Six O' Clock News

Ask the Filmmaker

Q Congratulations on a wonderful program! Frontline is really one of the most extraordinary news/feature programs that I have seen on television,ever. Program after program is of the highest quality with innovative and interesting subjects Keep up the good work and kudos to your producers.

Now for a question for Mr. Mcelwee. Could you plese let me know what kind of equipment and film you use or have developed for your peculiar type of filmmaking. I am very interested in making films like yours, but am rather a small person and my greatest difficulty has been physically carrying large Arriflex 16mm cameras on my shoulders while at the smae time negotiating the nagra and microphones. You also seem to have used a much more sensitive film for the Six O'clock News. What was it? How many magazines do you usually carry around with you? How do you edit? Do you edit on a table or dump everything to video and edit that? If you have an done an article or something that explains your working method, I would be very glad to find out how to get a copy. Thank you.

Washington, DC

A Thanks for your interest in my film. I'm glad you enjoyed it. The camera I used is an Aaton 16mm film camera. Indoor film used was Kodak 7298 (ASA 500). I use two, and sometimes three mags at a time. The film was edited on an ancient Steenbeck 6 - plate, although I suspect I'll finally give in and edit the next one on video, even if I originate the material in film. But there is something I love about clunky old analog Steenbecks. Frontline is publishing a number of articles about my work on the Frontline web site, so I suggest you check there to see if you can find the information you were looking for as to my shooting approach. If note, send me another e-mail. And as to your question about trying to shoot film vs. video: I certainly see no reason to shoot film unless you intend for your work to be shown theatrically or unless you are an incredibly wealthy individual. Film does have "a look" that is special, even when it appears in the form of a television program, but I am not sure "the look " is worth it given the considerable cost for personal documentary projects. Now that digital video is available on a consumer basis, that would be the way to go, I believe - especially for a self-described "small person." A logical way to look at it is that if your video is sufficiently successful for you, then perhaps it can be used to help you raise funding that would enable you to shoot the next one in film,as opposed to video. Good luck!

Q Hi Ross,
I saw your film on Frontline last night and thought your use of the six o'clock news as a literal and figurative metaphor as to how we perceive, feel, and define reality was excellent. Since I too live in Boston and have a one year old child, I was immediately taken in by all of the local faces and locations in your six o'clock news clips as well as identifying with home movies (there is nothing like the birth of a first kid to make every Dad an amateur film-maker). My wife and I immediately connected with the notion that the world is a much more dangerous place than we had previously thought. I felt like I knew you. Anyway, my question is - how long were you on the road, how did you pay for it, and was your son and wife at home during this time or were they with you (I can't imagine the later)? Secondly, I have for a number of years fantsized about quitting my current profession and becoming a "film-maker". What would you suggest I do to begin exploring the field.

Scott Young
Somerville, MA

A Glad you like my film. To answer your questions, I was on the road in segments of 2-3 weeks at a time in 1989 and 1994 (I think - it all begins to blur once you begin editing.) I kept in daily contact with my wife as I was travelling, but still, as you suggest, it was difficult to be away from home. My films are funded by grants from arts foundations and from public television in the USA, Germany, and Great Britain. (The funding is never a sure thing, however.) As to suggestions as to how to become a filmmaker -DON'T! It's a terrible way to make a living. Actually, as you can imagine,there are many rewards and I love doing it, but it is extremely difficult sometimes. Occasionally I look at my accountant with envy. If you want to begin making films, pick up a camcorder and shoot something that's important to you - friends, family, someone you meet. Tell their story. You'll find out soon enough whether or not you're on the right track. Good luck!

Q Just watched the Six O'Clock News documentation, and I liked it very much. I wondered if the Miramax project which looked at you to direct "fictional documentation" ever came through? (I admit, I am just curious).

And when were those shots taken? The L.A. earthquake was not the 1994 one, was it?

Thanks for taking the time to reply.

Thomas J. Ackermann
Pacifica (San Francisco), CA

A The script I was working on with Josh for Miramax went into the dread "Turnaround" - that's Hollywood lingo for purgatory. They hired another director, but it still hasn't been made into a film. Perhaps someday. And, yes: the earthquack depicted in my film was the Northridge earthquake of 1994. Glad you liked the film and thanks for your interest in my work.

Q Dear Mr. McElwee:
I had never seen your work previous to "6 O'Clock News". Congratulations for having this piece broadcast nationally on Frontline. It's a cut above the productions on POV, both technically and creatively. Your strength is obviously your sensibility, your way of interpreting sometimes mundane events in such a way as to make them fascinating. I did not move from in front of the tv for the entire time.

A partner and I videotape weddings and such in 8mm for fun & slight profit. I produced the community access documentary "Winos Bums and Transients" using Betacam equipment and have done some training tapes for a couple of corporations renting Beta SP. Using my partners connections with a local Native American tribe, we have won a contract for a documentary on the history and culture of this tribe. Basically $50k to purchase a new digital camera and editing equipment, expenses but no salary...but in the back of my mind I'm thinking "film". 16mm has seemed grainy on tv until I saw "6 o'clock news". Is that Super 16? Wow. I believe I can buy used Super 16 for less than my video budget, but it scares me.

When I was a kid I used to make "movies" on sound Super 8. I had a hand cranked editer, a splicer, a light meter, and sound on sound through a Bell and Howell projector.

Sorry to bore you, but here is my question: Is it ridiculous to suddenly change mediums? Is the learning curve outrageous? Film is just so much better. I feel that this tribe deserves the very best we can give them because of the trust they have put in us. If it seems plausible to you, do you do consulting? What are your fees?

Denny Williams
Suquamish, WA

A Congratulations on receiving funding for your video. I guess my advice to you would be to stay with Beta - at least for this project. Sadly, $50,000 doesn't go too far when you're shooting film, but you should be able to complete a serious piece of work on video with that kind of funding. And if you are reasonably successful with this video, you can use it to raise enough for the next project to shoot in film. Unfortunately, I do not do consulting, but thanks for asking.

Q Hi I just watched your new film and liked it a lot. I have also seen your other films and liked them too. But one scene in your latest film made me think that filming most of your everyday life may not be such a good idea. It was when your son ask you to go "camping" in the front room. You asked him how to do that and he replied "Well you can't camp with a camera." It seemed to me your son does not like your camera and finds it getting between the two of you. Am I wrong about this? Is your son so use to the camera being there that he almost thinks it's a part of you?

Leo Eddy
Port Coquitlam B.C. Canada

A Yes, you are absolutely right about my son's comment - "How can you go camping with a camera on your eye?" This little moment was meant, in a humorous way, to suggest the complexity of trying to film your own life while living your life. Cameras are so much a part of many of our lives, that I felt it was an interesting comment worth keeping in the film. Yes, my son is accustomed to seeing me film, but no, he does not think of the camera as being a part of me. You have to remember that a film like mine condenses reality and thus distorts it. For comic effect, I suggest that I'm constantly filming my life, but in reality this would be impossible for me to do. For every minute I am filming my son there are hundreds of hours where I am playing with him or taking care of him. The effect of constant filming is all in the editing, though it is true that I love filming real life.

Thanks for watching and for writing.

Q Ross,
I'm curious about the way you work because sometimes directions in your films seem to be dictated by what you've already shot. So I was wondering how can you afford to be shooting as much as you do? Do you sell a lot of your work that isn't seen? How did you get your teaching position? I have many more questions for you, but I'll wait until these get a response

Thank you,
Gordon Miller

A You asked about the amount of film I shoot and how I can afford to shoot film. (I presume you mean film as opposed to video.) Compared to many documentary filmmakers, I shoot a fairly low ratio of footage used to footage edited out - about 10:1. Still, that,s a lot of unused footage. I don't sell it to others, as you suggested. Sometimes I use some of the footage from old films in new films, as "flashbacks." But mostly I just store it in my "archive." I have a feeling I'll be using more and more of the old footage as I continue to make documentaries.

I have to raise funding from foundations and from AMerican and European television networks (PBS in this country) to pay for the film, used and unused, but it's considered a production cost, like salaries or equipment rental.

You asked how I got a teaching position. I guess I was invited to teach because the department found my approach to filmmaking to be interesting. It's not a permanent job - I'm a "visiting filmmaker."

Hope this answers your questions.

Q Thanks. Nothing will ever quite sneak up and slap me like Sherman's, but this is already my second favorite. "The invisible virus of faith that uncontrolable. BEAUTIFUL! And those nurse, keeping GOD honest by afirming his miricles.

Is there anything you routinely say off camera to your subjects? How do you, or do you, ever nod yes. Wouldn't we see the camera bob up and down? I've noticed before that I often nod as a viewer. Isn't that odd? Like I'm telling the interviewee to continue revealing their tale.

Thanks again
Michael Darling
Seattle, WA

AThanks for your generous comments about both "Sherman's March" and "Six O'Clock News." To answer your questions: No, there isn't anything I routinely say to my subjects off-camera. I do try to put people at ease by chatting with them and explaining the technology I'm employing. Since I work as a crew of one person, I'm not too intimidating. You're right about nodding in agreement from behind the camera - I can't do it, because it would make the viewer sea sick. It took me a while to realize that I had to avoid nodding in agreement - lots of ruined footage. Instead, I simply respond verbally from behind the camera. I found your observation about how as a viewer you found yourself nodding as you watched to be gratifying. Thanks for your letter.

Q Do you maintain contact with any of those interesting women from Sherman's? Can you tell us what happened to them? I haven't seen it for years but I'm thinking of the hippie girl on the island and the actress in particular. Really thought that film captured a rarely revealed modern condition between the sexes. Just saw 6 o'clok, also great. Thanks.

Greg Scott
Littleton, CO

A Yes, I stay in touch with a number of people who were in "Sherman's March," though as I get older and become consumed with raising a family, there's less and less time to keep up with old friends. The "hippie girl on the island" married the big fellow who lived in the shack next to us. They have two kids and have moved back up North. The actress had a few small parts in films - one with Don Johnson - but eventually gave it up and decided to become a painter. She moved back to Atlanta and actually became very sucessful.

Glad you liked "Six O'Clock News."

This may sound hokey, but I've seen all your movies (the 3 I know of, anyway) and I've liked them all. I think it's so great you're doing this sort of work, and that you've been played on a show like Frontline. So, Congratulations.

I do have one question which has nagged me about all your films. One of the major problems with the way we process movies or stories of any kind is that we sort of assume/hope that their narrative structure will rub off on to us. That thing Fitzgerald said about no second acts in life...

Anyway, my question is: Do you get a sense of closure about your life from making these films? We do. Each of your films has a definite theme, I think, and a tone, and indeed a structure. Do you see that while you're filming? Do you impose that on life? If you don't, is it tempting to? And how do you keep from doing so?

Or is that actually the goal, to enforce a sense of order, by doing so, sort of convince yourself that you're not living the unexamined life, that you're continually watching yourself and being watched by others, insuring that you... well, that you try and be a good boy.

A long sentence, I know, and something I'm sure you get all the time. But I'm very curious about that sort of thing, being the Lib. Arts/Film Student I am.

So, if you ever consider leaving Boston, I'm sure The Univ- ersity of Texas would have you. Or if you just need a place to stay in Austin, my family's got an extra bedroom (look for Gerald D. Christian).

Thanks for doing the work you do,

Bryan Christian
Austin, TX

A I probably get less of a sense of closure concerning chapters of my life than does the viewer. Though my films are made from "real life," they are not real life per se, and real life - mine, at any rate - is way too messy for me to feel that I have closure at any one point on any one aspect of my life. For instance, having made "Time Indefinite," I did in some ways confront the death of my father, but I do not feel that I have resolved that death. His death still saddens me, and probably will for the rest of my life - not an uncommon reaction for a son to have with regard to the death of his father.

I begin shooting footage not knowing at all how the films will resolve themselves. With "Six O'Clock News," I had no idea that the film would take a metaphysical turn at the halfway point and, at least on one level, become a theological meditation. I can't really impose the form of the films upon my life, as you suggest. Rather, it seems to be the other way around. And yes, for better or worse, I seem to have chosen to live the "examined life."

Thanks for the offer of bed and breakfast in Austin. I'd love to go there and show films someday. (Have talked to Richard Linklatter about doing this.)

Q Just watched 6:00 News. It seemed that the film was made over a four year period. Besides the Miramax project & teaching, were you making this film only or do you use your footage in a way that isn't exclusive to one film? Hope you understand the question. Thanks. Enjoyed it a lot.Screw the NY Times.

Jeanne Darst

AMy film was made over a six year period. I worked on it sporadically while finishing two other documentary features and teaching a filmmaking course. I also worked as a script advisor on that Miramax project for a month, but to no avail. Making a living as a documentary filmmaker can be a very patch-work business.

QI noticed that your documentary contains lots of clips from the news stories you watched. Did you have to get permission to use each of them, or where they so short as to be available to you under the "fair use" exception to the copyright laws? If you had to get permission to use them, how did you go about doing it from so many different sources? Was there any footage you wanted to use, but were not permitted to use?

PS: Loved Sherman's March. (Been there, done that...)

Carl Elitz
Green Oaks, IL

AI got permission for some of the longer news clips but for many of the shorter ones, decided to use them under the "fair use" exception to copyright laws. I made this decision after having an attorney specializing in media look at the entire film. No one denied me permission to use the clips I wanted.

Q Dear Mr. McElwee,
I'd like to know how you approach the task of narrating your films. Your talent for articulating thoughts and the easy cadence of your voice are a critical component in the narrative of your work, but I suspect they belie a lot of concentrated effort. What characterizes this process for you? Do you compose your thoughts and write them down as you shoot or do you agonize over them in post-production? I realize that careful narration is necessary to move the story along, but much of the charm of your words rests in their stream-of-consciousness quality. How much planning and reworking of your words goes on? Are you inclined to take suggestions from those who know you well, such as your wife, or do you view your films as personal statements that might not work as well if you were receptive to the suggestions of others, at least in the area of narration?

Thank you for your time. I enjoyed meeting you at the screening of TIME INDEFINITE at the Seattle International Film Festival a few years ago, and have since gotten my parents and a number of friends very interested in your work. Best of luck to you.

Peter Sackett
Seattle, Washington

A Creating my narration is an excruciating process for me. I'm not sure why. It's not as if the things I'm saying are intellectually complex, nor is the phrasing or syntax particularly complicated or poetic. For whatever reason, it takes me dozens of written drafts, followed by dozens of recording sessions, followed by dozens of editing sessions (in which the cadence and content of the voice-over is actually cut into a track to be played with the image and the sync sound) before I have something that seems to work for me. I would never make it as a television news reporter, that's for sure.

I occasionally jot down ideas for narration while on a shooting location,but almost all of the voice-over narration is created in the editing room, months later. I do take suggestions from a small circle of friends and documentary filmmakers here in Boston, We seem to have an unofficial collaborative here in which we screen one another's films and critique them before they are finished. I find this invaluable. My wife is certainly part of this circle, being a filmmaker herself.

I'm glad you liked the film, and thanks for urging others to see my work as well. I hope I'll be back in Seattle for this year's festival with the "long version" of "Six O'Clock News."

Q Dear Ross: The 6 O'Clock News was the first of your films that I've seen. It is now Thursday afternoon and I've been turning it over in my mind since it aired here Tuesday. A real key to its strength is the obvious sympathy you have for the people you portray. Regardless how humble or absurd they might seem, you never laughed at them. You also never laughed at their religious beliefs or how they modified them after being brutalized. What did you intend when you started editing film? Was it a followup on stories that the 6 O'Clock News only visited when they were most heartrending? Or was it an attempt to demonstrate the absurd fragility of our existances? Or was it a look at our equally absurd belief systems and how they're affected when trauma strikes? You managed to address all three issues in your film. I only wonder if that was your intent when you started out.

marty schladen
Muncie Indiana

A When I set out to make this film, I was, as you suggest, interested in the fragility and vulnerability of our "human condition" as reflected in the non-stop flow of disaster and mahem we see on television news. I was particularly interested in spending some follow-up time with non-famous people who appeared briefly on the news. I did want to know how they were coping after the fact. I had not directly planned for the film to take on the theological theme it tackles, but was pleased that it ended up dealing with this aspect of people's lives.

Thanks for your positive assessment of "Six O'Clock News."

Q My wife and I loved the film 6 o'clock news. We were wondering a few things though:

  1. were was that wigwam motel?
  2. does your wife ever get a little peeved with you taking those open ended trips?
  3. Where can we see some of your other films?
I did see "Time Indefinate" and loved that too. Thanks!

"Six O'clock News" was (is) a remarkable film. I am probably being selfish in hoping we don't lose your intimate, understated work to the Hollywood entertainment mill. Two questions that kept popping up in the back of my mind as I enjoyed your leisurely tour of disaster, fate and self examination were, I'm afraid of a boringly technical nature, but if you'd indulge me with answers I'd be most grateful. First, did you shoot on film or tape? Second how do you deal with getting releases from all those people and TV sources that you used in the film?

Also congratulations are in order to Frontline for featuring some "soft" news for a change.

Best of Luck to Ross and Frontline

A The Wigwam Village Motel is located on 800 West Hopi Drive in Holbrook, Arizona, Last time I was there, you didn't need a reservation in advance.

Now that I have kids, it is harder to take "open-ended" film excursions. But when I have to, my wife is very understanding. She, too, is a filmmaker. Still, the days of my being on the road for two or three months at a time are over, since our second child has come on the scene. I now find myself doing more filming at home.

"Sherman's March" and "Time Indefinite" are available in some video stores. All nine of my films are available in video from First Run Features in New York (1-800-229 - 8575).

I shot 16mm film. I got signed releases from most of the folks I filmed but most of the television footage was available through "fair use" exception from copyright laws, as determined by an attorney at WGBH.

Q I have just seen six o'clock news. My question is how did you approach the subjects in the film. Especially the Asian man whos wife had been killed, and the Latino gentleman who was trapped in the earthquake? In the film it was stated that you had called them yourself, but were they eager to participate or did they have to be talked into it? If they had to be talked into it, how did you convince them? I have made several documentary video pieces, and while most subjects are fairly agreeable, some are strongly opposed.

Scott Waknin

A I'm actually pretty reticent about approaching people and asking if I can film them. It's a barrier I always have to overcome, and I never find it easy. One of the things that appealed to me about making "News" was that I would be seeking to film a pre-selected, self-selected group of film subjects - people who had already consented to be filmed by local newscrews. This helped me overcome my reluctance to invade the private lives of strangers. (As you may have surmised, I have little such reluctance about invading the privacy of my friends and family's lives.) Anyway, both Steve, the Korean, and Salvador, the Salvadoran, had already been video-taped and were therefore open to the idea of being filmed. I simply told them what I was doing and asked if I could spend a few weeks filming their day-to-day lives, and both agreed. I was very low key about it. I do not work with a crew, preferring to film and record my own sound. I don't use artificial lighting. All of these things help people relax. And if someone really doesn't want to be filmed, I never push it. Chances are, whatever material I'd get with them anyway would not be very good.

Good luck with your filmmaking.

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