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Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing present a class on directing at Silverdocs

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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Grady went on to say that when it comes to developing a story, casting is key. “You want someone who is consistent, who is the same off camera as they are on camera, that they’re genuine and true to themselves,” she explained, “Audiences are sophisticated. You can’t trick them. They don’t miss a beat. If character isn’t genuine, it won’t ring true.”

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In terms of getting a subject on board, Grady suggested leveraging a character’s own agenda, or figuring out what it’s in it for them to participate in the film. She referenced one of the main characters in “Jesus Camp” as a prime example. “She felt like she had something to gain and a message to get out there,” Grady explained, “it helps if subject has an agenda but only if you realize that your subject has an agenda and don’t get caught up in it and give the film over to them.”

Ewing then introduced the topic of story structure, specifically the ever-vexing question of how to create a compelling story arc out of dozens – and sometimes hundreds — of hours of footage. She pointed out that most documentary filmmakers struggle with this issue, because “unless you follow someone everyday for 6 years, you’re going to have arc problems. There are going to be holes in the story.”

The story arc for “Jesus Camp” presented the filmmakers with a particular challenge. “We watched an early cut together and said ‘we have kids speaking in tongues, and flailing around on the floor. Why is this boring?” Ewing recalls. The women showed it to editor they respect who pinpointed the problem immediately: no conflict.

Grady explained it this way “We realized that watching it you felt like you were going crazy, because no one [in the film] was saying what the audience was thinking which was ‘this is crazy’ and ‘are these kids being brainwashed?’”

Ewing and Grady realized they needed another perspective to counterbalance the strong voice of the ultra religious characters in the film. They found their solution on the airwaves. “There was this Christian radio host on the local radio station, and even though he was Christian, he spoke really passionately about how the eroding wall between church and state was dangerous,” Ewing explained, “he was the perfect voice because he had credibility in that world but he was a voice of dissent.”

The filmmakers were already nine months into their edit, but they knew they needed to restructure “Jesus Camp” to include the radio host. The question then became how to incorporate him into the storyline. Grady and Ewing decided to include a clip from his broadcast under their opening credits. Since the audio from the broadcasts would become a through line in the film, they wanted to establish the device at the outset. “The audience will go wherever you want for the first five to ten minutes,” Ewing explained, “They’ll accept what you do, but if you throw something new in the second or third act, they’ll reject it.”

An audience member asked the women to talk about their unique collaboration, how they decide who does what when two people are steering the ship. Grady explained that they decide on the topic and characters and determine a visual look and feel together, but then take turns in the field once production starts. Whenever whoever is directing in the field gets back, the other will watch the footage and comment. “It really works well because you get fresh eyes on your footage and whoever was not in the field doesn’t have as much emotional attachment to the material.”

Grady explained that sometimes the person filming will feel like they got nothing, but back in the edit room, the other partner will see a great moment that really serves the story. Or on the flip side, the person in the field may think a scene totally reads, but then get it back home and discover through the eyes of the other that it’s just not there. Ewing explained it this way. “Sometimes when you’re in the moment or in the room, that it all went great, but after you get it home, you realize the camera was in the wrong place. A lot has to come together to make a scene work.”

Another attendee wanted to know at what point in the process do Grady and Ewing decide to start working with an editor. “There are advantages to shooting and editing at the same time,” Ewing explained “you should have most of the material in the can before you bring in an editor, but early enough that you can still rectify problems and film more if need be.”

As for when a film is considered “done” and ready for prime time, they both agree that having a satisfying third act with a solid ending is the best indicator. “Also when new material feels like repeat of what you’re already gotten, what’s already clear in the film,” Grady said. She also reminded that at the end of the day, it’s also driven by the budget. “You can’t edit forever. You have to set deadlines for yourself, even if you don’t always meet them.”

Erin Essenmacher blogs at The Film Panel Notetaker.

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