Recently I was hired by a husband and wife team to join a big documentary crew in a Kolkata. Our task was to capture on camera what could be the film’s climax scene, though I feared that the happy occasion might fall flat as a riveting climax. Specifically, we were to cover the unveiling of a new private school on the day in which students from one of the poorest city’s on earth would receive their first books and pens. Presumably, it was a happy scene, but I knew from experience that the tremendous time and resources (three camera crews) spent capturing the event could result in bland scene in the final film.
Sometimes directors envision that a big bash will provide their film with the necessary energy and crescendo to give it a compelling third act climax. They might think that the big wedding, or the final dance performance, or the enormous block party will solve the problem plaguing so many character driven, verité documentaries that are shot over a long period of time: the director doesn’t know what the climax is… yet. And, worse still, there may not be one.
Here's the problem with relying on the “big bash” as a climax scene. For the viewer, joyful emotional events like a wedding don't usually translate into the same emotions experienced by participants. At best, the scene is sentimental; at worst, it's downright boring.
How were we going to avoid this problem at the opening of the private school? The answer lay in sniffing out conflict that might mar an otherwise happy event. If something fishy could be identified, or if an overt upset prevailed, we would have in post production the tools to craft a dramatic reversal.
A reversal is simply a 180-degree turn in plot or mood. I want to share with you three ways to create such a reversal, before I tell you how the Calcutta shoot panned out. The first technique is to use a happy scene as one half of the reversal, by butting it up against a “painful” scene. Leverage the happy scene by having it precede or follow the difficult scene. For example, in the documentary that our company edited for director Steve Lickteig, Open Secret, we used a happy wedding scene to precede a stormy conversation. In this riveting personal documentary about adoption, the protagonist’s wedding was a predictably joyful occasion, despite the fact that his birth mother did not show up.
The wedding scene was followed by the protagonist’s confrontation with his birth mother. That scene was a contrived scene, in the sense that the director asked his mother if they could vent their grievances on camera. The movement from the happy wedding to the tearful scene of betrayal and forgiveness gave the film a strong reversal. Anytime you go from one extreme emotional polarity to its opposite, you are creating a feeling of drama and suspense for the viewer. So placing a negatively charged scene adjacent to a positively charged scene—whether before or after—is one type of reversal.
The second way to leverage a happy occasion is to craft a reversal is within the scene. For example, one of my Inner Circle clients is editing a party scene that starts festive and ends ominous. We first hear from a wealthy white executive, who is barbecuing, say how great it is that people from all walks of life are converging at big bash for a mixed income housing development. The happy mood begins to dissipate when a wide shot reveals how few people actually showed up for the block party. And then the scene reverses sharply into a negative mood when some of the teenagers at the party are wielding golf clubs in a way that alarms some of the residents. That's a great example of using an otherwise festive, yet dramatically boring scene to create some suspense. Note that its successful execution depended on something negative happening. I held this example in mind as I flew to the private school opening. (More on the Calcutta story in a moment.)
A third way to create drama from a celebratory scene is to intercut a negative scene. There's a great example of this in Joe Berlinger’s film Crude, about a lawyer in Ecuador who engages the help of rock star Sting and his wife Trudie Styler, to sue Chevron for environmental destruction. Of course, if you are lucky enough to have a film featuring a rock star, you have to edit in an obligatory concert scene, right? As you might suspect, the film’s climax takes place in an enormous stadium-sized concert featuring Sting. His wife Trudie calls the crowd to support the cause against Chevron, then Sting takes stage. However, although the footage of Sting performing was entertaining, it would have never qualified as the climax if it had not been infused with drama. In a very creative move, editor Alyse Ardell Spiegel intercut a separate scene, in which the lawyer explains how his court case took a sharp turn for the worse. A bed of Sting’s music weds both scenes in a wonderful montage. The dramatic movement from Sting onstage to the lawyer’s negative revelation about the court case and back again makes for a climax that gave me goosebumps.
In the case of our film in Calcutta, we might choose any of the above three options to create a reversal when we get to post production. Fortunately, my sniffer for conflict was highly active on this shoot, and so we chose to do follow-up interviews with two wrinkles that could counter the goodtime feeling of the school’s opening ceremony. First, we discovered that the school’s principal had a shady track record, and might need to be fired. Second, we caught wind that the school’s foundation was cracking. We interviewed the contractor, who denied any responsibility.
If you are presented with a celebratory scene, definitely shoot it, and also look for ways during production and post production to craft a reversal in one of three ways. First, you could place a painful scene just before or after the celebration. Second, you could craft a celebration so it starts off positive and then reveals a negative turn of events. Or third, you might even checkerboard the celebration scene with a difficult scene, cutting back and forth between two scenes that are linked with a music bed.
I will be teaching my popular weekend seminar “Directing the Character Driven Documentary” at Ninth Street Independent Film Center on August 13 and 14. To register, go to sffs.org.
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