“Journalism Plus” is how Academy Award-winning moviemaker Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) characterizes making documentaries.
If you’re a documentarian, you may not have a degree or credentials in journalism, but as long as you’re tasked with representing reality, you’ll still have to summon your inner-reporter.
What journalistic practices should you use to verify information? What ethical guidelines must you consider? What tactics will you employ to gain your subjects’ trust?
With three controversial new documentaries—The Brink, Hail Satan?, and Leaving Neverland—reaching audiences this spring, MovieMaker spoke with the films’ makers about their creative and tactical approaches to muckraking and truth-seeking. If you’re an independent working in nonfiction, these case studies will give you a leg up as you begin looking for the best way to rely on your unique perspective and visual craft to build a compelling cinematic narrative.
The films, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, all feature subjects who were initially hesitant to participate. In all three cases, it was essential that the primary subjects granted access.
Directed by Alison Klayman, The Brink follows former Trump aide Steve Bannon in the 15 months after his abrupt departure from the White House in 2017 as he attempts to spread his brand of nationalism through Europe. In Hail Satan? moviemaker Penny Lane conveys the philosophy and beliefs of The Satanic Temple with humor and insight using archival footage, coverage of the Temple’s public actions, protests, and rituals as well as interviews with key Temple leaders.
The four-hour, two-part documentary Leaving Neverland, directed by Dan Reed, consists primarily of interviews with Wade Robson, James Safechuck and their families. Both men accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them as children.
Getting Subjects On Board and Negotiating Access
A personal relationship or connection isn’t a prerequisite to get a subject to agree to participate in your film, but it can certainly help.
The Brink producer Marie Therese Guirgis, who worked with Bannon at the now defunct indie film distribution company Wellspring, doesn’t think the film could have been made without her personal relationship with her one-time boss. Though they had lost touch over the years—and disagreed politically—their history gave her an advantage.
Still, when Guirgis emailed Bannon to ask if she could produce a documentary on him, he initially declined.
To persuade the former Breitbart editor to board the project, Guirgis reassured him that regardless of how he thinks he’s depicted, the film will be “intelligent and high quality… I think because he knew me and he knew my track record, he thought I could deliver on that.” Three emails later, he agreed. Still, it took months for him to sign a release.
Neither Lane nor her Hail Satan? producer Gabriel Sedgwick had any inside access to The Satanic Temple. Sedgwick wrote a letter to Lucien Greaves, the co-founder and spokesperson for The Satanic Temple, expressing his interest in making a documentary about the organization. Greaves was hesitant, but since he was already familiar with and respected Lane’s previous work (Nuts!, Our Nixon), he was open to at least meeting the moviemakers.
“He had almost no interest at all in being part of the film. He was very clear about that,” recalls Lane. “The initial meeting for him was kind of a formality, like, ‘I guess I’ll go meet with these people so I can more politely say ‘No.’”
Eventually, Greaves agreed to participate, but first he had to run it by The Satanic Temple’s national council for approval.
“We could have done the movie anyway, but without some kind of privileged access, it would have been hard,” says Lane. “Cooperation was quite important to us.”
The Satanic Temple agreed to participate, but emphasized that the moviemakers would have to ask each individual Temple member for permission to film. Lane says that she made it clear to each member she spoke to that, “We were really trying to accurately represent their worldview and that it wasn’t about their personal lives. I didn’t really care where their parents lived. I had no interest in outing them and finding out their real names and where they work.”
Still, a number of Temple members chose not to participate and some members appear in the film with their faces obscured because of the threats against The Satanic Temple. “To publicly declare yourself a Satanist is to invite a great deal of hatred and persecution,” says Lane. “We made sure that we weren’t putting anyone on camera who didn’t feel entirely comfortable with it,” says Lane.
Greaves also insisted that everything in the film had to be captured exactly as it happened, which meant no reenactments. “He was pretty clear about that,” says Lane. “We tested his resolve by making him walk up to the door of The Satanic Temple and open it several times. He said, ‘You said no re-enactments.’ We ended up breaking that rule a little bit, but he was really adamant that he didn’t want to have to act.”
For Leaving Neverland, Reed contacted Robson and Safechuck through their lawyers. “I made my request and I think Wade and James discussed it for a while with their wives and their families and with the lawyers, as well,” says Reed. “By the time I got to meet them, I think they had decided in principle to take part. It wasn’t the usual process of convincing a documentary subject.”
The only ground rule Reed set was that neither Robson or Safechuck or their lawyers would have any editorial control. The same was true for the subjects of The Brink and Hail Satan?
“It was a given for us—and obvious if we were going to get any financing—that [Steve Bannon] would have absolutely no creative control, input, or anything,” says Alison Klayman, director of The Brink.
For the vérité style in The Brink, Klayman embedded herself in Bannon’s life for 13 months on and off through 2017 and 2018.
She understood early on that just because Bannon agreed to participate in the documentary, negotiating for access would be ongoing. “As with any vérité project, the input or control he has is what he allows us to film,” says Klayman, whose previous films include Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Take Your Pills.
“If I’m filming, it’s fair game. But if he tells me, ‘Please don’t film,’ I stop. Within that realm, the question was, ‘Are we going to get the access necessary to make something substantive?’”
As is usually the case with vérité documentaries, Bannon let down his guard as filming went on. It helped that aside from a few B-roll scenes, Klayman was a one-woman crew, which made it easier for her to blend into the background and capture intimate moments. It also gave Klayman flexibility to keep up with Bannon’s fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants schedule.
“A lot of the realities of production made this incredibly challenging. His plans are all last minute. There would be days where it was like, ‘Tomorrow I might be going to Italy, or maybe I’m going to Brazil, or maybe I’m going nowhere. Or maybe he’s going to D.C,’ ” says Klayman. She had to be ready to jump on the next plane and couldn’t be bogged down with camera gear and a big crew.
“It would have been hard with two people because there were times when I was squeezed into the back of a car or getting the last seat on the plane,” says Klayman, who traveled almost entirely carry-on.
“I needed to always be able to move my gear myself. I joke that my camera assistant is my giant fanny pack, which would fit batteries, camera memory cards, and more. Anything that saves you a little bit of weight or a little bit of space is always excellent.”
Unlike The Brink, where Klayman captured Bannon as he went about his regular life of meetings and travel, in Leaving Neverland, Reed filmed Robson and Safechuck for long periods in highly controlled studio settings.
Just as it was always clear that The Brink would be shot in an observational style, Reed says it quickly became obvious that Leaving Neverland would require extensive sit-down interviews with the films’ subjects.
Though the interviews span an 18-month period, the bulk of Leaving Neverland was shot during five days in February, 2017: three days interviewing Robson in a log cabin in Hawaii and two days interviewing James in a house in Los Angeles.
“I reserved the right to film observational material. But very quickly, this became a film about the testimony and the human voice and the face, the drama of speech. It’s a film about people speaking a truth that is very difficult to articulate,” says Reed.
Like Klayman, Reed served as DP on Leaving Neverland, partially to put his subjects at ease and partially for practical reasons. “There’s a huge advantage in terms of flexibility and responsiveness. If you have your own equipment, you just pick up and go. You don’t need to worry about a huge crew and when they’re going to have lunch,” he says.
Documentary Director? Or Journalist?
Documentary films rely on many of the same techniques as journalism, but moviemaking is more reliant on the craft of storytelling than breaking news. Still, when making a film about life-and-death issues and topics that are controversial enough to provoke anger (including death threats), there’s a great responsibility for moviemakers to get their facts right.
“I believe very strongly in a mandate in documentary: that you should be accurate in your portrayals of what is happening in the world,” says Lane.
In the editing room, Lane acknowledges, “there’s a temptation to maximize drama in certain ways. But we were trying to stay tethered to a sense of what really happened and not change cause and effect in terms of the narrative.”
When a commissioning editor at Channel 4 in England suggested that Reed investigate controversy surrounding Michael Jackson, Reed hired a researcher, who dug into past allegations and scoured the internet, including fan forums, for leads in the story. The researcher came upon references to Robson and Safechuck, which piqued Reed’s interest.
Before taking their stories as fact, Reed interviewed former detectives and prosecutors from the two principal investigations into Jackson. He shot interviews with the LAPD and the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department, which had investigated Jackson, as well as the deputy DA, who was the main prosecutor in the 2005 trial. He considered making a straightforward investigative documentary using the footage, but decided to craft the film primarily out of the interviews with Robson and Safechuck and their families.
When making a film about a controversial subject, Reed suggests that moviemakers record a master interview with their subjects to check for discrepancies in their stories. Reed devoured court records from the trials as well as any statements he could find from people who had worked in the Jackson household at the time of the alleged abuse.
“Try to corroborate everything you can. Spend as much time as you can trying to pick holes in it, trying to undermine it, trying to find cracks in it. If, by the end of that process, your subject’s story still stands up, then you have a winner,” he says. After double-checking Robson and Safechuck’s accounts, Reed says he didn’t find anything that contradicted their descriptions of the sexual abuse.
Though he insisted on fact-checking, Reed felt no compunction to include a response from Jackson’s family or lawyers. Reed says his film isn’t about Jackson, but about the two families whose lives were affected by his behavior.
“We were following a lot of the codes of conduct in journalism. What is responsible in terms of fact and access and sourcing and all of that,” says Klayman. Still, she acknowledges that “fundamentally, I am in it for a different product. I have a lot more artistic leeway and it’s a luxury to be able to be around for a real extended period of time and create something at the end of it.”
While a journalist might have a finite amount of time to interview Bannon, Klayman had many months to observe and to listen, which allowed her to develop the film’s visual style. “Because I’ve heard him say the same things over and over,” she explains, “it became a question of, ‘What could be an interesting shot?’ ”
Though for the most part, Klayman remains a silent observer behind the camera, during some moments of The Brink she calls Bannon out on something objectionable he says. It’s a reminder to the audience that what they’re seeing isn’t unadulterated truth.
“I encouraged her to have her voice in there a couple of times,” says Guirgis. “People sometimes misunderstand vérité and think there are no choices, that you’re seeing the truth. But a documentary is a reflection of the documentary filmmaker’s experience of the subject. There’s no such thing as the [non-subjective] truth.”