A few weekends back I rented a car and left Ottawa for the Toronto suburb of Brampton. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile production unit. I had one camera, a tripod, some high-powered sound equipment, a salt shaker half full of... salt, a case of beer, a whole galaxy of multi-claused waivers, releases, and agreements, a quart of water, a quart of coffee, half a pack of Belmonts, about 4 hours worth of tape. Not that I needed all that, but when you're locked into a serious documentary production the tendency is to film as much as you can.
I was bored as hell the whole drive through and had to fight to stay awake. It doesn't help that radio nowadays is junk. I was saved by a world music station as I got closer to Toronto. Never really been a fan of world music - I don't have the dreadlocks for it - but I found myself grooving to Senegalese afrobeat as I rolled into the 4-1-6.
I didn't meet up with Dean, the subject of my film, until Sunday evening. Dean and I knew each other back when we were undergrads at Western. Since then we've met on a yearly basis under increasingly bizarre circumstances. This time around we were getting together to shoot a documentary about Dean recording a rap album. Life has a funny way of turning out.
Dean had just got off work when I arrived around 7:30 in the evening. Bro-hugs all around, but the whole scene seemed unnatural. There's something inherently odd about calling a friend up after a year and asking him to let you make a documentary about his life. I suppose I was having an "I'm going to school to be a documentary filmmaker. How the hell did this happen?" moment. Our friend Rohan was crashing at Dean's place and agreed to help out with sound. He also turned out to be a great help during the interview later on that evening.
I realized my first mistake when we walked into Dean's apartment. Everything was pink and the lighting was fluorescent. The carpet was pink. The walls were pink. The ceiling was pink. It looked like a Persian nightclub. "Yeah, I live in a pink apartment," Dean announced when we got downstairs. I immediately started to wonder how this was going to turn out on film.
We had to be at the studio in Mississauga at 10 AM the following morning. By the time we were all awake and ready we were late and I didn't get most of the establishing shots I had planned. Marcel, Dean's producer, operates a home studio out of his basement, so once again I found myself relying on fluorescent tube lighting. I managed to get some decent footage of the two of them discussing the album, and then Dean does a couple of takes of 'Vanity Insanity', a song inspired by the dog bite and the issue of high school bullying. They take a break and I interview Marcel for a bit. Ro and I get the footage we need and leave them to it. I'm back on the road by 2 PM.
So that's more or less the story of my first documentary filming experience. I spent the drive back to Ottawa wondering how it would all turn out. Not so bad, I found out this past Friday in the editing suite. Picture looks all right, most of the audio is good, and the interview wasn't so bad after all. Nonetheless, here are some lessons I learned:
1. You can't fully prepare through long distance research.
2. Leave enough time to get familiar with the surroundings and get establishing shots.
3. Don't drink with your subject.
These rules are all fine and good, but they're only generally the case. Documentary is a representation of reality, and sometimes reality is a pink basement apartment.