The First Rule of Documentary Is… Don’t Make a Documentary (Advice From Michael Moore)
Recommendations from one of our era’s most controversial documentary filmmakers.
With Bowling for Columbine (2002), Michael Moore suddenly became one of the world’s best known documentary filmmakers, a man with an acutely critical eye who, from the heart of the monster itself, displayed facets of the US way of life that although are clearly visible receive little or no public attention.
The problem in question in Bowling for Columbine was the collective but subtle fear that sustains US society and how that eventually translated into the sale and possession of guns to almost irrational levels. Both that documentary and the one that followed it, Fahrenheit 9/11, received awards at Cannes, and Fahrenheit 9/11 is the only documentary to have won the Palme d’Or.
For those reasons, and for his sharp criticism, his irreverence and because, in general, he swims against the current, Moore is a character who is worth paying attention to and listening to. And if, like now, it is about hearing his recommendations for documentary filmmaking, our interest naturally increases.
Moore’s advice that we share here is from a conference he offered during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and which was republished by the wonderful website Open Culture, an occasion which Moore used to restate his profession and confirm that others, like him, “are not documentarians, we are filmmakers,” a premise from which he sets out to make his recommendations. There, as in the case of Jim Jamusch’s golden rules for filmmaking, these tips can be taken as a guide for watching films, and for better appreciating and understanding the message that the director aims to transmit.
Here are his recommendations:
1. My number one guiding principle in making documentary films is essentially the “Fight Club” Rule
What is the first rule of “Fight Club”? The first rule of “Fight Club” is: “Don’t talk about ‘Fight Club.'” The first rule of documentaries is: Don’t make a documentary — make a MOVIE. Stop making documentaries. Start making movies. You’ve chosen this art form — the cinema, this incredible, wonderful art form, to tell your story. You didn’t have to do that.
If you want to make a political speech, you can join a party, you can hold a rally. If you want to give a sermon, you can go to the seminary, you can be a preacher. If you want to give a lecture, you can be a teacher. But you’ve not chosen any of those professions. You have chosen to be filmmakers and to use the form of Cinema. So make a MOVIE. This word “documentarian” — I am here today to declare that word dead. That word is never to be used again. We are not documentarians, we are filmmakers. We do not need to ghettoize ourselves. We are already in the ghetto. We do not need to build a bigger ghetto. You are filmmakers. Make a film, make a movie.
2. Don’t tell me shit I already know
I don’t go to those kinds of documentaries, the ones that think I’m ignorant. Don’t tell me that nuclear power is bad. I know it’s bad. I’m not going to give up two hours of my life to have you tell me it’s bad. All right? Seriously, I don’t want to hear anything I already know. I don’t like watching a movie where the filmmakers obviously thinks they’re the first people to discover something might be wrong with genetically modified foods.
3. The modern documentary sadly has morphed into what looks like a college lecture, the college lecture mode of telling a story
That has to stop. We have to invent a different way, a different kind of model. I don’t know how to say this, because like I said, I only went three semesters to college. And one thing I’m grateful for from that is that I never learned how to write a college essay. I hated school, I always hated school. It was nothing but regurgitation back to the teacher of something the teacher said, and then I have to remember it and write it back down on a piece of paper.
4. I don’t like Castor Oil (a foul-tasting medicine from a hundred years ago). Too many of your documentaries feel like medicine
The people don’t want medicine. If they need medicine, they go to the doctor. They don’t want medicine in the movie theaters. They want Goobers, they want popcorn, and they want to see a great movie.
5. The Left is boring
And it’s why we’ve had a hard time convincing people to maybe think about some of the things we’re concerned about. Like I said earlier, we’ve lost our sense of humor and we need to be less boring. We used to be funny. The Left was funny in the 60s, and then we got really too damn serious. I don’t think it did us any good.
6. Why don’t more of your films go after the real villains — and I mean the REAL villains?
Why aren’t you naming names? Why don’t we have more documentaries that are going after corporations by name?
7. I think it’s important to make your films personal.
I don’t mean to put yourself necessarily in the film or in front of the camera. Some of you, the camera does not like you. Do not go in front of the camera. And I would count myself as one of those. It was an accident that I ended up in “Roger & Me,” and I won’t bore you with that story, but people want to hear the voice of a person. The vast majority of these documentary films that have had the most success are the ones with a personal voice.
8. Point your cameras at the cameras.
Show the people why the mainstream media isn’t telling them what is going on.
9. Books and TV have nonfiction figured out
Why is it that the American audience says, I love nonfiction books and I love nonfiction TV — but there’s no way you’re dragging me into a nonfiction movie! Yet, they want the truth AND they want to be entertained. If you can’t accept that you are an entertainer with your truth, then please get out of the business.
10. As much as possible, try to film only the people who disagree with you
That is what is really interesting. We learn so much more by you training your camera on the guy from Exxon or General Motors and getting him to just blab on. Talk to that person who disagrees with you.
11. While you are filming a scene for your documentary, are you getting mad at what you are seeing?
Are you crying? Are you cracking up so much that you are afraid that the microphone is going to pick it up? If that is happening while you are filming it, then there is a very good chance that’s how the audience is going to respond, too. Trust that. You are the audience, too. The audience is part of the film.
12. Less is more. You already know that one
Edit. Cut. Make it shorter. Say it with fewer words. Fewer scenes. Don’t think your shit smells like perfume. You haven’t invented the wheel. People get it.
13. Finally… Sound is more important than picture
Pay your sound woman or sound man the same as you pay the DP. Sound carries the story. Let’s say you didn’t shoot something entirely in focus, you had to shoot it really quickly. The audience doesn’t care — IF the story is strong, AND they can hear it. That’s what they’re paying attention to. Don’t cheat on the sound.
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