The Need to Tell

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The Need to Tell

We’ve all had those benchmark moments in our work, when something clicks, tugs at our heart, we suddenly come face to face with the essence of why we chose a particular field. In my case, I was in a hospital room interviewing someone when it suddenly became clear, and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.

It was during the filming for the documentary for a wonderful family. I’ll just call them the B. family. The focus of the biography was the four siblings: two sisters and two brothers. They were all the age of grandparents, had lived fascinating, disparate, and rich lives, (from Woodstock hippie to Nixon campaigners) and it was time to record their stories and the family’s history so the younger generations could know it too. But the eldest brother was not well.

 It was November. The interview of all the siblings was to take place on a chilly afternoon during a family reunion, just days after Obama was elected. But at the last minute, I got a call from the family: the eldest brother was now in the hospital, desperately ill with a mysterious disease. The family had to cancel.

 In film production, schedules can change on a dime. A cloud passing the sun can halt a shoot.  Yet in this kind of moviemaking — documentary filmmaking —  there is so much at stake. And I’m trained to go wherever the story takes me, whether it’s the far reaches of Alaska, an ancestral homestead, or a hospital room. I'll climb a mountain to get to the person telling their story. That’s the thing about finding the truth: you have to go where it lives.

 I remember the touch and go nature of all the arranging as the siblings and the family debated: should we proceed with interviewing the siblings, and include the eldest brother? Should we not?

 We all decided to move forward. The moment was upon us: all the siblings were finally in one city. Underlying that decision was something no one wanted to really come out and say, but it was there: If we don’t’ get the story now, we never will. When someone passes away, whatever they didn’t get to say is gone forever too.

 We interviewed the two sisters and the other brother, who did a wonderful job focusing, concentrating, though their hearts were heavy. Their thoughts were on the fourth brother – the family patriarch – in the hospital, fighting for his life.

 The next day we arrived at the hospital.  The room was quiet, the sounds of machines working, the comings and goings of nurses outside. The oldest brother, in bed, was certainly weak, his mind and body overwhelmed by the seriousness of his illness, all his energy focused on it. But still, there was an unmistakable spark of light in his eyes. And as I turned the camera on him and we started rolling, something amazing happened. He came to life.

 This man, who had had an adventurous life and a remarkable, illustrious career, was also the family historian. He was the sole keeper of all the details on past generations going back to the 1800s. And as I asked him questions for the interview, he transformed, energy filling him. He had to, he wanted to — unravel his family’s story — and all of it. He sat up in his bed, and began recounting his life on the rough side of town in Scranton, Pennsylvania in the 1930s. The details were fabulous, and precise. And he was taking care of us: making sure we got it right, entirely focused, and having a joyful time. He was animated, smiling, and he insisted that we keep going, keep going — for six hours. He recounted how the family had all wound up in the United States, how he had built his own career and he reflected that same sharp intensity and lively warmth I saw in his siblings.

 We sat with him until it was dark outside and we were running out of tape. Still, he wanted to talk. Nurses began coming in, first mentioning, and then suggesting, and then insisting that he had a treatment scheduled and it was time for him to stop and us to leave. But even the nurses were impressed by how he came to life, and touched by what they heard. Then it was time to go. No ifs ands or buts about it.

 We packed up, struck by the life force we had just witnessed, by the incredible need for this man to tell his story — a need that had seemed to raise him above his own infirmity not just for a moment, but an entire day. It was something profound and remarkable. I had far more material than I could ever use, but I had not been able to stop filming. He knew, and I knew, that this was more than just looking into a camera and talking about lives already lived so long ago. It was an urgent, heartfelt matter of passing on a legacy, his last chance.

 Looking back on the footage, everyone was shocked by how lucid and clear he was, entirely engaged in telling his story. His wife and siblings told me that was his “last best day” and thanked me profusely for working with them. I’d given them the opportunity to preserve all this man’s knowledge, his wisdom, and also his incredible zest and enthusiasm for life.  I told them: all in a days’ work. I should be thanking you. And it taught me an invaluable lesson: make sure to get that all important interview, no matter the odds.

 


How we make a Family Voices Media documentary: the edit

The family documentary biographies we make are real movies. In conversation with a journalist for an upcoming article, I was reminded that the process is second nature to myself and my crew. But to the family being filmed, it’s an entirely new experience. Last time I detailed the interview that takes place in the family’s home, filmed and lit by my crew and I. Once we’ve finished the interview and packed up our lights and cameras, there’s more work to do.

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How we make a Family Voices Media documentary: The Interview

The family documentaries we make are real movies. During a recent discussion with a journalist, his questions reminded me that the process is second nature to myself and my crew. But to the family being filmed, it’s an entirely new experience.

We film you at home

When we arrive at a family’s home, I have two jobs to do at the same time: setting up for filming the interview, and putting the family and whoever’s being interviewed at ease. Usually, your home is the ideal location: filled with your taste and your things, with touches of history, it’s usually the most comfortable, and it reflects the family in quiet ways.

A small crew

We are a small, efficient crew, with decades of experience in broadcast television between us. That cameraman setting up in the corner? I’ve worked with him on award-winning network shows. And yes, our standard attire is black. We want to recede into the background, so everyone, including the family and the subject, can fully focus on the interview.

 As we set up the lights and cameras, we consider many factors: where will the sun be in four hours? How does the setting look on camera? Is there a comfortable place for the subject to sit? We get the lighting right, always trying to take advantage of natural, available daylight, and we set up the frame for the shots. We want to optimize our time and get everything just right. 

Getting ready

We’ve already discussed and created a list of questions to ask, based on discussions with the subject and the family, and that’s what forms the basis for the interview. But the process is like opening a door. On the day of the interview, the family is often brimming with new ideas on what to cover, and the subject may have remembered something new. I’ll quickly work more questions into my notes.

Discussing the final composition

The interview

Finally, it’s time to sit down. We’ve got the subject in the light, and I’m beside the camera. Lights, camera, action: Now, the interview can start. Usually I warm them up with a softball, like “Where were you born?” And then we move into the details.

“What Big Bands did you get to see in Asbury Park?”

“How did you manage to escape the Ayatollah?”

“Describe Berlin under the Nazis —"

“Tell me about your Iron Guard neighbor in Bucharest —” 

“And then you went to Woodstock?”

 

As we get further into the questions, the very taste and smell and sense of those faraway times comes to life. It’s a deeply intimate exchange: the subject should be so fully engaged in conversation with me that all the technical things fade away. And this is when memories and emotions begin flooding the room. Everyone can get pretty misty-eyed — the family watching, the person being interviewed, and even me. I tend to get incredibly moved by these stories. It’s impossible not to.

What’s so key to bringing the past back to life is doing it in a comfortable and sensitive way, so the subject can freely relive those memories and experiences. I can feel that intensity during an interview, that moment when time seems to stop. There’s so much to cover, usually: an entire life distilled into four hours with lights and camera.) While this may be just one moment out of a long lifetime, the family will have this moment forever.

Next time, I’ll talk about what happens after we’ve packed up our lights and cameras. The interview completed, we head to the studio to create your family’s documentary movie, editing the interview, and interweaving in family photos, archival materials, and period music.

That’s where the magic happens.

The interview begins.