March 10, 2015
Words: Christopher J. Carter and Kade Leachman
From 2011 to 2012 Kade Leachman and I worked on a film project. Kade was in the 8th grade at the time and had the opportunity for an independent project . With some guidance he directed, shot and edited a documentary about his personal relationship with dyslexia. The finished 15 minute film was called “The D-Factor”. The project made it the front page of the Bozeman Chronicle and the completed film premiered to a packed house at the Museum of the Rockies auditorium.
It was a really valuable learning experience for me as a filmmaker and facilitator. I learned to listen and let the story emerge in someones own voice rather than rushing to tell it myself. This has proved invaluable introduction to positionality in research and film, working with people who may be experiencing something you will never experience.
Kade’s passion for film continues and he has gone on to produce a number of short narrative films. We touched base as he was wrapping up his high school coursework to talk story and what goes into film. The following is a transcript from some discussions we have had as he was working on researching the craft of documentary storytelling.
1. KL: How long have you been making films?
CC: 12 years
2. KL: How many films have you made/worked on?
CC: I have completed over 50 films, mostly short non-fiction/documentaries, some are much better than others but all valuable in my own education. Ten of these are in foreign languages (Arabic, Spanish, Tagalog, Inuit/Greenlandic, Mongolian and Kazakh).
3. KL: Which film was your favorite to make? Why?
CC: “Modern Native Warriors” for sure. It is a documentary film on Indigenous Americans serving in the US military, often in the same divisions that dispossessed their ancestors from their land. It was such a powerful project because it dealt with some very core identity and policy questions. I brought technical skills to the table and the story/direction came directly from the personal experience of co-director, an Ojibway woman and veteran of the first Gulf War. The process was intense and I was exposed to colonialism at home and abroad, as well as gender and race politics in an intimate way. We were nominated for ‘Best Documentary Short’ at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco for the film in 2012.
Close behind this is a short film I am in post-production now. It’s called “Our Lens” and about risk in ski alpinism, shot in the French Alps. The story looks at the paradox and value that greater than dying in the mountains is having not lived fully. It is shot from my perspective as a young skier who’s heroes continue to die around him. Lots of existential terrain and some of the most aesthetic footage I have ever shot. Often, it is the journey that the production takes you on that makes one think fondly of the film.
4. KL: In your mind what aspects of the story and production go into making a successful entertaining documentary?
CC: For me these aspects are categorized in content and process. Successful documentaries make me ask important questions and may not pander to be a crowd pleasing film. In a way I think documentary helps me as a filmmaker/human make new connections. Entertaining stories do indeed need a conflict or a sort of timeliness to pique interest and for me entertaining documentaries illuminate complexity and power of humans to seek alternatives, innovate and adapt. From a technical standpoint envisioning the hardware requirements and financial ramifications of the documentary will help ensure that the project is completed. In terms of cinematography, I am a believer in strong visual language, questioning expectations and creating recognizable pattern. I think that reducing the amount of words often strengthens the core ethos or tension of the story.
5. KL: What is a documentary that you think has great qualities and why?
CC: I really enjoy “Tokyo Ga” by Wim Wenders, namely for its reflexive and poetic qualities. It examines nostalgia in an age of “ global-nowheres” through a reflection of the classic works of Japanese filmmaker Yasujirô Ozu and modern Tokyo. At the core it speaks to the impact of global culture on traditional societies, the degradation of family, transformation of national identity,and the positionality of the filmmaker in creating reflexive images.
6. KL: How do you chose the topics of the films you make?
CC: I think I am drawn to issues and problems first, especially with my films on policy and development. Given this curiosity I am magnetically drawn to documenting the stories and people surrounding these issues. I like problems and complexity. Especially around identity, place and change. Sometimes the topics choose me. I like to take on projects that will deepen my understanding of something. Often these are in relation to climate change and colonial issues, I find often that what needs to change is myself.
7. KL: In each stage of storytelling what techniques or approaches do you use?
Researching and writing the story
I am generally pretty inductive with storytelling and move quickly from research to shooting.I begin often by doing a lot of research on the topic and the mode of filmmaking I want to employ. For the content and story I use a bit of a mixed approach, including some participant observation, some statistics, reading law and policy and try to take in as many visual forms and stories referential of the topic. I do like to fill out a documentary project proposal( from Michael Rabinger’s book “Directing the Documentary“) to help distill the idea and potentially capture some funding to sustain the project. If I am working with a client I facilitate this process and try to dig down into the ethos of their work to tell a deeper story. I generally don’t write scripts.
CC: In general I like technical simplicity/compactness but as high of audio and visual resolution as possible. There are always tradeoffs but I liken it to transfer the “fast and light” approach of alpine climbing into storytelling. It affords me to think more about story and mobility. I gain a lot of my technical insight from Dan Chung’s website HDSLR NewsShooter. I have definitely had my fair share of wireless audio interference ruining interviews, corrupted CF cards and interviews that could never be replaced. None have gone terribly as far as form is concerned.
Making the interviewees feel credible to the viewer
This starts by putting in the time to get to know the interviewee. Making a meaningful attempt to understand the person, their background, what makes them tick, when and where they are comfortable? Have they had some trauma that you need to acknowledge or be sensitive to? How would they like to be portrayed?
Post production and editing to make the film flow
Not enough can be said about a relationship with a critical but constructive editor/story advisor that was not involved in shooting. I find that by post-production I am too close to the content and perhaps exhausted by then and need some clarity from an external source. The flow of my films is often driven by soundscapes, I will start the editing process by listening to a lot of audioscapes, electronic environments and field recordings. This sets the pace for cutting and I can generate a sort of histogram story intensity.
8. KL: Any funny stories about an interview that went terribly?
CC: My favorite funny story was when we were shooting “Modern Native Warriors” on the Crow Reservation. We were in the middle of a long recording session and the content was heavy and sad. We were shooting in a compact house and I really had pee, so I cut the tape and stepped quickly into the nearby bathroom. However, I couldn’t find a door, to avoid a catastrophe, I just started to go. The man’s wife started giggling and said, “hey what do you think this is a farm? Close the damn hideaway door”. Pure comic relief. I saw them at a Pow-Wow a few months later. The husband walked over with a friend, smiled and said “here, meet Chris, he’s the whiteboy who will use the bathroom in your house with the door wide open”. I still laugh pretty hard when I reflect on that. Funny the situations filmmaking will put you.
9. KL: Any other stories or advice you would like to add?
CC: I think filmmaking is a lifetime pursuit and craft. You will have different things to contribute at different times in life. Sometimes you need to step away, gain some perspective, learn new stories and just live. When you have an important story to deliver, you will make it happen. But, it is always good to keep your tech skills sharp so you can flow readily if need be. Lately I have been making “Done In A Day” films to keep the film process alive as I complete grad school in regional planning.
10. KL: Anything else?
CC: I like Victor Kossakovsky’s rules for filmmaking namely; “Don’t film if you can live without filming” and that “Story is important for documentary, but perception is even more important. Think, first, what the viewers will feel while seeing your shots”.
That’s it for me, good luck with the paper and great to hear from you Kade.