Annie in Come Clean | courtesy of Neil Graham

The Gift of Gold

We all know the moments. The scenes that make us gasp. The magic when lightning strikes the lens.

21 mins read

In The Center Will Not Hold, Griffin Dunne’s Netflix documen­tary about his aunt, the writer Joan Didion, he references a passage in Didion’s book Slouching Toward Bethlehem. In an essay, written in the 1960s about the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco, Didion meets a five-year-old girl given LSD by her mother. Dunne asks Didion, creative non-fiction’s queen of icy surveillance, about interviewing a child tripping on drugs. “Let me tell you,” she says, “it was gold. You live for moments like that if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.” Gold, in all its dark complexity, is non-fiction’s greatest gift, and, for the documentary filmmaker, an absolute prerequisite for memorable work.

Didion’s response to Dunne’s question leads The New Yorker’s review of The Center Will Not Hold: “…what makes Didion’s words…so compelling is that she offers no high-minded defense of her motivation, beyond that of writing the best story she can. What we see, instead, is the raw thrill that journalism can deliver to its practitioner—the jolt of adrenaline that one experiences when just the right scene is witnessed.” Gold’s payoff is immense. But so, too, is its cost to the work’s subjects and creators.

Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold | Photo by Julian Wasser / Netflix

Alan Zweig, in his breakout film Vinyl (2000), about the obsessive peculiarities of record collectors, knew gold when he saw it, and two decades later, it remains fresh. “I have a clear memory of showing this subject’s footage to my editor for the first time…and his reaction. Neither of us had ever made a documentary, but we knew it was documentary gold.” The scene, in which a collector examines in the hard light of a bathroom a record he’s accused Zweig of stepping on—records covered the floor; there was no way Zweig could have charted a path that avoided them—encapsu­lates the mania and madness of a collector run amok.

Zweig’s first taste of doc lightning has had lasting repercussions. A friend of the collector continues to lash out via social media at Zweig. “He [the collector] had shown a lot of vulner­ability in the sit-down interview,” says Zweig. “But I don’t think that was what bothered his friend. It was the bathroom scene. But I guess what my editor and I loved about it was the same thing that made his friend so uncomfort­able…but there was no way I wasn’t going to use it. I understand why his friend hates me. In his position I might feel the same. But I’m not in his position.”

In The Lost Highway (2014), which I co-produced and directed with Derreck Roemer, during an interview with a couple we were following, a woman named Linda became agitated and told her husband, David, she was leaving. We were shocked, David considerably more so. They’d purchased a crumbling house and spent years resurrecting it to a bed-and-breakfast. But now, on the eve of its completion, they were coming undone. David was keen to move on to other projects, maybe put an offer in on a long-abandoned church in town, which he envisioned as a café. Linda lashed out, accusing him of lacking the fortitude to finish a project. But it’s almost done, he said. No, she snapped, it’s not, it’s just beginning. (She had a point. They’d yet to welcome their first guest.) Watching David wilt beneath his wife’s words was breathtakingly gutting. The interview, unsurprisingly, is a pivotal moment in the film.

The Lost Highway | Courtesy of Neil Graham

Immediately afterward, Linda withdrew participation in the film. But that wasn’t the end of it. Despite our previous friendly relation­ship, I began to receive enraged emails from her. I was, she wrote, a vile man, an unworthy partner to my wife, and father to a daughter I didn’t deserve. It would be natural to assume, given her response, that she was angered by the film’s portrayal of her. But the film was months from completion. The real reason? I had been there as witness. And that was enough.

Truman Capote, in his seminal non-fiction book In Cold Blood, about the 1959 murders of four members of a Kansas farming family, formed a close relationship with murderers Richard Hickock and, in particular, Perry Smith. Capote visited Smith for five years in a Kansas prison and created a portrait of the murders, and the murderers, in meticulous detail. Between visits, the two wrote often, and although the killers confessed to the crime, Capote was instrumental in helping obtain legal assistance, which stalled the state’s attempt to lead Hickock and Smith to the gallows.

Capote’s affectionate fascination with Smith appeared genuine. But Capote confessed to friends in New York that he needed the talkative Smith to stay alive so he could glean the specifics that furnish his book with such harrowing details. (Like this: Smith slipped a pillow beneath the head of 15-year-old Kenyon Clutter—who had been tied to a sofa—to make him more comfortable. And then Smith shot him in the face.) Capote also knew his book needed an ending. At 1:19 am on April 14, 1965, he got the one he needed and wanted. Smith was hung dead. On the way back to town after witnessing the hanging, it is said Capote pulled his car off the road and sobbed inconsolably. And this, wrote Capote biographer Gerald Clarke, is what precipitated Capote’s prolonged cocaine and screwdriver-fueled downfall.

As Capote could testify, gold marches in lockstep with complexity. Even when the subject is on death row. Or already dead. In the docu­mentary Grizzly Man (2005), director Werner Herzog had six minutes of audiotape which, via a video camera that recorded with the lens cap on, captured the sounds of the killing of his protagonist Timothy Treadwell by bear attack. Herzog said “You would violate the dignity” of Treadwell by using audio of the “horrifying and terrifying” act.

Herzog faced a dilemma. In his rules on filmmaking, Herzog encour­ages filmmakers to “ask for forgiveness, not permission…manoeuvre and mislead, but always deliver,” and, in an eerily prescient rule, “get used to the bear behind you.” He had to use the tape. He had to fol­low his own mantra. He had to deliver. The question was how. Herzog is shrewd enough to know that more of a concern than violating the dignity of a dead man is alienating an audience, which, given the gruesomeness of Treadwell’s death, could have spurned the film had the audio been used.

In a Grizzly Man scene brilliant for its theatricality, Herzog dons headphones and listens privately to the murderous tape while we watch his face for a twitch or grimace to give us a hint of the horror. But Herzog, with characteristic cunning, and with an expression as impenetrable as that of a Sam Peckinpah antihero, doesn’t flinch. The showmanship reached its zenith when Herzog removed the head­phones and issued an edict in his somber German-inflected monotone: “You should not keep it. You should destroy it.”

In the recently released Come Clean, made with Derreck Roemer, we embedded ourselves in a drug rehab facility for three weeks, then followed our subjects for a year to see if they could kick their habit. Annie, one of our characters, delivered a different kind of gold. Speaking about her troubles, Annie would initially be upbeat and optimistic. But then the immensity of her challenge would consume her, and her jaw, as if susceptible to amplified gravity, would slowly pull her lips apart to a wordless, breathless conclusion.

I asked Annie what it’s like to be a subject in a documentary film. She was unequivocal in her evaluation. “It’s terrifying.” But she believed in us as filmmakers and that the film “would benefit the greater good. But sometimes I just didn’t want to talk anymore.” She claimed having to articulate her thoughts to the camera helped her realize her feelings toward her husband, an active addict, were genuine, and that she wanted their marriage to endure. Is she looking forward to seeing the film? “I’m terrified I’ll look needy, or whining. And I don’t really need to see my fat ass, or my marriage, on TV.”

Documentary films can be boring. Just ask my teenage daughter. Or the many who prefer Simpsons reruns to a doc, even a very good one. Why? Traditional fictional narrative structure offers the pleasure of the predictable. Action rises. Obstacles are overcome. Epiphanies are reached. Wisdom is gleaned. And loose ends, like so many untied shoelaces, are cinched tight in the denouement. But that’s not the life we lead. Much of what happens in your life and mine stretches credulity if adopted for non-fiction and is downright unbelievable if applied to fiction.

When, five years ago, I stepped sore and stunned into an ambulance after having crashed my motorcycle, the emergency worker followed protocol and asked my name. “I’m Neil Graham,” I answered. He looked at me oddly. “I’m Neil Graham too,” he said.

Howard Gibbs, the central character in The Lost Highway, often spoke of hope. He hoped government inspectors wouldn’t shut down his derelict gas station. He hoped his daughter would resurrect the business. And he hoped his estranged wife, the live-in caregiver for a man under circumstances far from transparent, would return home. The name of Howard’s wife? Hope. When Howard scrawls “Hope stop in” on a sheet of paper and posts it in his window, it is, equally, a yearning for better fortunes and a plea to his wife.

Hope and Howard in The Lost Highway (dir. Neil Graham, Derreck Roemer; 2014) | Photo courtesy of Neil Graham

Meeting your namesake in an ambulance is bizarre—if a novelist wrote such a scene they’d be laughed off their publisher’s roster. And while we believed a man wedded to the concept of hope and a woman named Hope added a serendipitous jolt to The Lost Highway, some viewers were perplexed, as if they couldn’t believe it was true, and that we’d concocted the linguistic tease to prove ourselves clever.

Given that non-fiction writers and documentary filmmakers mine similar material, you’d assume the two disciplines are closely aligned. But while the working methods have similarities, a writer is less bound by temporal reality than a filmmaker. By the time Capote was tipped to the Kansas murders by his editor at The New Yorker, for which In Cold Blood was initially serialized, the murders were history and the Clutter family buried. But Capote, employing a stew of interview, conjecture, and fabulation (when the story didn’t yield the necessary narrative elements) infused the book with an immediacy that couldn’t have been replicated by a documentary film. The book is fact as fiction, with recollection reconfigured as live action and with Capote its omniscient narrator.

Truman Capote standing in the living room of the Clutter house where four members of the family were murdered in 1959, which was the bases for his novel, In Cold Blood | Associated Press / Library of Congress

“Meanwhile, Dick and the condemned man,” writes Capote, in a scene where the hitchhiking killers have been picked up by a Mr. Bell, a travel­ling salesmen father-of-five who they plan to rob then kill, “were trading dirty jokes. Their laughter irritated Perry; he especially disliked Mr. Bell’s outbursts—hearty barks that sounded very much like the laughter of Tex John Smith, Perry’s father. The memory of his father’s laughter increased his tension; his head hurt, his knees ached. He chewed three aspirin and swallowed them dry. Jesus! He thought he would vomit, or faint; he felt certain he would if Dick delayed ‘the party’ [Bell’s murder] much longer. The light was dimming, the road was straight, with neither house nor human being in view—nothing but land winter-stripped and as somber as sheet iron. Now was the time, now. He stared at Dick, as though to communicate this realization, and a few small signs—a twitching eyelid, a mustache of sweat drops—told him that Dick had already reached the same conclusion.”

It’s a testament to the imagination of Capote that this scene of delicious details—the aching knees, the moustache of sweat, the landscape winter-stripped—was gleaned entirely from prison interviews with Perry and Smith. But the doc filmmaker, with the same subject, isn’t so fortunate. Hours in the editing suite meticu­lously cutting scenes that build tension from a multitude of interviews with the assailants and the kindly salesman (who, by stroke of luck, survived) only drive home this unassailable fact: you weren’t in the car. You missed it. Your only hope? Test your luck by staging recreated scenes. But be warned: even the reenactments in Errol Morris’s genre-defining film The Thin Blue Line are, today, looking more than a little dated.

Vinyl | Photo courtesy of Alan Zweig

All non-fiction benefits from the alchemy of astonishing moments. But while a capable non-fiction writer is able to summon the goods from material from which he or she is once removed, a documentary filmmaker is lost unless a camera is pointed at the source of the magic. You’ve got to be there, and you’ve got to be rolling. But if you get the footage, then a documentary film becomes lightning, and the absolute best way to tell the story. Any story. As a filmmaker, you need the tenacity to be there and the courage to use the footage. Whatever the cost. It’s the job.

“I would never apologize,” says Zweig, “for using things that someone said or that happened while we were filming. I’ve actually told other filmmakers who have expressed to me their misgivings about using such moments, ‘If you’re not going to use that, you should turn in your filmmaker badge.’ I can be pompous sometimes about this thing we do, but when I watch a film, I don’t want to feel like someone’s pulling their punches.

“I’ve gotten better at hearing the devastating things people some­times reveal,” says Zweig, “I hope I’m not jaded. But I do have a kind of click that I hear in my head when a character does or says something that would be jaw-dropping, if I hadn’t trained myself to keep my jaw in place. A click that says, ‘That will be in the film.’ And sometimes I think I’m just out there looking for clicks.”

As a filmmaker, Neil Graham is a Gemini winner for Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel (2007) and a best-doc Canadian Screen Awards nominee for The Lost Highway. His documentary Come Clean had its broadcast premiere in 2022. As a writer, Graham also works with prominent filmmakers to hone stories and craft broadcaster pitches.

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