In the Middle of Episode 3

12 12 2009

We started shooting episode three on Tuesday night and we’ll be shooting more this weekend and possibly next Tuesday night.  For the first time in this project I cannot wait for the shooting to be over.  I don’t want to reveal the subject matter of the third episode, because I feel like as soon as I do people are going to ask questions or offer opinions or suggestions on how to structure it and I don’t want to cloud the direction that I think Michael and I are going with this one.

Suffice it to say, we thought we’d be making a piece about one thing and very quickly we realized that the story was going to be in the same setting, but about something much much darker.

The only way I can really explain it is to say this: imagine that you have tickets for a basketball game, you get in the car, you enter the arena and very quickly you realize that you’re at a dog-fight. Still, despite the clear carnage everyone around you tells you you’re at a basketball game, every one acts like you’re at a basketball game but all you can see is the dog-fight.

That’s the way this one feels.


Episode Two

1 12 2009

This was a tough one, no doubt about it.

It should be said that Michael and I are making Sparrow Songs out of our own pockets. And during the month of November my primary focus wasn’t this project but was simply finding work, some kind of work, any kind of work that would allow me to continue paying my bills. I’d spent the better part of the Summer cutting a feature length documentary where — because it was a “cool and edgy” project — the pay was low. When that job evaporated due to a lack of funding it was only a short time before I was in serious financial trouble. I didn’t work for a month straight and got to the point of where I’d take any work that was offered. And I did. The result was that I took a job working nights at a post house. Nights means that you work 6pm to 4am every night. It also means that (in some kind of twisted logic) you make less money than working days. It also means that you don’t see your wife. It also means you scare the hell out of your dog every time you come home. The thing is, I was grateful for the work. Sitting there, stuck in an ice-cold office – the AC is set at a level designed to combat the daytime baking Burbank sun — it was very very clear that in this age of rampant joblessness a lot of the jobs that are even available are themselves demoralizing.

Mercifully, I only worked nights for one week (thank the Lord for well-financed studio pictures) but the majority of my energy this month was spent simply trying to stay afloat.

That being said, it seems only appropriate that this piece focuses on people who are currently in the exact same situation that I was in at the beginning of the month (and could find myself in again if I don’t stop working on this stuff while at work). We spoke with whoever would talk with us and to a number every person we spoke with was candid about their situation and their emotions.

Still, because of the personal pressures outlined above both Michael and I can’t help but feel that we could’ve done better with this one. There were some missed opportunities and confusion in the vision that didn’t sort itself out until very late in the month and in the project.

Part of both the joy and the difficulty in doing Sparrow Songs is that we’re essentially learning in public. What we’ve released today is a finished piece, but to me it feels like a sketch. I just hope that the short-comings in the construction of the narrative don’t undercut the very real emotions and situations we captured.

This American Life means “I like it.”

1 12 2009

It is always there. Lurking.

It’s on the radio two times a weekend, it’s on Showtime, it wins Emmy’s, it’s on Netflix, it tells true stories better than you and you will always be competing.

It is, of course, This American Life. I don’t know if there’s any way to really calculate the impact this life-affirming radio show/ television show / hipster-first-date-conversation-starter has had on nonfiction storytelling, but I’ll try: I’ve made a number of short form documentaries and every time if someone likes it – really, genuinely likes it – they will inevitably say, “It reminded me of This American Life.” That phrase alone is short hand for “It made me laugh/cry/think about getting a divorce/etc.” There is no escaping it and God save you if your documentary has voice-over.

The only thing worse than hearing that the documentary you made reminded someone of This American Life… is not hearing it. If the name of the great nonfiction monolith is not invoked then you have failed. Miserably. You have not had quirky characters, you have not made me feel anything, you have not had good music cues, you have not made me think about This American Life.

Despite all this. I like the show. The television episode Escape is some of the finest nonfiction narrative filmmaking I’ve ever seen. That being said – it is all of a very specific style, and one aspect of this style is – for me – problematic.

In 2004, Ira Glass wrote a Manifesto for the journal Transom. It’s a journey through Glass’ experiences working in radio but it’s also meant to tell you how to tell stories. Some of the advice I’ve clearly taken to heart:

“Force yourself to do a lot of stories. This is the most important thing you can do. Get yourself in a situation where people are expecting work out of you, or where you simply force yourself to do a certain number of stories every month. Turn the stuff out. Deadlines are your friend. “

But the problems arise when Glass gets to the Big Idea (Glass’ phrase and capitalization, not mine):

“A person can walk through lava, cure a disease, find true love, lose true love, discover he was adopted, discover he was NOT adopted, have all manner of amazing experiences, but if he (or the narrator) can’t say something big and surprising about what that experience means, if the story doesn’t lead to some interesting idea about how the world works, then it doesn’t work.”

The problem is that often it’s the narrator saying something big and surprising about the subject’s experience. When the subject is less articulate or less educated than the narrator it takes on a form of condescension, “Let me help you understand your life in a way that you cannot on your own.” It’s also spoon-feeding the audience an interpretation or conclusion that they may not agree with or that may not even be valid.

So far we’ve avoided voice-over, and that’s been in no small part due to the angry-beast of This American Life hulking in that corner. It’s also because – again, for me – when I watch a piece and slowly pull the threads together in my own head and my own heart — without any help — I’m more involved, more engaged and feel like I experience the story instead of just hearing it.