Monday, 12 September 2011

13 Story is King/Style is Queen

Passion Fashion (1993) - the Queen wins.
When Eki and I first began to work together we always had the same fight: what´s more important story or style. We winged it until “10 Finnish Architects.”  But that project was a fact-based series and we had to get the facts right.  We wrote as we edited.  I had the idea that you should check the footage and then write the story. Wrong. It took awhile but I finally got the picture.

A script editor came on board.  She helped me to learn the rhythm of writing a script. She said think of connections: lots of little stories tied together, with as few dead spaces as possible (example: a person driving a car with voiceover). Music is the most difficult of all the arts to film. It was her suggestion that when we made “Chasing Esa-Pekka” we go to several locations connected to composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. So we hopped around from Helsinki to Milan, to Los Angeles, to Stockholm, to London and back to Helsinki. And even shot one scene on a Finnair plane. Each place had a special meaning to Esa-Pekka and we tried to pin it down. Chasing him is the red thread that runs through the story.  

Chasing Esa-Pekka (2008) - the return of the King.
We write about twice as much narration as we need. For “marihuanaland” (52´) we had about 20 pages and ended up using 10. The ratio we use is about one page per minute. In most of our docs I do the voiceover: our style is calm and low-key. Even high-octane themes like cannabis get a laid-back treatment. But we work hard to dig up fresh details, especially if the subject is famous and gets interviewed a lot.

To do this you have to walk a fine line: ask cheeky questions that in no way demean (or alarm) the subject. Again, a low-key style helps. The whole crew (3) gets involved. Eki (and our other team member Antti Hacklin) are masters at this. They are quintessential Finns - low-key is part of their DNA. In places like the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles where there are film crews all the time, and the staff mostly hates them for their arrogance, Eki and Antti were a hit. They got to shoot in off-the-wall places and also got off-the-cuff info.

Style – what about it?  Before I moved to Finland I was a designer in Los Angeles, so part of the fun for me is the “look.”  When we were shooting “10 Finnish Architects” we asked the live architects (and subjects) to wear clothes that fit into the series and were timeless. And we weren´t above smurfing the sets even though Eki growled, “This is a documentary not a fiction film.”  In “Marimekko” we got the whole staff to wear the designer´s famous striped t-shirts during lunch in the company´s cafeteria, to celebrate the owner´s birthday. The pay-off came when our commissioning editor at the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) said she loved the way our docs looked. Then I said to Eki, “See, story might be king, but it´s the queen who check-mates.” He looked like he meant me when he said, “Off with her head!

Lesson 18: Make sure a red thread runs through the story.

Next week: 14 Action!

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