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“It is an experience common to all men to find that, on any special occasion, such as the production of a magical effect for the first time in public, everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Whether we must attribute this to the malignity of matter or to the total depravity of inanimate things, whether the exciting cause is hurry, worry, or what not, the fact remains.”
- Nevil Maskelyne, Stage Magician
Most if not all film productions manifest themselves as some version of controlled chaos. There’s a common objective among the participants, to capture or reproduce a series of fleeting moments that produce some kind of emotional response. The process is disjointed and non-linear. The staging of events happens outside of chronological order only to be reassembled later into some semblance of a narrative. In the midst of all that, the only thing that stands between you and a coherent storyline is good planning and the ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.
Unlike a work of fiction which generally follows a screenplay, documentary films seek to “document” a real world situation or occurrence. Regardless of whether the event occurred in the past or takes place in the present or future, the filmmaker has a wide range of tools at his or her disposal. Photographs, historical footage, animations, audio recordings, interviews and re-enactments are all fair game, but you still have to decide which part of the story you’re interested in telling. The more you can script out or storyboard the sequence of events before actually diving into production, the more time, money and resources you’ll save in the long run.
When you schedule something, schedule a back-up, and a back-up for your back-up. Having a Plan A, B and C will prevent you from wasting any time on account of weather, audio/visual and legal problems that may spring up. Have an objective and be willing to deviate from it if something better comes along. Thoroughly research your interview subjects and subject matter. Know them inside out and be willing to meander down a different path with them. Sometimes the tangents are more interesting than the line of questioning you’ve prepared and have bigger pay-offs, but also be prepared to rein them in. Pack the night before, double and triple-check everything, get up early, give yourself extra time for traffic, hold ups and late comers, build in time to set up and break down. Eat breakfast and bring snacks in case there’s no time to break for meals. Above all, be flexible and be prepared because if something can happen, it will happen. The writer Basil King once said, “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” Be bold and unprepared and more often than not you’ll be S.O.L. The more prepared you are, the bigger the risks you can take, simple as that.
Watch: Lost in La Mancha
Lost in La Mancha is a documentary about the ultimate clusterf*ck production. Documentary filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe set out on a pretty plum assignment, to shoot a behind-the-scenes of the making of Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote adaptation. With a $32 million dollar budget, the film began production near a military base in Madrid. Military fighter jets flying overhead devastated the sound mix, a flash flood washed away their equipment, the actor playing Don Quixote was suffering from a double herniated disc that prevented his full range of motion and the production was finally abandoned within weeks of the first take. Epic fail.