IN AN IDEAL world, all budgetary and time costs that go into a film production would show up “on the screen”; put X dollars and Y man-hours towards a certain shot and your efforts would always be reflected by the final work the audience sees. Usually, however, this term is used in a negative sense: If something is worked on and doesn’t show up on the screen, it’s either a waste or a sign of incompetence. The term is often used in arguing against something being planned. For example, “Do you really want to put that together, just to not have it on the screen?”
Documentaries, of course, are rife with this problem. People film all sorts of subjects along a certain line of exploration, only to decide that just one or two of the people they’ve been filming should go in the final work. Meanwhile, all the rest of that work is gone, left on the cutting-room floor (a lost idiom) and won’t be seen again.
However, even knowing that a lot of his work may end up on the cutting-room floor, the responsible documentarian has to put in the effort. Of five interviewees, only one may make it on the screen, but if you don’t film all five of them, you would never know which one will come forward as the main story. If you don’t pull together all the possible copies of VHS tapes you might use, you would never find the perfect, zeitgeist-capturing sequence that defines the heart of what the film is about.
With my documentaries, the hardest and most time-consuming task I have (that doesn’t necessarily show up on the screen) is lining up the interviews. I’m talking about the thousands of letters, e-mails and phone calls.
The subjects in my documentaries are diverse and in many cases doubt their own worth as interviewees for a film. If I’m looking to capture a tale that spans decades and has many participants, people who played minor roles in the events may be able to donate their time but discount the contributions they could possibly make. This happened constantly with Get Lamp—people who “just” played these games in the 1970s, who didn’t think anyone wanted to hear about that.
In other cases—and this is happening a lot right now—people ask me how such-and-such a documentary could possibly be interesting. I then have to show them some of the work from the previous films to prove that yes, it could be. Most of this effort never shows up on the screen.
All of this can be summed up in a bald-faced fact: I write to people, and I write a lot. For the BBS Documentary, I easily topped 4000 e-mails. For Get Lamp, it was a svelte 2,000. With those sorts of numbers, you can imagine what three films at once will be like.
Sometimes a dozen e-mails will fly back and forth, ranging from finding out when people are available and where they are, to walking them through subjects that might come up in an interview. (Some people want no surprise of any kind, some people are up for anything.) I have to find out what they want to talk about, what they think we should talk about, what I hope we can talk about… and of course what makes the most sense as a backdrop. An office? A workshop? Some agreed-upon place that we both travel to?
I’ve interviewed people at work and at home, but sometimes had to grab a hotel room to get any sort of quiet location. I recorded a few people in hotel hallways, using the dimensionality of the shot to bring it some variance.
But the letters, as legion and as massive as they are in numbers, and as much as they might not show up on the screen, are absolutely necessary. The letters take a person who is concerned this could be a waste of time and transform him into an excited and involved interviewee. It’s where I am my most polite (and let me tell you, I am not a polite person at all), and afford people the respect they deserve for opening their homes to me and my equipment.
As the letters begin going out, I’m grabbing any coattails I can, roping everyone in as potentials. Some viewers of the final film will decry missed opportunities, but they don’t realize that there was a conversation there—a set of letters that resulted in a no-show, for reasons not obvious. And when you do see someone there, on the screen—well, now you know there’s a lot going on in the background to make it happen.