Dane Giraud is a screenwriter, actor and director whose most recent TV outing, Both Worlds on TV3, takes an intimate look into the lives of 1.5 and 2nd generation migrants to New Zealand.
Renee Liang interviews Dane about his career path, approach to documentary making, broadcasting and funding agencies.
* * *
How did you become a screenwriter?
I originally trained as an actor at the Unitec Performing Arts School and the standard story I give people is that I fell into screenwriting because I wanted to write great acting roles for myself. But this is a bit lazy of me. I wrote from a very young age; I would read serialized stories I had come up with to my class at Otahuhu Intermediate (complete with teasers and cliff-hangers) and I had a very advanced reading age so was reading all sorts of books all the time. Some external teachers actually came in to study me I was so gifted. I read the novel Jaws when I was 6. I was the only kid on the block who stole Playboy magazines to read the interview with Henry Kissinger or Truman Capote.
And I loved movies. I was obsessed with all films; especially films that didn’t end conventionally – films where the good cowboy dies at the end or just ended without seeming to resolve anything like Hitchcock’s The Birds. I liked those films because you felt the film maker was making a direct challenge to the viewer. I loved Hitchcock. He is still my ultimate film maker. More film makers should go back to his films, especially New Zealand film makers who are becoming too influenced by television in my opinion.
What made you start making documentaries?
In this business some of us don’t have the luxury of choosing what we work on, and most often you take any gig because work is so hard to come by. I was lucky enough to be picked up by a production company making documentary and I proved myself quite quickly so soon found myself interviewing members of the then Bush administration on a project we shot in the U.S.
Because documentary was my assignment I took it seriously and had to catch up on a lot of documentary watching. It’s film making at the end of the day; just as a director needs to form a dialogue with their performers a documentary maker needs a dialogue with their talent. What makes documentary special is you’re trying to coax extremely personal information out of a person and asking them to entrust you to present their life story to the world. This is no small thing. I take that very seriously. But that said getting the most personal information out an actor helps you direct them too.
Quite a number of your documentaries have focused on minority communities. What draws you to this subject?
Again, this was the work going. I am interested primarily in people and story; I am definitely interested in the visual implications around the isolation some of these people may feel – the separateness. I am interested in the quality of relationships and sometimes just the shape of a certain face. I don’t come at this stuff to give certain people a voice – I find that type of talk extremely condescending and I resist it all the way. I think this gives me an edge, certainly with the talent, who know I respect them and know I’m not out to wring the towel for woe-is-me desperate immigrant/ refugee stuff.
This is not to say some of these people don’t face serious challenges in their lives, that are particular to who they are as recent arrivals or members of a small community, but I guess what I am saying is I am prepared to go deeper to find the humor, the aspirations (to use an old cliche) and the universal story within those challenges which I think is important.
For your most recent outing Both Worlds, you are working with TV3 producer Julia Parnell. What drew her to the series?
Julia comes at it from a different angle. She is a refugee volunteer and she and her partner have supported a Burmese family with their settlement for a number of years now. She wants to bring great stories to the screen also, but I think she would agree with the summation that such programming is an extension of a passion she has for the work she does in the community. I am interested and certainly empathetic, but visual story telling is my chief motivation.
Do you ever see a time when 'minority' TV will not be ghettoised (and might even play in primetime?)
I don’t know to be honest. Are European New Zealanders any better served at the moment? I mean, a show about two white neighbors bickering over a fence may be culturally revealing in its own way but it doesn’t satisfy me. But I would agree that the slots minority shows are given do make somewhat of a statement. I think a show as fresh and innovative as Both Worlds could definitely be prime time on a public service network but… well… we all know what’s happened there…
I don’t want that to sound like a grump; I guess I am just responding to the specific question. I think TV3 made a bold choice with Both Worlds, as did NZ On Air. Not just a bold choice, a positive and encouraging choice in terms of the future of this type of programming.
Do you think funding agencies, producers and programmers should play a role in this change? (How influential are they currently?)
I think NZ On Air does enough personally. They funded Neighborhood and Both Worlds which is great. They want innovation too. They were really pushing us for it with Both Worlds. This says to me they are committed to this type of programming and want to grow the viewership by getting producers and directors to think outside the square and to come up with something fresh.
Among other innovative techniques, on Both Worlds you are using a 'confession cam'. How does this contribute to the documentary process?
We gave each subject a camera to take home with them with a brief to record anything and everything which took their fancy. And of course to comment on daily events, offer general thoughts etc. We were thinking, and hoping, that being alone the talent would really open up, without a crew being there, and would give us some great insights. In the case of Bevan (Bevan Chaung episode 1, available at TV3 on demand) she turned up at the office one afternoon to drop the camera off so we could take the footage off it. I asked “Did you film much? How did it go?” and she answered “Nah, not much, sorry. I’ve been a bit busy,” or something to that effect. So I put the footage in the suite and had a quick look, my expectations pretty low, but was soon leaping out of my chair. It was breath-taking stuff. Her handy-cam footage ended up being almost the last quarter of the episode.
Which brings up an interesting point in documentary… Often a person cannot see their own narrative potential. You often hear “Why would you want to make a story about me?” which can be misread as modesty but I think most times people do not see what it is that is so dynamic and special about them or their situation. But that’s OK, because we’re the film makers! It’s our job to see that potential.
We had some instances when footage that came back was so revealing and challenging that it divided us in the office about whether or not to actually put it in. I had no consistent position when it came to this stuff. One time I was disappointed to see a revealing moment taken out and fought for it to be put back in. Another time I wanted some stuff toned down but in that case I lost the battle.
How much 'control' do the subjects have over the way their stories are portrayed?
As a film maker I have to answer this question honestly. If you aren’t editing a piece, if you are not a physical part of the editing process, you have no control at all. The edit is where a story is finally and definitively realized. If I shoot a sequence and have that sequence in my head and the editor chooses to lose one shot or even cut it down my thinking and intention behind what I was doing pretty much goes out the window.
So we say the subject has full control, but this is only true to a point. They certainly were given free reign with the diary cams and as a director I wouldn’t jump in on a dialogue scene until they had chatted organically for at least twenty minutes and if I did jump in it was normally just to get a reversal shot on a question or answer that they themselves had come up with. But to hearken back to the previous question the subjects often don’t know the gold they are sitting on in terms of their story so the idea of giving them control is not always equal to a story being more honest. In fact it seldom is. They need to be interpreted by the director. When they look back on the finished episode they are invariably surprised by the interpretation of themselves they see up there on the screen, but everyone so far has been really, really pleased.
In the case of Danicelin, the young Congolese boy a few things happened while filming that changed the course of the story dramatically. Firstly the family’s long estranged brother and sister arrived from Congo which was an incredible moment for us to capture; they’d been separated for something like 12 years. And secondly the mother, Celestine, who was by this time a prominent character in the episode, underwent some personal trauma (Danicelin Episode 2 TV3 on demand). In this situation no one had control in a sense. I actually found if we ever tried to stamp our authority on a piece to move a narrative along or to bring about a conclusion (because, let’s be honest now, on a small budget you can’t just film forever) those episodes or moments were ultimately never as satisfying.
I have one story I’d like to share, again with Danicelin. We were grabbing a few cut-aways and I saw a shot of some fish that the family had salted and had left to dry out on a table outside. It didn’t look too appetizing to my Western sensibilities I must admit, but this was the reality of the environment and I wanted to shoot it. Dan saw us setting up the shot and tried to remove the table. He thought that a wider New Zealand audience wouldn’t get it, would think it gross or something. He was embarrassed by it. Often the younger member of a family, the most integrated, can become self-conscious about appearing strange to wider New Zealand and will fuss around a shoot cleaning up and moving things about to appear more normal. You just got to talk them through it, like I did in that case, and explain that it’s our job to tell his story as it is.
Do you find your background in drama and acting influences the way you approach documentary?
I do. When I stepped away from acting a number of people told me that I’d miss it too much. I do miss performing Shakespeare on stage; that feeling cannot be reproduced in any other medium. But apart from that, the internal process I went through as an actor is the same process I go through as a director and a writer. As a documentary director it is also the same. At the end of the day my job remains to find the intellectual and emotional opening in the story or subject and wriggle inside that opening.
My documentary work is just as influenced by literary fiction. I love unreliable narrator stories – stories that are one person’s perspective and are loaded with the complexity of our knowing that the story teller could be stretching the truth a little… or a lot. Both Worlds is very much focused on a single perspective. Only in one story did we interview supporting characters to get differing opinions on the main player. It worked well in that story. But I warned against us continuing down that path.
Lots of people expect facts in documentary; “The population of the city is this much… the character arrived in a certain place on this date etc, etc.” I am more interested in a character’s personal truths…. Their personal philosophy on life. What they see when they look in a mirror and how it differs from what other people see. This, too, could be the influence of my acting and/or directing coming out; that quest for detailed three dimensional characterizations.
I am a visual story teller also, something I bring from my drama training. I think we still generally rely on words too much in documentary. As I said earlier I am more interested in people and behavioral stuff which doesn’t always require words, or at least not a dry retelling of facts.
What role does your Director of Photography (DOP), Richard Harling, play in the process?
Richard Harling is a great D.O.P. He is a guy that gets excited about a shot or a sequence and we really spark. We fed off each other and really pushed each other to get some strong sequences in Both Worlds. As a show it looks great.
It’s probably right to comment now on where we went with the style. I am not a big fan of hand held at the best of times; I feel it’s overused and it seldom adds to the content or illuminates anything thematic. I really don’t know why a director would use it to shoot a dialogue scene in a drama. I think they think that sense of movement gives a scene added tension, but for me I’d be more inclined to rely on the actors for that.
Anyhow, because we had the confession cams and the subjects were filming community events and stuff hand-held I wanted to contrast that camera with something a bit more set-up to be honest. So my episodes are predominantly on sticks with lots of room in the shots for the talent to breathe and just be.
In one scene we hadn’t seen the talent for a while and needed them to bring us up to speed with some pretty intense developments that had happened in their life. For this we shot from within a shop shooting through the front window and got them to start across the road and work their way up to the shop front chatting all the way as they did so. Richard would just move with them and open up the shot to allow room as they got closer to us. It was great, mainly because we got it all in one, so we got that spontaneity yet at the same time it was a highly, highly composed shot. I think there were bars on the windows of the shop too that only came into frame as the boys arrived before the glass prompting us to pull focus to them. So we get that visual metaphor thrown in! I love that stuff and Richard is a D.O.P who can really serve you in those situations.
A lot of camera operators in TV spend the entire shoot trying to talk you out of shots. I’m experienced enough now to know when a guy is f#$king with me so I listen, nod and say “You know what… I’m going to give it a go anyway…”. This never happens with Richard Harling. He’s always up for it. He’s the Steve McQueen of New Zealand cinematographers.
As a documentary maker, you describe yourself as a 'storyteller' but also one who wishes to represent your subjects authentically. What comes first - the story or the 'truth'?
That’s a good question and if I was to be completely honest with you I would say that it depends on the scene. Because Both Worlds were narratives that needed progression over the course of an episode sometimes hitting home a story beat was all important. But for the most part it was about a truthful representation of the subject and their experiences.
I am currently developing a documentary on a guy who is basically a modern day Don Quixote. He’s a real guy with real concerns but when I finally tell his story I’m going to tell an updated version of Don Quixote because that’s how I see him. I see this as no less true than if the whole thing had been observational. Maybe it’s just a case of the director’s truth coming into play a bit more forcefully. It’s like I said earlier, I am personally more interested in essence than facts. I think the audience, for the most part, is too.
I think in a way the medium of film fundamentally rejects truth. As soon as you cut out of a shot you’ve altered reality. We can’t pretend that away. And why would we want to?
What's next for you?
I am currently writing and directing on a kid’s show which is another new experience for me and a lot of fun. My own children are happy I’m finally making something they can sit down and watch. My oldest, by law, still can’t see my digital features for another 6 years!
I have also been shooting some test footage and teasers for a number of projects one of them being the Don Quixote story which I see as a cinematic feature documentary. And apart from that it’s development, development and more development with a number of producers.
* * *
Both Worlds is available to watch on TV3 On Demand and continues on TV3 every Saturday at 10:25am.
BOTH WORLDS - THE OPENING TITLES. from Notable Pictures on Vimeo.