Production Values: Michael Whalen

Adrianne Anderson June 6, 2011

San Jose-based TV and documentary film producer Michael Whalen has worked with Fox, A&E, the Discovery Channel, NBC and the Learning Channel in his 15 years on the job. He is currently on sabbatical from Santa Clara University, where he teaches production and screenwriting classes. His latest documentary, A Christmas in Tent City, premiered at the 2009 Cinequest Film Festival and won the Accolade Award of Excellence. His most recent undertaking is Gringos at the Gate, a documentary on the ferocity of the U.S-Mexican soccer rivalry. I spoke with him in 2009 about the nature of his work.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a four-part series on producers.

SF360: I’d like to talk about how story influences a producer. What is your awareness of story?

Michael Whalen: I’d say the first thing is that there are two types of producers. There are producers that only worry about story, and there are producers that worry about money. [The latter,] they’re the financial people, they’re behind-the-scenes, paper shuffling, what-not. And they’re like management, and for them, story really actually plays no part into it.

And then there’s the grid of producers [for whom] I think story is everything when it comes to documentary. The good producers look for a great story that actually happens to reveal the issues that they want to talk about. So my belief in migrant workers rights, I would never strike out to go, ‘Let’s make a documentary on migrant workers rights!’ I would go, ‘Wow that guy’s story, Francisco Jimenez’s story, is this amazing story,’ in which I can talk about rights without having to talk about it because I’m just telling the story. And so, to true documentary producers, story’s actually what shapes what films they even tackle. I would never tackle an abortion film; I would never tackle a women’s rights film, a black film. Now, would I tackle one of those because I met this incredible person or read about this incredible person who has an amazing story that reflects that? Absolutely. And I also think it’s what enables perspectives that are different than the people making the film. Meaning, it’s how a white guy like me can make a film about six female artists in San Francisco. Or how I can make a film about a migrant worker, Mexican American, or how a black man could make a film about a white suburban basketball team. Because they’re not concerned with the issue, they’re concerned with the story. And the issues then just get reflected in the story.

SF360: My impression is that producers are making their documentaries issue-oriented because they’re easier to market that way. But how do you see marketing a film that’s not directly issue-oriented?

Whalen: It’s kind of two-fold. If you don’t find that connection in society, whether it be a group or a movement that will help market the film or rally around the film, then it’s hard to get seen. But at the same time, if you haven’t grounded it in great story, it’s not gonna go anywhere other than preaching to the choir. So yeah I can make a great film about migrant workers that, you know, the United Farm Workers or the Coalition of California Farmers will get behind 100 percent, and then they’re the only people that will ever see it, which is kinda stupid. Because if I’m making documentaries, it’s probably because I actually want to do something, to change something, rather than just making entertainment. And then the only people that would see my films are people that already totally agree with everything that I say. So it’s like, OK, well that was a waste.

So what elevates it beyond just that very narrow audience? Great story. A film that somebody goes to and will be entertained with it, and at the end go, ‘Wow I didn’t know x.’ And so if you let story find its way and dictate what you’re doing, it’ll go broader. And you’ll actually get to the larger markets, via HBO, PBS, the networks, theatrical release, you actually will hit a larger market.

The problem is, you don’t get that money until the end. So you actually have to make the film first, and then those distributors, the networks, the theatrical release, won’t see it until you’ve spent all the money making the film. And you have to be careful because if you don’t do that, right, if you get into bed with the advocacy programs, you run a risk of all of those networks and theatrical releases not touching you because they don’t want the conflict of interest. It goes down to this: Are you really just making propaganda? Which is fine if, I mean all films are propaganda to some extent, so if that’s a film that you want to make, and you’re OK with that, and you’re okay with a possible limited release, then that’s your choice. But there’s a way of walking the line. And some producers are really good at walking the line to where they can satisfy a UAW’s needs and at the same time, not be tied to them.

SF360: So when you’re looking at all your options of what you want to do your next film on, how do you know, ‘That’s a good story!’ and know you want to follow it?

Whalen: Well first and foremost, emotion. If I read something and I’m moved by it. I consider myself a regular filmgoer type. I like standard film. I’m not somebody that looks at it and goes, ‘I only enjoy art-house cinema.’ No, I love the Star Treks of the world, I love the romantic comedies of the world, I love horror films. And so I figure, if it resonates with me, I’m pretty Joe Q. Public, then it’s gonna resonate with others. So if I’m emotionally connected to something then I go, OK, is there a need? Is there a movement going around in a current in the United States, or another market world-wide, that would connect with this film because it’s timely? Some stories are timeless. And then if I can find that, then I’ll go forward with it.

SF360: How do you find stories that move you?

Whalen: Yeah I think, if you’re a documentary filmmaker—well actually, if you’re any kind of filmmaker but in particular a documentary filmmaker—you read the paper every day, read magazines every day, you listen to the news, NPR Story, things like that, or the nightly news, and you don’t rely on one source of information. You’re constantly scouring, looking for input, you know. You should be going around, feeling things out, meeting people, talking to people. What I tell people, especially after my network work with Discovery and stuff like that, I am an expert on nothing, but I know a lot of little facts about a ton of stuff. I’m great at the cocktail party, because I can talk cocktail facts on so many different subjects because I’ve done so many different stories. I’m not an expert in any of them, but I get experts to be in the film.

SF360: As a professor, when you see documentaries, what are the biggest mistakes that either students or novices in general make?

Whalen: There’s no story. It’s an issue documentary. Students get caught up in doing a journalistic documentary, reporting the facts—and thinking that because it’s an important issue, it’s going to maintain an audience. Well that’s okay for about 3 minutes. And then we get bored, so you’ve gotta go beyond that. And the best journalism… I mean think about it. You read news stories. Do you read the whole news story? No because in a proper news story, after about three paragraphs, you got it. It’s written that way. But the features are the ones that hook you. The features are the ones that you’re turning the page on. Or you’re clicking through to the next page, and what’s at that? Story. It’s human connection.

And then too, not humanizing it in some way shape or form. Not putting a face. And not letting us fall in love with a character, or hate if that’s what we’re supposed to do. And not giving us that time with that person, because that’s huge, that’s what connects us. That’s what makes us cry, laugh—people.

So I suppose that when students are doing that journalistic look it’s because they feel this huge sense of responsibility to not give incorrect information. So for you as a producer, if the film’s focal point is a person, are you researching the whole way through, or do you just focus on that person and tell their story only? How do you balance a need to be correct and accurate?

Two things. One, I do all the research to know as much as I can about the subject, about the different points of view. Two, I make no attempt to be balanced or correct in anything I do. If I’m telling your story, that’s the only thing I care about. The other points of view, the other facts, I don’t care. I do my research so that I feel comfortable with the story that I’m presenting. So that my ethic and moral standard, I’m not misrepresenting an issue. But if I think your story represents the issue, I don’t care about anybody else, I don’t care about any other facts or figures, I’m just gonna give your story.

SF360: As a documentarian, or as a journalist, it seems like if you want the really good stuff you have to hang around for a long time, until things unfold…

Whalen: Yeah.

SF360: So how do you manage that as a producer, where you don’t have all the money or the time in the world?

Whalen: Yeah we’re not Ken Burns, who’s got, what, 15 million and a staff of 25 people who can research for the next 10 years on this one documentary that’s he’s making. We’d all love that. I think part of that is picking your stories properly. And recognizing which stories can I physically tell in the time and money that I have? So for me, the Francisco [Jimenez] story, obviously is—he’s right here. I have all the time with him that I need.

I was at a conference not too long ago and the title of the talk, the specific seminar that I was at, was how [to] make low budget documentaries, for the most part. And this one guy made a great comment. He just said, ‘You think local.’ You look around you and there are great stories all around you. If you think of that, that’s also the reason most of the great documentaries come out of major cities. Because major cities are diverse, multi-racial, ethnic, gender, whatever you want to talk about—there’s more stuff going on. And you can look around. If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area and you can’t find a good idea for a doc, you’re not looking too hard. Right?

The flip side of that is recognizing, getting involved in a story that’s been going on for a long time. If you start with something, you don’ t necessarily know where it’s gonna go, or how it’s gonna end, and so to do a complete story, you may have to stay with it for a long time to run its course. A story like Fresh Women, I could jump in and spend a year and a half with them because okay well it’s about middle-aged women battling these issues of motherhood, work, and that’s been going on for how long? I mean that’s nothing new. They’re just a, no pun intended, a fresh way of looking at it in this context. And so it allows me to tap into a story that’s much bigger and longer than what I’m doing but by taking a little snapshot that I can do, I explain the longer struggle that’s been going on. So that’s one of the ways to try to find story.

The other way, also, is think about, as a documentary filmmaker, independent filmmaker, do these little stories that you can, and have the bigger, longer one that you want to do working in the background. So that in between your films, you’re working on your opus, or your Ken Burns film, that you’re building and building and building and capturing an interview here or an interview there. Or doing this research or shooting this there and then kind of filing it. And then doing the shorter docs, whether they actually be a literally short documentary or just time-wise, and that keeps you going...

SF360: We’ve talked about a producer having an awareness of story during pre-production, but what about during the post-production phase?

Whalen: In post, the producer has to be willing to let go of the initial story and follow the story that they filmed. Because in the end, the footage has got to tell you what to do. Sometimes the story you think you have and the story you have are two different things. So you need to adjust. It’s a willingness to let go of whatever preconceived notions you had of what this film was going to be, because if you don’t you’re going to fight the footage, and then that’s gonna show in the final product. It’s gonna be very kind of disembodied. There’s going to be this message flowing through it, and yet the footage is not going to match what you’re trying to say. And so in post, you have to listen to the footage, and that’s hard sometimes. Because sometimes it’s not anywhere close to the story you wanted to tell. It didn’t work. So what do you do? Do you get rid of it, do you abandon it?

SF360: Shoot again?

Whalen: Shoot again? If you shoot again, there’s no guarantee. The problem may be you, not the footage. And the footage is never the problem. It’s usually you.

SF360: So then as a producer yourself, when you’re working with an editor, how do you look at what the footage really is? Do you give yourself time away from it?

Whalen: Yeah, time is really, really important. To me, you want to look at your footage right away, to see that it’s there. To see the content, to understand what you have there, because it may be immediately telling you that you need to go in a different direction. You need to know that right away. Once you’re done shooting, and you’ve taken it in the directions, and maybe did the little left turns and right turns that you needed to do…you know that’s what’s great about sending things out to get transcribed, or something like that, is let that be done, don’t look at it while it’s being done. Get away from it. Right? And then come back and look at it, fresh, a week or two later. And look at, do you have the same impressions, is it new?

That’s also why having other eyes are so huge, working with an editor. An editor who comes in and looks at it and goes, ‘Oh. That’s actually not good. You think that’s good, but no it doesn’t work.’ And not having the fear of having other people watch your stuff, getting that feedback. And a lot of people, probably I’d say inexperienced filmmakers, tend to fear that. And screenings are great, why wouldn’t you want a pre-screening? Because it tells you what’s not working before you send it to the people that are gonna do something with it. And so I value that. I bring in people I trust, that I know will give good feedback. Good feedback meaning it may be bad for me, but good feedback. And then I also bring in the audience. I mean if this film’s being made for a specific audience, I want that audience to look at it.

SF360: How can someone practice getting better at telling stories?

Whalen: First of all, read. And it’s a different type of reading. You have to read stories. So it’s not just the news, it’s reading those feature articles, things like that. Watch documentaries. I’m amazed at how many filmmakers—documentary filmmakers, fiction filmmakers—that just don’t watch enough film. And a wide spectrum of film. Because you’d be amazed at where you pick up story ideas and techniques and styles that help.

And then if you’re looking for a film tool or trick, then make two-minute long things. You don’t necessarily need to interview. Tell a story of…the street corner. Watch it. And you don’t necessarily have to film it, but challenge yourself. Just sit and watch and go, ‘OK, how would I tell the story of that intersection at noon?’ Think visually, think about the shots that you would get. You don’t have to actually do it. But then you’ll start thinking story.

And then another thing: When I say watch films, too many people watch films with only a critical eye. No, you have to watch films from an audience perspective, which means you just go and watch it, you enjoy it. And then afterwards, reflect on, ‘Wow, why did I like that film?’ And then if you want to watch it again with a critical eye, then do it. But to me, too many people don’t just go to films.

SF360: I guess finally, what would you say, when it comes to story, how is the documentary producer’s role distinct from the director and the editor?

Whalen: In documentary, the producer is usually the person that’s been with the project from beginning to the end. Now the problem in documentary is that the producer and director, very likely a lot of times, are the same person. But when there are separate roles, the director’s coming in to basically actualize the producer’s vision—the producer’s research, the producer’s written story. And the editor’s facilitating that through what the director has done.

The one mainstay through the whole thing is the producer. When the producer and director are the same, then I think it’s even more important to have an editor who’s very independent, who’s very good with story, and have a producer who’s willing to let that editor speak and be creative. Because otherwise you might as well hire an intern to push buttons because he or she is just doing what you want any anyway. And if you’ve been the producer and the director of the film, you need those new eyes. You need that fresh perspective of knowing if your story’s actually working.

SF360: So then whether you’re a producer, or a producer/director, you basically are doubling as the writer also?

Whalen: Yeah, that’s why finally the Screenwriters Guild has a category now for the Guild Awards of nonfiction writing. I think the Academy Awards should do the same thing. They should have, they’ve always had their awards—Adapted and Original—and they should have Nonfiction. Because it’s written. That’s the biggest mistake is people don’t think that a documentary’s written. It’s written! Not in the same way a regular screenplay is written but it’s written. It stems from a belief that, if there’s drama films and documentary, or there’s narrative films and documentary, then you’re assuming that means that documentary doesn’t have either drama or narrative. Just absolutely false. And there are non-narrative fiction films, and non-narrative nonfiction films. It’s a style of filmmaking. But all film has drama. If it lacks drama, it’s usually a bad film. I’ve yet to watch a good film that has no drama in some way, shape or form.

To learn more about Michael Whalen’s current and past film projects:

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