Making a movie can be a serendipitous affair.
In a lot of ways, this is how I look back on the process of making the short documentary “NYC in One Word” with Diana Wong this semester. Not because we didn’t do a lot of planning in advance. It was serendipitous because a lot of unexpected, unsolicited and unusual things happened when we went out to shoot—including the very content our project would be built around.
We set out with one basic idea: we should ask people to describe New York City, in just one word. We went around the Hunter College campus and fanned out around the Upper East Side. Many people (maybe a majority) refused to answer the question on camera. This is one of the unpredictable things about making this kind of documentary. We took it in stride. But the people who did answer the question gave us some rich answers and took the project in a direction we wouldn’t have even considered.
One student decided to go on and on, ruminating about how hard it was to come up with a single word (I counted 211 words), before giving us an entirely made-up word to describe the city. What we ended up doing was intercutting between his long-winded diatribe and the many more concise offerings we got. I wasn’t sure what we would do with such a long ramble; it was at odds with what we’d initially set out to do. But when we got back to the editing room, two essential truths about documentary filmmaking finally hit home. First, be flexible; what you end up with might be better than what you originally envisioned. And second, more than anything else, the real art of this reified art form is the sculpting of raw materials (footage) into a real work (an edited piece).