“If you’re failing most of the time, then you’re doing your job.”

The process of creating long-form documentaries can be an arduous feat with unique set of challenges. A few weeks ago, two winners of the Alfred I. duPont spoke at Columbia’s Journalism School about the challenges of long term, often multi-year projects and documentaries.

This American Life’s executive producer Ira Glass and producer Ben Calhoun spoke about their two-part series, ‘Harper High‘ that chronicled five months at Harper High School in Chicago, where in the previous year alone 29 students were shot.

Director Scott Thurman and producer Daniel Chalfen talked about their film the ‘The Revisionaries‘ that follows the success and failures of the most controversial figures in American education.

The following are excerpts from their discussion.

Edit out the fat

Scott Thurman: The Revisionaries started as my graduate thesis film. I actually did start as a grad student doing short documentaries, so I did two short documentaries beforehand and I got it drilled into my head to edit out the absolute unnecessary. I’ve been told to kill your babies. Basically, you want to max out the most important stuff in your piece –even with the extended version of the film, at 83 minutes, the independent lens version of this film was 52 minutes and I actually prefer the shorter version much more. I have not gotten to the point where I feel like I can create something extremely long and interesting the whole way through, maybe I will at a certain point.

Borrow from fiction

Daniel Chalfen: Working in fiction really honed my skills in documentary because what you learn in fiction development is the importance of story. And you talk about audio and you talk about visuals and other elements. But at its most basic, what a good film needs is a good story.

Produce a lot and hone long-form structure

Ira Glass: I don’t advocate it (long form).

I think it’s much more important to do a ton of different stories and just build muscle and turn out a lot of work. I think it’s more helpful, speaking for myself, it  was more helpful to do a ton of stories and see a ton of stories to completion. I think you need muscle and I think if you’re not making something and finishing it every week or two you’re making a mistake.

Daniel Chalfen: Just from evaluating dozens of documentaries, one can always tell what the background of the director is and if their background is in short form or long form because you can notice the beat, the pace of the film, you can notice in how the elements are strung together, if the story arc is in pieces or if it’s one long trajectory.

I think the importance of being able to tell a story over 90 minutes or 50 minutes is very different from being able to tell a story in three or four minutes. I think the pacing that you learn from doing many three or four minute videos can interfere with the development as a long-form storyteller.

Ben Calhoun: I think that they are not mutually exclusive.The tools that you’re using, personally, even if I’m creating a scene that lasts five minutes and it has a lot more depth, I’m still doing the same things that when I was building three-minute features. So much of it is orientating to characters and motivations and action, and you’re editing down the action to the essentials. In doing a lot of short form, it gives you the opportunity to build a lot of small versions of the machine and wind them up and put them on the table and notice when they break.

Review your material

Ira Glass: I find it super helpful, but at the end of any interview or any day of production, I make a list for myself of all the stuff that I remember. And often I find that later we’ll go back and we’ll log the tapes and i’ll go through them for my favorite moments, usually the stuff that ends up in the story is the stuff that was just so memorable.

Building tension

Ira Glass: Plot gives you narrative suspense and narrative suspense gives you a reason to listen. In general, the way we are structuring stories in This American Life is a super traditional way where we’re organizing it entirely around action. Where one things leads to the next, leads to the next. And the reason we do that, is that that’s what keeps you listening.

Developing access

Scott Thurman: I started just with interviews of experts and it was the most boring stuff ever. I had all the information I needed and no story whatsoever. These initial interviews served as a casting call for who my characters would become. And those other interviews got discarded later and all you see is the tip of the iceberg after we edit it. It was through those interviews, that I was learning about the issue and I started going to board of education meetings over and over and just stayed there. Some of the main characters recognized me staying long after the other cameras were leaving and it gave me a little bit of credibility in their eyes. It was Don McLeroy, the main character, that made this documentary significant and his personal story and the access he was able to give me. And that took over two years of just slowly learning about the issue and just slowly getting to know him and appreciating where he’s coming from.

Ira Glass: Did you have to say things to him like, I think you’re misrepresented in the press?

Scott Thurman: I did. I told him specifically, ‘Don the things you say in text form have, especially when edited by the Liberal media,’ as he would say, ‘they strike me as a very vicious person who is out to take out education.’ I told him that if people could see your actions and hear what you say in light of your personal story and life that would help them to understand where you’re coming from. I even showed Don clips in progress, which my instructor at the time warned me against, but it actually helped me get better access with Don. I was very careful about what I showed him. After that you have to consider if they are they playing to the camera too much.

Imagine your best video

Ira Glass: One thing that wasn’t said to me while learning to be a reporter is that it’s helpful to imagine the tape you want before you go and get the tape.

If you could make up the very best thing what would it be? Sometimes we’ll make up entire characters hoping they exist.

Ben Calhoun: You are not deciding this is exactly the story I am going to tell, you’re looking for the type of person that can make you feel the predicament that you’re looking at.

You will fail

Ira Glass: Half of the stuff we do doesn’t work anyway. We try it, it fails.  Like most things fail. Most things want to fail. If you’re failing most of the time, then you’re doing your job. Most interviews I do, we don’t put on the radio. And we screen, we pre-screen interviews. You get in there and you think this will work and then you get the tape and you realize it didn’t work.


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