A funny thing happened on the way to the cutting room. While producing and directing The Blinding Sea, a feature documentary film about polar exploration a century ago, I simply got tied up in knots! I uncovered so much previously unknown evidence about Roald Amundsen the Norwegian explorer, and his contemporaries, that my creative process got all tangled. A harrowing experience, but somehow strangely familiar! I remember when I was doing my PhD in the History of Science at McGill University, there came a point when facts, facts and more facts had built up, as if I were making spaghetti for 25 people in one enormous pot. But then someone mischievous must have emptied the pot all over the floor – I had cooked it far too long in any case, so it was all pretty limp spaghetti – and I had to disentangle everything, figure out which strand should be connected to which other strand, to form a coherent whole! This happened with The Blinding Sea as well.
Suddenly, I had a dream. Alfred Hitchcock came to me in my dream and said: “You have elements in your film which remind you of me: Victorian iconography, dreams, Pre-Raphaelite portraits of women, haunted castles, Edgar Allen Poe, suspense, terror and vertigo, encounters with wild animals, elements from Gothic novels showing indescribably tiny people lost in grandiose landscapes, the tragic hero … Listen, I know you are unable to bring all of this together, to create a narrative unity. Your material is tremendous though. Would you accept that I take over direction of your film and pull it all together? I am good at that. Don’t worry: we can share credit as directors.”
This came as a huge surprise. I took notes as soon as I woke up in the morning! Hitch also told me: “Your story should be pushed along by elemental emotions – excitement, love, desire, fear, hatred, hunger, disgust, terror, thirst, pride, shame….” You know, in researching this film, I have heard the wildest claims being made about Roald Amundsen, whether by Norwegians or British people, as if he had been either the greatest world historical figure from a small country who ever lived … or the nastiest scheming arch-villain who had ever lived. Some people out there, including some museums, seize on what they call “facts” to control an ongoing narrative. Of course, when you do a documentary film, you have to get your facts straight. But there is far more to a story than just facts! The viewing public relates to emotions and story-telling. At each moment, intuitively, the viewers ask how the story they see unfolding on the screen actually relates to their own lives – they ask what they would have done, had they been placed in Roald Amundsen or Robert Falcon Scott’s situation. I mean courage, love, survival, fear and sacrifice resonate with all of us.
Hitch and I are working on the film together, but Hitch is coaching me. It’s a demanding experience but also an enjoyable one, like an apprenticeship. Dan Auiler wrote a great book called Hitchcock’s Notebooks, which quotes Hitch as saying: “The motion picture is not an arena for a display of techniques. It is, rather, a method of telling a story in which techniques, beauty, the virtuosity of the camera, everything must be sacrificed or compromised when it gets in the way of the story itself.” Hitch also says a film tells a story cinematically, through a series of images and settings and backgrounds. The way I read this is: the evidence you uncover supports the story – but a film is far more than just evidence.
If you are writing, you can jot down something in a notebook and tuck it away. If you are capturing sound, you have to position the microphone and look out for extraneous noise that interrupts the sound you want. If you are shooting a documentary, before you can say “Lights, camera, action” you have to create situations with real people, while being authentic and not exploiting them in any way, or scripting in advance what you expect them to say. Hitch directed a few documentaries, but they are certainly dramatic, and I don’t believe he distorted the truth in telling them. So, the hybrid part of “hybrid creations” is that you can bring together text, voice, sound, music, still photography and video, passing seamlessly from one medium to the other, integrating them all, to form a compelling narrative.