Greene: I liked how your piece specifically pointed out how conversation leads you to understanding a place. We’ve gotten some great reviews, but I don’t think many of them recognized that that’s how [documentary] movies get made: by listening to people and figuring out a way to make a story out of what they’re saying.
Sachs: Thanks for reading! You mention story. In both of your last two films, it seems like you’re borrowing as much from narrative filmmaking as you can. They have distinct structures—they’re both set over the course of a week—and the people feel like characters rather than subjects. Are these things intentional?
Greene: Yeah, 100 percent. I made a film called Owning the Weather in 2009—which also played at Facets . . .
Sachs: I remember when it came out. I didn’t see it, though.
Greene: Yeah, not too many people did. (laughs) That was a big, science-based issue movie. It was more of a traditional documentary in that there were lots of talking heads, landscape shots, and whatever. And I realized earlier that I didn’t want to make films like that, but I just had to to get it out of my system . . . I wanted to make more cinematic films—which is kind of redundant . . .
Sachs: I don’t know. We live in an era when a lot of movies aren’t cinematic, especially ones that are being made on low budgets.
Greene: And especially documentaries. So because I want to tell stories, it’s important to give myself a structure in shooting. With Kati, we knew what the climax would be [Kati’s high school graduation], so we were shooting for three days leading up to an event. The movie ended up being less about the graduation than about this love story, which we didn’t know about going in. But we had a handle on things knowing that this event would happen.
Sachs: And because that event was coming up, you were shooting these people when they were in a state of anticipation. They were going to be doing interesting things.
Greene: It’s the same thing with Fake It So Real. We could have shot that movie for a year, but we wouldn’t have gotten the same revelations that we got in that week. We would have gotten more drama—like, one of the guys got thrown in jail right after the very next [wrestling] show.
Sachs: But as you’ve structured it, you’ve got a beginning, middle, and end. Most documentaries don’t have that kind of story.
Greene: And that’s superimportant. People assume that you need some “hook” for a good documentary, but what you really need are revelations and developments. And if you can capture enough subtleties over one day of a person’s life, you can get enough to tell a good story . . .
So, we knew we had a structure; but if Gabe didn’t have the match of his life, our movie wouldn’t have been the same. And when we got to North Carolina, we didn’t even know Gabe. We knew there was a guy sleeping on [wrestler] Chris [Solar’s] couch, but we didn’t know that he’d be the star of the movie. We started shooting on Sunday night, and on Monday we knew we should focus a bit more on him. If he didn’t have that great match on Saturday, we would’ve been screwed.
Sachs: Not necessarily. The match still gave you an endpoint for the story and everyone’s still revealing things about themselves. Like, the one guy with the huge ass—
Sachs: Yeah, on that night, J-Prepp lets his guard down and reveals a really deep depression that he hadn’t let on before then.
Greene: You start to see it bubble up during his interview; but when he screws up his match, he does let things out more than he had.
Sachs: How do you get your subjects to open up? Frederick Wiseman says that when he makes a documentary, he’ll shoot for about two weeks without any intention of using the footage because he wants the people to get used to the presence of a camera. Do you worry about not having the time for your subjects to get comfortable if you’re only shooting for a week?
My method’s a little different than his. Like Kati [the “star” of Kati With an I] knew Sean [Price Williams], my cinematographer, because she’s my half-sister . . . Also, Sean’s six-foot-three, but he’s got this vibe that makes people feel pretty comfortable. And Chris Solar is my cousin. So because of that, all of the guys [in Fake It] had an easiness around me because they knew I was family.
Where Wiseman’s trying to uncover these secrets about the people he shoots, I’m trying to tell a story, and I can communicate that to my people. So, for the Kati movie, I can say, “I just want to see what your life is like, so let’s go to the mall.” For the wrestlers, it was different. These guys are performers: they’re playing to the camera no matter what. But my theory is that if you watch long enough, the real person and the performance will start to intermingle.
With some documentaries, [audiences] wonder, “Are these people acting? Did they really feel this?” But with a film about wrestling, which is all about performance, I don’t really care if people are playing to the camera. If they are, there’s something to be learned from why they’re playing to the camera, and I think audiences are sophisticated enough that they can recognize this.
Sachs: I think there’s too much misplaced attention about documentaries being authentic, when things that are authentic aren’t really interesting. The important thing should be the larger truth that the movie communicates on the whole.
Greene: Do you remember the controversy about that movie Waiting for "Superman"? There was a scene where this woman was walking around a school that her kid would never get to go to, and she was upset. They put it in the film before she found out that her kid wasn’t accepted to the school, and yet it was filmed after. That’s a very typical thing that documentarians do. “Well, we missed that, so we’ll do it later. We’re not staging it—she is looking at the school—but we are using it out of context.”
The problem isn’t that the scene is shown out of context, but that the movie is so manipulative—telling you what to feel every single second—that they have to pull those kind of tricks in order to make the film work. You’re being so pulled by the filmmaker that the scenes feel like lies even if they aren’t.
Of course, you’re always making decisions like that when you’re making a movie. But I’m pretty up-front about it, so when you watch the movie it shouldn’t matter. I’m telling a story, but I’m not trying to pull you in a particular direction. If you were to find out that [a scene] took place on Wednesday rather than Tuesday, it’s not going to make you think the whole thing is bogus.
Sachs: It seems like the major crisis of the post-Michael Moore age is that a lot of documentaries are just trying to illustrate an argument. The goal has become converting the viewer to the filmmaker’s side.
Greene: Definitely. The [filmmakers] aren’t watching. And, for me, great documentaries—all great films, really—are rooted in observation.