Between a Doc and a Hard Place: What Docs Can Teach Narrative and What Narrative Can Teach Docs

A recent podcast we went on to be interviewed about our film Limo Ride opened with the question, “Why did you decide to make a documentary and not a real movie?”

The interviewer went on to correct himself and otherwise proved to be a gracious host with excellent questions, observations, and a great deal of praise for our film. However, if a self-professed film fanatic is still asking this, it seems time again to address a point we thought was put to bed.

We’ve been preaching this for a good many years and we’ll say it againdocumentary is not a genre. Documentary is as equally varied in style, form and content as narrative film. Non-fiction film has as many genres and sub-genres as its fictional counterpart and the realm between the two is becoming increasingly populated with inventive filmmakers using elements of each to tell their stories.

All of our work to date has smudged the line between documentary and fiction in various attempts to explore the nuance of gray areas. With our first feature, Limo Ride, we decided to play with the documentary form to tell what would typically be low-brow narrative fare, namely a raunchy ensemble comedy. We not only wanted to capture that staple of bar room storiesthe bad night outbut also use the advantages of both sides of the doc/narrative divide to answer the problems of its production.

As we move back and forth across the field of filmmaking, we are able to take lessons from either side’s approach. Especially in the independent field where more is increasingly expected for less, first-time moviemakers could do worse than look toward the documentary field’s barebones methods.

"Sexual Chocolate!" Co-director Gideon Kennedy bewildered by the charisma of Jordan Bramblett (Josh Gambino). Photo by: Daniel Crocetti

Co-director Gideon Kennedy behind the scenes of Limo Ride. Photo by Daniel Crocetti

Shoot With What You Have

With Limo Ride, we didn’t raise the entirety of the budget and then head off into a month-long shoot. For one, we couldn’t afford that kind of time away from our day jobs, nor could we expect it from anyone else.

Instead, we raised what we would need to shoot something we could not recreatenamely the annual New Year’s Day Polar Bear Dip at the Flora-Bama bar on the FloridaAlabama line. Over 1,000 people dressed in costume running and screaming into the Gulf of Mexico was not something we’d soon be able to afford else-wise. So we got what we needed to capture this annual moment and planned out two other shoots over the next three months to complete the film.

Though shooting in this fashion presented its own difficultiesfor example, we had to shoot everything of one of our leads before he shipped off to work in Afghanistanbreaking up the production into segments allowed us to assess how we were doing. This also allowed us to make changes to optimize our efficiency, and raise further funding based on the footage we had captured and rough cut. Much of this wouldn’t have been possible had we waited to start down one continuous track.

In this way, it also became more like making several short films, thus breaking up the daunting task of shooting an entire feature for the first time.

Keep A Small Crew

Some of the best documentary crews I’ve seen can fit in one van. Inspired by this, the most crew members (including directors and producers) we ever had on set was just eight. This made us versatile and mobile and I’d rather have self-reliant problem solvers in every position than all the gear in the world. A small crew is more easily adaptable and less demanding on the environment around them.

Co-director Marcus Rosentrater preps Jordan Bramblett (Josh Gambino) for his mic drop. Photo by: Daniel Crocetti

Co-director Marcus Rosentrater directs cast and crew on the set of Limo Ride. Photo by Daniel Crocetti

Respect Your Surroundings

While this may seem more a point of etiquette, being kind and observant has practical merit. Not to say that all documentary crews do this, but generally they are required to be more aware of the places and lives happening around them on location than their fiction filmmaking counterparts. Too often the summer camp environs fostered by the intensity of production create an us-vs-them mentality regarding anyone outside of that bubble, especially for those for whom the importance of your film or shot do not matter. In addition, fostering animosity with the locals can cause undue and easily avoided strife.

For example, during our night shoots on a dirt road we found ourselves in the middle of a Hatfield-McCoy situation of seemingly warring clans. Turn on a couple of lights and an otherwise desolate dirt road becomes Main Street as each passing car wants to not only stop to check out the movie crew but tell us how it’s their cousin that owns this land and ask if we had permission to film.

We had permission, and not just from the state. I had made doubly sure by having two different meetings in fields with two different men on tractors. Consequently, we received a lot of help from those around us with several of our locations instead of dodging promised gunfire from nearby pig hunters.

Speaking of shooting…

Shoot As Much As Possible

And shoot to use. While we’re not fans of vacuuming footage at random or pressing record on every seasick shot, we do share the belief that a great editor once told us: “There is no such thing as B-roll.” It’s all A-roll if it makes it in the film.

You never know what moments you will capture and then find in the editing room. Roll long before and after every take. We found and used great reactions from our slate shots. Though hopefully you can’t tell, the final film contains shots originally taken from our 10 minute demo/proof-of-concept. A good deal of what would have been a blooper reel got appropriated into a surreal laughing sequence in our film. Shoot with your principals at rest and play at any given moment. Memory is cheap compared to time on set.

Though we argue for the documentary’s equal setting at the table, this does not mean we feel it necessarily superior. Fictional filmmaking has predominance for a reason and, thus, can teach a thing or two to those working in the documentary tradition.

Image Courtesy of Top of the Bay Entertainment

A scene from Limo Ride. Photo courtesy of Gideon Kennedy

Put As Much As You Can In Pre-Production

While there are plenty of arguments for writing with the camera in documentary film, there is also plenty of room for considering the look and feel even while in the research stage.

In this regard, we were much closer to a standard fictional film production. We storyboarded our entire visual script and made a feature-length animatic to both test if what we wanted to accomplish would work and as a further proof-of-concept for potential investors. For something as unusual as what we were trying to do, investors and crew alike found it a lot easier to watch a simple cartoon and get the concept than to try to read it on the page.

While storyboarding may not be an option for a documentary that is discovered along the way, what lenses, angles, motions, etc are used can be decided upon with reasons both stemming from and supporting the story. In other words…

Shoot A Movie

This sounds silly. But too often we see documentaries that are more concerned with their message than their craft, not realizing that someone is sitting down to watch a movie, not simply a lecture. Avoid the tropes of standard form doc. Truly think about how you want the interviews to look, not just what information you want out of them.

For Limo Ride, we decided early on that the story involved too much cocaine to have the film visually halt to watch someone talk. We knew we wanted their voices and their unique brand of storytelling so when we went to interview, we didn’t even bring a camera. We knew from the get-go that we weren’t going to use the footage and we didn’t even want it to fall back on, as we were afraid it would turn into something lazy, cutting from one poorly planned talking head to another. We wanted to shoot it to have the look of narrative film.

As is, it might be unavoidable to call it a feature-length re-enactment but re-enactment is a bad word for us. This is what we’ve come to refer to as the Cinema of Avoidance. Don’t have a decent set or actors that look anything like the people they’re portraying? Just shoot the cigarette burning in the ashtray! Want to really jazz it up? Have some shadowy figures arguing in the background! These are bad illustrations, redundant on purpose, a cockroach view of history, and simply there to fill the screen to avoid what you don’t have to show. Here’s a test: mute the sound. Does it still make sense? Have any visual appeal?

Speaking of which…

Record Sound Well

You may notice what every class or text on the subject tells you: sound is at least 50% of a film. A mistake we see in many first time documentary filmmakers is poor audio, either due to the constraints of time and money or presumably thinking that it doesn’t matter that it’s raw, as that is what’s there.

Working from the audio of our eight subjects’ interviews to create a running narration made this part of our production unique: we had no on-set sound. While I don’t know if I’d recommend this, it worked for us in this instance. Initially we made the decision because we wanted to save front-end cost when we didn’t know exactly what particular sounds we would need to accentuate the storytelling. But not having to worry about “Quiet on the Set” meant a number of other unforeseen advantages. It made directing non-actors easier in the vein of directing silent cinema“Look Scared! Now Run!”

We didn’t have to worry about shooting in sections of open bars blaring unlicensed songs. Although it helped in the moment and saved initial cost, we eventually did have to pay because in time, money, or quality, you will pay. Where did we pay for it? In time to recreate every action and atmosphere in the film. Yet, what this meant was that these decisions would be deliberate and we wouldn’t feel beholden to whatever we had recorded on those days.

Which leads us to our most universal point…

A polar dip with penguins and snowmen in Limo Ride. Photo courtesy of Gideon Kennedy

Make Decisions on Every Level

Too often documentary filmmaking becomes a pastiche of whatever details can be scraped together on the subject. Too often narrative films can’t see anything beyond the big picture. All films succeed on their coherence. The creation of art is a refinement through decisions. This doesn’t preclude happy accidentsallowing them to stay in is yet another decision.

Ultimately what we want to see are higher quality films all around: documentaries that have the style of narrative films, narratives that have the substance of docs, and a greater acceptance of those in the middle like ourselves.

One last point…

Don’t Forget the Sticks.

That’s not so much advice as it is a reminder to our future selves. Hey guys, remember how much time it takes to stabilize shots in post? Don’t skimp on the tripod. MM

Limo Ride is available on iTunes, Amazon, VHX, Blu-ray/DVD and more October 14, 2016, courtesy of Top of the Bay Entertainment.