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Production Journal

Ross McElwee talks about his stylistic approach and the challenges and benefits involved with documentary filmmaking as a crew of one.

POV: Tell us about your approach to filmmaking.

Ross McElwee: I try to reduce the notion of a film crew down to one person. I was using 16-mm film, not video, and taking my own sound. For people who don't really understand the difference between film and video, it's a much more complex endeavor to be shooting film and recording the sound separately than it is to be using a video camera that does it all at once. Shooting film also requires that you change film magazines every ten minutes. It's also usually done with a crew of two or three people. For me, it was very important to hand-hold the camera the entire time I was shooting because I think that invites a kind of intimacy with your subject and it also allows for spontaneity.

This idea comes very much out of that wonderful cinema verité tradition that started in the late 60s, which is the spirit in which I undertake my filmmaking. Of course, I also use a highly subjective voiceover narration with my film. It's almost a literary process, where I write and rewrite until I get the narration that I like. If it were true cinema verité of course it would have nothing like this.

POV: What is the ratio of what actually ended up in the film and didn't?

McElwee: The actual shooting ratio for Bright Leaves is about 15 to 1, meaning that I shot 15 times more material than I was able to use. And that's partially a function of following your intuition. Sometimes your intuitions are wrong and you end up with boring material that doesn't go anywhere and then you can't use it. And sometimes your intuitions are quite good and the material you get is interesting and complex, but not good enough to make the final cuts. In general, 50 or 60 percent of the time, it usually turns out to have been worth the effort, even if it doesn't end up in the final version of the film.

POV: Why is documenting family important to you?

McElwee: I think that I'm driven by the same impulses that compel countless millions of people to videotape their families. Look at America's Funniest Home Videos, for example. That was me 25 years ago before there were video home movies. I'm very aware of the paradox of filming, that it doesn't really slow anything down and that it doesn't really preserve anything permanently. And I address some of those issues in "Bright Leaves." And yet I'm very, very interested in this documentation and seeing how much we as individuals change over time. The degree to which we stay the same and also the degree to which we change is very intriguing to me.

POV: Can you tell us a little bit more about your shooting style? In your film interview, you said that you use 16mm film, not video, and take your own sound. You comment that this style is in the spirit of 1960s cinema verité style filmmaking. Have you ever shot with video? Is there a reason why you prefer shooting with 16mm over video or have you just always shot that way?

McElwee: I almost always shoot as a one-person crew, shooting and recording my own sound, because I believe it enables me to achieve intimacy and spontaneity in my filming. I elect to shoot 16mm film, rather than video, and this is a cumbersome process but, I love the way film looks — especially when projected. However, I am not at all sure that I will shoot my next feature in film, given the way various video formats are evolving.

POV: Any piece of advice for novice filmmakers?

McElwee: If I had one piece of advice for a first time filmmaker, that advice might be, "Quit, go to law school, you'll be much happier in the long run." Making films is really hard. Yet I know that because I teach young documentary filmmakers, the most important thing is to hold onto your passion and your conviction and to be certain as much as is possible that you're making something that's really important to you, that it really is something that you are drawn to. But when filmmaking stops being about something that's very central to your existence, then I think maybe it's time to look for another profession.





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