking into using the police reports filed for the clients and finding visually compelling ways to base scenes and sequences on the text of these documents. This approach, based upon what we are able to access, will introduce the clients as the court system sees them, as statistics on a page. From there we’ll cut to our attorney back in the office as he combs through stacks of files, sharing hints of detail from one after another with us. Then, when we meet the clients later in the film, it’s a rewarding reveal because we get to see them as human beings for the first time. Effectively, we’ve taken a roadblock and turned it into an expression of a key reality of the world in which the film is set.
By spending the time to develop ideas of what the film should be, I’ve created the mental space to see what the film will be. And as ideas fall through, new ones are born to replace them. The more I’m able to do that, the better prepared I will be in the field when I’m shooting. If something unexpected happens, by this point I’m practiced in dealing with the unexpected and can quickly adjust. That’s the theory anyway. I’ll let you know how it works out.
Matt Bockelman is a New York-based cinematographer and producer. His most recent projects include The Unofficial House Band, about a music and arts program at Sing Sing Prison (commissioned by Rehabilitation Through The Arts), Communitas, an experimental documentary about theater director Richard Schechner’s famed performance workshop, and Meet the Gardeners, a series profiling the employees of Madison Square Garden. Matt founded Fly’s Eye Films in 2010 with the goal of creating substantive documentaries, objectively rendered but with a strong visual aesthetic.
Matt’s mentor during the Reach Film Fellowship is Marshall Curry, is the Director, DP and Editor of the feature documentary Racing Dreams, which won Best Documentary at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, and the Academy Award and Emmy-nominated Street Fight.