POV: How did you find your subjects?
Roger Weisberg: It is remarkable how quickly you can spot or feel that somebody's got the chops; when you meet them they come across with energy and insight. They tend to be people who are outgoing, and not self conscious. Finding those people in the particular situations that we're looking for them is extremely difficult. It takes months to do the documentary equivalent of casting for a film like this. However when you find it, you know it almost immediately.
In searching for the subjects for Waging a Living we cast a really large net. We talked to food banks; we talked to labor unions; we talked to anti-poverty advocates; we talked to grass roots community groups like ACORN; we talked to legal services attorneys. Jean Reynolds we found through the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). She was an activist with her union, and she's a certified nursing assistant. With Mary Venittelli we found her through the food pantry that she was resorting to, to try to put enough food on the table to feed her family. Jerry Longoria we found through the SEIU as well, out in San Francisco, and Barbara Brooks we found through the Department of Social Services out in Nassau County. So we go to government agencies as well as nonprofit organizations and do a lot of pre-interviewing. I would say it took us a good four to five months to line up the 12 subjects we ended up following for this film. There are only four in the final film, but over the course of several years we were profiling a dozen folks in three regions of the country.
POV: How long did it take to shoot the film?
Weisberg: We started Waging a Living in the year 2000. By 2001 we had done our search for subjects and had set up little production teams in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, and we were off and running. We actually covered these families over three Christmases in three years. Then it took three editors working full time for nine months to edit the countless hours of footage. I think if I was forced to count, I'm sure we had over 300 hours of footage to wade through. We didn't know when we started editing which were the four stories that would end up making the final cut in "Waging a Living," so we had to discover that when we were actually in the cutting room. It was a long process. But ultimately by the end of 2004 we emerged with a film that we put out there and that's having a little bit of a run on the big screen before going to POV
I've made documentaries in the past where it's taken two months to film, two months to edit, maybe a month of preproduction research and five months later you have a completed film. But those are very scripted, tight, public affairs reports. Waging a Living is the kind of film that requires the patience to follow stories and characters over time. And ultimately they're much richer stories. The kind of stories that we're telling, you can only tell with this longitudinal observational approach to filmmaking. Instead of breezing into somebody's life for an afternoon and getting a few sound bites, we're trying to really be there for all of the significant moments in their family life, in their work life, over a period of three years. And I think built into that is a certain amount of drama and pathos that you can't capture in that quicker form of filmmaking.
POV: What kind of relationship did you have with your subjects?
Weisberg: It is tricky to maintain relationships over time with the subjects of my films. You become so close and so intimate during the filmmaking process that sometimes some of the subjects feel betrayed when the filming is over. They think — "Where are you now that the film is over, but I have this other drama or crisis or struggle in my life?" And so we have to clarify what our role is. But having said that, we don't abandon them. I'm still in touch with all four of the subjects of "Waging a Living." I've talked to all of them within the last couple of weeks. So we do maintain a relationship but it doesn't have the intensity it did when we were filming them.
POV: You collaborated with different teams to film your subjects, who were scattered across the United States. Could you talk a bit about this collaboration?
Weisberg: In making Waging a Living I had a wonderful collaboration with other prominent filmmakers. Here in New York I worked with Eddie Rosenstein who made The Gospel According to Mr. Allen and A Tickle in the Heart, and out in California I had a team headed up by Frances Reid and Pam Harris. They made Long Night's Journey Into Day, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
So these are people at the top of their game . The reason that I like collaborating with other filmmakers is that one, we can benefit from their expertise and experiences; two, it enables us to cover more of the country, and the documentaries take on much more of a national feel and flavor; and three, it enables me to be more prolific. If I'm going to try to work on more than one project at a time, I can't fly out to San Francisco every time something happens in Jerry Longoria's life, but Frances Reid — who is just down the street — can throw together a crew on short notice and be there at the right time. Obviously these types of films depend on being there for those important moments so this approach enables me to have a greater output. It enables me to take advantage of tremendous talent, and yet the challenge of doing this is how you take these disparate talents and try to have a unified film at the end of the day.
I think it's about being on the same page from the get-go. We all share a similar sensibility. There was a lot of give and take once we were out shooting. I flew out several times to California to meet their subjects, to help choose the subjects ultimately, and then once the dailies started coming back to New York where we were putting it all together. There would be calls asking: Should we cover this, should we not cover this, what's important, is this story not really going anywhere? Should one story be abandoned so we can devote our resources to this more viable story? So there were these discussions throughout the process.
Then came editing. There were rough cuts going back and forth across the country, with notes and comments and collaboration. But it's a great way to work, and whatever we achieve in terms of audience response to this film — so much of it is attributable to my co-producers who really feel that this is their baby, every bit as much as it's my baby.