“When we first heard about Janice’s story, I knew her film would have an incredible ending.”
Tim Chew is a documentary filmmaker on staff with The Austin Stone Story Team, and the lead filmmaker for our latest film, If Not for You. Tim talked to us about the film and his experience making it.
Story Team: What were your initial thoughts for visually telling the story?
Tim Chew: When we first heard about Janice’s story, I knew her film would have an incredible ending. From a visual standpoint, the build up to the meeting was a little less clear. Janice’s perspective and character development through her journey was very evident to us from the beginning, but I was also fascinated by Grant’s journey up to this point. One of the biggest things we needed to learn about in the early stages were the dynamics between Janice, Grant’s adoptive parents, and Grant. Would Grant be open to us capturing the meeting on camera? Taking things a step further, would he be willing to let us walk with him through the weeks leading up to the meeting? Figuring out how to be respectful and tactful in this situation while also trying to capture the story through the lens of a camera was a lot to tackle. My worst fear in this situation would be to taint a moment this meaningful by bringing cameras into the equation.
ST: This film, like many Story Team does, is a multi-shoot effort taking place over the course of months. Could you give an example of what goes into the pre-production and planning for filming?
TC: One of the biggest misconceptions about documentary work is that it involves less planning or forethought than narrative work, since at its essence it is about letting real life unfold in front of the camera. I think there is a really good argument to be made about pre-production and planning to being the most important step in a documentary production, just as much as it is in a narrative or scripted production. Although the approach is different, a well-told documentary story carries the same nuance and same voice as a well scripted narrative and asks for the same planning and precision.
One of our first steps in the pre-production was to learn as much as possible about daily routines or any events coming up. Once we had a good idea of what life looked like for Janice and Grant, we began to plot out all the visual building blocks we would ideally love to capture for the film. Moving forward, our goal was to film at least one scene each week. Because we had a clear blueprint, we were able to be flexible about the order of the scenes filmed and give Janice and Grant some ownership in terms of the order and timing of the scenes we would film. Our goal is to make the process as painless possible and gave them a clear idea of what we wanted to capture and where we were headed with the story. In a documentary production that involves real people with busy lives, open and regular communication with our story subjects is a huge part of pre-production. In this case, since we knew we would be filming with them over a period of weeks leading up until the meeting, it was really helpful to build a routine and momentum of capturing something each week.
Once we’ve agreed on a filming time that works for us and our subject, half of the battle is won. With a time on the calendar and an idea of what we would like to shoot, we move into the more granular planning for the shoot. I try to maintain the mindset of planning for each documentary shoot the same way that I would if I was shooting a narrative scene. I ask myself about how I would position the characters, what action I hope to capture, what my shotlist would be. I try to get this all down on paper. Even if I never look at this during the shoot, this process helps me to internalize a clear direction for what I want to capture. Things will always go differently than we plan, but I find that thorough preparation ahead of time allows me to be more open to the serendipitous moments that can happen in front of the camera.
By far the most complicated scene in the film was the meeting between Janice and Grant. It was a dynamic scene that had to be captured in one take and we were attempting to capture both Janice and Grant’s moments leading up to the meeting. Between four cameras, set diagrams, and clear communication ahead of time, we thankfully managed to pull it off.
ST: Were there any surprises during the production of this film?
TC: The meeting definitely wasn’t as emotional as any of us thought it might be. We all wondered how it would unfold and even Janice herself was unsure and a bit apprehensive about how she would react in the moment. In the end we were happy to capture an authentic and meaningful meeting between the two of them. It was special for us to be able to witness such a cool moment.
ST: What challenges were particular to the production of this film?
I think that the greatest challenge with this story was to stay in a creative space that was continually open to the true story that is unfolding, not the story that I wanted to tell. We walk a fine line between helping to guide a documentary film along a path that gets to the essence of the story, and trying to force a specific narrative thread. It is important to continually do a gut check to make sure that I’m helping our subject best tell their story in this format, not trying to redirect their story to fit a preconceived notion of what I think would be most dynamic or engaging.
ST: What was your initial reaction when you first saw a rough cut of the film?
TC: I think most artists tend to be their worst critics. With just about any rough cut I immediately jump into problem solving mode. This film was no different. One of the first things to figure out was how to best balance both Janice’s narrative with Grant’s content. We had lots of great content from Janice, but not nearly as much from Grant. I wasn’t able to incorporate Grant’s side of the story as much as I had hoped, but I still felt strongly about working his perspective into the narrative. Once we landing on using Janice’s letter to Grant as a consistent through-line to connect both of their voices and perspectives, everything began to click. This was definitely our biggest breakthrough moment during post.