It All Can Change: A Case Study of Being a Flexible Filmmaker

Guest post by Andrew Zinnes

A few years ago, my phone rang. On the other end was a woman named Cyndi Capen, a woman with an idea for documentary film set in New Orleans of which she had no idea how to get done. She had a subject – one of the very few African American Roman Catholic priests in the United States. And after a lot of research, filming and long distance consultation phone calls with yours truly, she eventually had a story. It took her the better part of seven years to get the project completed, but I’m happy to report, the film, entitled Father Tony, was just released by Sony earlier this year.

I recount this tale for two reasons. First, to congratulate Cyndi for her triumph – it’s not easy to take on one of these projects that span many years and take up a lot of time, money and psychological resources. But secondly, to look at storytelling in documentary filmmaking and how flexible one has to be. For you see, Cyndi’s final story was not her original one. Not by a long shot. 

When I first spoke to Cyndi, she had met Father Tony a few months earlier and was taken not only by his story, but also his personality. He’s energetic. He’s flamboyant. He’s super-positive. And as mentioned above, he is African-American in a very African-American ward of New Orleans. In a time when people are turning away from the church, Father Tony had a unique problem: how do I get people to come in every Sunday when the traditional Roman Catholic mass is a bit, how shall we say, heavy. The answer is: he got creative. Father Tony took the message and tenants of the Roman Catholic mass and placed it within an almost Pentecostal setting. There is music. There is style. There is excitement! And his parish really ate it up.  The problem is that the bishops and cardinals in New Orleans weren’t so pleased as they saw him as brash and bombastic. Not what a priest is supposed to be. 

So you can see why Cyndi was drawn to this story. You have the underdog hero trying to keep his parish together using unusual tactics while the powers that be want to shut him down or at the very least, shut him up. And of course, she could get into the themes of religion in the United States as viewed through the eyes of race and class. Not bad! But then the man upstairs threw a wrench into the whole works.

Cyndi shot the bulk of her film in 2005 when a certain hurricane called Katrina came calling to the Big Easy. And of course it changed everything. Father Tony’s church is in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. It’s on low ground and near the levees as is all of his congregation’s homes. No longer was this a story about a man railing against the system. It was about a man who literally had to save his parish. This raised the stakes of the whole film both externally and internally for Father Tony. The man was literally humbled before God/Mother Nature and in doing so allowed himself to rise to great heights.

 father tony

But now it was Cyndi’s turn to get creative. Much of the footage she had shot told of one story. To get the new one, she had to return to New Orleans several times for follow up shoots. She had to tell her editor to rework  the end of Act 1 and most of Act 2 and Act 3 given the new direction. It was a ton of work, but the end result far exceeded any former expectations. It’s mainly why Sony wanted to get involved.

The lesson from all of this? Just because you think you know where your story is headed doesn’t mean that’s where it will end up. As in life, there are a lot of external factors that can alter the best laid plans. One has to let a story organically unfold into what its meant to be and we, as the storytellers of documentary, have to be open, courageous and flexible enough to let that happen.

Andrew Zinnes is a filmmaker, author, and the Creative Director of the Documentary Summit, a touring conference for filmmakers. The Summit stops in Atlanta this weekend for two days of education and discussion of the art, science, and business of documentary film.

The Atlanta Documentary Summit
November 15-16, 2014, 9a-4p both days
Emory University
Tickets (including day passes), schedule and information at www.documentarysummit.com
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