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On the Creative Interpretation of Reality


When I was a film student, I was somewhat of a snob.

I believed the only kind of story worth telling was one someone made up. I wanted to go to Hollywood and be a DIRECTOR. An AUTEUR. I planned to tell wild, fantastic stories with wholly invented characters that traversed worlds I brought to life on screen.

And I was convinced that this was the pinnacle of the filmmaker’s art.

I had a very low opinion of documentary work. At best, I saw it as something that might provide a reasonable wage while you worked on your “art”. I knew several filmmakers who made industrial films or commercials to pay the bills while they worked on their screenplays. And even they seemed to have a low opinion of that option.

Most of the time, I saw documentaries as the realm of the small screen and something only old people could possibly stomach. In fact I remember saying that I HATED documentaries. In my mind, every documentary was a boring episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, a regular staple in my household growing up.

In pursuit of my directing dream, I headed out to Hollywood and the graduate MFA in Film at UCLA. I spent the year taking directing classes (in which I was a miserable failure), editing classes (which I loved with all my heart), and various technical classes on camera, audio and so on. But one of the classes we were required to take was a Documentary production class.

The instructor was Terry Sanders who had just won an Academy Award with his documentary on Rose Kennedy. I went into the class with a great deal of trepidation. Why were we required to spend time on this doddering form of filmmaking? We were required to produce a short documentary as our final project and I had no idea what to do. I dreaded the entire experience.

I am usually one of the most obnoxious students in a class. I question everything. And I remember at one point challenging Mr. Sanders and basically telling him that documentaries were NOT a creative art form.

To his credit, he did not point out my complete naiveté and lack of proper documentary exposure. Instead he looked me right in the eye and told me that I was thinking about it all wrong. Documentaries, he said, were in fact the highest form of storytelling. In a fiction film, you can change circumstances to suit your needs with the stroke of a pen.

But to him, documentaries were superior as an art form because you couldn’t stray from WHAT REALLY HAPPENED. The way you expressed yourself as an “artist” was through what he called the “creative interpretation of reality.” Your eye, your voice, the way you saw real events unfold and the conclusions to be drawn from them was where the art was to be found. Creating a story that could move audiences was made all the more compelling because it was REAL. And that story could be told in any number of “creative” ways and forms. Your challenge as an artist was to find the structure that would best tell your story and to find a way to bring your audience into the heart of the way you saw the world.

That lecture, that response, planted a seed that took years to fully blossom.

[Continued in Part Two]

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