Director team D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus are two of the world’s greatest documentary filmmakers. With movies including The War Room, Startup.com, Monterey Pop, and Don’t Look Back, they’ve captured major cultural and historical moments with remarkable skill.
Their newest film, Unlocking the Cage, finds them following animal rights lawyer Steve Wise, who is fighting a landmark case to have chimpanzees, whales, dolphins, and elephants recognized legally as persons in cases of physical abuse. We sat down to speak with the directors about making Unlocking the Cage and extracted valuable lessons for all aspiring documentarians.
Let Curiosity Pick Your Subjects
Finding the right documentary subject can be difficult. One factor that Pennebaker and Hegedus use to guide them is their curiosity — not just as filmmakers, but as people. That’s what led them to tell Steve Wise’s story with Unlocking the Cage. “The idea that he was going to confront the law and try to change, it just made me very curious to see if that was possible,” says Pennebaker. “I wanted to go along and find out what would happen.”
It helps too if the subject you want to follow is at a turning point, personally or professionally. “You want to start at the beginning with somebody who is so totally passionate about what they’re going to do and they’re taking a big risk,” says Hegedus. That’s a principle that guided them not just with their current film, but all of them, and it’s one others would do well to emulate.
Shoot As If You Weren’t There
The documentarians once said that when they make their movies, “the camera is the least important thing in the room.” It’s an approach that they’re firm believers in, and one that’s produced decades’ worth of great films. They shoot that way because it’s not only good for the subjects, but also for their filmmaking. “You just don’t want to overwhelm your subject,” Hegedus says, and is echoed by Pennebaker: “What we do should be a throwaway as far as they’re concerned.”
“You want them to be able to go about what they’re doing and not be concerned with us at all, to forget we’re there,” says Hegedus. That helps ensure natural, in-the-moment, compelling footage.
Let Your Subjects Explain Vital Points
Documentaries can often require explaining complicated concepts in a way that a general audience can understand. That’s one challenge Pennebaker and Hegedus faced with Unlocking the Cage and the legal complexity at the root of the case Wise was fighting for. So how did they plan to tackle it while shooting? They didn’t. They remained focused on the people in the film, not the concepts.
“You just want to see what happens to a human being. I figured that the intricacies or the mathematics of it would just reveal themselves or somehow take care of themselves,” says Pennebaker. And it worked. You see it, for example, during a scene where Wise gives a college lecture that lays out the core elements of the case in simple terms. It’s a moment the directors got because they were focused on making a movie about Wise, and it gave them exactly what they needed.
Maximize Information With Good Editing
Another reason the college lecture scene in Unlocking the Cage works isn’t just that Pennebaker and Hegedus got the footage, but also because they knew to strategically place it in the film when the audience needs it most. That’s another fundamental aspect of explaining information to an audience: you have to know when to explain with footage. “It’s an editing challenge, basically,” says Hegedus. There’s a right and wrong way of facing that challenge, especially for a complex case like Wise’s. “When you edit, you have to sprinkle in the hard pills,” Hegedus says, but you also have to do it with caution. “You can’t give it all at once. It’s just too much. If you’re going to do it in a real-life way, people don’t really say it that concisely.”
Be a Storyteller
Because documentaries are snapshots of real life, it can be easy to forget they’re still stories. That’s why Pennebaker and Hegedus refer to their subjects as characters, and why they stress that documentary filmmaking has to be just like any other kind of storytelling – especially in terms of structure. “The most important aspect of writing is, ‘Then what happened?’” says Pennebaker, and when making documentaries you should always be asking that question to structure your story’s progress. “You’re like a playwright. You’re creating acts that explain themselves sufficiently so the story comes through,” he says.
Don’t Think About Making History
Many documentarians dream of capturing behind-the-scenes looks at a major moment in history. Pennebaker and Hedgeus have done it a few times, with movies like The War Room and Monterey Pop. “I think you just have to go on your gut feeling,” says Hegedus about how that happened, but both filmmakers say it’s not something they think much about while shooting — largely because when you’re shooting, you’re so immersed that you have little perspective on any possible greater significance. “It’s not as awesome as it is when you look back at it,” he says. “Sometimes it’s such a part of what you’re up to that it’s like climbing a tree. Higher parts are harder to see than lower parts.”
For more about Unlocking the Cage, visit the film’s official website, and check out upcoming screenings including the NYC theatrical opening on May 25.