Sundance/Slamdance Docs: Into the Life of the Others (Part 2)
Part 1 here: http://www.btlnews.com/community/73847/
In Hotel Coolgardie (Slamdance) two Finnish backpackers, drawn by a desire for an authentic outback experience, are hired to work as barmaids in a remote gold-mining town. Their job entailed dealing with cultural differences, an exacting boss and a boozed-up mix of coarse customers.
During a stint as a laborer in the goldfields, director Pete Gleeson got to know the hotel bar with its idiosyncratic patrons from “the drinking side.” Observing the changeover of staff, he became interested in how new employees adapted with varying degrees of success to the foreign environment.
With a micro-crew of one or two people – producer, partner, and 2nd camera Melissa Hayward accompanied him for some of the production to “put out fires” – Gleeson’s priority was to be a dispassionate spectator to the experience. The result is up close and personal with natural reactions, and often unsettling interactions in front of camera
Acting as his own cameraman, Gleeson did a preliminary shoot in the pub for a couple of weeks to acclimatize patrons to his presence. The girls were the variable. They could have been from anywhere. The filmmakers met half a dozen backpackers just as they went for their first interviews and made sure they would be happy to be part of the film.
When the new barmaids arrived in the outback, principle photography commenced quickly. At the beginning, until the story started to develop, Gleeson filmed from the time the bar opened until it closed. The schedule continued for six weeks until the shoot was cut short when the barmaids ended employment mid-contract.
Most of the film takes place in the working pub with patrons coming-and-going, an environment that was not the most conducive to filming. Gleeson shared, “You can imagine it’s fairly hard to shoot in a pub. It’s very echoey, very hard to maneuver around. We just picked up whatever we had to shoot with. If there was a conversation that was happening, we would just slide mics down the bar and try and pick up the conversation.”
The film was shot on HDV, on a Vid 1camera that Gleeson admitted was probably obsolete five years before the shoot took place, giving the film a raw, low-fi esthetic, which “in the end gives the film a bit of charm. It looks like it’s just a punter in the pub that’s filmed all this stuff and pieced it all together.”
Staying “one step ahead of the story” and being able to capture the footage was a challenge, especially when the story left the pub. For impromptu car rides, a first-gen GoPro would be hastily rigged, sometimes with only a Zoom Recorder strapped to the dash to record audio.
Gleeson laughed as he admitted the biggest challenge was “Not being drunk. Not accepting offers of beer being bought nearly 24-hours a day.”
In observational documentary, editing is where the stories ultimately take shape. The various filmmakers approached post in different ways, editing from four months to almost two years.
The Good Postman was Hristov’s third collaboration with German editor, Nikolai Hartmann. Although the editor started cutting from the beginning of post on another film that was in English, because this film was in Bulgarian, the director assembled a three ad a half hour cut from about fifty hours of footage, which he then translated for Hartmann to work with.
The two co-edited, sending files back and forth “Of course he’s the final artist,” said Hristov. But even though the director did a rough assembly, Hartmann still took at least four months editing, “It took longer time because he was fine-tuning. Mine looked more bar bones. When he came on board the flesh came in.”
The main purpose of the edit for the director was, “To put together the most important moments in the footage and then see how to build a film out of it.” He likes working with the footage himself because he believes, “This is how I learn better for the next film what I need when I try to do a rough cut myself. This is how I learn to be a better director.”
One other element worth mentioning in The Good Postman was the music. In Hristov’s fifth collaboration with composer Petar Dundakov, the director was looking for score with a feeling based on folklore. Dundakov wrote classical music for a violin quartet, but replaced one of the violins with a gadoulka, a Bulgarian stringed instrument played with a bow, which contributed to the sense of place Hristov wanted to achieve with the film.
Diaz had an idea in her head of how to structure Motherhood when she started editing. She likes to work with physical index cards to track the different story lines in the overall film. Editing took about 8 months and according to the director seemed shorter and easier than her previous films. Although more stories were shot than ended up in the final cut, and they started out with a long assembly, trimming the film down to a manageable length was quick. According to the director, “There was something about it that just clicked into place.”
Editor Leah Marino has cut all of Diaz’s films. The director likes to shoot the film, come home, look at all the footage, and figure out the story, then start the editing. Unlike on a feature film when an editor might ask for additional footage from the production, with a documentary, the director can’t go back and pick-up a shot.
“I want Leah to be as separate from the process as possible, because she is a different eye. I don’t want her anywhere near the location,” shared Diaz. “She should see it differently from how my cinematographer sees it and from how I see it.”
Jain had about fifty cuts of Machines. His process was a lot of trial and error with a lot of feedback throughout. More than in a narrative film, his first edit was structural. The range of his material was so deep and vast and extensive, he declared he could make five films, or more. As his first film, the trap was that he wanted to say too much, “to give you the whole cake instead of a proper slice of life.” It took him some time to realize he needed to avoid the trap and structure a story that was more elemental and fragmentary that would support it self.
“I needed to distill the best material,” explained Jain. “I had to kill a lot of my darlings because there was so much powerful material. It took a lot of time. My the last shoot, I kind of knew what I wanted because the structure had fallen into place. I knew what the final feeling of the film would be. I feel I did capture a good amount of the essence that the feeling was expositing.”
There was a fairly extensive post-production process to shape the stories in Hotel Coolgardie. A lot of time was spent syncing up the audio tracks with the video. The filmmakers had about 90 hours of footage to whittle down to 83 minutes.
Gleeson has edited for other directors and likes to edit his own material, but to avoid being “in a bubble,” he showed the cut to good people around him for advice. Over the course of 18 months, in between other jobs, he edited the story to a rough, fine-cut stage, then brought-in well-respected Australian editor Lawrie Silvestrin, ASE for a few weeks.
“He introduced some concepts that really popped the narrative, so I was very grateful to him,” commented Gleeson. “He validated what we had done and made suggestions to move it along. It was a really great process. I’d do it again.”
Understanding the process was a common thread among the filmmakers.
“This is my fifth film. Instinct takes over on what the stories are and where they are going. Obviously you miss some things. That is what I call the ghost stories that will never appear on film because you were never able to capture them.” Diaz added, “I love working this way. You are really on your toes constantly the entire shooting period. It is very stressful, obviously, but it is great. It is satisfying.”
“My first film was shot on super 16. I was still a student. We were shooting. My instructor asked me, what was I doing, it’s eleven minutes. You can’t just shoot like this. You have to be well prepared before filming,” revealed Hristov. “This is how I learned that it’s much better to be well-prepared beforehand of how you want it to look and with your questions. Of course sometimes you are surprised.”
“Many times when I was shooting, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the greatest thing ever,” shared Jain. “That is the dilemma of a documentary filmmaker. Seeing something extremely wretched happening and at the same time they’re thinking this is great material.”
“What I discovered in terms of process was a kind of beautiful thing, and I say the most terrifying thing about observational documentary is you just don’t know where it’s going. Uncertainty is the thing that’s driving it the whole way.” Gleeson concluded, “What I really discovered is that you are faithful to the form of observational documentary, it will tell you what the story needs to be. It’s as much a revelation to the filmmaker as it is to the audience. It can be really illuminating.”