What’s more interesting in a documentary? A story about one person or many? If you capture the lives of four or five individuals, it seems like you would have an interesting mix of narrative threads to follow. But if you follow just one person around, you might not get enough action to fill out your film.
So it’s not surprising that one of the current trends in documentary filmmaking is simply to find an interesting topic (e.g. online gamers, wheelchair rugby players, crossword enthusiasts, etc.), and follow around several people involved in that community for a set period of time.
That’s certainly the method I started with when I first began producing WHATEVER IT TAKES in September of 2005. In the school that I filmed, I chose to follow the principal, three teachers, and six students. I figured that the combination of all these stories would give me the depth of insight I needed to craft a documentary about what really goes into the creation of a new school.
Little did I know that it would be quite the opposite. That is, the more characters I filmed, the less I understood. Following so many people simultaneously actually created a situation in which I only had the energy and resources to give very superficial portraits of each.
Realizing this (after three months of filming), I decided to focus on just one key student – and how the school’s principal works tirelessly toward her success. For our production, this made all the difference in the world. Now, instead of a general survey of a NYC high school, viewers get an in-depth look at the intertwined lives of our two main characters – their specific histories, dreams, struggles, and triumphs.
What’s the lesson here? To always keep an eye open for the one story that shines above all the rest. Even if you are following a relatively large group of characters, recognize that your film will ultimately only center on one or two of them. Or better yet, before you shoot, spend a lot of time “casting” your main subject so that you know whom to focus on right from the beginning.
Documentary filmmaking is very much like developing close friendships. You might have a thousand friends on MySpace, but in the end, there’s only one or two people you really trust.