DOCUMENTARIES Pt2 : ‘112 Weddings’
I went to see a screening of this film and Q&A with its director DOUG BLOCK and editor MAEVE O’BOYLE at the Phoenix cinema East Finchley on Wednesday.
Like many of the best films, this was predicated on a very simple but very good idea. Documentary film-maker Doug Block had for many years supplemented his living as a doc film-maker by shooting ‘verite’ style wedding videos.
As he approached his own 25th wedding anniversary, he wondered what had happened to the marriages of many of the couples who had hired him. What a great premise \ pitch!
He talked about how making these wedding films had given him such intimate access to the couples on the biggest, most emotionally overwhelming days of their lives; and about how over the years he came to realize that the most interesting moments weren’t the weddings themselves but the hours before the weddings when he filmed \ interviewed bride and groom separately, or the moments after the ceremony when the couples went off on their lives together as a married couple for the first time.
He talked a lot about the structure of the film, about how he and editor Maeve O’Boyle had gone through several rough cuts before deciding on the final version – and about the feedback they received from the various interested parties, mainly HBO and distributor Dogwoof. (Although the BBC is also on board as a co-production partner – look out for this on Nick Fraser’s always excellent BBC ‘Storyville’ strand in the next year or so.)
A lot of the discussion of the editing of the film centred on Doug Block’s own role and on-screen contribution. At first he had thought that his own marriage and where it was at, would be a backdrop to the stories of the other couples. This was almost confirmed for him when he was coincidentally approached by a couple whom he knew socially who asked him to officiate at their wedding (ie be the one who married them!) To Block, this seemed like great timing and afforded him the opportunity to use this event as a device for tying the strands of the film together. But after this arrangement was decided on, and he started thinking about how he was going to run the wedding, what he was going to say, how he was going to connect it to the weddings he’d filmed, there was a long communication silence, and the couple failed to return his emails. Finally they got back to tell him ‘they’d decided to go in a different direction’ – he’d been fired! But this element remained part of the early cuts of the film – with the exchange of odd and humorous emails about what his role was going to be.
The one consistent note he got from the 4 involved co-pro companies was that his personal story wasn’t required – the subject and themes of the film were sufficiently universal that they didn’t need his personal angle as a prism through which to tell the story.
This made me think about the relationship between writers and notes – how you as a writer respond to notes. If 4 separate people have pretty much the same note, they may be onto something!
But the question of his personal involvement (and Phoenix cinema director Elizabeth Taylor-Mead introduced him as a ‘master of the genre of the personal documentary’) was a big one because much of his best past work (apparently) has him as a significant character \ participant in his films).
This also made me think about the huge story question of Point Of View. From whose POV you tell a story is such a key question – stories are altered so hugely by the character who ‘owns’ the story, and that character’s take on the story they’re telling (This was such an interesting element of Sarah Polley’s STORIES WE TELL). And in 112 WEDDINGS, despite the decision that Block took to withdraw to an extent from the foreground of his story, it’s still his take on the material, the couples whom he chooses to focus on, the questions he asks, and his voiceover commentary, that shapes the film, and directs the audience. Both director and editor discussed how getting the tone and weight of the commentary right was one of the hardest aspects of the film.
There was lots of discussion from both editor and director about their personal take on the material – both are credited as ‘writers’ as well as director \ editor. The main application to fiction, to conventional screenwriting, was the work they did to structure the film.
O’Boyle for instance talked about her worry that themes were being repeated (mainly about issues with children) from couple to couple, and about what they had to do to break this up, restructure the story so that there was a strong narrative shape.
Block referred to a ‘lot of shifting of index cards’ – ie they structured and reordered scenes in exactly the way a screenwriter would in a work of fiction.
In many ways the role of an editor – whether it’s on doc or fiction – has many similarities (in fiction and documentary) to a screenwriter or script editor. It’s about shaping and making sense of the material (in discussion with the director), structuring a combination of scenes into a cohesive whole, into something that makes some sort of narrative and thematic sense.
In a very different way, this idea has been done before – in 4 WEDDINGS & A FUNERAL. This doc concentrated on only 8 or 9 out of the 112 weddings that DB had filmed over the last 20 years.
But they decided on a really satisfying structural unity – in that the climax of the film focused on the first wedding he’d ever filmed, the (last) 112th wedding, and a wedding from somewhere in the middle that wasn’t in fact a wedding, but a ‘partnership ceremony’, a more informal, non-religious swapping of vows. This couple had now decided many years later, to get married – and this wedding was given a whole new spin by the presence and observations of teenage children and the fact that the couple had already been together for so long.
There was a really strong narrative symmetry to the couple from the first wedding whose marriage had just ended in divorce 19 years later, intercut with the 112th wedding which was contrastingly idyllic, set against a scenic Montana mountain backdrop.
There was a bitter-sweet quality to the film – it has to be said that there was generally a strong contrast between the adrenalin and joy of the wedding day, and the harsher reality of what life had dealt most of these couples some years down the line.
DB talked about how he became very intimate very quickly with the couples he filmed, how the intensity and emotion of the occasion allowed him quick access into their personal lives. He talked about how so often what he saw off camera was more interesting than what he filmed – how the family dynamics played out, often how much families hated each other!
He talked about how he had always wondered how the couples had got on in their marriages, how things had worked out for them. He said that he had rather arrogantly predicted with confidence which marriages would thrive and which would struggle – and generally once he re-met the couples how often he was proved wrong. He talked about how once he was reacquainted with them he quickly and easily fell back into the intimacy and short-hand that he’d had with the couples many years before during the brief few days he’d spent with them.
He said that for many of them it felt almost like he was their therapist – it was a chance for them often to take stock, to reflect together on their relationships and marriages and discuss it frankly in a way ordinary life and the day-to-day business of life that we all have to deal with, doesn’t allow you. Most of the couples spent as much time talking to each other on camera, as they did to him.
He talked about how in many ways it was the most ordinary, the most unexceptional of the subjects filmed that made for the most compelling moments in the film. He likened bride and groom on their wedding days to actors, the total centre of everyone’s attention for the day – although these were ordinary people, not actors, and completely unprepared for what this meant on the day. Having said this, nearly all the couples talked about how joyous and memorable their wedding days had been.
PS – Two more wonderful docs that I forgot to mention last week – ‘Bobby Fischer’ & ‘Muscle Shoals’. And thank you to @filmscriptread for flagging up ‘The Act of Killing’.
Until next week
All the best
June 13th 2014