Producer's Corner: Rough Cut
Updated: Feb 4
Insight on Independent Filmmaking, from One of Our Producers.
Part of a Series. Visit: theshawnmckee.com
In the summer of 2013, I spent a week or two in East Tennessee working on a documentary production. From a movie-making standpoint, work was different than with past projects; a great deal of the footage had already been shot.
We sifted through copious amounts of home-video archives, interviews with healthcare professionals, and footage of other families affected by Cystic Fibrosis. All we had to do was assemble everything into a compelling documentary, approximately 90 minutes long. Piece of cake!
Jason (the director) and I kept a running video log on legal pads, making time stamps along the way. The task at hand seemed overwhelming. For the next week, we made a concerted effort to hunker down and make some progress.
I was visiting from Florida, and into my second year of grad school at the University of Central Florida. Enrolled in online summer classes, I attempted to balance the two commitments. The documentary was a project largely attributed to Jason’s dedication and belief in the subject matter. The most recent footage had been gathered during an extended hospital stay in Atlanta for a sibling's double-lung transplant.
Our goal, then and now, is to tell a story that people can relate to. The key players are Jason’s siblings: Kelly, Lindsay, Rosie, and Dillon. All were diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. I can’t imagine how family friends, all younger than me and in the prime of their lives, deal with a disease that affects their breathing and immune systems in such a way.
Youth is defined by its lack of concern with mortality. Cystic Fibrosis changes all of that. Every day is a new struggle that only gets worse for patients as time goes on. My thoughts on the disease merely scratch the surface. This documentary, we hope, will offer more perspective.
Film and video editing is perhaps the most crucial step of the filmmaking process. It’s ultimately responsible for what kind of movie you end up with. Editing is tantamount to the overall quality of a film. It’s how the footage is assembled, and it’s something that we, as viewers, pay little mind to when watching. The magic of editing lies in its seamless nature. It is intensive, exhausting, and ultimately, it can be as rewarding as any endeavor. It’s also particularly time consuming.
Between breaks of viewing hours of footage for the documentary, Jason and I would discuss the technical aspects of our own favorite films with passionate zeal. We held similar discussions as far back as elementary school. Next to video games, it was our favorite subject.
Growing up in the eighties afforded the best of both worlds. Nintendo was all the rage. Internet and cell phones weren’t even a blip on the map. We were entirely immersed in the culture as it was.
Movies were an event. 1989, for instance, delivered Batman, Ghostbusters II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Back to the Future Part II all in one summer. Back then, it took about a year after its theatrical release before a movie came out on home video, making it all the more important to see it in the theater.
Well past those idealistic years, Jason and I attempt to bring a very real and personal story to the forefront. We have watched other documentaries on CF to get an idea of what specifically has been addressed in these films. The 2009 documentary 65_Redroses is one such story about a young CF patient named Eva Markvoort who established an online following through her blogs. She passed away in 2010 after undergoing a lung transplant at twenty-five years old.
The singular focus of 65_Redroses was an inspiration. Jason and I later assembled a 30-minute “rough cut” that we soon determined needed a lot of work. The narrative needed tightening, among other things. This early edit gave us the opportunity to realize what worked and what didn’t. We were under a bit of a time crunch. My time in Tennessee was limited that year, and we had a larger goal at hand of production funding.
Experience with pitching for grants and other financing has taught us a few things about deadlines and the direction we want to go with the film. The current culture of streaming media also informs its trajectory. Our 30-minute partial rough cut was a hodgepodge of ideas and interviews more akin to a series episode than a 90-minute movie.
We also realized that we were only just getting started. There was so much work to be done. We've learned a lot about the material, and we've learned to trust the work and the process. Jason and I have met up for work (when free time allows) several other times these last nine years, enlisting the aid of freelance production talents, friends, and family.
Our next task brought together talented friends and musicians to produce music for the film's soundtrack at recording studios in Florida.
If life occurs in stages, then this documentary production is no exception. Editing, music, and fundraising are just some of the continuing priorities to be balanced. Motivation was a big factor back in 2013, in determining where this project would go. The next couple of years, however, brought some major changes that altered the course of the documentary forever.
To Be Continued…