By Mark Harris, August 25th, 2010

THE LOST CHILDREN is a fiction film, but being shot as if a documentary. This isn’t anything new these days. From the beautiful work of Guest and Co, to the inescapable Blair Witch, to the TV show The Office, this has become a pretty accepted dramatic format. So I wasn’t under any delusions of breaking new ground.

I wanted to write up an article detailing the reasons I did make this decision, in the hopes of clarifying, both for myself and others, some of the things I’m after with this project. I also wanted to provide this because I see a lot of people choosing the same format, without really thinking through why. I think it deserves some thought.

Economics of Independent Film in 2009

When we started this project, our intention was to make a $100K indie feature, shot on RED, and (hopefully) distributed through the usual means. We had the script ready for this production and had gone into pre-production. We had shoot dates set, the cast ready, and we were all set to roll.

But at the same time, everyone started talking about how distribution was changing, failing, crumbling, etc. And this stuff was coming from so many places, I started to get worried. I had not really thought about distribution up to that point, assuming we would worry about it when the film was done. But hearing all of this hue and cry, I decided I needed to do some research. I put the production on hold and did that. And the conclusion I came to was that we could probably make a good $100K RED film, but it was entirely likely that this film would be lost in the massive ocean of similar films pouring out of every nook and cranny. It’s not hard to have production value anymore. And the lower the point of entry gets, the higher the baseline gets.

Now, I do believe our story is good and unique and multi-dimensional, but I didn’t have faith that that would be enough. We had no name actors. I was a first time feature director. When I looked at it practically, I just thought there were going to be too many things to overcome. With $100K in borrowed money, I didn’t like the odds. I know that’s nothing in movie terms, but…it’s kind of a lot of money to me, when I wasn’t certain I could pay it back.

So I put the old brainbox in gear and started to really think about what my goals were with this film.

  1. Get through my first feature alive. I actually think this is a laudable goal; to actually finish a feature film that’s coherent, watchable, and compelling. Many first time features don’t even accomplish two of these.
  2. Challenge myself as a filmmaker. Paint myself into some corners and fight to get out of them.
  3. Focus on characters over visuals.

  4. Make the film for an amount low enough that I can afford to experiment with distribution strategies. I feel like this is critical for filmmakers right now. If I try one thing and it doesn’t work, I need to be able to try some others without the pressing need to make the money back. In fact, it’s much more important to me right now to learn what works and what doesn’t than to actually make the money back on this film. As it stands now, I don’t owe anyone anything for this film. It’s paid for.

“Filmmaking” and Storytelling

I made a short in 2009, called EVIE. With EVIE, I was still working very much on my “filmmaking” techniques; telling a story visually, manipulating elements to exact certain emotions from the audience. But as I finished the film and screened it at the Downtown Independent in July of that year, I realized I was getting bored with filmmaking. It seemed like everyone was doing it now, and so much of it was just starting to look the same, and there was a part of me that simply didn’t like the act of manipulating those elements to pull up emotions. I think it’s the part of me that needs to examine and think about everything. It’s hard for me to shut up and enjoy a summer popcorn movie if that movie is just stupid, lacking in logic of events or character. I’m just not willing to turn off the part of my brain that wants things to make sense.

Throughout 2009, I had started to really take an interest in things like mobile, transmedia, alternate entertainment forms. As I looked about more and more, it kept nagging at me that so many independent filmmakers were busy investigating 21st century distribution models, when they should be looking at 21st century entertainment forms. And increasingly, these forms are becoming multi-media. They can use filmed elements, text elements, interactive elements. For instance, while many struggle to get their films on mobile platforms, I find this largely a waste of time. I think we should be figuring out how to make content for mobile platforms.

All of this led me to decide that I was going to tell the story of THE LOST CHILDREN, as a more multi-media effort. This would be how we would try to differentiate ourselves in the ocean of pretty-good films. There is a LOST CHILDREN film, to be sure. It is told in the form of a documentary, but it follows a pretty standard 3 ACT structure.

But we’re also working on other ways of extending the storyworld out beyond the movie. There are going to be websites that tell certain aspects of the story. For instance, we removed one whole subplot from the film onto a website. This means the story plays out through the website, through comments on blog posts, through webcam videos, etc.  Likewise, on our mobile platforms, the goal will not just be to put the movie on a phone, but to tell parts of the story through the phone; text messages, phone calls, location-based content, etc. Things only a phone can use to tell a story.

I came to view what I was doing with THE LOST CHILDREN, more as storytelling, than just filmmaking.

Filmmaking Exercise

There’s always been much debate on DVXUser( A filmmaker’s site I frequent ) about how much your gear does or does not matter. For my own viewing, gear matters almost not at all. I would much rather see a good story, well told and acted shot on crappy cameras, than the slickest thing on Earth lacking those same elements.

I’ve also always been fascinated by documentaries, and their ability to weave stories out of random and found materials. For instance, Ken Burns is able to tell a compelling story about the Civil War with little more than 150 yr old photos, voice-over, and music. I got to thinking about this a lot. See, with my own short films, I had been working toward ever slicker visual styles, trying to learn how to use the camera to build a certain emotion in the viewer, how to manufacture a specific moment for a specific impact. And I like all of this stuff. But I also started to get really interested in this question: What if I were limited to the material I had? How would I tell a compelling story then? Well, the story itself would have to be mighty compelling, wouldn’t it? The story of the Civil War or the Brooklyn Bridge are pretty friggin’ compelling.

At this point, I went back through THE LOST CHILDREN script, pretty much scene by scene. I was still confident that we were telling a pretty unique story, that we were telling it well. And as I read and re-read it, my confidence grew. And I thought, what if we tell this with only limited materials? It’s kind of the ultimate filmmaking exercise, I think. I’m not sure if they teach this in any film schools, but if I were teaching a filmmaking class, I would probably start by giving them a box of random old photos, and telling them to make a story out of those.

I’m also reminded of the comment Jack White made in It Might Get Loud. He says he likes old broken guitars. He likes making the process hard, forcing himself to fight the instrument, and wrestle a sound out of it. He thinks that pushes him forward as an artist. This idea just shot through me like a lightning bolt. And I realized I had been applying the same to THE LOST CHILDREN. What if I not only shot it like a documentary, with shaky cams and all the rest, but also actually shot some of the footage badly? Meaning, what if I had to go through some crazy post processes just to extract the image from the footage, as you might have to with found footage? What if I made it hard on myself?

Maybe it’s because movies are so hard to make anyway that people don’t think this way. Or maybe it’s because people are so focused on career and the business side these days, that they are too afraid to do anything but what’s accepted.

I joked with my girlfriend, an artist herself, that I had a confession to make: “I think I’m a video artist!” Which is funny because I am typically so critical of video art because so much of it lacks both discipline and basic mastery of the tools.

I became obsessed with this idea and spent the next several months re-working the script. Same story. I simply looked at how to tell the story in a different way. And I decided to be very strict about it. Meaning, if there was no valid reason to have a camera in the scene, then I would have to figure out some other way to tell that scene. Maybe it’s a voice recording. Maybe it’s a person re-telling it accompanied by photos. But if there was no real reason for a camera to be there, then that scene did not get shot.

Brecht

There’s another thing I like about documentaries, which is their purpose: to make you think about a subject and/or potentially do something about it. This is not the primary purpose of a fiction film. Certainly, some fiction films have causes and purposes associated with them, and the filmmakers are using the film as a way to raise awareness about those, but the primary purpose of the fiction film is to suck you into that world and take you on a ride. To make you forget what’s going on outside of that world for that hour and a half ( or increasingly, 3 hrs ). I started to realize that I love the purpose of documentaries. This is just kind of how I’m wired. I love reading, I love knowing how things work. I love history. I love thinking about things. But there was always something in the back of my mind nagging me and telling me that this was the road to a boring-ass film.

Then I saw my friend Vern’s latest play: “Lenin’s Embalmers.” In Lenin’s Embalmers, the characters regularly step out of the action and speak to the audience. After the play, over beers, I asked Vern why he had made this choice, and he said he was working with a “Brechtian kind of thing.” And that’s when it hit me. This is why I’m doing this.

I started in theater, so of course I was well aware of Brecht and his theories of theater. He often employed conventions which would intentionally remind the viewer that they were watching an artificial thing. And he did this for the very same reasons I like documentaries; so that the audience wouldn’t get so caught up in the emotion that they forgot to think about what they were seeing on stage. He intended the audience to maintain some measure of distance. Again, this is typically not the purpose of a fiction film.

Holy moly, what if this movie sucks???

I don’t know if documentary makers go through this, though I suspect they do, but the problem with shooting the way we did, is that you have about a million hours of footage. And you have to make that into something worth watching. In the past, I was a storyboard Nazi. I had the entire movie drawn out as a comic book ahead of time, so shooting it was largely a technical exercise; make sure you get the performances and the shots, and it’s going to be really hard to screw it up.

I’ve been editing THE LOST CHILDREN since about June 2010. And I’ve been one nervous mofo this whole summer. I’d dread looking at the edit for fear that it was as bad as I feared. But invariably, every time I did go back to it, I was drawn in, and it wasn’t so bad after all. When people asked how it was going, I would respond with: “I don’t think it will suck too badly.” Then I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to have some manner of validation. I sent an extremely rough draft of ACT I to a friend I could trust to be honest, and I had one question for him: “Should I just jump off a bridge right now?” His answer was without a doubt “No.” He felt like I had something there. Whew! But honestly, I didn’t completely believe him until this past week. I took off from all client work and secluded myself in my office to edit full time. I tightened up the first act and just about all of the second, and even moved into the third. And for the first time since we started shooting, I am honest to God excited to show this film.

Our goal right now is to have the project ready for the world by Jan 2011. That includes Transmedia content, mobile apps, and the completely finished film.

I’d say after that I am taking a vacation, but I know that’s just the beginning…

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Mark Harris is a filmmaker and technologist in New York City. In addition to producing several shorts Mark is currently working on his first feature film, THE LOST CHILDREN. Mark also runs Gowanus Software, a technology consulting firm in Brooklyn, NY focusing on enterprise and mobile solutions.

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  • Sadashivamrao

    I believe Mark you made a mistake. A film starts as soon as you write the first character of the script. You finish a script and then you shoot it, edit it and then sell/show it. Thats the way a film flows. The moment this process is interrupted (changed), the project looses its focus and 'grand unity'. Our thoughts , attitudes change with time but whats important is to stick to the original idea.

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