Since the mid-1970’s, I’ve collaborated with D.A. Pennebaker on movies that follow the drama of real life stories. Being immersed in people’s lives when they’re doing what they care passionately about, when risks are great and stakes are high, is a thrilling adventure. Whether our “cinéma vérité” filmmaking approach is related to what journalists do, I’m not sure. But what we share with every reporter is the desire to pursue and tell real stories. And how our films portray these stories seems quite similar to how narrative journalists convey theirs.
My first film job was photographing burn surgery for a doctor regarded as one of the best in his field. Suddenly I was thrust into a world I knew nothing about, and I realized that my camera was granting me access to situations I would never normally have been allowed to watch. The operating room was raw, chaotic, intense and often funny. But I was not there to evoke the kind of drama seen on ER: My job was to record accurately, as only the camera can, the surgical processes so they could be later studied. I was showing what happened as it happened and not trying to recall it with words.
Yet the natural drama of the operating room—its tension broken by occasional jokes—was not lost on me or by the camera. With neither script nor actors, what I was recording was as exciting as anything I had ever watched on television, with one important addition—it was not created but real. That’s when I knew that I wanted to make films about real events with characters that people could identify with, who spoke naturally rather than memorizing scripted dialogue. There were stories with an inherent dramatic structure, the kind that writers of fiction struggle mightily to design.
I knew drama was essential to making films work, so in this respect I wanted mine to be theatrical. And, like great narrative theater, I wanted drama, not information, to be its goal. To create our films, we edit images together, constructing scenes and condensing time to tell the story. In this sense, our films become works of the imagination, though they are driven by reality. And when they are finished, they take the audience into situations they could never envision without the camera taking them there.
Our films—such as “The War Room” (a portrayal of the political hub of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign)—resemble journalism because the characters we follow are real, not invented. Our stories happened. Our characters exist. Perhaps the strongest aspect of our method is that we allow the audience to experience for themselves what is taking place in front of them. We seldom interview; instead, we let our characters define themselves by their own words and actions. The stories follow real time events, with little or no narration, and the climax and resolution are motivated by the drama inherent in witnessed events.
We differ most from journalism in our reluctance to retell the story through a narrator, or even a witness, whose version we would have to accept as the truth. When viewers watch “The War Room,” they are not being told what it was like to be in that situation. They are there, in that room along with James Carville and George Stephanopolous. The film doesn’t tell viewers what to think about Carville; it lets each form an opinion by watching him confront people and events.
“Startup.com,” a recent film co-directed with Jehane Noujaim, follows the adventures of two young aspiring entrepreneurs. Despite the barrage of stories by journalists about the dot-com mania, I think our film caught people’s interest because it put a dynamic human perspective on the news stories. Viewers feel as though they are there with the film’s protagonists as they raise millions of dollars, then struggle to fight off the competition that could bring down their fledgling company. Some might root for their success while others might hope for their demise. For us, the power of the camera—peering into lives in ways that reveal intense emotion—provides all the explanation their story needs. The film is their story.
An aspect of our filmmaking that sometimes makes journalists uneasy is the relationship we have with our subjects. What is most important to us is access, the kind of open access many people are reluctant to offer. Without securing this access, we’ll be able to do nothing that most TV or print journalism doesn’t already do. This access cannot be bought. It is a complete compliance between the filmmakers and their protagonists. By letting us witness their lives, our characters have the possibility of watching themselves in their careers when the ride is roughest and their bets the highest. We do not consider our arrangement to be adversarial. We look for people who know how to do whatever they do very well, perhaps better than most.
To induce them to allow us into their lives, they must trust us. They must also be convinced that the film we are making will be their film as well, so when we offer to show them the final version before its release, which we always do, we are not asking them to re-edit or remove embarrassing things from it. We want them to look at it for accuracy and to point out errors and possible mistakes that we can correct.
The intimacy we were able to capture in “Startup.com” that so intrigued audiences was the result of the access provided by Jehane, who had been a roommate of one of our main characters. This sort of situation might easily compromise the integrity of the film, so we approached the process carefully, aware of the benefits as well as the pitfalls. However, we remain convinced that when our characters are focused on what they are doing, especially when the stakes are high, our presence has very little effect on their actions.
Our arrangement with our characters is almost always a handshake, but in some instances, where the legal risk is high, we have signed agreements limiting their exposure and ours. In “Startup.com” our agreement with the two characters and the corporation limited their objections to any scenes that inadvertently revealed company secrets or something that would be demonstrably injurious to the company in a major way. This was a broad, somewhat ambiguous right of approval, but since the company had just raised $60 million—and our subjects were responsible to board members and investors—this type of vetting was necessary to get the access we needed. The agreement was risky for us as filmmakers, especially if the subjects had decided later on to be uncooperative. In the end, the stock market crash worked to our advantage. When the company went into bankruptcy and was sold we no longer needed to be as concerned about the company’s right of approval.
With “The War Room” we simply agreed to show the finished film to Carville and Stephanopolous before we did anything with it. Our main concern was with matters of accuracy. We had no intention of having them re-edit anything else in the film, nor of course would they. No clear-headed politician wants to get caught with his hand on the editing machine.
As filmmakers, it is crucial to be able to function independently and not be tied to a network. This gives us the freedom to find and follow the story and characters as we go along. For example, our original intention in “The War Room” was to watch a man become President. When it became clear that access to the candidates (both George Bush and Bill Clinton) would be limited and that our story would be relegated to the Clinton campaign staff, we were initially discouraged. How saleable would a film be about the staff of the losing candidate? It’s always a gamble for us because we don’t know what is going to happen. But if we’re lucky, a character will emerge who is as charismatic as James Carville.
During that election, the majority of broadcasters were content to aim their cameras at candidates walking in and out of hotels and airplanes for nightly news coverage. We took a different path. Our access in “The War Room” was unique because that room was off limits to the press, so that we had to identify ourselves as guests and never step outside (if we could help it) for fear of not getting back in. In the end, the film was interesting for this very reason. No one had bothered to tell this story, and audiences were curious to see the people who had engineered this incredible campaign.
It is also important to remain independent in order to film the whole story and not be pressured to compromise a story because of programming constraints. I learned this the hard way in a film we made for British TV about auto entrepreneur John DeLorean, who was building his stainless steel, gull-winged car in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, life does not always progress at a pace that is convenient for broadcast schedules. A month before British TV was set to air the DeLorean show, we were warned that something crucial was going to happen to the company. Unable to reschedule the broadcast, the station aired the show as it was. A few days later the papers exposed a financial scandal that eventually destroyed the company. A year later, DeLorean himself was busted for dealing cocaine. Missing the end of this story was a painful lesson, one that I did not want to repeat.
“Startup.com” was accepted in the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, a valuable launching forum for independent films seeking theatrical distribution and critical exposure. We were delighted and proceeded to complete the film technically. At this point, our film had a different ending. Within the next few weeks, it became apparent that the company was in trouble. I knew that we had to continue filming the story and see our characters through to the end, even if it meant giving up the opportunity to launch the film at Sundance. The company’s future was decided on January 1, two weeks before the film festival began. Fortunately, Sundance allowed us to project the film in video instead of the normally required 35mm blowup. This was fortuitous because not only were we able to tell the story that happened, but the festival gave the film the boost it needed to compete in the marketplace.
We try to release our films in theaters, where they will be dealt with seriously by film critics and given, we hope, a leg up the highly competitive ladder of distribution. There, people expect to see drama, not news, and this creates an aura about the film that helps in its promotion. A danger of this strategy lies in the temptation to over-dramatize our story to help it compete with other films. This, I believe, is precisely the challenge many in print and TV journalism confront today because of demands of ratings and advertising—how to ensure the integrity of material while pushing for broader distribution.
Releasing a film theatrically allows us to show it the way we intended artistically, without censorship or editing by layers of management along the way. And theaters do not get the same government scrutiny as radio and television. This is, of course, particularly important for films with politically controversial subject matter. However, it also affects subjects as apparently harmless as music. “Monterey Pop,” a film we did in 1967 that was funded in part by ABC television, was screened in rough for people at ABC. They deemed Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin’s performances unsuitable for family viewing and told us they would not show the film on their network. We bought the film back and turned to theatrical release to earn our expenses back. “Pop” was one of the first concert films to have a successful theatrical exhibition—and launched the careers of Hendrix and Joplin—as well as paving the way for the movie “Woodstock.” Ironically, a year later, after a popular theatrical run, ABC bought the film for showing on their movie hour.
Without a theatrical distribution, both “The War Room” and “Startup.com” would not have had such wide and positive critical response. When looking for funding for these films, all the major networks rejected our proposal, and in the case of “The War Room” we were also turned down by every foundation we turned to, including the NEA. Because television did not welcome our independent production, we were forced to film the stories on our own. But with no network to overrule us, we were also able to release them ourselves in theaters. Again, this distribution brought a special value to all of their eventual sales.
One interesting aspect of distributing a film theatrically is its effect on the film’s longevity. After their initial run in theaters, films are often sold to television in this country as well as abroad. Home video and DVD extend their shelf lives for years. Unlike news reports about the Clinton campaign or the Internet revolution, our films are viewed for years, transforming them into historical retrospectives. And, as time passes, films are seen differently. For example, “The War Room” begins with Clinton denying an affair with Gennifer Flowers. Now that we know, by his own admission, that he did have such an affair, the beginning of the film takes on a new perspective. “Startup.com” was similarly overtaken by events. When the film was test screened for the distributor, dot-coms were the epitome of successful investment. By the time the film went into theatrical distribution six months later, the majority of Internet startups had failed. This gave us valuable marketing relevance; it transformed a “Will they succeed?” story into one in which every action of our young entrepreneurs seemed like a prelude to failure.
I suspect that our films and journalism share similar goals. Both want to inform, challenge and move audiences. The art of our work lies in letting audiences experience life through the lives of others as seen through the vigilant camera and the observant eyes and ears of the reporter.
Chris Hegedus is an independent filmmaker based in New York City. In 1994 “The War Room” was nominated for an Academy Award and cited as Best Documentary by the National Board of Review. “Startup.com” continues to play in theaters around the country and will be released on video and DVD in the fall. Her company’s Web site is phfilms.com.