Moments before what would turn out to be a critical interview for our debut feature doc,BROWNSTONES TO RED DIRT, a representative of the village came up to us with a document he insisted we sign before we were allowed to continue our shoot. The paper, among other things, demanded we sign away final cut of the film, essentially allowing the people we were making the film about to determine the content that makes it to screen.
Final cut is a thorny issue and one that has come up on almost every documentary project we’ve ever worked on. It’s understandable, of course. Documentaries feature real stories and, more importantly, real people. Honestly, if someone was making a documentary about me or my family, I’d insist that we have final cut. And I’m sure the filmmaker would insist we didn’t.
You’ll find that different filmmakers are more comfortable with different arrangements. I’ve read that two shows which I truly enjoyed and admired, HBO’s 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic and On Freddie Roach, both traded final cut for amazing access. As a viewer, I don’t feel the product suffered. Both shows seemed honest and offered unparalleled insights into their subjects. I certainly didn’t find myself wondering what the filmmakers were forced to cut because of their agreements–it all seemed to be on the screen.
But because that isn’t always the case, final cut isn’t something we’re comfortable giving away. It’s, as they say, a slippery slope. If you’re making a film about an up-and-coming band that requires final cut for you to tell their story, at what point does your film cease becoming a documentary and start becoming a commercial? When you’ve invested years and hundreds of thousands of dollars into a project, do you really want your film to be altered because a guitarist doesn’t like the inclusion of his coke-fueled rage that nearly broke up the band?
On every project we’ve worked on, we’ve retained final cut, but not without substantial discussions with the subject. Of course, who retains final cut is not an easy conversation, especially if you’re at a point in your negotiations where you are obtaining life rights. As that’s one of the first parts of the process, your subject doesn’t know you well and has no reason to trust you yet. If it’s a high profile subject or a hot topic, you’re probably not the only team in the mix pitching yourself to tell that person’s story. Other filmmakers may be offering final cut, so the onus is on you to prove yourself trustworthy if you want to retain it. How do you do that?
You need to be honest with them. Obviously, docs change and evolve throughout the course of production, but you need to explain your vision of the film. If there’s a controversial or surprising element to your take on the subject, you should be up front with them. Don’t try to hide the drama of the story. You’re asking a lot of your subjects, they deserve to know what you’re thinking.
We’ve also found that it helps to explain our position on the matter of final cut itself. We tell them we believe docs are a longform journalistic endeavor and giving away final cut creates the potential for our work to be negated. We also offer a chance to review the cut at three stages: the rough cut, the fine cut and the final cut. By doing so, we believe that the subject won’t ever be caught off guard by anything he or she sees on screen. We’ll have the chance to discuss our portrayal of their story throughout the filmmaking process. If they see things one way, we can explain our position and listen to theirs. More often than not, the truth lies somewhere between our differing perceptions of the issue at hand and the cut resulting from our debate is a more truthful portrayal. We believe this sort of dialogue should be carried out throughout the making of the film.
These lessons are learned from that first experience on BROWNSTONES TO RED DIRT. Essentially, we explained our position and asked plainly for their trust. Thankfully, they gave it to us. We were able to film that day and we established a relationship with the community that continues still today. It’s important to remember the subject’s perspective in all this–you’re asking for the right to portray the life as you see fit. Shouldn’t they trust you?