Kirby Dick Talks About Filmmaking and Outrage

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kirby dickDocumentary filmmaker Kirby Dick, known for tackling controversial and challenging subjects — such as the ‘outing’ of closeted gay politicians in Outrage (2009), exposing sexual abuse in the military in The Invisible War (2012), and ripping the lid off rape on college campuses in The Hunting Ground (2015) — thinks of each of his films as an ongoing experiment, an investigation of subject and form that he’s never satisfied with, never quite finished with. He is, it seems, incessantly indignant about the social issues represented in his films.

“I’m thinking about the work from the moment I get the idea for it and decide on a subject until 20 years after I’ve finished the film–it’s all part of the experiment. Because I’m always asking ‘what if?’,” Dick comments, “Or, ‘what would happen if I did this to it?’ Or, ‘what if I look anew at the subject ten years later, or show the film to the people in the film and and ask them how they see things after time has elapsed?’ So, I‘m still working with a film. Even then.”

The release of Outrage had the immediate effect of focusing public attention on the harmful hypocrisy of gay politicians — men and women — who, while vehemently denying their homosexuality, vote harshly against gay civil rights. As the film points out, their leadership in defeating laws guaranteeing gays the right to marry, have equal employment and military service opportunities and be protected from harassment has been a betrayal to the community in which they, in secret, at home.

Although Outrage investigates the very serious issues of hypocrisy about sexual orientation, the reasons why gay politicians feel the need to remain closeted, and the psychological effect being in the closet has on an individual’s psychology and family life, the questions put to Dick are, for the most part, about outing scandals, the legitimacy of his sources and whether there’s a personal agenda is implied in his targeting of more Republicans than Democrats in the film.

Dick’s responses to these questions are direct and informative: he hasn’t ‘outed’ anyone who was not known to be gay, and he has double (at least) sourced every bit of information in the film. He points out that politicians from both sides of the aisle are culpable, and that he’s reported on members of both parties representing a range of political offices and demographics. He avows that his agenda is to raise awareness about how harmful hypocrisy is in our society–regardless of party and personage.

Actually, the well-researched film pretty much explains itself, as it should.

Kirby Dick’s Roots

With that in mind, I choose to use my opportunity to interview Dick post-Outrage about how he sees the film within the overall progression of his work — as part of his filmmaker’s arc, if you will.

“Good,” he says. “When I finish a film, I like to reflect on where I am with my work. This is a good opportunity for me to do that. I like it.”

MERIN: Well, then, how did filmmaking start for you? Why documentaries, rather than narratives?

DICK: Well, way back when I was a bad ass kid in art school at California Institute of The Arts, we were experimenting with the crossover between video art and documentaries, and I made a film with one of my classmates that we shot in St Lucia — it was, in a sense a dramatic narrative, but there were all sorts of other elements in it. For example, in St Lucia they speak a French patois, so we had them speak in their patois while we directed them only for gesture and expression, and when we came back, we added our own story that had very little to do with their dialog. It was a complicated mix of elements that had to do with the relationships and…well, it was it’s own sort of film, a genuine experiment. And, it was funny because it ended up premiering in an ethnographic film series in NY, which was ironic because it wasn’t really an ethnographic film, but rather a sort of a take off of an ethnographic film in which we had people doing all these absurd things that weren’t really ethnographic at all. We were young artists who were testing genres and playing with styles to see what we would come up with.

First Feature: From Stylistic Spoof To Sexuality

DICK: From there, I wanted to make a feature film and figured that the quickest, most accessible way to make a feature was in the documentary genre. Well, at the time, a friend of mine was involved in a new kind of therapy called sex surrogate therapy — for men or women who don’t have a sex partner and they’re seeing a therapist, and the therapist arranges for them to have a sex surrogate so they can work on their sexual issues. It usually begins with hand holding, but it can progress to other things. I was able to follow people going through that process with a very charismatic sex surrogate. And the film (Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate, 1986) did very well, ending up with theatrical distribution. It was a documentary, and I think that’s a very rich form. I mean it’s so wide open, you can pretty much…it’s like art in that way, you can call whatever you do a documentary. Although sometimes people think of documentaries as just the sort of PBS standard formula — that sort of subject matter, with talking heads — but it’s such a wide range of possibilities and it’s so unpredictable.

Defining Documentary

MERIN : If documentary form is so wide open, what’re the defining differences between documentaries and narrative features?

DICK: Well, I’ve also directed short dramatic narrative films, and it’s funny, because when I’m directing actors, I sometimes…well, what fascinates me is who they are as people and how you want to bring that out in their characters. So, in some ways you’re treating actors as you would treat documentary subjects. The reverse is when you’re directing documentary subjects…because it’s not exactly ‘them’ that’s in the film, it’s an aspect of their lives. So, it’s almost the reverse. Sometimes you have to direct them almost as you would direct actors. This crossover has always fascinated me.

MERIN : It’s interesting that you’ve answered my question about differences between docs and narrative features by telling me something that’s inherently similar about them…and that has to do with both having characters that are presented by — or molded by –the director in certain ways. So, what would be some of the differences between documentary and narrative films that are, say, products put before an audience?

DICK: Well, let me put it this way, I think what appeals to an audience is the unpredictability of the documentary. The dramatic form has — although there are great filmmakers making great films — become a little stale. That’s been my observation. And that’s why people are turning to documentaries. Because they can see that the filmmaker is unsure about what’s going to happen. Even in the editing stage. They can see how the story comes together in an unpredictable way. They can see that the filmmaker has half a story, or elements of a story, that those have to be put together, and that the filmmaker is on the edge. So they’re on the edge, too, and that’s exciting. They’re not getting everything — as they would with a fully flushed out script — so they have to figure out the process, too. I think that’s one element that’s very different in the audience’s experience.

Considering Linear Storytelling

MERIN : In many narrative features, these days especially, the linear style of storytelling is being toyed with…

DICK: Exactly….

MERIN: So, that, then, would eliminate the audience’s safety factor — the predictability you speak about — in narrative features. So, when you compare those films — the narratives that are playing with, experimenting with, doing a riff on linear storytelling and the narrative structure — with documentaries where there’s no predictability, as you’ve pointed out, what’re the differences in form and process from director’s point of view?

DICK: Well, I guess that it is — to put it most simply — that in my films, I don’t work from a script. But some documentary filmmakers do work from scripts, tho. They can — but, it’s interesting, I’m again going back to similarities — certainly have an idea in advance of what they want to show.

Are Documentarians Journalists?

MERIN : Well, let me as a related question, then: what’s the difference between documentary filmmaking and journalism?

DICK: There are a couple of differences, but they’re not always black or white. One is that journalism has a clear protocol that has to do with multiple sourcing, and sometimes working with unnamed sources. Documentary really has no protocol, and I think often times that can be abused — but it also opens for form up considerably. Journalists have constraints going in, and that protocol is a good thing, and I’m definitely not saying it’s not. But it’s good that there’s another form, the documentary, where there are no constraints of protocol, because it allows people to develop much closer relationships to their subjects, to get at the truth in a different way.

On Objectivity and Truth

MERIN : That you mention ‘getting to the truth in a different way’ raises another question: do you think it’s possible for a filmmaker to be objective?

DICK: I think it’s possible for a filmmaker to bring some objectivity to the process. But I’m surprised at how quickly audiences are ready to accept documentary as THE TRUTH. The truth is elusive, and audiences give filmmakers their credence, give away their judgment much too easily when they’re watching documentary films. I find it amazing. When a documentary filmmaker watches a film it’s different. In my films, I’m very careful to include something in that’s not actual and factual. But sometimes you want to get at a story by focusing on an aspect of that story that’s not all inclusive. Because you want to point to something that’s deeper than just the facts. But for audiences, it seems there’s just this quality of truth that’s associated with documentary, which is really not the case. There’s usually an aspect of the truth, because, in general, documentary filmmakers have great respect for truth — whatever that is. But it’s certainly a mistake to assume that if you’ve seen it in a documentary, it’s true.

The Artist’s Reality

MERIN : Well, let’s return to your process an artist and filmmaker, and your perception of truth. Each artist, it seems, has a unique perspective, an individual way of seeing the world, and that vision seems to be dependent on not only their social thinking, but on the way they organize information — visual, audio and all sorts of information. There’s a relationship between their mental constructs and the way they use their art — their medium, whatever it might be — to reflect what might be defined as the external world, the real world, or reality….

DICK: Sure, that’s true. I think that’s very true. And I would have to say that based on my art training I do everything, and I start everything I do as an experiment. I’m asked on a daily basis the same question: Is there a cathartic moment when you finish a film? And the answer is no, there is no cathartic moment. Because I never stop thinking about the work I’ve done on a film, or about the film itself. My work is a continuum of experimentation.

The Filmmaker’s Arc

MERIN: So, in your filmography, how do your films lead into each other in style and subject matter. And, regarding subject matter, you’ve often focused on sexuality. why do you pick the subjects that you pick?

DICK: I like subjects that are controversial, complex, have gray areas, potentially — and it’s not choosing a subject that interests you, because you’ve got to get real people to become a part of the project. You’re not just examining a subject, you’re asking people to live in the world defined by that subject. The reason I choose that kind of complex subject is that you spend a year or two or three making a film, and I don’t want any moment during the making of that film to be boring. I know that the minute I’m bored, that film is going to be horrible. I know that. I’ve seen that when I made a dramatic film and I wasn’t interested, and the film was horrible. So it’s almost just a working technique. I make sure I pick a subject that will keep me fascinated.

MERIN : How has your style evolved?

DICK: Early on, my films had a great deal of verite–not necessarily the pure verite of a filmmaker like a (Frederick) Wiseman, whom I respect. But my verite, which has to do with supporting and crafting a subject’s story. There’s no such thing as a fly on the wall. Wiseman would allow a scene to develop in a more desultory way, I guess, than I do because I’m interested more in targeting an audience and getting a certain kind of a response.

The biggest experiment for me, I think, in verite was in Chain Camera, where I gave ten Los Angeles high school kids cameras for a week and when they were done shooting whatever they shot, they gave the footage to me and passed the cameras on to ten different kids. And those students filmed their lives for a week, and then passed the cameras on again, and so forth. Those cameras circulated through the school for an entire year like chain letters, hence the film‘s title. That was an interesting experiment because rather than having the filmmaker find the subject, I wanted the camera to find the subject — and putting cameras in so many hands accomplished that. I ended up with more than 700 hours of footage. It was fascinating.

The Filmmaker’s Presence

DICK: There’s something radically different that happens when there isn’t a filmmaker present. I mean people are still performing, but they’re not performing for somebody in the room and it‘s interesting to figure out just who they’re performing for — themselves, other students, an audience?

I mean, they’re culturally savvy, but it’s still hard to imagine yourself in front of an audience that’s seeing a film. So, are they performing for this amorphous idea of a non-person seeing the film, perhaps like an inner self? It was really interesting because the dominant style was for them to shoot other people, but sometimes they’d turn the camera on themselves.

That was in 2001, and that was a style I developed and used in other films. And then along comes YouTube! The first time I saw YouTube, I thought that’s what I’ve been doing for four or five years. And, there it was. Well, it’s different, too–but what I was doing was a sort of proto-YouTube.

Originality of Vision and Voice

MERIN: There’s a bit of cache for a narrative filmmaker in being dubbed an ‘auteur.’ Would you say that all documentary filmmakers are, by the nature of their process, auteurs?

DICK: I’ve always been suspicious of the term auteur as applied to filmmakers, because there’s an implied hierarchy, and I find that a little off putting. First of all, filmmaking is a collaborative art, and especially in documentaries. In fact, often times a producer directs, or a director produces — I mean, there’s a lot of interchange like that. That happens on all sorts of occasions with me. But I think that for some documentary filmmakers, the term auteur might apply — especially if they’re working from a script first. But with me, I definitely don’t have a script.

Sticking With The Experiment

DICK: I may have an idea of where the film might go, but I don’t want to be limited by that because, again, it’s an experiment. I want to shoot every imaginable subject, angle and dimension, and pursue the subject as far as I can for as long as I can.

Actually, I start editing a film while I’m shooting it. And I’ll keep looking what I’ve shot, and I’m always going out to get more based on what I have already — and that happens weeks or sometimes just days before a film has to be finished.

Finding The Story

MERIN : But if you start editing before you’re finished shooting, how do you know what’s a pivotal scene or piece of footage in the overall arc of the film?

DICK: Well, I find that editing while shooting helps with that…because often times you’ll shoot something and you think it’s terrific, and you see in the editing room that it doesn’t have quite the same impact you thought it would. Or the reverse. I used that same chain camera technique on a film I did about hospice, so I wasn’t shooting, but I was constantly editing the footage that came in — so, in that way, I found that I should focus on the story of a seventeen year old girl who died, but the footage about her didn’t seem to have that much impact until I started cutting it, and then it became one of the most important elements in the film. If you edit while you’re shooting, it allows you to see where your film is going to go. Because in a documentary you’re not working with a script, you’re always getting a piece of this and a piece of that and when you begin to put it together, you can actually see where the holes are. Or you can see that something you thought was slight has a lot of potential.

Examples From Outrage

MERIN : Can you specify any examples from Outrage?

DICK: The Charlie Crist story came in very late. I was aware of Charlie Crist and the rumors about him, but it wasn’t until we were very far into shooting this documentary that he announced his candidacy and got married, and then it all fell into place. We got reliable sources, so we could include the Charlie Crist story. And, he has such a bad record on civil rights for gays and lesbians, it‘s a very important element in the film.

There were other stories that came to us, too. But they were based on rumor. So much of the reporting about closeted gays and lesbians in politics is based on rumor, and we didn’t want this film to be more of that–everything is sourced reliably, credibly and with substantial investigation backing it. But we didn’t have Charlie Christ until quite late in the making of the film, and now he’s a key element. That’s a really good example of how my process works.

MERIN: Thanks for answering my questions and sharing your thoughts in such an interesting way.

DICK: Thanks for asking interesting questions. It’s unusual to have such a thoughtful conversation in an interview. I’ve really enjoyed it.

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