Rache Grady and Heidi Ewing of Loki Films presented a class on their secrets of the craft and process of directing at Silverdocs on June 25.
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Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are fierce. As Loki Films they have produced countless works for television and four feature length documentaries, with a fifth currently in production. Their work has taken them from inner city Baltimore to East Africa, from the jungles of Sri Lanka to a non-descript looking corner in Florida that is actually ground zero for the fierce debate around abortion rights. They have snuck into abandoned buildings and the country of Cuba, fearlessly following where the story takes them. Their work has premiered at Sundance, appeared on networks like HBO A&E and Al Jazeera and been nominated for an Academy Award.
That’s all to say that when I heard they were coming to Silverdocs to spill all of their secrets on the craft and process of directing, I was more than a little excited to go hear them speak. Let’s just say the discussion lived up to the hype. Read on for some of the highlights.
Grady and Ewing opened the “Master Class: Directing” by showing a scene from their film “12th and Delaware” about an anti-choice “family counseling” clinic that opened up across the street from the area’s only abortion clinic. The scene gave a great feel for their special brand of verite filmmaking – where the audience feels like a fly on the wall of the action that’s unfolding in front of the camera.
That sense of being in the moment with their characters is a hallmark of Grady and Ewing’s films. Ewing explained it this way “There are lots of different ways to approach making a documentary…for us, if action has happened in the past or we’ve missed the action, we probably won’t do it, because it doesn’t suit our style. The action or the drama needs to unfold on camera for us to consider it.”
She went on to say that one of the biggest mistakes that filmmakers can make is letting their passion for a subject blind themselves to the fact that the story may not actually make a good doc. “They don’t ask themselves ‘is this visual?’ We’re not doing radio here, “ Ewing said, “You have to be able to show the action. You have to ask yourself would this be better as an article in The New Yorker?”
Before they take on a new project, Ewing and Grady also have to agree they are both passionate — and curious — about the subject matter. “If we have all the answers or a strong opinion we won’t make that film,” Ewing explained, “If we feel like there’s nothing to learn, we don’t’ make that film.”
Grady explained that six months into the edit on their latest project, “Detroit Hustles Harder” they’re just now starting to figure out what the film is really about. “Hopefully your assumptions are going to turn out wrong because that’s where the magic happens,” she explained, “It’s exciting. We just watched the first act and it’s starting to work and the themes are starting to emerge.”
Grady went on to site their Oscar-nominated film “Jesus Camp” as an example:
“That film is really about the next generation of the Christian Right. Going in, we thought it was film about religious children, and that’s certainly there, but it’s also about forming a child and is it brainwashing? And don’t we all brainwash our children? And isn’t that what raising a child is?”
Ewing explained that they want to make sure whatever film they’re making is not just a niche story, but that national, international or universal themes emerge. She cited their film ‘Boys of Baraka’ and explained while it is about two boys from the inner city that go off on a crazy adventure; it’s also about so much more. “It’s a commentary on our educational system and about the potential of the human being, and the luck of family you’re born into. We hope that happens in all of our films.”
The women switched gears from overall story to talking more specifically about the technique and craft of filming interviews and creating a story arc. Grady explained that they never want to go for the stiff, sit-down interview. “Our interviews are meant to feel organic and in the element.” Grady also stressed the need for a three-act structure – at least to start out. “You need an organizing principle, some way to structure the narrative,” she explained, “If you give something away too soon, you can ruin the story.”
The women then showed a clip of scene from “Boys of Baraka” where one of the main characters goes to visit his father in prison. “We were in the world’s ugliest room,” Ewing recalled, “but we had no choice. Lots of times life is not cinematic. We like to go for the emotion rather than a perfectly composed shot. A lot of times the most interesting thing in the room is not always the person talking.” Ewing underscored the importance of making a solid choice about where to place the camera and then having the courage to go for it with as few moves or takes as possible. “Too much direction can remind subjects that they’re part of a movie,” she explained, “and it gets in the way of capturing the intimacy of the moment.”
Both women stressed their need for interviews have to both form and function. They showed clips from their work that illustrated alternatives to the formal sit down interview: an elderly Cuban dissident discussing free speech while gutting a fish in her kitchen, two boys talking on a burned down playground, a woman speaking as she paced in front an abortion clinic holding a protest sign. “Try to think of things your character can do while you’re talking to them, “ Grady suggested, “it makes them more comfortable, it gives you something to cut away to, and you might discover something about your character in the process.”